Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Atletico Madrid v Espanyol

Atletico Madrid 1 Espanyol 2 (23:11:07)

First and foremost, I better let it be known that I have ‘goods to declare’ here. My wife is Spanish and Madrid is my favourite city. And, if I ever end up living in Madrid – which is not beyond the realms of possibility – ‘Atleti’ would be my team.

I’ve been to Real Madrid many times and granted your virtually guaranteed champagne football in one of the world’s best stadiums. If however, your willing to downgrade champagne for cava in exchange for genuine passion and an oft raucous atmosphere, then it’s the Estadio Vicente Calderon every time.

I spent the night before the match bar hopping around the La Latina district. It’s a ‘castizo’ neighbourhood, which successfully maintains the very essence of Madrid.

You can’t go far wrong in the ‘Cava Baja’. It’s a street containing countless bars and restaurants. Casa Lucio was one of David Beckhams favourite eateries in Madrid and opposite in the Taberna Lucio is where you and I can afford to down wine and consume ‘huevos rotos con jamon’ (broken eggs with ham).

After that try La Chata, another fine place for wine, beers and food and then the rest you can jolly well make up as you go merrily along.

Any notions of tickets being hard to come by were dispelled on the morning of the match. I wandered down to the stadium and picked one up from the ticket office after queuing for a short while. Easy, and furthermore, peasy.

I also took a little time out to have a snoop around the club museum. Usual football museum applied; over sized, outlandish bits of silverware on show awarded for friendly wins over Osasuna and Sporting Gijon in 1929.

The nearest metro to the stadium is Piramides; however, it’s only a twenty minute downhill walk from the centre. There’s also a plethora of bars to take in en route, so why take the metro!?

On my way to the match I paid a quick visit to my current favourite bar ‘Almacen de Vinos’ in Casa Gerrardo for a couple of pre-match ‘vermuts’ and some great tapas. Vermuts is a local drink made from red Martini, it’s a bit girlie but don’t worry; everybody drinks it in there at lunchtime.

It was tricky reading about the match in the sports papers beforehand. My game was on the same day as the Barca v Real Madrid clash. One of the papers (Marca) had 15 pages of coverage as well as a 24 page pull-out on ‘El Clasico’.

That match was being billed as ‘El Mejor Regalo de Navidad’ (the best present of Christmas) - whereas buried away on page 34 – Atleti coach Javier Aguirre was announcing my fixture as ‘El Partido mas importante del ano’ (the most important match of the year).

I’d treated myself to a nice seat near enough on the half way line in the main covered stand. The other three sides of the ground amount to a huge open two tiered bowl.

The opening exchanges of the match oscillated between rare bits of skill and futile diving. It ignited on 30 minutes when Espanyol’s Torrejon went for a cuddle with Atleti’s Kun and got a smash in his face for his troubles. Within a nanosecond the referee flashed a bright red card to Kun and a yellow to Torrejon.

Seven minutes of total comedy then ensued as a guilty feeling referee awarded the next ten decisions Atleti’s way. I have rarely seen such ineptitude. Highlights included an away goal ruled out for an imaginary offside and an Espanyol penalty for a clear handball denied.

On 37 minutes Simoa opened the scoring for the home side with a wrongly awarded (obviously) Juninihoesque type free-kick. A stunning strike which was awarded ‘El mejor gol de la jornada’ (the goal of the weekend) in the paper the next day.

Alcohol isn’t allowed inside Spanish stadiums but after Simao’s goal went in – out it jolly well came. Gruntled fans all around me started downing wine from ‘Botas’ (pouch type bottles). What a civilised way to celebrate a goal.

If the home fans thought Tamudo’s soft equaliser in the 52nd minute was bad, worse was to follow. Two minutes later the ref’s bright red card was aired again to dismiss Pernia for his second bookable offence.

Buoyed by this, Espanyol reached for a large box of expensive cigars and waited for Atleti to run out of steam. With five minutes remaining they decided it was about time they won. De La Pena delivered an exquisite through ball to Luis Garcia and he duly popped one into the roof of the net for the winner.

Prior to that the nine men of Madrid were defending like caged tigers. They could even have regained the lead twice through Diego Forlan. He is now actually quite good and hero-worshipped in this stadium.

Other points worthy of note; to my knowledge there was not one Espanyol fan in the ground. The home fans were magnificent throughout, save for a dodgy rendition of ‘Moonlight Shadow’ midway through the second half. Rather splendidly someone also told me that the chap who played Chewbacca in Star Wars went onto play professional basketball for Real Madrid.

Post match I boarded a coach for a night on the town in Cuenca, two hours east of Madrid. A place famous for it hanging houses, oversized plates of free tapas and the town where I got married.

The rest of the week was spent with the in-laws in the tiny rural village of Salinas del Manzano, whereby I was on the receiving end of seemingly never ending hospitality. Feliz Navidad indeed.

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