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Inside story from Madrid for the Champions League final

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MADRID – One of the great occasions in the sporting calendar saw Tottenham and Liverpool collide for the biggest prize in European soccer as Madrid was at the center of the sporting world over the past few days.

The UEFA Champions League final is the biggest club game on the planet. Quite simply, Madrid was the perfect place to host this event.

[ MORE: All of the UCL final news ]

By land, sea and air, the English invaded Spain’s capital city and surrounding areas for one last battle in what was a season to remember for the Premier League.

The PL has delivered not only one of the most exhilarating title races in history, but its strength in Europe is clear with Chelsea beating Arsenal in the Europa League final on Wednesday and Liverpool beating Spurs to secure a sixth European Cup.

This is the story of what it was like to be in Madrid for 72 hours before, during and after the epic clash between Liverpool and Tottenham.


THE BUILD UP

Each club was given around 16,000 tickets to sell to their fans who were lucky enough to meet the criteria. Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium holds close to 70,000 and there were well over 70,000 Englishman in Madrid, according to estimations. The Department for Transportation in the UK stated that the Friday before the final was set to be its “busiest-ever day in airspace history” with more than 800 extra flights put on for travel to and from Spain.

In Madrid, the scene along the Gran Via and in the Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol was a sight to behold.

Red shirts. White flags. The names of Kane and Salah adorned the back of shirts as far as the eye could see.

This was a celebration of all things great about the Premier League, as two sleeping giants of England had been awoken by two relentless, yet wonderfully lovable, managers.

Before the game both Klopp and Pochettino had tried to talk down the significance of winning the Champions League. You could see right through them. This was their career-defining moment.

Klopp could finally end his trophy drought at Liverpool and get his hands on the biggest trophy of them all to join Paisley, Fagan and Benitez in delivering a European title. Pochettino had yet to win a trophy in his managerial career and he was already a winner as Spurs had never been to the Champions League final before.

The pressure was on Liverpool. Fans in Madrid on both sides of the fence could sense it leading up to kick off.

At the stadium on the Friday before the game, Pochettino, Klopp and their players were relaxed with jokes galore and Spurs’ players relaxed with their families in the warm evening sunshine after their training session.

Respect was in the air between the managers as both praised the job the other has done, while Klopp was asked about his losing record in finals (he had lost six-straight major finals).

“If I would be the reason for losing six finals in a row then everyone needs to worry. … There can be moments that are unlucky and lucky, but I cannot change that. I understand luck as if you work for it then you get it from time to time,” Klopp added.

Pochettino agreed that fate will play its part and shared his respect for Klopp and Liverpool.

“Sometimes the universe is with you, sometimes it’s against you. But to arrive in a third champions league final? I admire him a lot. Of course we are in football because we want to win but I think the journey to the final of the Champions League is the most important and the most difficult thing.”

The journey both sets of fans have been on just to get to Madrid was pretty epic, and difficult, too.


THE FANS

Sure, the majority of the fans came from England. But wandering around Madrid I spoke to people from Australia, the Far East, South America and the United States of America. This was a truly international occasion, one which showcased the power of the Premier League to the world in one of Europe’s largest and most famous cities.

Tales of fans driving to Spain from England through France, others getting boats to the Iberian peninsula, and flying into cities all over Spain and France then catching trains to converge in Madrid were rife among the groups of fans as they sipped on beer in the many winding streets.

An American couple from Colorado, Max Nolan and Jayne Thompson, are huge Liverpool fans and found themselves in Madrid in the lead up to the final at a wedding they had booked to go to months in advance. When Liverpool reached the final they tried to change their flights for extra time in Spain and get tickets for the game, but it just wasn’t possible as they flew back to the USA on the day of the final.

But that didn’t stop them taking in the sights as Max wore his retro Liverpool jersey with pride as he stood off a side street near Calle de Leon.

“For me it has been overwhelmingly Liverpool fans who have sung louder and prouder,” Nolan laughed. “We were just walking down the street and a group of guys started singing ‘Allez, Allez, Allez!’ and another guy was like, ‘oh, just shut up’ and he was a Spurs fan. The vibe is very cool. It makes me really, really wish I was staying here for the game. The city is going to be electric.”

