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Mixed emotions as Madrid waves goodbye to Vicente Calderon stadium

Madrid (AFP) – Atletico Madrid’s mythical Vicente Calderon stadium will soon be history: sad news for supporters of Real Madrid’s rivals but not so for locals who hope the neighbourhood will improve once noisy fans are gone.

This weekend spells the end for the ageing structure that for over 50 years has housed Atletico — not as well known abroad as the world-famous Real Madrid despite fielding players like French star Antoine Griezmann but with a huge following in the Spanish capital.

Fans will watch Spain’s Copa del Rey final between Barcelona and Alaves on Saturday and a charitable match on Sunday. 

Next year, the stadium that currently stands on the shores of the Manzanares river in southern Madrid, surrounded by blocks of flats and cheap cafeterias, will be razed to the ground.

“I’ve been a member since the 2001-2002 season, when the Atletico was in second division,” says Oscar Fernandez, 23, standing near the stadium in Madrid’s Imperial district.

Wearing the red and white shirt of a club that has since risen back to dizzying heights, winning the La Liga top division in 2014 and reaching Champions League finals in 2014 and 2016, Fernandez says he lives in Rome but returned expressly to see the final games at the Vicente Calderon.

The stadium “is part of my life,” he says.

– A visceral attachment –

From next season, Atletico — which ended third in La Liga this year — will play on the other side of the Spanish capital, at a stadium called the Wanda Metropolitano.

Still in construction, it has a capacity for 70,000 people, 15,000 more than the Calderon.

But fans are hugely attached to the worn stadium, under which passes a ring-road that circles Madrid, where Atletico played for the first time on October 2, 1966.

Javier Fischer, 30, is so nostalgic that he has reserved three stadium seats to take away as a souvenir, one of them in memory of his father who died a year ago.

Last Sunday, he was there for Atletico’s last La Liga game in the Calderon — “the saddest day ever here,” he says, despite his team’s 3-1 victory over Athletic Bilbao.

Standing in front of the club’s office, Valentin Hernandez agrees with Fischer, but he also acknowledges that “the Calderon was too small.”

“Atletico needs to change with the times, like the big European teams,” he says.

In order to help finance the stadium, the club sold the naming rights to China’s multinational Wanda Group, which also owns 20 percent of the club.

With help from Wanda and the increase in capacity, Atletico hopes to increase its annual budget from the current 280 million euros to 400 million euros in the 2019-2020 season.

By so doing, it hopes to close the gap with Barcelona and Real Madrid, which made more than 600 million euros each this season.

Still, the new stadium in the San Blas district is in a remote area in eastern Madrid, far from southern parts of the Spanish capital which traditionally support Atletico more than Real Madrid.

And the 60-million-euro cost of the stadium also has supporters up in arms.

They worry that the ensuing debt will stop the club from being able to pay the 80 to 90 million euros needed “to bring first-class players,” says Ricardo Menendez, a journalist for the Atletico-specialised website Esto Es Atleti.

– Locals rejoice –

But the mood among locals in the Imperial district is much better.

The stadium itself will be torn down to make way for some 1,300 flats and a large green space.

Locals hope that the departure of Atletico — and the new flats — will revitalise the neighbourhood.

Many are also happy the commotion of fans and match days will now be a thing of the past.

“I’m delighted it’s going,” says Jesus Ferro, 83, complaining about the “filth left” by fans as well as the noise.

Ernesto Ortiz, manager of a hardware store, also thinks things will be better after Atletico leaves.

“On match days, if there was any repair or maintenance work to do, we couldn’t move around as the area was so full of vehicles,” he says.

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