By Garreth Nunn l @garrethnunn
Atletico Madrid were one of three Spanish clubs to be founding members of the so-called Super League. Fans were not happy, but why was protest so muted?
Enrique Cerezo was going through baggage security but was surrounded by the press. The future of Diego Forlan and his possible transfer to Inter Milan was all they wanted to talk about. The players of Atletico Madrid had already boarded the plane for the final qualifying game in the Europa League and Cerezo was being asked about how much the club had received for Forlan. Cerezo told the journalists that Forlan was actually on the plane and wasn’t going anywhere. He wasn’t and was and it wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last that Cerezo – the president of Atleti – tried to pull the wool over people’s eyes.
The reaction to the Super League in England is well known. What surprises many is the response to the league in Spain which has been almost the opposite. Some Barcelona and Real Madrid fans opposed the idea, but many were in favour. The press too seem to back the idea, even going so far to claim that Madrid supremo Florentino Perez is the saviour of football. Foreign journalists have had their work attacked, ridiculed and laughed at. But, Atletico fans were against the plan from the start and expressed their disgust on social media. But, Atleti fans have been here before and seen the club owners make decisions against the fans.
In 1992 the Spanish government changed football in Spain forever. After the military coup in the 1930s and during the dictatorship of General Franco which lasted until the mid-1970s, football was one of the few democratic organisations in the country. Football clubs were owned by fans, socios, and these socios voted for the club’s president. For some the only time they would ever democratically cast a vote was in football club. At the start of the 1990s debts were soaring in the game and to get it under control, clubs were told they could be in private hands.
A fixed figure for the maximum amount of debt was set and any club that passed that threshold could be taken from the fans and given to a stakeholder. Some clubs ran up their debts on purpose so those on the board could take the club over. It probably started when people cast an eye over at Italy and seeing the success Silvio Berlusconi was having and wanted in on the action. Spain suddenly had football shareholders and many socios lost the control of their clubs forever. One man who had desires to be the ‘Spanish Berlusconi’ was Jesus Gil and so in 1992 began the reign of the Gil family at Atletico Madrid. It still goes on today.
But, Gil and his family should not be at the club and some fans tried to get rid of him by claiming he had taken the club in dubious circumstances. After a lengthy court case, it was declared that both he and Cerezo had acquired the club illegally. In effect, they stole it but too long had passed and the statute of limitations meant that nothing could be done. This would not be the first time or last time Gil faced the courts and when he died there were numerous cases open against him. His son took over and has made numerous bad investments and gaffes and Cerezo is prone to the odd faux pas himself. Both shareholders share a frosty relationship and so one would believe that fans could take advantage of this, but they would be wrong.
Apart from one fan organisation, Senales de Humo, no one has really stood up to Gil and Cerezo. Fans voice their displeasure but are easily bought off. When the club sold Sergio Aguero after promising not to, fans were in uproar only to forgive and forget when they signed Radamel Falcao. Some may argue that this is normal, players come and go but what about when the owners sell your home and also your identity? Well that too has been quickly forgotten.
With the club heavily in debt at the start of the millennium, Cerezo and Gil needed to do something. Spain was enjoying a huge property boom and the Madrid city council wanted the Olympics. Seeing an opportunity, the Atleti board hitched its wagon to the Olympic project. They planned to sell the Vicente Calderon and get a new renovated stadium in the north of the city instead. The property bubble burst but Atleti’s desire to move did not and although it took a lot longer than they expected, the club eventually moved, and their own Vicente Calderon stadium is now a pile of rubble. To add insult to injury, they changed the club’s crest and even gave the club mascot a makeover. Surely this would get the fans up and marching? No, it did not!
When the move to the new ground was first announced there was uproar but then resignation set in which was followed by acceptance. Apart from a few hash tags and insults on social media, it isn’t really spoken about anymore. Then the Super League happened, and it looked like it could be the final straw. In Spain they say it is the last drop that causes the glass to overflow and many thought that enough was enough. But it ended up being just the same. A few fans got together and made banners, and a few stood and made noise outside the ground. But apart from that most fans seem to be concentrating on the league and a first title since 2014.
There are few fans as loyal as Atleti fans. They have been to hell and back. They have stood singing when their team is losing 4-0 at home so the fact that they take the owners actions on the chin is baffling. The Super League fiasco offered an opportunity for fans to unite and rebel. Many had hoped after seeing the scenes outside Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal that something would happen here too. But so far nothing. When the league collapsed many said in the UK that owners need to learn that there is only so much abuse and hurt that fans can take from owners. To what level of hurt can Cerezo and Gil push Atleti fans to before they push back? One thing that we do know about Los Colchoneros, when it comes to pain, very few fans have such a high threshold for pain!