Spanish Super Cup in Riyadh was ‘amazing,’ says Atletico Madrid chief

Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone arrives in Riyadh ahead of the Spanish Super Cup tournament in January. (Supplied)
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Updated 15 May 2024
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Spanish Super Cup in Riyadh was ‘amazing,’ says Atletico Madrid chief

  • Andoni Moreno spoke to Arab News about Saudi Arabia hosting Supercopa de Espana, promoting the club’s brand in the region and Atletico’s famed academy

MADRID: In the bowels of Estadio Civitas Metropolitano, home of La Liga giants Atletico Madrid, adorning the wall of one of the club’s many conference rooms, is a poster of a player that many present-day followers of the club would struggle to name.

The Moroccan Larbi Benbarek — who represented his country of birth as well as France internationally — was not just one of the first players from an Arab or African background to became a successful professional in Europe, but arguably one of the most important figures during a golden period for the Madrid club.

From 1948 to 1953, the “Black Pearl” was one of Atletico’s finest players and, alongside legendary coach Helenio Herrera, played a pivotal role in landing consecutive La Liga titles in 1949-50 and 1950-51.

Andoni Moreno, the club’s commercial director, smiles as he points to Benbarek’s black-and-white photo, and says that these days the club’s links to the Middle East are far more widespread — from taking part in the Spanish Super Cup in the Saudi capital and a partnership with Riyadh Air, to Atletico jerseys being worn around the Kingdom and academy prospects from Morocco following in Benbarek’s footsteps.

“It (Spanish Super Cup) was amazing. I mean, when you see a full stadium following a national title, it was impressive to see the environment, the atmosphere, it was like a real derby, but in Saudi, so it was a great experience,” Moreno said. “And I think we had a great show, real competition match between Real Madrid and Atletico. Unfortunately, we didn’t win, but we were very close and the show for the fans, I think, was amazing, on site, on TV.”

Atletico lost 5-3 to Real Madrid in the first semifinal at Al-Awwal Park Stadium, before the recently crowned La Liga champions went on to lift the Super Cup with a 4-1 win over Barcelona.

“We were close but we couldn’t win, but I think the most important thing was that the experience for the fans was fantastic, was real. And I think it is one of the best ways to keep growing internationally, increasing our fan base,” Moreno said.

La Liga is working closely with clubs to push its brand name in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, but just as importantly, to ensure that individual clubs are establishing their own identities across the region as well.

“We started to see Atletico jerseys in Saudi, and it was something that was almost impossible 10 years ago,” Moreno said. “So now you see the potential of the brand, with great activations on site, plenty of fans there, we had jerseys on site in Nike stores.

“We work very close with (La Liga), it’s part of the expansion plan. These kinds of activations, on site, watch parties, playing games, having your stars there. We did many activations with our main partner, which is Riyadh Air, so we visit the office, we visit touristic places, with legends like David Villa. This is part of ambitious strategy to develop our brand and to become bigger in the region.”

Such developments have been accelerated in no small part by the remarkable success Atletico has enjoyed under Diego Simeone, at a time when Real Madrid and Barcelona continue to be arguably the world’s two most popular clubs.

“The last decade or 12 years, I would say, it’s been incredible how the club has been able to keep growing, competing against these two big clubs in the same league, and also in a European international competitions,” Moreno said. “And it’s not easy, because we must be much more efficient. That’s the key, on the pitch and off the pitch, because the size in terms of followers, in terms of incomes, is more than double, but we have found the balance. Obviously the sport side is crucial, it’s the key, keep performing at that level, always qualify for Champions League (by being) third, even second or first, in La Liga.”

While Simeone’s team has many international stars, Moreno says an important factor in the team’s recent success is the club’s academy and intelligent scouting.

“One of our key pillars is the academy,” he said. “If you see our (first team) squad, we have currently four players from our academy. And then if you see some of the main clubs in Europe, there are many players coming from the Atletico Academy. This is one very important pillar. Of course, we go to the market, we see international players, and we have some stars. But this balance, this efficiency is very important for us. If you see our current squad, most of our players have been with us for a long period. So we try to keep them in order to have the sustainability on the pitch. Also our manager (has had) the longest period for a manager in Europe, I would say. It’s part of the success of the club.”

These days, there may not be a Benbarek — yet — at the club, but Atletico’s scouting department has maintained a link with players from North Africa, as it does with the rest of the world, over the years.

