Tales From Plaza Major

Atletico Madrid vs. Chelsea : 3 November 2009.

After a busy week at work – plus an equally frantic period for Chelsea with six games in eighteen days – I couldn’t wait to get myself to Gatwick and on the plane to Spain.

I set off from my home in the small hours of Monday and it was fantastic to be off on my travels again. Meanwhile, Game Four of the World Series was taking place in Philadelphia and I needed to know how my Yankees were doing. Good job I have friends in California – the only ones in the US still awake – and so I texted Bob and Danny and, by the time I had parked up at a mate’s house in South London, I was very pleased to hear that the Yankees had won. One game away from winning it all. I texted Danny to say “my two teams could win the World Series and the Champions League Final in Madrid.”

With my thoughts returning to football, I added up – and lost count a few times – of the number of Chelsea European aways I had done and I worked out it was eighteen…Madrid would be number nineteen. A roll-call, from 1994 to date…Prague, Vienna, Zaragoza, Bratislava, Seville, Stockholm, Monaco, Oslo, Rome, Barcelona, Stuttgart, Paris, Barcelona, Bremen, Gelsenkirchen, Moscow, Rome, Turin and now Madrid.

Enough memories to last a lifetime really. The best three? I’d go for Turin, Seville and Stockholm…even Moscow was magnificent. The worst – by a mile – was Zaragoza.

I must be one of the few Englishmen who has never been on a standard package holiday to a Spanish beach resort. My childhood holidays were always in Italy ( 5 times from 1975 to 1981 ) and I have always felt more “at home” in Italy than Spain. My only ever visit to the city of Madrid was in September 1987 on an Inter-Rail adventure with two mates…we arrived at Chamartin station in the morning and we spent 12 hours walking the city streets until we departed from Attocha station, en route to Lisbon, at night. I don’t remember too much about Madrid…I remember I bumped into a girl who recognised me from my school in Frome ( small world, eh? ) but the main image from that day all those years ago is of a massive, but crumbling Bernabeu Stadium. I think we paid a few pesetas for a tour of the stadium, but this involved rampaging all over the terraces with no guide, no security and basically being able to go wherever we pleased. Later on that trip we visited Camp Nou in Barcelona and I was far more impressed with that grander stadium. All of these memories flitted in and out of my consciousness as I drive through the night.

I met up with Alan, Gary and Neil on a train at Purley at 5.25am. Our Easyjet flight to Madrid Barrajas airport left at about 8am. There were a few familiar Chelsea faces on the plane, including a chap I first met in a bar in Vienna for the Austria Memphis game in 1994.

I caught a small amount of sleep on the plane and we were soon circling the parched Spanish landscape around Madrid. The sky was picture-perfect blue and England suddenly seemed pale and grey by comparison. In a second, I understood why Arjen Robben chose to leave London for Madrid in 2007. We landed at 11.15am.

Our two mates Daryl and Rob were on a slightly later flight from Stanstead. They would soon be with us. Alan provided the first big laugh of the trip as we used the airport toilets. I wasn’t aware he was next to me, but I heard his voice bellow out –

“Just seen Torres outside, looking confused. He doesn’t know which one to go in.”

And before we knew it, the Stanstead Two arrived and we were all together, on a rumbling metro line headed for the centre.

Let the fun begin.

Our hotel was very close to the city centre ( whisper it, but we have provisionally booked it for The Final in May, too ) and the six of us spent from about 1pm to 5.30pm on a very enjoyable walk around the area by Plaza Del Sol and Plaza Mayor. My goodness, that sun was hot. We popped into a few bars and sunk a few Mahou beers. We were relaxing together and I felt the worries of work leaving me with each drink. We sat outside a beautifully tiled restaurant / bar and got stuck into some tapas, followed by a main course and it was all gorgeous stuff. We finished off our spell at the restaurant with a couple of liquors ( one on the house ) which came in chocolate coated wafer cups…the business. On the trot back to our hotel, we dipped into a couple more bars. We spotted quite a few faces in “Moores,” including the famous Chelsea fan Blind Gerry, who was over with Charlie and Nick. Gerry was actually sporting a Chelsea In America T-shirt. I had a chat with Nick and he told me a few funny incidents involving Gerry, who has been a fan of the club for ages. He told me that they gave Gerry the window seat on the flight over.

I’m sure Gerry made the most of it.

Charlie sometimes provides match commentary for Gerry and he once commented ( in all seriousness ), after a beautiful passage of Chelsea play –

“Ooh – you should have seen that, Gerry.”

We stumbled back to the hotel and arranged to meet up in about an hour. I forgot to change the time on my phone, so my alarm went off late…I joined up with the boys, rather sheepishly, at about 8.15pm. They had been joined by some other lads – chaps I went to Turin with – who were at our hotel, too. Woody was well oiled already and was wearing a multicoloured Mohican head-dress which he had obtained from a street vendor. I went off to get a beer as he fell off his seat. We bumped into a few other semi-familiar faces throughout the night and bar-hopped around Plaza Mayor. We had yet more tapas at about 11pm. Not sure what the conversations were about, but the laughter flowed as well as the beer. I met up with Dominic – from NYC – in a packed pub called “The Dubliners” and gave him his match ticket. It was manic in there – loads of Chelsea. I had last seen Dominic in Baltimore and he was so grateful to get his hands on a ticket. We dipped into a couple more bars and – sitting outside one – serenaded the world with a couple of Depeche Mode songs. We back-tracked and entered “O’Neills” in search of more fun.