Oh, it was.

In the 90 degree heat and the hustle and bustle of Spain’s capital city, there was no sign of any skirmishes between Liverpool and Spurs fans. In keeping with the overall mood of the final, both teams respected one another and the odds they had overcome to reach the pinnacle of the European game.

That tone was set by Klopp and Pochettino and with both clubs littered with England internationals and having epic battles over the past few years, respect has been earned as both coaches have built their projects from scratch at pretty much the same time. Of course, Klopp has had more money to spend, but Spurs’ new stadium means they will be pushing all the way in the years to come.

But all of that went out the window for one more intense battle to cap a truly remarkable season for English and European soccer.

Tottenham’s fans, for the most part, were just delighted to be in this situation.

Londoner Pete Crockford stood in the middle of Puerta del Sol as Spurs and Liverpool fans swirled around him singing, dancing and drinking in the sun.

“It is unbelievable. I have to pinch myself, I just can’t believe I’m here,” Crockford said. “The atmosphere is absolutely fantastic. Walking around a foreign capital city, seeing members of my family everywhere and bumping into Spurs fans, it is just unreal. The fact there are two English clubs here, this says a lot about the strength of the Premier League. There has been a little bit of tension with the Liverpool fans, but mostly just friendly banter.”

A group of Liverpool fans wearing shirts commemorating their incredible comeback Champions League win in Istanbul in 2005 stood nearby and they had flown in from Melbourne, Australia for the game. Yep, all the way from Oz.

Stuart and Kal just had to be in Madrid to see their beloved Liverpool do their business, they hoped, once again.

“We’ve got good vibes, that is why we came here!” laughed Kal.

“On paper, we are the better team,” Stuart added. “We’ve got more experience and we are confident.”

“This atmosphere is awesome, having everything central here in Madrid is pretty cool. The chanting, two English clubs going at each other. It is quite jovial. Spurs and Liverpool don’t have a hateful relationship, everyone is enjoying themselves, bit of banter and beer, it’s all good! The fact there is going to be over 150,000 English supporters over here, it says it all,” Kal added.

Estimations rose throughout the 24 hours leading up to the game, with fans pilling into the main fan zones and metro stations nearby being shut down due to the huge volume of supporters present.

Squares were taken over by either Liverpool or Spurs supporters, but there wasn’t a hint of trouble. Pochettino and Klopp’s names were sung long into the night in Madrid before the game, as plenty of sore heads were present on the morning of the game.

One Liverpool fan sat on a bench, leaning to one side with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. Would he make it to watch the game in the stadium or on TV somewhere? Hmmm…


GAMEDAY

On the day of the game, things were ramped up several notches. Even more fans arrived on flights, with many saying they tried to buy tickets from others on the plane and there was a mad scramble to try and get inside the stadium.

Two huge fan zone areas were created, one for each team, as supporters watched footage of their teams run to the final on big screens, danced to music and sung their hearts out.

At Tottenham’s fan zone at the Plaza de Colon, I met Dave from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who had flown over for the game, keeping his pact with his daughter, Sam, who flew in from Argentina.

While in the Plaza Felipe II, Liverpool’s fans took over the entire area as flares were in the air, music was blasting out and there were bright red shirts as far as you could see.

Cries of “loco, loco” from taxi drivers and locals summed it up.

Liverpool’s huge fanbase around the globe was wonderfully apparent as they seemed to heavily outnumber Spurs supporters in the Spanish capital.

And the party atmosphere flowed through the fans in the street and at the stadium.

Arriving at the Metropolitano, about eight miles outside the city center, people wearing jerseys of all kinds were there. It was like going to an NFL game at Wembley, where shirts of so many teams from some many countries were worn proudly.

One quick scan revealed Honduras, Paraguay, Atletico Madrid, Argentina, Colombia, Juventus, Ajax and Mexico jerseys, while Brazil, Real Madrid and Deportivo Cali were all represented.

Wherever you looked you saw another intriguing jersey, another set of fans who weren’t necessarily Spurs or Liverpool supporters but where there to soak up one of the great sporting occasions on the planet.