“We have done it for a long time,” Moreno said. “We have brought players from all countries to our academy. Thomas Partey, who’s playing in Arsenal, the Hernandez brothers (Lucas and Theo), they come from France, so we have had historically players from other countries. And now that we are getting more global, it’s important to have scouts everywhere, trying to find talent at the proper age.

“Our structure in the academy is huge, it’s one of the biggest academies in the world. We have more than 70 teams here in Madrid, so we have to manage a lot of boys and girls. We try to bring talent from everywhere,” Moreno said.

The 20-year-old Moroccan Abde Raihani recently made his debut for the first team, replacing Stefan Savic in the 2-0 loss to Deportivo Alaves. Another Moroccan, Salim El Jebari, 20, is also on the club’s books.

“(On April 21) we had a new player from the academy (Raihani) with an Arab connection, family. The Arab world is getting more and more powerful within the football industry. So obviously, it’s one of the key regions, markets, for players.”

Off the pitch, Atletico Madrid are also keen to strengthen their brand interests in the region, and in particular Saudi Arabia.

“We are trying to find the best global companies in each sector,” Moreno said. “Obviously, Riyadh Air, within the airline sector, for the coming future is going to be one of the key players, and we are very proud and happy to be their first sports partner. But of course we are very interested to keep growing in the region through companies, because for us it’s very important to have really relevant companies in different industries, because they are our speakers globally and in the region.”

Despite the recent defeat in the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League, Atletico Madrid have secured qualification for the first expanded FIFA Club World Cup next year, Mundial de Clubes FIFA 25, thanks to their record in the Europe’s top competition over the past four years. Moreno called being the only La Liga club, alongside Real Madrid, at the tournament in the US, a “milestone” and highlighted that Atletico could well face Arab teams there, including Saudi’s Al-Hilal, Egypt’s Al-Ahly, Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca and Tunisia’s Esperance.

Atletico will also have a stake in the 2030 FIFA World Cup being co-hosted by Spain, Portugal and Morocco.

“Our stadium is going to be one of the main stadiums in the World Cup,” Moreno said. “We have a very big project around the stadium for not only football, but sport and entertainment; it is going to be probably one of the best destinations for international fans. They want to come to Madrid, enjoy the city, enjoy all their activities apart from football, and also watch a World Cup match. For us it is very important, this World Cup, for the team (Spain) but also for the venue.”


Spain and England to meet in European Championship final in front of Prince William and King Felipe

Updated 14 July 2024
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Spain and England to meet in European Championship final in front of Prince William and King Felipe

  • Spain is bidding to win the Euros for a record fourth time and for the first time since 2012
  • England lays claim to be the birthplace of soccer and hasn’t won a major title since the 1966 World Cup

BERLIN: Spain and England will meet in the European Championship final on Sunday, with much of the focus on a teenage wonderkid and whether one of the world’s most underachieving teams can end its decades-long wait for a title.
The match is scheduled to start at 9 p.m. local time (1900 GMT) in Berlin and is expected to be attended by Prince William, Spain’s King Felipe, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Keir Starmer, Britain’s new prime minister.
Spain is bidding to win the Euros for a record fourth time, breaking a tie with Germany/West Germany, and for the first time since 2012. The team’s new superstar is winger Lamine Yamal, a prodigy who turned 17 on Saturday.
England, who lays claim to be the birthplace of soccer, hasn’t won a major title since the 1966 World Cup and that was on home soil. This is the team’s second straight European Championship final, having lost in a penalty shootout in the final to Italy three years ago.
The teams have taken different paths to the final, which will take place at Berlin’s Olympiastadion — the 71,000-seat venue built for the 1936 Olympic Games and which hosted the 2006 World Cup final that featured Zinedine Zidane’s infamous headbutt.
Spain has won all six of its matches and is widely regarded as the best team at Euro 2024, having seen off Germany and France in the knockout stage. England was unimpressive in the group stage and has shown resilience in coming from behind in all three of its knockout-stage games.


