Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Atlético Madrid's historical meltdown

When I was kid (and I'm not that old!), you did not hear about the 2 giants. There was a third that always counted: Atlético Madrid. Back in the 80s, the colchoneros were a power in Spain. In fact, they were the main threat for the glorious era of Real Madrid during the 60s and 70s and FC Barcelona was struggling to win a title. We are talking about the times of Luis Aragonés, Joaquín Peiró, José A. Ufarte, Adelardo, José Eulogio Garáte, Jones, Jabo Irureta, Rubén Ayala and the endless list of Atlético legends of this era. We are talking about the 4 Ligas (1966, 1970, 1973, 1977), the 4 Copas (1966, 1970, 1973, 1977). the Cup Winners' Cup (1962), the Intercontinental Cup (1974) or the European Cup final lost against Bayern (1974). The president Vicente Calderón had built the Estadio del Manzanares (later renamed with the president's name) and took the club to the highest rates of success. Atlético de Madrid was a power in Spain and had prestige in Europe. It was the golden era.

But in the 80s, an already old Vicente Calderón resigned and the club started an era of instability with several provisional presidents. The team got affected by this situation and only the return of the old president Calderón and the Copa of 1985 were the only satisfaction for the fans of the club, before the legendary president died two years later. The socios of Atlético Madrid gave Jesús Gil the presidency of the club in the elections of 1987 in, what it was the biggest historical error of this club. A poison that started to kill them slowly.

Jesús Gil was a businessman, always related with the real estate sector, who had made his fortune under the wings of the dictatorship of Franco. In fact, back in 1969, Jesús Gil was found guilty of homicide for the death of 56 people in one of the constructions he built, but the government gave him the pardon, which allowed him to escape from jail. At that time, Gil had all the money he wanted, but he knew that football could give him power, political influence and fame. Atlético Madrid was the victim of his greed, although they did not know it yet.

Using this fame, he made campaign and won the elections to be the mayor of Marbella (Málaga), a touristic town which offered a high standard of living for visitors and some famous people of Spain and other countries. It was easy to see big mansions and very expensive cars in its streets. It was the first step into politics for Jesús Gil, who wanted to use the influence of this area as a trampoline to more important political objectives. He wanted to be the Spanish Silvio Berlusconi and, definitely, he was as populist and pathetic as the Italian Prime Minister, swimming in the miseries of democracy in order to feed his political and, obviously, personal interests, breaking any line between them and the responsibility of administrating the money of the taxpayers.

At the same time, the Spanish sports law changed, forcing all the clubs with losses to become corporations. Atlético Madrid became a company in 1992, with Jesús Gil as owner. Later on, in 2004, the Supreme Court of Spain proved there was missapropriation of shares in the process to become a corporation, but the prescription of the offence was declared. At that time, it was public that Jesús Gil was always walking on a thin line.

In the sports aspect, the first years of Jesús Gil were marked by the important signings of players like Paolo Futre or Bernd Schuster, which allowed Atlético to have a short term impulse, winning 2 Copas in the early 90s (1991, 1992). At the same time, Jesús Gil was not just the owner, but a president who did not hesitate to use intervention in every single aspect. It was well-known that he forced lineups, despite his attraction to sign prestigious coaches like César Luis Menotti, Ron Atkinson, Javier Clemente, Luis Aragonés or Pacho Maturana. These interventions had as a consequence to have 3 or more coaches every season, putting the club in a state of permanent crisis and instability.

Atlético Madrid's and Jesús Gil's moment was the glorious Doblete in 1996, when the club won Liga and Copa under the direction of Radomir Antic and the talent of players like Caminero, Kiko, Penev or Pantic on the pitch, in a season of unexpected calm. It could have been a turning point and some people even thought that the president had learned the lesson... but it was just an illusion.

Justice started to haunt the activities of Jesús Gil. In 1999, the Audiencia Nacional (a court specialized in terrorism and corruption) put the club under administration. Jesús Gil was accused of embezzlement (nearly 5 million euros where moved from the City Hall of Marbella to Atlético Madrid using simulation via sponsorship and contracts with unknown African "players") and missapropriation (nearly 60 million euros disappeared from the accounting of the club), later on he was also accused of a new case of embezzlement (26 million euros disappeared from the treasury of Marbella from 1991 to 1995). The institutional chaos, with the club under the administration of justice, had a direct consequence in the team, who got relegated to Segunda División in the 1999-2000 season, where Atlético wasted 2 years of their history.

Viewing these events with some perspective of time, I believe there is a direct effect in these episodes of corruption and the meltdown of the 3rd club of Spain in terms of support. During the late 90s and the early 2000s, football enjoyed the bubble of the money of the TV rights. While Real Madrid and Barcelona had an exponential growth that allowed them to be what they are nowadays, Atlético Madrid were struggling with multiple cases of corruption and the relegation to Segunda División. In these years, Atlético Madrid missed the high-speed train of their direct rivals, looking how the money did not visit the Manzanares river.

Atlético Madrid's main asset is the support of their loyal and passionate fans, but this is not enough to go back to where they were before the explosion of the club at the end of the 20th century. Atlético Madrid still won the Europa League last year and they even played a Copa final a couple of years ago, but there is a permanent feeling of nostalgia, a sense of a rich that turned poor. Atlético always had the tradition of the pupas (cursed), but the nickname became a heavy reality that is an infection to the point that, even in the centenary anthem of the club, appears in the lyrics as a reason of pride, while I believe it is a virus that keeps the club in an eternal state of sickness, as if it was part of their DNA. Jesús Gil died in the year 2004, but this is his legacy (and his son Miguel Ángel and his good friend Enrique Cerezo are still in charge).

Nowadays, we read in the news how Kun Agüero, the icon player, wants to leave the club looking for titles and glory. Just as Fernando Torres did some years ago. Just as Diego Forlán wanted to do last summer (without success). I only see a club in ruins and constant crisis. If you had told me something like this when I was a kid, I would have never believed you.

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