Democracy in football

The new UEFA rules, though they may obstruct the financial powers of less wealthy clubs, at least seem to be putting strong pressure on two of the most spendthrift teams, in the shape of Paris Saint Germain and Manchester City, whose colossally rich patrons have been spending money like water. They now seem almost certain to be heavily restricted, and not a moment too soon. By Brian Glanville.

Atletico Madrid’s glorious victory against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, their sustained challenge to mega-rich Real Madrid both in Spanish and European Cup football, surely gives at least a glimpse of hope for democracy in football, for the prospects of clubs which unlike Real, Chelsea, Manchester City and PSG of France, are not owned by billionaires. True, Atletico followed that superb victory at Chelsea with defeat by the modest Levante side, but their achievements this season have been remarkable and a bright beacon for clubs not owned by billionaires to try to emulate them.

In Madrid, in the first of the two semi-final European Cup matches, Chelsea full of their hugely expensive stars — though none as costly as Real Madrid’s dazzling Welsh international attacker Gareth Bale, who cost not short of GBP100 million when sold to Real by Spurs — simply, and if you like cynically dug in, in defence, and were happy to settle for a dull goalless draw. Their explosive, voluble and controversial manager, Jose Mourinho, alias ‘The Special One’, who had managed Real the previous season, evidently banking on success at Stamford Bridge in the return leg, which proved to be the merest fantasy.

When the excessively costly GBP50-million Fernando put Chelsea ahead on 36 minutes — typically and sadly enough he would do little else in the game — Mourinho may fleetingly have felt justified. Torres, alas, has been an expensive disaster ever since Liverpool sold him at a moment when a once scintillating attacker had plainly been running out of steam. That Mourinho should, against all logic, continue to deploy him never made sense.

Still, less logical appeared the bizarre decision by Mourinho, allegedly such a great tactician, to use Cesar Azpilicueta, a right back, in an outside right position. The seeming mistaken ambition being to counteract Atletico’s excellent young Koke, a probable World Cup Spanish star, and the talented Turk Arda Turan. It neither worked defensively, still less in terms of attack. Who could blame the highly gifted and elusive Belgian international Eden Hazard for saying afterwards in a French radio interview that “Chelsea aren’t set up to play football. Chelsea are set up to counter attack.”

Mourihno furiously rebuked him. And he had harsh words for another of his undoubted stars, the refulgent Brazilian attacker Oscar, who never got off the bench at all, implying that Oscar was saving himself for the World Cup and his assured place in the Brazilian attack. Both players, by sharp contrast with almost all of Atletico’s, cost the club a fortune.

Now look at Atletico, and not least at their shrewd successful manager, Diego Simeone. English football knows all about Simeone, a nemesis indeed. Playing for Argentina against England in the 1998 World Cup in France, he fouled David Beckham, who as he lay on the ground, petulantly kicked out at him and was expelled. England’s ten-men held out heroically till the very end of extra-time, when Argentina won the match on penalties. Since then, Simeone has matured into a shrewd, a tactically alert manager of a club which, for decades, had been utterly eclipsed by their wealthy neighbour, Real. As impressive in the transfer market as he is as a tactician!

Star of the show is beyond doubt the powerful, elusive and quick Brazilian — capped by his country but now hoping to play in the World Cup for Spain — Diego Costa.

A maverick, who has previously had a somewhat sorry career, at one stage actually marginalised by Atletico, but now without doubt one of the outstanding strikers in the world let alone the European and Spanish game. He cost them a mere GBP1.5 million. Indeed the whole talented effective eleven, which triumphed at Stanford Bridge, cost a mere GBP20.9 million. By sharp and deeply embarrassing comparison with Chelsea’s team that evening, which cost a massive GBP186 million. Willian, the dynamic Brazilian, who was one of the few Chelsea players to do himself justice on that fateful West London evening, alone cost Chelsea GBP32 million, as indeed, did Eden Hazard.

By an extreme irony the towering Atletico goalkeeper, who kept his team in contention at The Bridge with a superb save, is actually a Chelsea player on loan to Atletico; Chelsea had tried in vain to stop him turning out against them. Four players came to Atletico on free transfers, the resourceful Brazilian centre back Miranda, the central midfielder Mario Suarez, at one point sent out on loan to Mallorca, the Portuguese midfielder Tiago, who forced his way back into the side during their golden season, and the attacker Adrian, another who has returned to favour.

The most expensive player at a hefty, though these days not exceptional price, Turk, Arda Turan, cost GBP9.9 million. Chelsea could make little of him. True only one player came up through the club’s academy, the exceptional 21-year-old Koke, a creative ,footballer who greatly benefits the players round him. Juanfran at GBP3.3 million and Filipe Luis, attacking full backs, were both once at Real Madrid.

Whether Costa will agree to move to Stamford Bridge remains to be seen. If he goes, it won’t be easy for Atletico to flourish without him, though they managed thanks to him, to thrive, even without the electric Falcao, who was sold to Monaco, alas missing most of this season with a bad injury. And then there is that outstanding striker David Villa, Spanish international so often, bought in the summer from Barcelona for a cool GBP21 million, the fee due to rise GBP26 million should he stay at Atletico for three year. He didn’t even get on the field at Stanford Bridge, while there is another attacker, Diego, waiting in the wings, who has shown skill and thrust in the European competition.

Quite a contrast with the impossibly hectic times of Jesus Gil y Gil, who ran the club, till his dubious financial affairs collapsed around him, like a power-crazed Roman emperor, eating managers, you might say, for breakfast. Out of such turmoil success was never likely to come, nor did it. But nowadays, all at Atletico appears calm, at a mere fraction of the cost incurred by rich Real.

Note that the new UEFA rules, though they may obstruct the financial powers of less wealthy clubs, at least seem to be putting strong pressure on two of the most spendthrift teams, in the shape of Paris Saint Germain and Manchester City, whose colossally rich patrons have been spending money like water. They now seem almost certain to be heavily restricted, and not a moment too soon.