Euro 2024 final: Spain goes for record 4th title, England looks to end 58-year wait for major trophy

Updated 14 July 2024
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Euro 2024 final: Spain goes for record 4th title, England looks to end 58-year wait for major trophy

BERLIN: Spain and England meet in the final of the European Championship on Sunday. Spain is seeking a record fourth title at the Euros to break a tie with Germany/West Germany, while England is bidding for a first major trophy in men’s soccer since the 1966 World Cup. Kickoff is at 9 p.m. local (1900 GMT) in Berlin. Here’s what to know about the match:
Match facts
— Spain will start as the favorite after winning all six of its matches at Euro 2024 and being widely regarded as the best team at the tournament. Winning the title would continue a strong period of success for Spanish national teams, with the men having captured the UEFA Nations League in June last year and the women following that up by winning the World Cup two months later.
— Lamine Yamal is Spain’s new star having set up three goals before the semifinals, where he scored a spectacular long-range strike in the victory over France — all at the age of 16. He turned 17 on Saturday, the day before the final. It is a breakthrough major tournament for Yamal, much like it was for a 19-year-old Kylian Mbappé at the 2018 World Cup and a 17-year-old Pelé at the 1958 World Cup.
— Spain last appeared in a final at a major tournament in 2012, when the team won the third of its European Championship titles by beating Italy 4-0. England played in the final of Euro 2020, which was played in 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, and lost in a penalty shootout to Italy.
— England has shown resilience by coming from behind in all three of its knockout-stage matches at Euro 2024. Jude Bellingham scored an equalizer from an overhead kick in the fifth minute of stoppage time in the extra-time win over Slovakia in the last 16, Bukayo Saka equalized in the 80th minute against Switzerland in the quarterfinals before England won a penalty shootout, and substitute Ollie Watkins scored a winner almost exactly on 90 minutes against the Netherlands in the semifinals.
— England coach Gareth Southgate is often criticized for his in-game management but he has changed the culture inside the squad and is regularly getting the team deep at major tournaments. In Southgate’s tenure that started in 2016, England has reached the World Cup semifinals in 2018 and now back-to-back European Championship finals.
Team news
— Spain coach Luis de la Fuente said on Saturday that the injured Pedri and Ayoze Pérez are the only players unavailable, meaning captain Alvaro Morata can play. Morata was limping after the semifinal win over France when he was knocked to the ground in the post-match celebrations by a steward trying to stop a pitch invader. Right back Dani Carvajal returns from suspension, leaving de la Fuente’s only selection dilemma at center back, with Nacho or Robin Le Normand vying to partner Aymeric Laporte. Dani Olmo will likely fill in again for Pedri as Spain’s attacking central midfielder.
— Southgate has to decide who to play at left back — or left wing back — out of Kieran Trippier or Luke Shaw. Shaw is a natural on that side but has only made two appearances as a second-half substitute at Euro 2024 after recovering from an injury that had sidelined him since February. Otherwise, Southgate will choose the same players, with the 19-year-old Kobbie Mainoo having nailed down the problematic spot in central midfield alongside Declan Rice.
By the numbers
— Spain’s previous European Championship titles came in 1964, 2008 and 2012.
— There are six players on a tournament-high three goals at Euro 2024 and two are playing in the final: England captain Harry Kane and Spain playmaker Dani Olmo. The others are Georges Mikautadze of Georgia, Cody Gakpo of the Netherlands, Ivan Schranz of Slovakia and Jamal Musiala or Germany.
— It has been six years since Spain and England met in a senior men’s international. In 2018, they played a Nations League double-header, with Spain winning 2-1 at Wembley Stadium and England winning 3-2 in Sevilla a month later.
What they’re saying
— “I don’t say it becomes run of the mill but it’s a little bit more normal for us. That statement in itself is probably ridiculous given our history.” — England coach Gareth Southgate on reaching a second straight final at the Euros.
— “I would like him to work with the same humility, keep his feet on the ground in order to keep improving, learning with the same kind of attitude and that professionalism, that maturity that he shows on the pitch. He looks like a much more experienced player, to be honest.” — Spain coach Luis de la Fuente on Lamine Yamal.
 

 


De la Fuente calls on Spain players to make history in Euros final

Updated 14 July 2024
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De la Fuente calls on Spain players to make history in Euros final

  • “It’s a brilliant generation, many of them have come through successful youth levels and that usually bodes well for success,” De la Fuente told reporters Saturday

