Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 June 2019

The day 70,000 Liverpool and Tottenham fans took over Madrid for the Champions League final

Andy Mitten spent Saturday in Madrid and he describes how the Spanish capital became a sea of red and white and blue

This Mancunian could allow himself the briefest of smiles on Saturday when a group of Senegalese merchandise sellers emerged in the afternoon heat from a street near Madrid’s Plaza Espanya.

They were selling sunglasses and half and half scarves for Saturday’s Champions League final in the nearby Wanda Metropolitano.

Among the dozen men, one wore a Manchester United shirt. What on earth was he thinking?

“Wayne Rooney,” he responded with a grin. Obviously he didn’t care about the effect on his business, which would probably be even worse should any Liverpool fans – and there were tens of thousands of Liverpool fans outnumbering the Tottenham Hotspur support around the Spanish capital – asking him the same question.

The trains from Barcelona were packed with English football fans, most of them Liverpool.

Spain is highly accessible and an estimated 70,000 travelled from England, plus thousands more from around the world.

Spurs are big, Liverpool are global. Thousands didn’t have tickets and with ticket touts buying single tickets for €6,500 (Dh26,700) and €8,000 each (a world record for a game of club football) if they were in pairs – and that was before their own mark up – most were going to stay ticketless.

Genuine spares were scarce, the extremely limited supply coming from competition winners eager to cash in on their prizes which they didn’t deserve above hardcore fans of either club who would have been less likely to sell. Fake tickets were about and being traded for €1,000.

The Liverpool fans on the 0825 AVE high-speed train from Barcelona contemplated this. Their prospects were not good. In the buffet waiting for an early drink, one recounted how he’d been relieved of €600 by a street robber and his mate had been scammed in an apartment letting.

Police were out in heavy numbers at the stunning Atocha station, good-looking Spaniards in uniforms putting on a friendly face that wouldn’t always be apparent during a long hot day.

Madrid’s extensive metro was packed with fans who got louder as the day went on. The busiest stops were close to the main tourists sights and fan zones.

In the Puerta del Sol, sponsors had taken over Spain’s most emblematic public space, building a stage over the fountain into which Ajax fans had squirted washing up liquid in March.

There were more sponsors in the adjacent Plaza Mayor, which was packed with football supporters from around the world including many in the colours of Brazilian clubs.

Sponsors wanted ‘engaging content’ from ‘authentic fans’ on which to attach their products – gas, hotels, cars, beverages or credit cards.

Mist sprayers were activated in the covered Mercado de San Miguel to cool the rising temperatures rather than douse songs being sung by middle-aged men about Roberto Firmino.

If ‘Allez, allez, allez’ was the song of Liverpool’s 2018 run to the Champions League final, the ‘Si Senor!’ chant for the Brazilian is their current No 1.

Adapted from an Argentinian terrace chant like most football songs, it goes ‘There’s something that the Kop want to know. The best in the world his name is Bobby Firmino. Our number nine. Give him the ball and he’ll score every time. Si Senor. Give the ball to Bobby and he will score.”

Close to Plaza Espana, past the Senegalese sellers working their patch, Steve, Jude and Nick Kelly had found some shade over a coffee.

The family, who live in Manchester, are diehard Liverpool fans. Nick has been to every game home and away and in Europe this season.

He was there at Bayern Munich when they won in March. He was at the three away defeats in Belgrade, PSG and Napoli.

He was at Anfield when Alisson’s 92nd-minute save against Napoli kept Liverpool in the competition and easily had enough credits to take his pick of tickets from Liverpool’s 16,600 allocation.

Steve, a lifelong season ticket holder and author of a dozen books on the club, had enough credits to get a ticket too.

Jude did not, but she’d loved her trip to Spain with her partner and son. “Klopp told us to enjoy the journey and we are,” she smiled.

Red flags with prophetic messages adorned plenty a plaza. “Fate, up against your will, through the thick and thin,” read one. It’s a lyric from the seminal ‘Killing Moon’ by Echo & the Bunnymen.

Another, hung beneath a chemist that had closed for the day reading ‘It is courage that raises the blood of life to crimson splendour’ was harder to decipher.

Madrid’s police, aware of their reputation of not being shy in coming forward forcefully, sought instead to inform fans in English via social media about fake tickets, tickets on sale or giant screens. It worked to kill the misleading rumours which have run wild in previous finals.

The area around wealthy Goya was put aside for the Liverpool fan zone. Police just about kept a handle on the vast crowds.

The floor was sticky underfoot from discarded liquids, the mood euphoric and raucous in the high sun.

Singer Jamie Webster sang the Allez, Allez, Allez and played to the vast crowd as a police helicopter circled above.

Scouse and southern English accents prevailed as much as Northface and Transalpino t-shirts in the crowd. “Are we crackin’ more cans or wha?” asked one in Scouse. The ‘Or wha?’ was whether to leave for the ground three hours before kick off. Plenty did, passing the man in a Liverpool shirt singing ‘Si Senor’ as he wound through Madrid’s wealthiest streets on an electric scooter.

The mood was more nervy around the stadium where the giant Atletico Madrid flag had been temporarily replaced with a Madrid ’19 one outside the venue a 25-minute metro ride to the east of the city centre.

Too many people didn’t have tickets.

Some Liverpool fans rushed the fence by the media accreditation centre. They didn’t get through but it spooked the police who briefly closed the media gates – to the media.

The worst fears of trouble passed. Most fans got in OK, but there are always issues at Champions League finals played in cities unfamiliar to most fans which are overwhelmed by vast numbers of visitors.

Alcohol and cultural differences play a part, a lack of sleep and nerves too. But Madrid’s a great city and it was a fine host.

It was only inside the stadium that Tottenham’s vast following also became apparent, but what pre-match atmosphere existed was killed when American rock group Imagine Dragons performed a set.

That and fans being encouraged to sing to their club anthems.

They were quite capable of doing that themselves without their ears being made to bleed as ‘Oh when the Spurs Go Marching In’ or ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ were played so loud it could be heard in Bilbao.

The game was a stifled, sapped, soporific encounter. Liverpool fans were curiously quiet in the second half and Tottenham stirred with what they do best, singing their club anthem at a deliciously slow pace.

“Nerves,” assured a Scouse journalist. They finally came alive when Divock Origi added to Mohamed Salah’s opener.

Liverpool’s sixth European Cup was won and after James Milner had held six fingers up to the crowd, or his teammates had picked out family members, after former legends Ian Rush and Jamie Carragher had celebrated with Sadio Mane, the players stayed on the pitch long after the stadium emptied.

"Well, wouldn't you do the same if you’d just won the European Cup?” opined a journalist colleague.

The Spurs fans on the metro back into town, a system which worked so well and avoided the previous transport issues that had affected finals, were pragmatic and disappointed.

Reaching the European Cup final was a huge achievement, but they’d been beaten by a team that had twice done the same in the Premier League and finished 26 points ahead of them.

Liverpool and their charismatic manager deserved it. They’ve recruited wisely, they have a manager who respects and loves their club.

But this writer would still love to know how the street seller in the Manchester United shirt got on.

Updated: June 3, 2019 04:24 PM

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