Thursday, May 13, 2010

End is near for Omaha's famous ballpark

Jonathan Stempel

Reuters/OMAHA, Nebraska

It sits on a hill, due south of Bob Gibson Boulevard, a reservoir of memories for countless baseball players who reached the pinnacle of their sport, or were on their way there. Next year, it will be gone.

Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium opened in 1948, and two years later began hosting the College World Series which has been played there ever since.

The Omaha Royals, the top farm team for the Kansas City Royals major league team, has played there since 1969.

Rosenblatt's roughly 23,000 blue, yellow and red seats overlook what was a field of dreams for future professionals such as George Brett and Dave Winfield, as well as thousands of amateur ballplayers for whom the College World Series marked the apex of their careers.

The series outgrew it; the Omaha Royals cannot fill it, and so the 63rd year for Rosenblatt, named after a former Omaha mayor, is its last.

"It's bittersweet," said George Horton, head baseball coach for the University of Oregon Ducks. Horton won the College World Series while coaching Cal State-Fullerton in 2004 and played there for that team in 1975.

"I grew up with the development of Rosenblatt, and a big part of me is saddened by the departure of that great iconic stadium on the hill," he said.

Omaha is building a $128-million, 24,000-seat North Downtown stadium, TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, to house the College World Series for the next 25 years, plus the baseball team from nearby Creighton University and a United Football League team.

Expandable to 35,000 seats, it is a big stadium, especially given that the Royals will not play there. Too big, the Royals say; not enough parking, some Omaha residents say.

The team is instead moving 16 kilometers southwest to suburban Sarpy County to occupy a $26-million ballpark in Papillion, built on what were once corn and soybean fields.

Both parks are expected to be ready for next season.

Lou Felici, a 78-year-old retired laboratory technician, has had a prime seat for Royals games: front row, next to the visiting team dugout on the first base side. He has had Royals season tickets for all the team's 42 years but there is not likely to be a 43rd.

"The wife died nine years ago," he said. "The wife and I spent the best years of our lives right here, at Rosenblatt Stadium. We've had seats 1 and 2 here for all these years. She loved baseball, and I've probably been looking for an excuse to slow down, and this probably is it."

Rosenblatt has been modified several times, in part because the College World Series grew in popularity after ESPN began televising it. Suites, a club, a new press box and thousands of seats were added. The outfield fence was moved in.

The stadium organ is aged but still playable, draped when not in use by a green, hole-filled cloth. An umpire threw out the organist from a 1988 game for mocking a close call by playing the theme tune to the Mickey Mouse Club.

The minor league Royals, partially owned by hometown investor Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway Inc, is the main tenant and for them, Rosenblatt is less than ideal.

Unlike at many newer ballparks, the seats are not particularly close to the field. The clubhouses are tight.

In June, which is a big month for minor league teams, the Royals have to vacate the park to make way for the College World Series. During this year's series games from June 19 to 30, the Royals will be on a 17-game road trip.

"The venerable old ballpark on the hill: it's part of Omaha, or maybe it is Omaha," said Martie Cordaro, the Royals general manager.

For his team, though, "it's about providing a minor league baseball experience for our fans. You can't do that in a stadium that's not built for minor league baseball."

There is wide agreement that the stadium's passing means more to college players and coaches than professionals.

"For most of our kids, Omaha is a highlight of their lives," said Mike Batesole, head coach of the Fresno State Bulldogs, who won the College World Series in 2008. "We talk to them about God, family, friends, college and then baseball. But for those couple of weeks, baseball creeps up the ladder."

Jim Graver, 69, who has had Royals season tickets for 29 years and College World Series tickets for 26, said: "Some of the players that played here in the College World Series bring their sons back and they say: 'Now this is where I hit one out of the park.' Now they won't be able to."

Royals manager Mike Jirschele understands the difference.

"I've been here for 11 years; it's almost like home," the Wisconsin native said. "You look at how big it is and how nice it looks, it's a shame that it's going down."

Players probably felt differently, he said. "I think a lot of them, to tell you the truth, could probably not care less that this stadium won't be here next year," he said. "They're just here to get better and perhaps get to the big leagues."

The Royals rope off or cover all but 8,859 of Rosenblatt's seats for its games. Their new Sarpy County ballpark will have 6,500 permanent seats and hold 8,500 in all.