BERLIN: Spain coach Luis de la Fuente called on a “brilliant” generation of players to make history for their country in the Euro 2024 final against England on Sunday.
La Roja are aiming to win a record fourth European Championship 12 years after they last lifted the trophy.
With Rodri Hernandez pulling the strings in midfield and explosive young wingers Lamine Yamal and Nico Williams in attack, Spain have been the tournament’s great entertainers on the road to Berlin.
“It’s a brilliant generation, many of them have come through successful youth levels and that usually bodes well for success,” De la Fuente told reporters Saturday.
“We want to start to make history — and we have made history already in the run to (the final)... I trust in a great future, there’s both present and future.”
Spain won the 2008 and 2012 Euros and the 2010 World Cup with many star players from Barcelona and Real Madrid, including Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Ramos and David Villa.
The current side has fewer stars but consider that one of their strong points, with the squad on an even footing and “unity” has been a key word among Spain players at the tournament.
Despite Spain shining en route to the final while England have scraped through, De la Fuente said the clash at the Olympiastadion will be “extremely balanced.”
“Whichever team manages to impose their strengths, whoever makes less errors (will win),” said the coach.
“But you can win a one-off game, even playing far worse (than your opponent).
“We need to have maximum concentration, not make any mistakes and take advantage of the chances we have — put them away.”
The coach thanked injured duo Pedri and Ayoze Perez, who will not be available to face England, and said Barcelona midfielder Gavi will travel to join the team for the final.
The 19-year-old missed most of the season with a knee injury but was an important player for Spain before sustaining it in November.
De la Fuente said it was no challenge to keep Barcelona’s Yamal, who turned 17 on Saturday, and Athletic Bilbao’s Williams, 22, calm ahead of the biggest game of their careers.
“It’s not at all hard, they have such joy, and incredible maturity for such young players, they understand the sport very well and they are well accompanied by more experienced players,” explained the coach.
“We’re a team, it’s not about hailing individuals, and this makes us stronger.”
At the other end of the age spectrum is 38-year-old Sevilla defender Jesus Navas, who started the semifinal win over France in direct confrontation with Kylian Mbappe.
Navas won the 2010 World Cup, 2012 Euros and the 2023 Nations League with Spain and said he would love to lift another trophy with his country.
“To still be enjoying myself with my national team at 38 is incredible,” said the right-back.
“In (Spain’s golden years) we were such a close-knit group, and you could feel it. Now it’s the same, there’s an incredible group. I’m delighted by everything that’s happening to us.
“We know the excitement and hope that we all have and I hope we can win it.”


‘I’m a believer in dreams’: Southgate wants Euro 2024 glory so England get respect of soccer world

Updated 13 July 2024
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‘I’m a believer in dreams’: Southgate wants Euro 2024 glory so England get respect of soccer world

  • “I’m not a believer in fairy tales,” England coach Gareth Southgate said on Saturday, “but I’m a believer in dreams”
  • Southgate has played a central role in England’s painful journey of agonizing exits, near-misses and national angst down the years

BERLIN: For the English, it’s largely self-deprecating banter.
For pretty much everybody else, it’s a sign of arrogance and entitlement.
“Football’s Coming Home” — the England team soccer anthem — have been sung on the streets of cities throughout Germany over the past month, and will be roared with even more gusto in Berlin in the next 24 hours.
England are in the European Championship final against Spain on Sunday, a chance for the underachieving birthplace of soccer to capture a major men’s title for the first time since the 1966 World Cup on home soil.
A chance, it is being said by England, for football to come home.
“I’m not a believer in fairy tales,” England coach Gareth Southgate said on Saturday, “but I’m a believer in dreams.”
Southgate has played a central role in England’s painful journey of agonizing exits, near-misses and national angst down the years.
It was Southgate, England’s coach since 2016, who led the team to a first major final since 1966 only to lose to Italy in a penalty shootout in the 2021 Euro final.
Twenty-five years earlier, it was Southgate — then a defender of modest ability — who missed what proved to be a decisive penalty in England’s shootout defeat to Germany in the Euro 1996 semifinals.
The “Football’s Coming Home” anthem is born from the “Three Lions” song that was released before Euro 1996.
One of its lines spoke of “30 years of hurt.” It is now 58 years of hurt, and the fans are still singing it.
“It has been going on for years and years,” said England fan Justin Tucknott, a 54-year-old business analyst who was grabbing a drink at a bar near Olympiastadion in a sun-kissed evening in the German capital.
“We’re going to keep singing it until it does come home. And when it does, the words will be changed slightly.”
England’s chances of ending that men’s title drought approaching nearly 60 years have improved under Southgate, with the team reaching back-to-back Euro finals and getting to the World Cup semifinals in 2018.
He has had to change the mentality and culture in a squad that are regularly full of some of the top players in the English Premier League, the most popular and watched domestic league in the world.
Famous and rich, the players maybe thought they had a divine right to win titles at international level as often as they do at club level.
Southgate quickly drummed it into them that they don’t.
“We have tried to change the mindset from the start, tried to be more honest about where we were as a football nation,” Southgate said. “I traveled to World Cups and European Championships as an observer and watched highlights reels of matches that were on the big screens — and we weren’t in any of them.
“They only showed the finals and big games. We needed to change that. We had high expectations but they didn’t match where we were, performance-wise. … We’ve come through a lot of big nights now, a lot of records have been broken, but we know we have to get this trophy to really feel the respect of the rest of the football world.”
England started slowly — very slowly — at Euro 2024, relying on big moments from big players to get them through to the semifinals. There, the team produced their best performance so far, but still needed a goal exactly on 90 minutes from Ollie Watkins to get past the Netherlands.
“It builds resilience and belief,” England captain Harry Kane said.
It’s an increasingly confident England heading into the final. And much of that comes from the coach.
“Tomorrow, I don’t have any fear what might happen,” Southgate said, “because I have been through everything. I want the players to feel that fearlessness.
“If we are not afraid to lose, it gives us a better chance of winning.”


