Atletico Madrid lifted the Europa League trophy last night, while Athletic Bilbao were left heart broken. The scoreline might have been more one-sided than one would have anticipated, but there were certain stories in the background that this scoreline will not reflect. Heartwarming tales of some footballers, some left with broken hearts while some others left with feelings indescribable.
Antonio Lopez Lends Shoulders To Iker Muniain
Iker Muniain was inconsolable. As Atletico Madrid ran off the pitch in exhilaration, Muniain broke down. He is too young to have experienced anything like this before, and perhaps too young to hide his tears behind an impassive face. A 19-year-old, infact one could be very tempted to call him a kid, nicknamed the ‘Spanish Messi’ and carrying the expectation of the whole Basque region on his shoulders.
The talented attacker tried to live up to the overwhelming expectations; Bilbao cannot be blamed for lack of effort. Ironically though, they tried too hard and that caused their downfall. Muniain was Bilbao’s best player on the pitch but that was again where the problem lay. The Spaniard didn’t get any telling support from his team mates and that affected him. Atletico Madrid were defensively very organized, and left no space for the Bilbao players to run into. Iker Muniain’s ability to skip past players and dazzle with the ball at his feet meant he was the only player who looked capable of creating an opening for his side.
For lesser men, the task is simpler, they have limited abilities and hence are unlikely to be flummoxed by multiple choices. But Iker is not a lesser man, he is special. Facing him was the option of using his skill to get past defenders and bring his team mates into play or be the lone warrior and try carrying his team all by himself. Lack of experience made him opt for the latter. He held onto the ball for too long, he travelled with it too far and tried nutmegging too many defenders. During the match those dazzling runs ended in screams of frustrations and after the final whistle it ended in tears.
Iker will have days and years to ponder about his wrong decisions with the ball at his feet but he’s won himself many admirers. When Muniain broke down, standing all alone, Antonio Lopez of Atletico Madrid was the first to offer him a shoulder to cry on. The Los Colchoneros captain has been in this game for a long time, he has experienced nearly every emotion this sport has to offer. From the jubilation of lifting the Europa league in 2010 as the skipper of his side, to the feeling of being unwanted when he was loaned out to Osasuna in 2002 after helping his club win promotion from the second division. He perhaps felt Muniain’s grief more closely than anyone else could.
Lopez was unable to lift the trophy as he was not in the starting line-up, having lost his captainship for the night. Lopez is set to depart from the club he loves so much at the end of this season and the defender is sure to leave with a heavy heart.
Gabi And Diego – Belief Above All
Talking of captains, Gabi lifted the Europa league trophy after being made captain for this game. That in itself is another wonderful story. Gabriel Fernández Arenas, is an Atletico Madrid youth system graduate. He was captain of the youth team during his first stint at the club. He was then sold to Real Zaragoza in 2007 and his dream of captaining the senior team was left unfulfilled. But at times, life does gives us a second chance. He returned to Atletico Madrid this season and suddenly just 12 months later he was lifting the Europa league trophy after being made the captain for the Game ahead of Lopez. One man’s misfortune is another man’s good luck. But luck alone can’t deny him the pride he must have felt at the podium.
Speaking of luck, Diego finally vindicated himself and broke free of his lamentable past. In 2006-2007 season, Diego, at the prime of his career, reached the semi-final stage of the UEFA cup with Werder Bremen. The German club was knocked out at the hands of Espanyol. Two seasons later Werder reached the semi-final stage once again and this time they managed to reach the final after defeating Hamburg. Diego was immense over the two legs, putting in the kind of performance that attracted Juventus towards him. But the Brazilian was threading a fine line as he had already picked up bookings in previous rounds, and a moment of madness in the 2nd leg of the semi-final clash earned him a yellow card which meant he would miss the final. The final which Bremen reached was thanks only to the monumental performances from him and he fluffed his chance to attain the glory and pride that his performances have deserved. Diego was distraught, as he watched his team mates lose the final to Shakhtar Donetsk.
He perhaps never recovered mentally from that trauma. He was eventually transferred to Juventus, where the Brazilian was unsuccessful to say the least. Fans and critics believed that his career was nearing an abrupt end. Diego was likely to append his name to the list of many talented South American players who experience a sudden rise to fame only to just as suddenly fade away.
In sport as in life, nothing inspires a human more than adversity. Likewise, the only thing that succeeds more than success is attaining success after people have stopped believing in you. Three years down the lane, Diego found himself fulfilling a dream that he shattered last time around. He not only played in the final, but also scored the 3rd goal of the game to seal off a wonderful moment in his life. The emotion in his eyes after he scored the goal, is exactly what fuels the soul of this game. Life had finally come full circle for Diego Ribas da Cunha.
Finally, English FA Please Take Note
Lastly, but definitely not the least, when the English FA is busy explaining how important the ‘handshake’ is before a match, the two Spanish teams might have just showed a more admirable way of expressing respect for one another. Before the two teams went to collect their medals from Michel Platini, Atletico Madrid players gave Athletic Bilbao players a guard of honour. The Madrid players applauded and patted their opponents, in a show of respect that was much more than just a formality.
Football is well alive and kicking. The final scoreline might not have been what was expected, but both the teams showed something on the pitch and off it, that was very close to heart.