Fans are already preparing for the College World Series. For coaches, this is their last shot to win at Rosenblatt.

Paul Mainieri, who coached the LSU Tigers to a College World Series win last year, said he motivates players with big letters that spell "OMAHA" on a wall in a team meeting room.

"You walk in Rosenblatt Stadium, you feel a tingle up your spine," he said. "Your eyes get as big as softballs, and you realize, 'This is what it's all about.'"

Photo caption: The Iowa Cubs and Omaha Royals minor league baseball teams play at Rosenblatt baseball stadium, site of the College World Series, in Omaha April 29, 2010. It sits on a hill, due south of Bob Gibson Boulevard, a reservoir of memories for countless baseball players who reached the pinnacle of their sport, or were on their way there. Next year, it will be gone.[Reuters/Rick Wilking]


Journalist's dream to leave World Cup legacy

Barry Moody

Reuters/ORANGE FARM, South Africa

In a dusty township south of Johannesburg, hundreds of excited children play football in a project designed to leave a legacy long after the World Cup circus has moved on from South Africa.

Unlike thousands of their peers kicking footballs on scrappy grounds around the country, the children are dressed in pristine kit and many are wearing boots for the first time.

The tournament is organized by Dreamfields, a project founded by well-known broadcast journalist John Perlman, which he hopes will live on as a tangible benefit from the World Cup, immune from questions over vast infrastructure spending in a nation where much of the population remains mired in poverty.

Perlman, 50, dreamed up his project just before the last World Cup in Germany in 2006 as he contemplated the tournament coming to his often troubled nation.

"I had this feeling that it is quite hard to stay in positive space because there are so many things that go on that are complicated. For example the money spent on stadiums is not an unambiguously good thing," Perlman told Reuters.

"The fundamental premise I started from in many ways was that this is a big-hearted country. It is a troubled country with all sorts of divisions and complexes and even paranoias but fundamentally it is a country with a good heart."

Perlman, using his name and his contacts and exploiting what he calls the "warm following wind" of the World Cup, has shown a genius for persuading big South African corporations -- and even small businesses and families -- to cough up money for Dreamfields, and to help run the tournaments.

Dreamfields, with a small staff of six, expects to have raised 20 million rand ($2.7 million) by the end of the soccer spectacular in July. It has already supplied 1,200 schools, representing 16,000 children, mostly in rural areas, with soccer kit, built 12 pitches and organized 96 tournaments.

The recent Orange Farm event was sponsored by the big FirstRand banking group. More than 100 of its staff clearly relished their participation, managing the 25 girls' and boys' teams and providing food, drink, music and trophies.

Soccer's world governing body FIFA has its own Football For Hope project but it is designed to teach life lessons in many countries.

Perlman's project, originally based on his previous enterprise of providing books for school libraries, is more simple and confined to organizing soccer in this country.

However, Dreamfields is linked to other projects, combating crime and drugs or building bridges to dissipate land tensions between rural villages and the national game parks.

Its unique nature is built around the supply of 6,000-rand ($800) "dreambags" which provide enough kit and balls for 15 children in a school.

"We are in a crowded room but I do think we stand out and I do think we do different things," said Perlman, who still presents a local radio discussion program four nights a week. "We start from the premise that playing sport...is a right."

"We are having fun and learning how to work as a team," said goalkeeper Katleho Selepe, 12, in a break between matches at the Orange Farm tournament, one of Dreamfields' biggest.

"It helps to keep us away from the streets and doing bad things," he said, echoing a frequent theme that football shields youngsters from getting involved in violent crime in the townships.

Mduduzi Ephraim, school coach for one of the girls' teams, said Dreamfields "makes the children fulfil their dreams and be active in sports. It keeps them out of the streets a lot."

Selepe's team mate, striker Tshidiso Matshwisa, 11, said he was wearing boots for the first time. "They fit really well. I am very excited because I want to be a soccer player when I grow up and I will be much better because of these opportunities."

The boys' "manager", bank business analyst Judith Meyer, 21, shared the glow. "It's very different here because you are part of the team and you get to know these boys and girls. You feel like you are doing more than just volunteering for charity work. You are participating in the tournament."

Her colleague, risk manager Koketso Dioka, said as he acted as a linesman for a boys' game: "When I was growing up, we played without soccer boots and facilities. Our shoes were too heavy so we had to play barefoot.

