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Oct 20, 2008

Stitching up the mattress-makers

'Twas a rough night', said Macbeth, in one of the great understatements of literature (he'd just murdered his king a few hours earlier and was kind of trying to play it cool over breakfast). 'Twas a rough week for Atlético Madrid' might seem an equally understated sub-header, after the torment of having their ground closed and then re-opened, only to learn that their erstwhile hero, the boy Torres, wasn't going to effect his second coming on the hallowed turf after all - but because he was injured, not because they were going to have to play the Liverpool match in Valencia.

Then to add insult to injury, Real Madrid took the short bus-ride across the city and beat them again (1-2), but with a penalty in the 95th minute, meaning that Los Colchoneros (The Mattress Makers) have now failed to beat their white-shirted rivals at home for nine seasons and have failed to beat them in the Madrid derby on the last fourteen occasions.

Back at Planet UEFA, as the world now knows, the committee saw sense and decided not to oblige Liverpool supporters to travel another 300 kilometres to see the game. There were rumours too that UEFA's late decision could have been challenged legally by the travelling fans, who had already entered into a commercial contract with both Atlético Madrid and the organisers, namely UEFA. The fact that this was obvious from the outset only goes to show what most of us suspected anyway, that UEFA headquarters is a sandwich short of a picnic. The lights are on, but nobody's been at home for some time.

But I won't go into the whole issue of whether Atlético should be punished or not. I'm not sitting studying videos of the incidents, and even if I were, I doubt that I would really be able to arrive at a rational conclusion. UEFA certainly didn't. And of course, they have left themselves open to attack, whether absurd or not, over a French conspiracy between the Marseille President, Pape Diouf and Michel Platini, who - according to Atlético Madrid's boss Enrique Cerezo, wants to get his own back on the Spanish for winning too many things lately.

The Spanish have never really forgiven Platini for the free-kick in the 1984 European Championship final, just as they took some time to forgive the goalkeeper who let the shot squirm under his body - Luis Arconada. But it was mainly Platini's fault for taking the free-kick.

There now exists a certain feeling that Platini looks down on the Spanish, and that the recent decision not to play the coming friendly between Spain and England in the Bernabéu (because of the racism during the last encounter) was applauded rather too loudly by the UEFA supremo. So when he received a letter from the Marseille president alleging racism at the Calderón during the infamous Champions League game at the back end of September, Platini acted upon it despite the fact that the letter arrived officially too late and despite the fact that the UEFA inspection committee had already endorsed Atlético's organisation of the game. Draw your own conclusions.

There are so many ironies here that it would take too many column inches to include them all, but it's certainly amusing that the incidents in the game seem to have been sparked by the Madrid police confiscating a banner that the Olympique fans had unfurled at one end of the ground. The banner looked to be portraying a skull, although the Marseille blogs insist it was a clown, or a clown skull, like Krusty on a bad day. This was apparently on the police list of take-downables, although the reasons for this are not clear. Atlético Madrid, as you may or may not know, permitted their own Ultras to unfurl Nazi flags for years, until someone quietly suggested that they might perhaps think about cleaning up their act.

Cerezo's indignation at UEFA's treatment of his club might be valid, but it's amusing that the Madrid police felt it necessary to wade into the fray and confiscate a harmless-looking banner from the French when for decades nobody moved a muscle to disturb Atlético's notorious neo-Nazi thugs. And racism? Well - nobody is very sure whether there were monkey chants again or if they were just the sound of 'Kun, Kun, Kun' (Agüero's nickname) being chanted by the fans, but it's all too pathetic to contemplate. UEFA didn't hear it, neither did Marseille's players. Vitorino Hilton said in an interview with Marca that he heard nothing. But who cares? There is a section of Atlético's supporters who are racist to their back teeth, and whether they made noises in that game or not does not change that particular fact. The club knows who they are.

And the police? Well they waded in, just as they did during the Sevilla v Tottenham game back in April last year. In a typical knee-jerk reaction, the Minister of the Interior, Alfredo Rubalcaba, in an attempt to save his own butt (just in case), came out publicly in support of the police action, as you would of course. It hardly helps matters that when the country's back starts to itch, out rush the politicians to scratch it - without ever pausing to consider the causes of the itch in the first place. The Spanish bobbies have for too long forgotten that the country is no longer a police state - and wield their batons with a kind of happy-go-lucky fury. It only took a couple of seats to be chucked in their vague direction to start the riot, but anyway. I haven't studied the video, but it sounds like a chicken-egg incident that nobody would ever really be able to prove. Police brutality in Spain? No, no. Impossible.

To be fair to both Rubalcaba and Cerezo, it does seem unreasonable to hold a football club responsible for the actions of the police, but it might have helped if they'd had the balls to actually say that. Instead, just to prove how honourable the forces of law are in the capital, the Madrid derby on Saturday was the scene of a hilarious public relations exercise. Conscious of the fact (quite correctly) that the Real Madrid ultras might want to stir things up a bit, just to get their neighbours back into trouble two days after the temporary lifting of the sanction, the police presence in the area surrounding the Calderón was such that you might have been mistaken for thinking there had been a military coup. They might just as well have brought out the tanks.

Spain's TVE1, in all its splendour, was there on the street to interview the police chief in charge of the operation, an avuncular-looking chap who you might have taken for a senior librarian, had it not been for the scar on the left of his cheek and the tell-tale moustache. He smiled his 'Trust me, I'm the law' smile into the camera as serried ranks of Real Madrid supporters trudged past hemmed in on either side by blue-uniformed riot police. They were inside the ground too, in their hundreds, and nobody said boo to a goose, despite the game itself being a pretty violent spectacle, with a player from each side sent off.

One can only hope that there is no trouble on Wednesday when Liverpool visit. It may just prove a wake-up call for Atlético, and their more problematic supporters might even decide to put on a smiley show as well, in an attempt to undermine UEFA's stance. Look out for those 'Welcome Scousers' banners (no skulls) and 'We love the Beatles' special edition scarves. A family night out at the Calderón.

Meanwhile, Atlético continue to prove most of their doubters right, in that Agüero and Forlán alone do not constitute a valid challenge for this year's league title. With Simao on more often (he was mystifyingly left out for the first half) Atlético might improve, but their defending (not their goalkeeping) was fairly woeful, as the 95th minute penalty proved, with Heltinga sucked into the vortex of Drenthe's little shuffle and trick when he really should have known better.

As such, Barça stay in fourth place above Madrid after winning a potentially tricky game away to Athletic Bilbao, but courtesy of their goal difference (which is due to their previous thrashing of Atlético) and Valencia stay top after beating Numancia 4-0. But only three points separate the top five sides, with Sevilla moving into second place. It could be warming up to be a season in which four or five sides remain challengers for rather longer than was the case last campaign. The evidence rather suggests, for the moment, that Atlético Madrid won't be amongst them.

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