Thursday, November 27, 2014

What does Azerbijan have to do with Spanish Football?

My first blog post as the Senior Nomad Sports Reporter
Last year I attended a dozen soccer matches in Europe. After each match, I put together an email recapping my outing along with some photos and sent it to our sons Alistair and Christopher plus a handful of friends who are international football fans. This year Debbie and I decided that instead of sending emails, I would post my stories in the blog so all of our stories and photos in would be in one place.

If you are interested, feel free to read my sports posts when they appear. You'll see I don't so write so much about what happened during the match, but rather about the "outing". Getting to and from the stadium, buying a ticket, stories about who I met along the way and cultural observations.

So here we go....

Atletico Madrid - Among the best teams in the world
We've been back in Europe for three weeks, but we were never in the right city at the right time to catch a match until yesterday here in Madrid where I was able to watch Atletico Madrid vs Malaga. As you recall, Atletico won La Liga last year and played in the final for the Champion's League but lost 2-1 to Real Madrid. Going into this weekend, Atletico was in 4th place with Malaga 2 points behind in 6th. So on paper it looked like a great match-up with Malaga having a chance to overtake Atletico with a win.

Note - In the short time we've been here, I've gotten the impression that Real Madrid is much more popular but they were playing away yesterday.

Getting to the match yesterday (Saturday) for a 4 pm start was super easy. Just a 10 minute walk from our apartment in the center of Madrid to the Metro, then 4 stops and then blending into the stream of thousands and thousands of supporters for a 10 minute walk to Vicente Calderon Stadium.

Vincente Calderone Stadium. Built 1966. Seats 55,000.
On the Metro I made friends with two young women who were headed to the match. They offered to help me find a place to buy a ticket when we got to the stadium. The lines were the shortest I've ever seen since the match was nearly sold-out. Once I got in line the scalpers sniffed fresh meat and one descended for easy-pickings offering me a ticket for just 350 Euros! He didn't want to take no for an answer so he keep pushing and lowering the price until I got to the front of the line. Sorry Mr. Scalper, but two nice guys helped translate for me and I was able to find a good seat from the official box office. As usual, I bought the cheapest ticket available which was 30 Euros or $38. [Good news - the US$ has strengthened about 10% over the last 5 months and so our dollars go farther.] My seat was on the upper- upper level and in the corner. The stadium is steeply raked so even that high up you feel close to the action.

These lovely ladies helped me find the ticket outlet
As soon as I got to my seat, I was reminded that the team is sponsored not by a corporation but by a country which I had forgotten. Since 2012 Atletico Madrid has been sponsored by the oil-rich eastern European country of Azerbijan. I am sure that you have seen their red and white stripped jerseys lots of times with the phrase "Land of Fire - Azerbijan" and maybe even wondered why. I know I did, so when I got home I did some research which I will share with you in a few minutes.

Up until match starts sign on field for promoting Azerbijan
By the time the match got underway the place was packed. There must have been 50,000 Atletico supporters. Less than 1,000 dedicated Malaga supporters were tucked up in a corner on the 300 level opposite me.

Full house. No Beer. Smoking welcomed.
Atletico got on the board in the 12th minute with a corner kick and then added another score in the 42nd minute so at the half, it was 2-0. Malaga was looking overwhelmed, but in the second half, Malaga got on the board in the 63rd minute. Unfortunately they earned a red card on the 72nd which set up a 3rd goal for Atletico and thus an easy victory. When the match ended Atletico was the winner 3-1 and collected the 3 points needed to move into 3rd place behind Real Madrid and Barcelona.

The atmosphere was good. The supporters keep up a solid effort throughout the match and the two guys in the row right behind me provided Spanish play-by-play and color commentary throughout the match. Fun outing. Stopped for a beer near the stadium on the way out to let the crowds disperse in the Metro station and made it home without incident. Thank God for the Google Map app on our phones which are tied into the public transportation system in every city, so getting from A to B has become easy even for a Senior Nomad.

Okay. Azerbijan....

Azerbijan located north of Iran on Caspian Sea
I thought I knew where it was and I was pretty much right but my knowledge of the country was very limited. I turned to Wikipedia and the World Fact Book when I got home and found that Azerbijan is a country that reflects Putin's dream for Russia. Controlled media. Limited freedom of speech. Lots of oil revenues. The President of Azerbijan passed along the presidency to his son upon his death in 2003. Then the  parliament provided a bonus for the new President and eliminated term limits so he can become President for life. Another benefit of being President is that you get to appoint the Prime Minister and Vice-Prime Minister. When the new President ran the last time he got 84% of the vote!

So many are asking why Atletico Madrid could enter into a sponsorship agreement with such a country but apparently for $15M per year, Atletico is happy with the deal.

Powerful image from "Reporters without Borders" website
In addition to the image that I found on the "Reports without Borders" website here are two comments about Azerbijan.
  • Campaigners accuse the former Soviet state of suppressing opposition, restricting freedom of protest and religion and forcibly evicting thousands of families to make way for construction projects.
  • Azerbijan is ranked 160th out of 180 countries in the press freedom index and its president, Ilham Aliyev, is a predator of press freedom who has eliminated almost all pluralism in his country.
So, there you have it. Spanish 1st Division Football wrapped-up in geo-politics and money.

Getting to the match was easy.  I didn't buy the 350 Euro ticket so think about how much money I saved. Great Seat. Good match. Fun first outing of the 2014-15 Season. I am hoping to see Seville play in a Europa League match when we are there in two weeks.

Stay tuned. Until next time...

Michael

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