Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Quest Menaced by Madrid Neighbor

Atletico Madrid is trying to put one over soccer’s establishment, again.

After beating Real Madrid and Barcelona -- the world’s richest soccer teams by sales -- for Spain’s La Liga title, it’s aiming to become the squad with the lowest payroll to win the Champions League since 2004, according to Bloomberg News calculations. Atletico faces Real Madrid in the final tomorrow at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon at 8:45 p.m. local time.

At a time when a small group of clubs bankrolled by Arab sovereign wealth funds and Russian billionaires are dominating the $3.7 billion international player-trading market, Atletico’s run shows more modestly funded squads a way to prosper in the 32-team tournament, according to Jose Maria Gay, a Barcelona University professor who writes about team finances.

“They are showing you don’t have to be a superpower to be successful,” Gay said. “It gives everyone else hope.”

Atletico Madrid is controlled by Miguel Angel Gil, who took over as chief executive officer for his late father. It doesn’t have the prestige or multinational sponsors of Real Madrid and has struggled to get financing to compete during Spain’s six-year economic slump.

The rojiblancos, or red-and-whites, had a payroll of 55.8 million euros ($76 million), about a quarter that of Real Madrid last June, according to their latest accounts. Porto, then coached by Jose Mourinho, had a payroll of about 39 million euros when it won the 2004 edition.

‘Better Looking’

In March, Atletico midfielder Tiago Cardoso said some people see the team as “a sort of Robin Hood” that takes on more powerful opponents, referring to the English outlaw who stole from the rich to give to the poor.

While Real, which means royal in Spanish, is based on Madrid’s tree-lined main avenue, Atletico is next to a ring road in a working-class district in the south of the city. None of Atletico’s players have the same cachet as Real’s standout performers including FIFA world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo.

“They know Real Madrid’s players are taller, richer and better looking than them,” said Miguel Angel Guijarro, co-author of the book “Legends of Atletico.”

Real Madrid, the record nine-time European champion, is among a few “super, super rich clubs” fueling a transfer market boom, according to Mark Goddard, who oversees transfer compliance and data for FIFA, the sport’s ruling body. The market, not including domestic trades, increased in size by 41 percent in 2013. Other big-spending clubs included Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco, owned respectively by the Qatar Investment Authority and Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev. Real is owned by its fans.

‘Funny Money’

“If you look at the top end of the market where all the funny money is, it’s like a yacht club; it’s very small,” Goddard said in a recent interview.

Atletico was a losing finalist to Bayern Munich in 1974. It held Barcelona to a 1-1 draw on May 17 to clinch its first La Liga title in 18 years. Its strength is the unity and discipline instilled by coach Diego Simeone, who played for the team when it last won the league in 1996, according to Jose Maria Amorrortu, a former youth-team coach at the club.

“He has shown what you can achieve with hard work and humility,” Amorrortu said. Simeone’s team had the stingiest defense in La Liga, allowing only 26 goals in 38 games, 12 fewer than Real Madrid.

Simeone said he’s only once had the same dedication from a squad, in his early days as a coach with Estudiantes in his native Argentina in 2006.

“We had a group of players who wanted to fight to the death,” Simeone said. “I have the same feeling here.”

Bigger Teams

To be sure, Atletico’s team is gifted too. Players such as midfielders Jorge Resurreccion, known as Koke, and Gabriel Fernandez -- nicknamed Gabi -- could fit into Real’s squad because of their technique, said Amorrortu, who now works for Athletic Bilbao.

Several players, including striker Diego Costa, may leave for bigger teams including Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea after this season as Atletico struggles to pay its debts. It had cash flow of 5 percent of its 543 million-euro debt last June, leaving it in the weakest shape of the eight Champions League quarterfinalists, Gay said.

According to Ronaldo, Real Madrid merits the trophy more than Atletico because it reached the semifinals in each of the previous three years. Ronaldo is seeking to add to his 2008 title won with Manchester United.

‘Close to Winning’

“Real Madrid deserves the Champions League because what we have done the last few years,” Ronaldo said. “We’ve been close to winning a few times.”

Real’s last title was in 2002, when it beat Bayer Leverkusen in the final. It churned its squad by spending more than $1 billion since then. Ronaldo cost 80 million pounds in 2009, and winger Gareth Bale arrived for a similar fee last year.

Real has a 2-1-1 record against Atletico in domestic league and cup games this season. According to Amorrortu, the question tomorrow is whether Real’s expensive flair can beat Atletico, whose squad was assembled for less than the fee of Ronaldo or Bale.

“Sometimes the sum of the parts is worth more,” he said.

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