Soccer-In humble Spanish suburb, wonderkid Lamine Yamal embodies hope

Updated 13 July 2024
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Soccer-In humble Spanish suburb, wonderkid Lamine Yamal embodies hope

  • Lamine Yamal was born in Spain from a Moroccan father and an Equatorial Guinea mother, joined Barcelona’s academy when he was six and moved to live in the city aged 11

MATARO: In the working-class, multi-ethnic Barcelona suburb where Lamine Yamal grew up, the stunning rise of Spain’s soccer wonderkid in the European Championship generates both intense pride and hope.
The Barcelona winger, who turns 17 on Saturday, celebrates his goals gesturing 304 with his fingers in a nod to the 08304 postal code of the Rocafonda neighborhood, in the coastal city of Mataro, where he grew up and where his father and grandmother live.
“My son is like any other kid. He has fought for a dream and has had the opportunity to achieve it,” said his jubilant father, Mounir Nasraoui, 38, dressed with Lamine Yamal’s Spanish national jersey at a local bar where people took selfies and embraced him.
He forecasts Spain will beat England 3-0 in Sunday’s Euro 2024 final in Berlin, which he will attend.
The El Cordobes bar, with a framed signed jersey of Lamine Yamal hung on a wall, witnessed the family’s early financial struggles.
Nasraoui would be given his coffee for free so he could instead use his money for a train ride to take his son for training at Barcelona’s academy, said the bar’s owner Juan Carlos Serrano.
“This jersey is the pride of the neighborhood, man!,” said Serrano.
“Lamine is the prototype of a kid who has had to work hard, who has been a good student and just graduated from secondary school,” he added. “For this reason, he is a mirror for children.”
Rocafonda is among Mataro’s neighborhoods with the lowest household income and most residents were born outside the Catalonia region and Spain, primarily in Morocco.
Lamine Yamal was born in Spain from a Moroccan father and an Equatorial Guinea mother, who lives in a nearby town. He joined Barcelona’s academy when he was six and moved to live in the city aged 11, his father said.
On Tuesday, he became the youngest player to score in a World Cup or Euros with a sublime 25-meter strike against France.
He also lifted Rocafonda’s self-esteem.
“People used to be ashamed of saying they are from here. This is a very humble neighborhood where people make 1,000 euros a month,” said 28 year-old Sufian, born from Moroccan parents. “Now people that are not even from Rocafonda or Mataro, say: I am from 304!.”
At Rocafonda’s asphalt pitch where Yamal used to play soccer, young people from Moroccan and Senegalese origin say they dream of following in his footsteps, echoing the humble neighborhoods where other stars grew up such as Argentina’s Lionel Messi and France’s Kylian Mbappe.
Lamine Yamal, who is Black, also represents how Spain has become more ethnically diverse in recent decades due to migration from Africa and Latin America.
His success also comes at a significant political moment. Spain’s far-right party Vox, with a strong anti-migration rhetoric, on Thursday announced it would break five regional government coalitions with the center-right People’s Party over disagreements on the shelter policy for under-18 migrants.
“Lamine’s goal (on Tuesday) was not only a goal, it also sent the message that racism is over and that we are all the same,” said Sufian.