A gun-toting security guard less than politely telling me to stop diving around the goal-mouth of one of Spain’s most famous football pitches, overruled by the man sitting in the leather clad president’s seat up in the stands… It sounds like a scrambled dream but it was in fact my first experience of Atlético Madrid.
There’s relative normality and respectability at the club these days, well if you ignore the transfer ban for misdemeanours, as they prepare to move to their new state-of-the-art stadium.
Back in 1996, I was invited to the Vicente Calderón for an audience with club president Jesús Gil who had recently celebrated his side’s Liga and Copa double by riding around the capital on an elephant.
This was a figure who has been compared to Donald Trump but, in truth, he made the American look bland and conservative (the conformist version).
There are many in Marbella who can tell tales of Jesús Gil and I’d done my homework. The overriding memory was him asking whether I’d play goalkeeper as his grandchildren had a kickabout on the pristine pitch. Clearly the club security guard hadn’t been told of the impromptu plan and he was caressing his gun like a cowboy in the movies.
A nod from the thrice-imprisoned Don in the stands was enough to save me. You didn’t mess with a man who’d been pardoned by General Franco.
Now two decades on, the club is about to move into a spanking new stadium. There’s no sneaking in for a spontaneous kick about; these days, it’s all immaculate CGI images as the many finishing touches are made to the 240-million-euro Wanda Metropolitano Stadium.
Gil’s son, Miguel Ángel is influential in modernising Spain’s third club. I’d liken the Vicente Calderón to Everton’s Goodison Park - rich in history, bursting with memories but struggling to be fit for purpose in the modern era. It is the only major stadium with a motorway running underneath the main stand.
Atlético may be the only club who would have been happy with the Spanish FA as they dithered over the announcement of the fixtures. There will be a snag list that could delay the first game until September, but when it is up and running it will be spectacular.
By default, Atlético have managed to keep their team and manager together. The transfer ban has worked in their favour as Antoine Griezmann didn’t feel he could turn his back on the club that has nurtured him to superstardom, Saúl Ñíguez has signed a remarkable nine-year deal, Spanish international Koke is committed, as is highly-rated goalkeeper Jan Oblak.
Diego Simeone could walk into a manager’s job in any league he desired but he had vowed to stick around for the initiation and put his expected move to a top Italian club on hold for now.
He is the architect of an amazing team that has been built on strong foundations, quite a contrast to the Jesús Gil days when he changedmanagers on thirty nine occasions.
I can’t wait to commentate on my first game from the incredible new stadium; I doubt I will get the invite for a game of ‘three-and-you-are-in’, though.