The same camaraderie between Spurs and Liverpool that was present throughout the days leading up to the final was also present outside the stadium. Two Spurs fans were walking along with a group of Liverpool fans reminiscing about the amazing comebacks of both clubs at the semifinal stage.

“Yeah, I turned on your second half, and just couldn’t believe it. Fair play.”

Fans respected one another and were united in one cause: getting into the stadium.

Hours before kick off fans were still circling outside the ground on the hunt for tickets, but many of their quests would be unsuccessful with prices of over $10,000 being mentioned for what had now become a golden ticket scenario.

The teams getting to the stadium was broadcast live on television, as helicopters hovered over Madrid and showed their team bus as they snaked through the sprawling suburbs in the searing heat.

Thanks to the help of the Imagine Dragons on the pitch before the game, the noise inside the stadium got louder and louder before kick off as fans streamed in and arrived early.

A stirring rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” then made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

Then it began. And it started with a bang…


THE GAME

There was almost disbelief that a moment like this could occur with 23 seconds on the clock. It set the tone for the entire game.

Sadio Mane‘s clipped ball inside the penalty box hit Moussa Sissoko‘s arm after clipping his chest, as a harsh, but correct penalty kick was given.

Mohamed Salah smashed home the spot kick to make it 1-0 and the red half of the stadium erupted as Liverpool’s fans were in dreamland.

The rest of the first half saw Spurs have plenty of the ball as Liverpool waited to pick them off on the break, but there were so many individual mistakes as a combination of a three-week break before the final, plus the intense heat and Madrid and maybe, just maybe, the pressure had got to the players after all.

In the second half Spurs improved but Alisson made several fine stops and substitute Divock Origi then drilled home a low shot to seal the win.

Klopp had his first trophy at Liverpool and could finally shed his loser tag.

Liverpool’s players and fans didn’t care that they hadn’t played well and celebrated long into the night in Madrid, chanting down alleyways and in pubs as many didn’t go to sleep as they soaked up a sixth European title.

“Sometimes we carry the burden of history,” Klopp said afterwards as he was asked if Liverpool can reach the final in Istanbul next season. But now this Liverpool side are thriving amid a golden generation of players who believe they deserve to dominate Europe for years to come. 

For now, add Madrid to the list of places which will always endear itself to the Liverpool faithful.

And in keeping with the overall mood around the game, fans of both teams mingled after the game. In one bar a Liverpool fan walked up to a group of Spurs supporters and offered his condolences. “That was us last season, you’ll bounce back, don’t be too upset.”

The fans of Liverpool and Tottenham were a credit to their clubs.

Another famous night, and days, played out.

The final itself was far from memorable, on the pitch, but the days in Madrid around it truly delivered a sparkling showcase of the beautiful game.

It was a fitting place to hold one of the great occasions and the Champions League final should return there very soon.

Everton reportedly set for sale of $28M Lookman

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Will Everton regret its failure to find the right fit for Ademola Lookman at Goodison Park?

The Toffees are set to sell the 21-year-old striker to RB Leipzig this summer for just $8 million more than they paid Charlton for her services, according to Sky Sports.

[ MORE: De Gea wants captaincy ]

Lookman scored five goals with four assists in a half-season loan for RBL in 2018, but could not find regular feature time for the Toffees upon his return.

Yes, the $28 million is still a decent fee, but Lookman is an English striker with U-20 World Cup-winning experience, and was given just three starts from his 21 appearances in the Premier League for Marco Silva‘s men last season (posting two assists in 601 minutes.

Lookman prefers to play left wing, but also operates on the right. Everton has Richarlison, Bernard, and Theo Walcott amongst a relatively deep wing corps.

The stats seem to show that Lookman simply had trouble getting the ball at Everton in comparison to RBL. Maybe he needs to be a bigger part of the show, and we’ll find out whether he can do that with Tyler Adams and Co. in Leipzig.

De Gea hopes for Manchester United captaincy

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Given his seemingly biannual links to returns to Spain and bigger paydays, it might be a bit of a surprise to hear Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea preach up the badge.

