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Brothers in Arms

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Sunday Herald Article



Brothers in arms

By Graham Hunter

Atletico Madrid’s lasting respect for Aberdeen was forged during one famous night in Gothenburg. Graham Hunter reports from Spain ahead of Thursday’s match



IMAGINE THE scene. It's May 11, 1983, referee Gianfranco Menegali is about to blow his whistle after 120 minutes of rain-soaked Cup Winners' Cup football in Gothenberg's Ullevi Stadium and thousands of fans draped in red and white are ready to explode in celebration, drink to excess and whisper a thank you' to God for granting the wildest prayer they'll ever have.


But those red and white shirted fans have never even heard of the expression fit like', think sheep are best for eating and are starting their fiestas in los bares of Madrid, the city of the beaten team.


They are Los Colchoneros - the mattress makers, as the fans and players of Atletico de Madrid are known in honour of the stripes on their strips. And at that moment nearly 25 years ago an umbilical link was forged between Aberdeen FC and Madrid's second' club.


That season Atletico were in their seventh trophyless year while their hated rivals Real Madrid, under the management of the legendary Alfredo di Stefano, reached four cup finals and went into the last day of the title race as league leaders and favourites. Heaven for the white' side of the city and utter, total hell for the other.


To win the title Madrid needed only a point at the Mestalla; but Valencia won and stayed up thanks to four other results. Athletic Bilbao, at a time of massive stress between ETA and the Spanish capital, were champions.


Real Sociedad had already defeated Los Blancos for the Spanish Supercup and, although the Atletico fans didn't know it at the time, by the end of June Barcelona would beat Real Madrid in the Spanish Cup Final and the Spanish League Cup final.


When John Hewitt put Di Stefano's team out of its misery in May in extra time it was Real Madrid's third moment of seeing silverware disappear that season.


For the long-suffering Atletico aficionados it was like winning the pools, inheriting a brewery and catching a snog off the sexy chica next door all on the same evening.


Aberdeen had found a friend. That's why Pablo Brotons, a long-serving journalist with Spain's biggest selling newspaper Marca and lifelong Colchonero, was so excited when the Uefa Cup draw was made.


"Our group consists of three other clubs plus our brothers in football,'" says Brotons. "From the moment the draw was made and Aberdeen were paired with Atletico I've been demanding that we organise a guard of honour for that team when they run out onto the pitch at the Calderon stadium.


"That day back in 1983, Aberdeen made all of us Atletico fans glad to be alive and that team, coached by Alex Ferguson, with that great, great goal by Hewitt in extra time will live long in our memories.


"Not only was that season the one when Madrid lost all five trophies they were playing, we Atletico fans love the fact that the Cup Winners' Cup no longer exists and now Madrid can never win it."


Which, coincidentally, is another fraternal link between the two clubs.


Born within just a few days of each other back in 1903 and forced to wage guerilla warfare on their respective bêtes noir - Real Madrid, Rangers and Celtic - Aberdeen and Atletico Madrid have had similar levels of success.


Nine leagues to the Spaniards, four to the Pittodrie side, nine Spanish Cups to the Colchoneros and seven to Aberdeen.


But each has that solitary European Cup Winners' Cup victory, Atletico's coming 21 years before that night in Gothenberg.


Each club is identified by its red and white colours - which Atletico adopted when they sailed to England in 1911 to buy more of their original Blackburn Rovers strips but found there was nothing but Southampton kits for sale - and both were generated by other clubs: the original Aberdeen amalgamating with Orion and Victoria United while Atletico were spawned from Basque founders Athletic Bilbao.


Oh, and neither Atletico nor Aberdeen have a major trophy to their name since 1995/96 when Raddy Antic's superb team won the Spanish double and Duncan Shearer drove Aberdeen to League Cup success at Hampden Park.


Sadly, that's about it as far as similarities go. Jimmy Calderwood's budget at Aberdeen last summer stopped just short of the 77 million which Javier Aguirre, the Atletico coach, shelled out.


Nor does Calderwood have the luxury on Thursday night of choosing four midfielders who have appeared in a Champions League final - three winners in Motta, Maniche and Luis García plus runner-up Jose Antonio Reyes - or one, Maxi Rodriguez, who scored the Goal of the Tournament in the last World Cup reaching the quarter-finals in the process.


Up front? Well, an under-20 World Cup winner in the dazzlingly good Sergio Kun' Aguero, a Uefa Cup winner in Mista plus Diego Golden Boot' Forlan.


The two sides have both played 17 league and Uefa matches before this weekend with Aberdeen's 21 goals for and 24 against overshadowed by the Spaniards' 40 for and only 18 against.


However, Calderwood will have noted that 10 of those 18 conceded have come in the last two league matches, a 4-3 win over Seville and a 4-3 home defeat to Villarreal, plus that 3-3 Uefa Cup draw in Moscow. "We've lost a little bit of defensive stability, we are committing unpardonable errors and we've chucked in far too many goals in the last few games," admits Aguirre.


"This side is very attacking and they've forgotten that defending is a collective task."


Aguirre has been handed a direct challenge by his president Enrique Cerezo, in return for that 77m - ending the 11-year silverware drought. Immediately.


"I think we are capable of getting to and winning one or both of the Uefa and Spanish Cup finals this season," confirms Cerezo. "That would be something beautiful for this club and we have the squad to achieve it."


But if Aberdeen have an advantage on Thursday when they link up with their brothers in football', it is that crushing burden of pressure which Real Madrid hand over to the inhabitants of the Calderon without fail each week of each season.


By Thursday, defending champions Real will either be top of or second in La Liga, they will more than likely have topped Group C and qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League - nine-times winners.


Should Aberdeen take the lead at the Calderon then it will feel like the sky is falling in on the heads of Atletico's expensively assembled squad. Long suffering? The Count of Monte Cristo had it easy by comparison.


And if you don't believe me then take it from the club themselves. This season, as in each of the last nine or 10, Atletico produced a promotional video courtesy of a big-name advertising agency. The story concept' this time portrays a young man at his father's graveside saying: "We have always been proud of supporting Atletico but each season it just gets more difficult" and he drapes his red and white scarf round the gravestone in a gesture of weary surrender and defeat.


But as he leaves an old oak tree reaches down a branch, plucks up the scarf and pops it back on his shoulders. Once Atletico always Atletico is the message. However hard it gets.


The weather will be freezing cold in the Calderon on Thursday night and the atmosphere will be cauldron hot. But while the Aberdeen fans will their team on in hope, rather than anticipation, those of them who remember Gothenberg, and ache at how long ago such glory was, will understand and empathise with the century-long agony of being born in Spain's capital but inheriting the impoverished mantle of being an Atletico fan.

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