x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Madrid's 'second team' still suffering in the shadows

Jesus Gil y Gil's greatest wish - no, make that 'magnificent obsession' - was to live to see the day when his beloved Atletico Madrid won the European Cup.

Jesus Gil y Gil's greatest wish - no, make that 'magnificent obsession' - was to live to see the day when his beloved Atletico Madrid won the European Cup. "Just once," he told me the last time we met in his threateningly darkened office in the Spanish capital. "Just once to remind the world that there are two football clubs in Madrid..." Alas, Gil went to his grave in 2004 with his prayers unanswered which is why I, for one, was sorry to see Atletico's latest Champions' League adventure halted by Porto; despite his contradictions, there was something gruesomely likeable about the man. How could you not have a soft spot for a larger than life character who celebrated a rare league and cup double success in 1996 by riding around the Vicente Calderon stadium perched on the back of an elephant? (He had toyed with the notion of riding his pet crocodile 'Furia' around the pitch).

Gil was a hard man to please; in the first six years of his reign alone he hired and fired 20 coaches, including Ron Atkinson, who affectionately referred to el Presidente as "Mad Max". Atkinson lasted 95 days in 1988, which was three months longer than the luckless Brazilian Joaquin Peiro, jettisoned even before the start of the 1990-91 season. As legend had it, Gil did not like the cut of his jib when he saw the official team photograph. "Booting a coach is, to me, like having a beer," he explained his football philosophy. "I can boot 20 in a year - even 100 if I have to do so."

Born into poverty in a remote mountain village, Gil descended upon Madrid in 1951 "as a 17-year-old with a raincoat and a lot of hair"; he started a construction business, speedily acquiring vast wealth and a reputation as an opportunist. In 1969 he was sentenced to 12 years in jail when one of his buildings collapsed, killing 86 people. General Franco granted a special pardon after 24 months behind bars. Gil turned to politics in the late Eighties and formed the Grupo Independiente Liberal (GIL), sweeping to power in Marbella by promising to restore law and order to the then mean streets of what has since become the home of the Spanish Med's most beautiful people. As mayor, he ordered the formation of a paramilitary police force which "swept away mugging, drugs and prostitution." Turning to international issues, Gil promised that he could "...deal with the Gibraltar question in five minutes by tearing the gate down."

He was less successful in the presidential suite of the Vicente Calderon stadium. "Every day I have to fight against all the odds for Atletico's very existence," he growled theatrically. "This is a city where 80 per cent of the press is in favour of the other team - Real Madrid. The competition in Spain is totally adulterated because the referees always favour Real or Barcelona." I should explain that journalists and referees were regarded as the joint lowest form of life on the planet Gil. "I would rather talk to my horse than a newspaper reporter, which is why they like to call me Caligula," sneered the man who habitually referred to Spain's tabloid writers as "prostitutes."

Curiously, this Godfather-like figure was viewed with something approaching affection by those he mistreated. "Jesus takes you out for a drive in his Ferrari and throws you out at 100 miles per hour," said Cesar Luis Menotti, who guided Argentina to the World Cup in 1978 before spending seven months with Atletico, of his own demise. "Next day he sends you a dozen red roses and a note explaining how sorry he is things had to end like this."

With his son Miguel Angel Gil now running Atletico as chief share-holder, perhaps the old man's will yet be fulfilled. rphilip@thenational.ae