"Imagine where everyone would be if they were not here. Most would be doing nothing or bad things," he said.

Perlman is politely critical of some aspects of the World Cup, saying there could have been greater opportunities for participation by South African small businesses. "I think the World Cup could have unlocked more of that...There is more fat in this beast that could have been spread."

Measuring the success of the tournament would go beyond stadiums, transport and ticketing.

"The much more difficult thing is to what extent do people feel that they are part of it and involved in the World Cup and there I would venture Dreamfields has made a big contribution."

He admits the next big challenge will be sustaining the project after the momentum of the World Cup has passed.

"If you just play when the circus comes to town and by analogy you just do things in your country because FIFA has come to town, you don't get anything out of it. Things have to continue."

Photo Captions:
1.School boys compete for a ball during a Dreamfields project in Orange Farm township, south of Johannesburg, May 8, 2010. [Reuter/Siphiwe Sibeko]

2. Boys from one of the 16 teams taking part in Johannesburg inner city soccer tournament, part of the Dreamfields Project, watch a match at Jeppe High Preparatory School in Johannesburg April 17, 2010. [Reuters/Peter Andrews]

3. School girls compete for a ball during a Dreamfields project in Orange Farm township, south of Johannesburg, May 8, 2010. [Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko]

4. Boys watch as school children play a soccer match during a Dreamfields project in Orange Farm township, south of Johannesburg, May 8, 2010. [Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko]

How Thomas kicked his way out of poverty

















Richard Sydenham

Reuters/Wigan, England

With his four-wheel drive BMW in the car park, his four-bedroom house nearby, fashionable training shoes and clothes, Hendry Thomas has come a long way from a childhood where money, if not food, was in short supply.

It is clear, from spending a few moments in his company, that his background was a long, long way from his current position of wealth and fame.

Now Wigan's defensive midfielder will represent Honduras in their first World Cup for 28 years in South Africa next month with group games against Chile, Switzerland and European champions Spain.

Thomas, with mature features that belie his 25 years, has arrived on the world stage following eight years at local club Olimpia, where he made his debut as a 16-year-old. He did not offer detail, but his childhood was clearly tough.

"We had a certain level of poverty but we always had food and never starved," said Thomas in Spanish, via an interpreter at the training ground of his English team Wigan, while sitting next to his club and Honduras team mate Maynor Figueroa.

"I didn't play football as a way out (of the poverty). I played football first and foremost because I loved the game and enjoyed the opportunity to play as a kid.

"Although I wouldn't go as far to say I am a millionaire, yes, football has given my family a better existence."

Asked what material effect his new-found financial rewards have afforded his family back home like expensive cars or a bigger house, Thomas either sidestepped the inquiry or the question was literally lost in translation.

But he did acknowledge: "It's nice to be able to look after my family now."

The Honduran people have had a rough time in recent years, with floods that caused destruction in 2008.

The Central American country of less than 8 million people is said to have half of its population below the poverty line but a rare World Cup appearance will no doubt bring some pride and cheer.

Honduras met Spain in their World Cup debut and managed a 1-1 draw against the 1982 tournament hosts but finished last in their group.

Thomas, whose game mirrors that of former France World Cup winner Claude Makelele -- famous for breaking up opposition attacks and starting new ones for his own team -- is upbeat about the challenge.

The Group H clash against Spain in Johannesburg on June 21 will be especially meaningful for its cultural significance.

Thomas admitted there is still a Spanish feel about Honduras, which was under Spanish rule for over 300 years.

"We are probably one of the less fancied teams in that group but it doesn't mean to say that we don't fancy ourselves (to win). We think we have a chance.

"It's not that we don't respect our opponents but we don't fear them.

"I suppose the main objective first of all against Spain is to stop them from playing and put a break on their tactics but that doesn't mean we cannot make a nuisance of ourselves and hurt them on the counter."

Thomas is hoping that one of Spain's most dangerous players, striker Fernando Torres, is fully fit for the tournament after undergoing knee surgery. There was an honest feel to the answer -- even if it was delivered with a wide smile.

Honduras will boast a big name of their own in Wilson Palacios, who was sold from Wigan to Tottenham last year for about 12 million pounds ($17.93 million), though Thomas says the team's main strength is their togetherness.

Expect panache also.

