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May 10, 2012
On Wednesday a sea of red and white descended on the Romanian capital, Bucharest. Almost 20,000 Wally look-alike jerseys on the shoulders of the travelling fans of Atlético de Madrid and Athletic Bilbao, the two clubs contending the UEFA Europa League final. On the pitch the Colombian killer, Radamel Falcao, dominated the game inflicting a severe defeat on the young Basque lions. On the stands, a party with no incidents by the supporters of two of the most special football clubs in the Iberian peninsula.
The runners up, Athletic Bilbao, might possibly be the last football romantics in the continent. Struggling to adapt to the demands of the modern game, Athletic Club (as it is called by the true ‘bilbaínos’) represents the essence of football in the community. Traditionally, Athletic would only field Basque players, preferably from the Bilbao area. Despite the Bosman ruling, they have refused to incorporate to their first team foreign players. The club has had to adapt to the demands of globalization, though. Their current definition of ‘Basque player’ has been widened to incorporate players that, despite being born outside the Basque Land, have grown as football players in that area. Thus, their current star, Fernando Llorente, was born in neighboring Navarra and he spent most of his childhood in La Rioja. A few years ago Athletic signed French international Lizarazu, of Basque descent and born in Saint Jean de Luz.
The topic is highly sensitive among Athletic fans, but in my opinion this slight realignment of their strategy has enabled the club to remain true to its local roots. The real merit of the Basque Lions lies far away from their San Mamés stadium. The DNA of the club is still reflected at Lezama, their training complex, where hundreds of girls and boys of all ages train in the red and white shirt. Athletic has historically provided some of the best players to the Spanish national team: Iribar on goal, Goikoetxea at centre back or Fernando Llorente up front are just a few. Athletic is also one of the first professional clubs that invested in the development of women’s football. The Athletic Club Foundation organizes cultural and educational activities to demonstrate the importance of football beyond the pitch. Perhaps because they have refused to fully embrace commercialization Athletic might have lost on winning titles over the last two decades, but they are strong enough, as a team and as a club, to inundate Bucarest. Despite losing, they are one of the best examples to illustrate what FREE is about.
And so are the winners of Wednesday’s contest, Atlético de Madrid. Having to live under the shadow of their economically powerful neighbour, Real Madrid, the ‘Colchoneros’ have been repeatedly labeled as one of the best supporters in Spain. Certainly, Atlético is a special club and its supporters are very special people. It is difficult to think of a club with worse luck in football. In 1974, Atlético was just 30 seconds away from winning the European Cup, but a long range shot by Georg Schwarzenbeck eluded the keeper Miguel Reina (yes, he is the father of Liverpool’s Pepe Reina) and sent the tie to a replay, which Bayern Munchen comprehensively won. It is not very difficult to see Atlético losing a two or three goal advantage of a League game. They are popularly known in Spain as ‘El Pupas’, which we could perhaps translate as ‘the jinxed’.
Yet, Atlético is one of the biggest football clubs in Spain. They have won the league nine times and as many Spanish cups. On Wednesday two goals of Falcao and a final strike by Diego earned Atletico their forth European title (two UEFA Cups, a Cup Winner´s Cup and a European Super Cup). But if you ask me, I think it is the supporters what really makes Atlético special. When the club descended to the second tier of Spanish football a few years ago, they sold even more season tickets for their ‘year in hell’.
Two very special clubs, two very particular sets of supporters, a sea of red and white. There could only be a winner, and the Europa League went to Madrid.