Atlético-Manchester City: The return of the partisan

THE OUTRAGE over Atlético Madrid’s behaviour in the last 10 minutes of their Champions League quarter-final has been amplified across social media. It has been, to a certain degree, a throwback to the days when football in England was highly suspicious of anything “in Europe” and sporting xenophobia ruled the airwaves.

Back in 1971, for example, following a street brawl involving Lazio and Arsenal (players not fans!), there were calls for English clubs to withdraw from European competition as “we don’t need it”. There was plenty of noise this time around the banning of Atlético, a ridiculous, knee-jerk reaction to an unsavoury finale.

There is a growing feeling nobody is allowed to touch or question Manchester City, or rather their coach Pep Guardiola, a footballing apostle with an air of mystique about his extremely successful methods. Yet there was nothing alchemic about City’s approach in the Wanda Metropolitano. Atléti were typically Atléti but City were no angels, indeed Phil Foden was every bit a “shithouse” as Atléti’s stormtroopers, notably when he demonstrated the art of cheese-rolling after being fouled by Felipe. Furthermore, Foden and Jack Grealish also did their best to provoke the Atléti players, the £ 100 million man smirking and calling Savić that most unwelcome of four-letter words and Foden grinning like a Cheshire cat in the face of Simeone as he contorted on the touchline.

Admittedly, this is the sort of behaviour one might expect from Atléti themselves, but let’s be fair, both teams were, at times, deliberately antagonistic. If Guardiola was playing psycho games, he definitely won the day for City got under the skin of Atléti and his comments about their style were very cleverly put, “there is only one Atlético Madrid.” Simeone saw through that quite easily. “We are not stupid”.

But if you heard the pre-match assessment from the BT squad, Atlético were a team of Orcs from Lord of the Rings (thank you, Barry Glendenning for that reference) and Simeone was football’s equivalent of Al Capone. It was as though Estudiantes circa 1968 were about to run-out (the shirts were similar) onto the field. Simeone is Argentinian, that provided a little more fuel to the anti-Atléti narrative, especially for those who were team-mates of David Beckham in 1998.

Interestingly, the foul count didn’t evidence a dirty game, it was 8-7 to Atlético. There was plenty of time-wasting, in fact, Spanish newspaper AS reported that the ball was in play for just 60 minutes across the entire game. Generally, the Spanish media highlighted City’s tendency to delay every throw-in and lengthen every fall to the ground. Rodri, City’s former Atléti player, perhaps a little uncomfortable with the way his current employer was playing against former team-mates, commented: “Everything is legal in football”.

The British press laid into the home side, claiming they were one of the dirtiest teams ever seen. Rio Ferdinand commented: “Disgusting behaviour from Atléti players, they should be ashamed of some of their antics.” Miguel Delaney of the Independent acknowledged Atléti’s tactics were pretty standard and noted that Simeone’s critics call his philosophy “right wing football”. Certainly, Atlético’s stadium is a cauldron of passion and energy and the fans can be very intimidating when they need to be.

The crowd played its part in the melee that took place at the end, it is doubtful such a tableaux would have been witnessed in an empty stadium. And although the headlines screamed this was unacceptable, it is all the media have spoken about since the final whistle. In fact, many journalists have said they were spellbound by what they were watching, that they were amused, excited, disgusted and intoxicated. The scenes everyone actually wants to see because it represents testosterone-fuelled combat. “Football has become sterile, so it was good to see such emotions,” said one reporter.

But we don’t want to see this type of controversy too often and it is a shame Atlético Madrid will find it hard to shift the mud that is now clinging to their red and white shirts. Social media keyboard warriors will call for capital punishment for Simeone and his robust team, but just cast your mind back to the 1970s and 1980s when crowd trouble sparked off – how often could you see the entire stadium looking in the direction of the fracas or how about schooldays, when a fight broke out and dozens of young boys ran in the direction of the action? The game between Atlético and City will soon be forgotten, but the events involving Foden, Savić and Felipe will live on. We’re simple folk, us football people.