Aside from a stumble late last season, however, the 28-year-old has been a dynamo at Old Trafford for several managers.

[ MORE: Chicago adds USMNT hero ]

He’s also been through the wringer from his early days struggling to find his form in the Premier League, and now has 362 appearances in the Red Devils shirt to go with trophies from the PL, FA Cup, League Cup, and Europa League.

So, yeah, he’s qualified to lead. And as we wait for United to announce his new expensive contract, De Gea is speaking out on his delight in captaining the team and hopes of doing so on a full-time basis.

From Sky Sports:

“I need to show that on the pitch and try to help the young guys know what Manchester United means and that’s important. We have to improve a lot. We are Manchester United; we need to fight for trophies.

“When you put on this badge, that’s what it means – fight for everything, give your best and bring the team again to the top.”

Is there a case to be made for anyone else on the current roster? Probably not, at least not in the form of players who will be expected to suit up nearly every match.

Chicago adds 2010 World Cup qualifying hero Bornstein

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There’s probably part of you who thinks Jonathan Bornstein is on an MLS staff somewhere, that he’s about 46 years old, and the news that he’s joined the Chicago Fire means he’s taken a coaching role like Josh Wolff (who is only 42. Don’t age shame).

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

And we’ll admit that “Chicago adds Jonathan Bornstein” gave us similar vibes, because, hey, didn’t this cat score an amazing, World Cup berth-clinching goal against Costa Rica at RFK in 2009? Yes! He was! I was there with my sister and a couple of buddies, and it was awesome.

Bornstein was, however, just 25 then and a member of Chivas USA (That was an MLS team, young bucks). Bob Bradley drafted him out of UCLA and turned him into a left back.

Now 34 and still a left back, Bornstein spent 2010-present outside of the United States. He’s played in Mexico for Queretaro, Tigres, and Atlante, as well as Israel last season with Maccabi Netanya. He won a Copa MX, a Supercopa MX, and an Apertura title while south of the border.

From Chicago-Fire.com:

“We began pursuing Jonathan back in January but, unfortunately, his insertion into the lineup made him too invaluable to his former club,” said Chicago Fire President and General Manager Nelson Rodrίguez. “In addition to providing a steady presence and competition on the field, we believe Jonathan will be an excellent mentor for our younger players.”

As a returning USMNT international, even no caps since 2011, Chicago had to send $50,000 to Columbus for the top spot in the allocation order.

Bornstein will hope to help Chicago turn around a miserable season which began with such promise. Chicago has been extremely unlucky this season, with a difference of minus-11.7 between expected goals and goals scored.

And I will continue to remember nearly throwing my beverage miles into the air from the upper deck at RFK. Thanks for the memories, Jonathan.

Barcelona exec on Neymar: “We aren’t looking at it”

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Neymar’s reported discontent at Paris Saint-Germain has caused rumors to fly this summer about if he could leave, and where any potential destinations could be.

His old club Barcelona is thought to be a major contender to rescue the Brazilian superstar from his misery, but that may be dead in the water after Barcelona vice president Jordi Cardoner again claimed the club has no interest in his return.

“The president already spoke about it,” Cardoner said from Tokyo where the club is in preseason. “There is no Neymar saga. There is a lot of talk and he doesn’t appear happy there but we aren’t looking at it.”

This is not the first time Cardoner has gone public to deny Neymar rumors. Even as far back as last October, Cardoner said “No one on the Barcelona board has talked about the possibility of bringing back Neymar, right now we can’t talk about it because no one has even mentioned it.”

Cardoner is not the only Barcelona member talking down a potential Neymar return. New arrival Antoine Griezmann also made statements claiming the club would struggle to make it happen even if they wanted to. Speaking about possibly linking up with Neymar with Barcelona, the former Atletico Madrid striker spoke highly of Neymar’s playing ability, but admitted it would take some significant time to complete. “We have to get it done first because it is a difficult transfer, but he is a great player,” Griezmann said from Tokyo.

Neymar has had a troubled past 12 months, facing rape charges in Brazil, suspensions in both European and domestic French competitions, and even taking Barcelona to court last year for payments he believed he was owed.