Amidst all this, Game Five of the World Series was taking place. This was a historic time for Daryl and myself. I only got to know Daryl, in 1991, through our joint love of baseball – or the Yankees in particular. Daryl used to edit a Yankee fanzine for us UK-based fans. Only a year later, when he saw my name in the late lamented “Chelsea Independent” did he realise that we were both Chelsea fans. And that’s how our particular friendship blossomed. Anyway, we live 150 miles apart and had never once watched a baseball game together…certainly not in the US, nor even on TV in the UK. I have lost count of the times we have pondered trips to The Bronx together. They usually always ended –

“One day, mate – one day.”

However, there – like a mirage, was a large TV screen with the baseball. Daryl and myself smiled and toasted our team.

One win away from the Series, I wore a small gold NYY badge on my dark blue pullover and hoped the Yanks could overturn a 1-3 deficit. The coverage was then turned off for some reason. We then heard from Rob – who had disappeared – that the World Series was being shown in “The Dubliners.”

As I entered the pub, Cathy shouted out my name and I went over to have a brief word…the pub was full of Chelsea and the songs were loud. There was a crunch of sticky broken glass underfoot…the pub had obviously seen some heavy action that evening.

There were a few Rangers and Hearts fans in too – they often show up to see us in Europe.

We saw the Phils go 6-1 up and I wondered how long I could last. The beers were starting to have an effect.

The baseball coverage stopped at about 3.45am as the pub closed. I left most of my last pint as I knew I had reached saturation level. We meandered home, shards of glass stuck to my shoes, making me sound like a tap dancer. We reached the hotel at around 4am and tentatively all arranged to meet up in the hotel lobby at 10am.

At 11am I was the only one up! Eventually we all assembled and the eleven of us met up for a coffee in a nearby square.

Lacoste Watch

Chris – lavender
Jocka – light blue
Andy – racing green
Neil – mid blue

My goodness, the heat was strong again. Mirroring my visit in 1987, we then caught a couple of busses up to the Real Madrid stadium…while we waited for the second bus, next to the Madrid Hard Rock Cafe, we saw Ray Wilkins and Gary Staker walking towards us. We were able to get a few photos with Butch and we engaged him in a brief conversation.

Daryl asked him if there would be a full first team out and he replied “well – we’ve got a couple of crafty changes up our sleeve” and he then reconfirmed that “Sunday is a much bigger game.”

The Bernabeu Stadium is located a couple of miles to the north of the city in an area that could be called “plush.” It is set next to a business district full of blue-chip companies and a high-rent residential area and even the shops opposite are top-end boutiques. It is a quite abnormal location for a football stadium. It was once said – back in the mid-seventies, when talking of our un-reached potential – that Chelsea had the best location of any club in Europe, except that of Real Madrid. I was reminded of this when Daryl mentioned the setting of Stamford Bridge as being the best in London and the one stadium comparable to Real Madrid’s pad.

We spent about 90 minutes at The Bernabeu and we loved it. Since 1987, how it has changed. It has now easily leap-frogged Camp Nou in terms of quality. We paid 15 euros for a tour and it was well worth it. The first thing on the tour involved a lift up the outside of the stadium, overlooking the streets below, which reached the top tier in a few seconds. From there, the view was spectacular. The skies were clear blue and mirrored the blue of the seats. The iconic white roof hovered over the steep stands and the scene was just beautiful. Throughout the tour, my mind was doing various permutations of what could happen over the next six months. Would Chelsea be paired with Real in the knockout phase? If we reached the final, who would we play? How spectacular it would be if it was to be Real Madrid. Or – tantalisingly suggested by Daryl – how about Barcelona? The whole of Madrid would be behind us. We would be drinking for free!

The tour consisted of viewing the stadium from several levels, from the upper tiers all of the way down to pitch level by the tunnel. I took lots of photos. There is a museum, featuring old artefacts, game-worn jerseys from as far back as 1902, photos of previous stadia, potted histories of a their famous players and then there is the trophy room, which is superb. There is a wall containing photos of thousands of players. We concluded that there are six players who have played for both teams…Arjen Robben, Christian Panucci, Geremi, Claude Makelele, Lassana Diarra and Nikolas Anelka.

They clearly are an ultra-successful club.

However – for anyone with just a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish football, all of this success hasn’t exactly come as a result of just the honest toil from the players on the pitch. Real has achieved their successes partly via the murky transfer of players, funds from politicians and businesses, decisions from dodgy referees, patronage of the state, favours from every direction, subjugation of others ( a certain team in Catalonia to name but one ) and the like.

When they claim they are the most successful club of the 20th Century, it is almost as if there needs to be an asterisk hovering nearby.