Thomas's first World Cup memories are of Romario, Dunga and the free-flowing Brazilians when they won the World Cup in 1994. Honduras, it seems, are seeking a similar method.

"What you will notice about us is that we play football in an entertaining way, we like to entertain the fans and I think we play a skilful brand of football.

"No matter who we play against you will see that we do try to enjoy our game. Tactically we might differ depending on the opposition but the main ethic is to go out and entertain."

GetRTR 3.00 -- MAY 13, 2010 13:16:34


Palacios's refuge from kidnap tragedy















Andrew Warshaw

Reuters/LONDON

Wilson Palacios, the seam of iron at the heart of Honduras' World Cup midfield, knows better than most where football sits in the general scheme of things.

A year ago last Sunday, the 25-year-old Tottenham player, was informed that the grisly remains of his teenage brother Edwin, 16, had been found 18 months after his kidnapping.

The entire episode left Palacios on the verge of turning his back on football and the attendant celebrity and huge riches it had bestowed on him.

"It's true -- I did come close to retiring," he told Reuters.

"The reason why I carried on was firstly, because it's always been my dream to be a footballer but mainly it was my family and close friends, taking their advice saying 'keep going, keep going'."

In the end, Palacios found the game became a refuge from his grief.

"Football is what I do," he says simply.

Given the circumstances of that bleak day in May 2009, his form has been nothing short of astounding for Tottenham who qualified for the Champions League for the first time on the back of rock-solid performances from their team player of the season.

"From a kid I've always been quite tough, you know mentally tough and strong. I have always been tough and single-minded and that has helped."

Typically, the staunch Catholic has put his focus on the future and refuses to blame Honduran police or the authorities for a failure to save his brother.

"It's not going to bring my brother back, everyone knows that, but I suppose it does help that the police did their job.

"We left it in the hands of the law enforcement agency in Honduras and they did their job. And we left it in the hands of God, because we know that is where my brother is now. None of us is here forever.

"What happened to my brother was more than unfortunate, and his fate was terrible, but what we know now is that he is in a better place."

After delivering his club their European dream, Palacios' sights are now firmly set on confirming Honduras' arrival among the World Cup elite after a 28-year absence from the finals (June 11-July 11).

It promises to be the toughest of returns for the men from Central America with European champions Spain, Chile and Switzerland awaiting them in Group H.

The quietly spoken Palacios knows that his country, whose only previous appearance in the finals was in 1982, faces strong opposition but just being in South Africa represents the pinnacle of his career.

Honduras went to Spain '82 as rank outsiders but although they went out at the group stage, they exited with huge credit after a 1-1 draw with the host nation, a 1-1 draw with Northern Ireland and a a narrow 1-0 defeat to Yugoslavia who only beat them with an 87th minute penalty.

Hopes are now high that Honduras can at least honor the memory of those performances.

"For the country and my people, it's amazing, and also, especially, for my family (after what we have been through)," Palacios said.

"It's so long since we've been there, over 25 years. It's a tough group but it's a chance for us to do well and we're really looking forward to it."

After proving himself in the top flight with Birmingham City and Wigan Athletic, he moved to Spurs in January 2009 and believes he is well prepared for the cauldron of a World Cup.

He says Honduras will fear no-one, not even Spain, one of the hotly fancied teams in South Africa, and their fearsome striker Fernando Torres.

"We all know that Torres is one of the best strikers in the world. Even when I was back in Honduras I used to watch Spain. I know what qualities the whole side have got but we have good players too.

"On a personal level, yes it has been an extremely tough year. But all you can do is keep focused and keep moving forward. Off the field I am just an ordinary guy. My motivation is kicking a football."

GetRTR 3.00 -- MAY 13, 2010 14:04:01

Caption: Tottenham Hotspur's Michael Dawson, right, and teammates Wilson Palacios, second right, and Ledley King celebrate after defeating Manchester City in their English Premier League soccer match at the City of Manchester Stadium, Manchester, England, Wednesday May 5, 2010. [AP/Tim Hales]

Pacquiao gets mum's nod for Mayweather bout

Reuters

MANILA: Manny Pacquiao has been given permission to fight for the final time by his mother and plans to take on undefeated American Floyd Mayweather Jr. later this year when the Filipino is likely to be a politician.

