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Real-Atlético: The Match That’s Driving Madrid Mad

Madrid, Spain – 22/05/2015 – as published by The Wall Street Journal

Saturday’s Champions League Final Between Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid Is a Point of Pride for Madrileños

MADRID—Want to buy a lighter for €4,650 ($6,349)?

You might if you rooted for either of Madrid’s rival soccer teams and knew that three tickets to their most anticipated match ever were being thrown in “for free.”

As Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid prepare to battle Saturday (2 p.m. ET, Fox) for the Champions League title, Europe’s elite club soccer competition, fans are paying some of the highest prices on record for a seat at the game in the Estádio da Luz in Lisbon.

The duel is a point of pride for Madrileños, whose powerful—albeit aging—national team has owned international soccer in recent years, winning Euro 2008 and 2012 and the 2010 World Cup. This is the first time two teams from the same city have ever met in the Champions League final. A banner atop Madrid’s neoclassical City Hall proclaims “The Capital of Soccer.”

But the honor is pricey for a citizenry struggling back from the country’s worst recession in decades. Scalpers are selling tickets for as much as €3,000 ($4,100), more than double what the average Spaniard earns in a month and an unthinkable sum for the 26% of the workforce out of a job.

The outrageously expensive lighter is just one way of evading official restrictions on resales. One Spanish tabloid reported a lively barter trade under the headline, “Cars, sex and accommodation in exchange for a ticket.”

Then there is the cost of getting to the stadium, 500 kilometers (310 miles) away in Lisbon. Hotels are pricing the few remaining double rooms at €2,000 to €8,000 ($2,730 to $10,923) a night.

Still, as many as 34,000 fans are expected to travel from Madrid for the match, with most planning to sleep in their cars or make the seven-hour drive home the same night. For those who can’t go, both clubs will open their stadiums so fans can watch the match on big screens.

The Champions League final is the most-watched annual sporting event world-wide, overtaking the Super Bowl in 2009. Last year’s final reached a global television audience of 360 million. Still, nothing beats holding one of the 61,000 tickets.

Each club has 17,000 to sell for €70 to €390 ($95 to $532) apiece, but they are available only for the longest-affiliated dues-paying members. UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, put another 3,000 tickets on sale world-wide at the same prices and reserved the other 24,000 for its officials and sponsors.

Ana Sanz, an Atlético member for 20 years, secured tickets for herself and her father. She considered paying €500 ($682) via Western Union for a ticket for her husband but worried that the deal might be a scam.

Posters representing the jerseys of the Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid soccer clubs hang on the facade of the Royal Post Office and the current seat of the office of the President of Madrid.
Posters representing the jerseys of the Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid soccer clubs hang on the facade of the Royal Post Office and the current seat of the office of the President of Madrid. 

Club affiliates who can’t go are putting their tickets on the overheated resale market. Manolo Richter, a 39-year-old telephone-company sales manager from the Canary Islands, got lucky when a friend affiliated with Real Madrid decided not to go and gave him the ticket.

“I’m not sure if it will be the best day of my life,” Richter said, “but it’ll definitely be the best day of 2014.”

Real Madrid is playing for its 10th Champions League title, upstart Atlético for its first. Real acquired Welsh star Gareth Bale last year for a reported €100 ($136) million, nearly 80% of Atlético’s budget. Real has won 32 Spanish league titles to Atlético’s 10.

Atlético won the league title this year, but its supporters understandably feel like underdogs.

“I just can’t watch it, not even in my home or with friends—it’s too important,” said Francisco Jiménez Parmeo, 25, a lifelong Atlético fan. “I’ll be too nervous.”

Anticipation of the match has polarized the city, where the rivals tend to draw fans from different social classes and political views.

Long-considered the country’s establishment team, Real counts Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and other conservative politicians as fans. Yoga studios, sports cars and English tailors populate the upscale neighborhood around its Santiago Bernabéu stadium.

Atlético supporters are generally more working-class and vote Socialist, but they also include Crown Prince Felipe and Academy Award-winning actor Javier Bardem.Atlético’s stadium, Vicente Calderón, is next to a demolished brewery.

In a campaign for Sunday’s European Parliament election, Rajoy’s Popular Party has lined the streets near Real’s stadium with posters alluding to Saturday’s match. “What’s in play is the future,” they read.

Alberto Penadés, a social scientist at the University of Salamanca, said the outcome of the match could potentially influence the election. If Real Madrid wins, he said, their conservative fans might be more animated to get out and vote for the candidates of Rajoy’s party, who are in a tight race with the Socialists.

For civic boosters, it is the international spotlight on the match, not the outcome, that matters.

“Matches like this put Madrid on the map; they put Spain on the map,” said Professor Sandalio Gómez of the Center for Sport Business Management at the University of Navarra. “It’s hard to quantify, but events like this definitely relate to outside investment in the country. You secure the best spots on television and in the papers on five continents. You can’t beat that kind of publicity.”