How Chinese investors rescued Atletico’s palatial plans

Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano stadium hosting the Champions League final was an impossible dream which could still have an unhappy ending.

How Chinese investors rescued Atletico’s palatial plans

Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano stadium hosting the Champions League final was an impossible dream which could still have an unhappy ending.

Atletico Madrid’s shiny new 67,000 seater stadium was chosen by UEFA to host European football’s showpiece game in September 2017, just four days after rojiblanco forward Antoine Griezmann had scored his team’s first ever goal at the rebuilt former athletics stadium.

“We’ve no doubt the Champions League final at the Wanda Metropolitano will be a success,” said Atletico Madrid CEO Miguel Angel Gil Marin last month.

“At one stage this was the project of some crazies who tried to organise something impossible. We’re proud that it’s now a reality.”

Although their only competitor in UEFA’s first ever open bidding process to host the game was Baku’s Olympic Stadium [which instead got the Europa League decider], Gil Marin was understandably happy at what he and fellow “crazy” Atletico president Enrique Cerezo had achieved.

A decade ago few would have foreseen what was then a very rarely used 20,000 capacity athletics stadium ever hosting club football’s biggest global event.

Known as La Peineta for its main stand somewhat resembling a traditional Spanish decorative comb, it had formed part of Madrid’s unsuccessful bids to host the summer Olympics Games in 2012, 2016 and 2020.

Atletico’s very well connected directors were watching closely, having seen the opportunity to leave their crumbling Estadio Vicente Calderon for a modern stadium on attractive terms, along with the potential for a lucrative real estate coup.

An aerial image of the crumbling Estadio Olimpico De La Peineta
An aerial image of the crumbling Estadio Olimpico De La Peineta

A deal was struck in 2007 for Atletico to rebuild and them move to La Peineta, in exchange for permission to construct residential skyscraper tower blocks on the site of the Calderon.

A decade-long Spanish property bubble almost immediately burst however, and the ambitious plans went on hold.

Important local political and business figures working with Atletico on the move also ran into problems.

Corruption investigations saw regional president Ignacio Gonzalez and city mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon, both of the conservative Partido Popular, leave their positions.

Catalan construction group FCC, hired to carry out work on both the Peineta and Calderon sites, went bankrupt.

A number of legal cases successfully brought by angry Atletico fans also thwarted various plans of the club’s directors.

The project was frozen until Chinese investors Wanda Group injected €60 million into Atletico in January 2015.

Wanda’s purchase of naming rights for the new stadium was announced in December 2017.

The final impetus came when Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim provided a €160 million loan to enable work to be finished.

Aware of many fans’ opposition to moving from their beloved Calderon to a new ground well out of the city centre, Atletico’s board made a big emotional play around the move.

Club legend Fernando Torres gave a heart-rending speech about his grandfather’s connection to the ‘Metropolitano’ part of the name — which harked back to a previous pre-Calderon home.

City authorities renamed the road by the new stadium ‘Avenida de Luis Aragones’, after Spain’s Euro 2008-winning coach, probably the most loved figure in Atletico’s past.

Even when Diego Simeone’s team finally began playing there in September 2017, there was still work to be done.

It took weeks for hot food to be available for purchase on match days, while a much needed slip road to the nearby M40 motorway took a further 12 months to open.

It is true that the completed stadium is one of the most technologically advanced in Europe.

Saturday’s pre-game ceremony is sure to feature its spectacular sound and lights systems, while environmentally friendly touches include the use of recycled rainwater to irrigate the pitch.

The atmosphere during games remains very different from the old crumbling Vicente Calderon.

This has not been helped by Simeone’s team having yet to beat either neighbours Real Madrid or Barcelona there, although the place did rock during last season’s Europa League semi-final defeat of Arsenal.

And it made history last March when a world record crowd of 60,739 attended a womens’ game between Atletico and Barcelona in the Liga Femenina Iberdrola.

The best case scenario was always for Atletico — UCL finalists in 2014 and 2016 — to return to the decider this year and finally win a first ever European Cup in their own home.

Pursuing that dream meant a further financial stretch was made to retain stars like Simeone and Griezmann, but Juventus ended those hopes back in February.

Gil Marin has repeatedly said that the €300 million or so Atletico have spent on the move will be eventually repaid by increased match-day revenues.

However, the club’s debts have continued to climb to a reported €600 million.

The future of the Calderon site remains uncertain, with most of the vacant structure still standing desolate, and full permission for any new construction a long way off.

There is now a definite end of an era feel around the team, with big names Griezmann and Diego Godin leaving this summer, while Jan Oblak, Saul Niguez and Rodrigo could follow.

“You don’t get to play the final every year, we have managed it sometimes,” a wistful Cerezo said last month.

“Unfortunately not this year, but the two English teams will be well received. I expect a good, clean final.”

Both Cerezo and Gil Marin are sure to be smiling in their VIP seats on Saturday evening, and their achievement in getting the stadium built and hosting this game is quite remarkable.

However the full cost of Atletico’s stadium move — for both the club and the city— is still to be paid.

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