I never have liked Real Madrid, Franco’s club, the fascist Ultra Sur hooligans, the galacticos et al. I remember the booing of SWP and other black players on England duty at the Bernabeu in around 2005, something that certainly shocked me. The fact that Leeds United rebranded themselves in the ‘sixties to copy the all-white kit hasn’t helped either.

However, perhaps they have never liked us…we beat them in Athens in 1971 and in Monaco in 1998. I wonder when the third meeting will be.

You see how are minds were working? We were playing Atletico, but The Final and Real Madrid were always lurking in the background.

We enjoyed a pre-match meal in a quiet central bar / restaurant and caught the subway down to the game. As we approached the stadium, which remained hidden behind tower blocks for some time, we joined a slow-moving group of fans. This is where I needed to keep my wits about me. There were Atletico fans drinking nearby and a few Chelsea fans were singing a few yards away. I kept my eyes on Daryl, Rob, Alan, Neil and Gary to make sure we were all together. We walked past groups of police and I sensed an atmosphere. At last, the concrete walls of the stadium approached and the road widened, souvenir stalls in front and to the side. We walked around to the northern end and via a quick security check, we were in.

Virtually the first person we saw inside was Cliff and he was in the wars again…he had been hit by a bottle on the forehead, thrown indiscriminately into the Chelsea fans as they passed a bar. His shirt was bloodied but he was OK.

As we reached the top tier ( the 3,000 Chelsea visitors were in two tiers ) we heard from many that we had just missed a baton charge by the Spanish police in which women and even a teenage girl were hit. This is clearly disgraceful. I am not sure what the provocation was, but it highlighted how near we came, perhaps, to being attacked. I was struck by a police baton in Zaragoza in 1995 and was doing no more than watching my team. It was a case of “sit where you like” in the top tier and I was right on the end of a row, overlooking the outside of the main stand, which is quite an oddity. The Madrid ring road, next to the Mazanares River, runs right beneath its support columns. I had three or four policemen stood next to me for the entire game and a few mouthy Chelsea youths were prodded and poked throughout the game. Because away travel is virtually non-existent in Spain, I have this theory that Spanish police get freaked out by 3,000 away fans. Still no excuse though.

The Estadio Vicente Calderon is a simple bowl, in two tiers, with a single row of executive boxes perched on the rim – clearly a recent addition. The main stand – which was blocked from my view by a large scoreboard – sits apart from the other three sides though. The top deck is in the colours of the Atletico shirts ( red and white ) while the lower tier is blue, matching the normal blue shorts. I guess they played in red shorts to avoid a clash with us. The stadium was spartan – bare concrete everywhere and was a poor second to the majesty of the Bernabeu.

Banners at the opposite home end signalled two of their ultra groups – Red & White Inferno and El Frente Atletico. As the teams entered the pitch, their fans in the lower tier held their scarves aloft and waved a few flags. This was clearly the hotbed of their support. Elsewhere, the home fans didn’t really get involved.

I looked around at the fans in our support and soon realised that there were not many women and virtually no kids. In fact, 75% of our support were aged 40-55…perhaps more. I have heard stories from many fans that they don’t bother with domestic aways these days and only turn out for Europe.

I can see the attraction…maybe one day. Maybe after I have visited Bolton another ten times.

It was a strange game and we didn’t really impress for most of it. Strange to see Kalou starting and he was his usual frustrating self. Despite a couple of silky flicks, Joe Cole was very quiet and didn’t appear match fit. Alex patrolled the pitch with great conviction and often chased and closed attackers down as if his life depended on it. I liked Ashley’s contribution too.

A delightful move ended with Frank – otherwise quiet – shaving the post and Drogba hit the post in the second half.

Our support, split into two tiers, was sporadic.

Of course, that failed defensive header from JT gifted Aguerro with a goal on the hour and the home support roared their approval. They did a massive bouncy and it was pretty impressive. We came back into it when Malouda sent over an inch-perfect cross for Didi to head home…great celebrations…we just about deserved a point and we’d take it. Then, a superb break from Drogba, fending off two defenders, resulted in a goal when his initial shot was parried.

We went crazy.

Screams. Fists punching the air. Yes!

We couldn’t believe it really. Did we deserve three points? No.

Then, of course, the denouement…the sub Aguerro spun a wicked fee-kick past Cech and our elation turned to dust.

Again the Atletico fans roared.

At the final whistle, a shrug and the realisation that we had reached the last sixteen quickly over-rode any sadness.

The Spanish OB kept us in for about 25 minutes. We had a few songs. A few laughs. We assembled outside and had a partial police escort until they lost interest about fifteen minutes away from the stadium. There was no “afters.” We dived into a bar for a quite exceptional Mahou, served in an iced glass, then caught a cab to the centre.

After a couple of beers and yet more tapas, we called it a night.

On the Wednesday, we all got up late again and walked the short distance to the royal palace. It was an impressive building and we took a few snaps. We didn’t see much of Madrid to be honest, but it was all about male bonding and “being there” more than anything else. As we left the centre, en route back to the airport, I couldn’t help but think that it felt like it was a dry run, a “practice” for May.

Fingers crossed – let’s hope so.

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