Pacquiao, a world champion in seven divisions, is leading the count for a seat to represent his home province in the Philippine Congress after Monday's elections. Earlier this year he had said he was considering his mother's request to retire.

"Many fans really want me to fight Floyd Mayweather, so I asked my mama if we can give them one more fight. She said okay," 31 year-old Pacquiao told a local television network.

Fight fans have been dreaming of a bought between the sport's two best fighters but have been thwarted by the Filipino's refusal to submit blood testing.

"Manny is ready to fight Mayweather in November, but under the rules sanctioned by the state commission, not by any other body," Pacquiao's lawyer Franklin Gacal told Reuters by phone.

"Our position stays the same, we will only abide by the rules set by the state commission sanctioning the fight, whether in Las Vegas or in Texas,"

The two fighters were expected to fight early this year but negotiations collapsed over the undefeated American fighter's demand for random drug testing, which Mayweather said earlier this month still stood.

On Monday, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) urged Pacquiao to agree to Olympic-style drug testing to remove the stumbling block to a bout with Mayweather.

Caption: Filipino boxing great and a congressional candidate for the lone province of Sarangani Manny Pacquiao votes at a polling precinct in Sarangani province in southern Philippines in the country's first ever automated presidential elections Monday May 10, 2010. (AP)

Joyous Atletico fans converge on central Madrid

Iain Rogers

Reuters/MADRID

Thousands of ecstatic, red and white-clad Atletico Madrid fans streamed to the Neptune fountain in the centre of the Spanish capital on Wednesday after the dramatic Europa League final victory over Fulham.

Supporters of all ages converged on the fountain near the Prado museum, where the club traditionally celebrate their titles, dancing and waving scarves and flags, letting off fireworks and paying homage to Uruguayan striker Diego Forlan, who scored both goals in the 2-1 win in Hamburg.

It was their first chance to party at Neptune since the Spanish league and cup double in the 1995/96 season and the club's first major European trophy in 38 years.

"I had to come down and celebrate as it's so long since we've been here," Gregorio Hernandes Villamor, an 84-year-old ex-policeman and lifelong Atletico fan who had defied back trouble to make it to the party, told Reuters.

"This is one of our sweetest victories and it's an important step forward for the club," he said, adding that he was sorry for the Fulham fans as he loved England and was a big fan of ex-Atletico striker Fernando Torres, now at Liverpool.

Chants of "Atleti! Atleti!" and "Uruguayan! Uruguayan!" rang out around the packed square, where a stage and big screen had been erected ready for more celebrations on Thursday.

Hundreds of other fans took to the streets in flag-draped cars, sounding their horns and waving wildly to passers-by.

The party was set to continue into the early hours and radio reports said the players wanted to join in the fun when they arrived back in Madrid around 4.30 a.m. local time (0230 GMT).

Cesar Martinez, a 39-year-old factory worker who had come down with seven members of his family, including four young girls in Atletico shirts and scarves, spoke of the pride and suffering of being a fan of the working class club.

"This is an historic victory," he said. "I came down here in 1996 and it's a tremendous feeling to be here again."

The joy among the Atletico faithful was made all the sweeter as many passed by the nearby Cibeles fountain on their way to the party -- the traditional site of title celebrations for their vastly wealthier and more successful city rivals Real Madrid.

"If you're not jumping you're a Real fan," hundreds shouted as they bounced up and down.

GetRTR 3.00 -- MAY 13, 2010 06:15:58


Forlan shows England what they're missing


Brian Homewood

Reuters/HAMBURG

Uruguay striker Diego Forlan's talents are recognized throughout South America and in almost every European country -- with one exception.

In England, Forlan has always been associated with an unremarkable spell at Manchester United, at one stage being labeled Diego Forlorn after he went eight months without scoring.

Since leaving in 2004 to play for Villarreal and then Atletico Madrid, Forlan has found a new lease of life, averaging a goal nearly every two games but his achievements have gone unnoticed in England, where few believe in life outside the Premiership.

Forlan, however, has now had the last laugh, playing a key role, scoring twice in the two-leg semi-final win over Liverpool and twice more to give his team a 2-1 win over Fulham in Wednesday's final.

The 30-year-old, who last year won the Golden Shoe award for Europe's leading scorer, admitted that it had been a frustrating time at United, although there was no sense of revenge.

"When I left United I was playing in a good team, some of the best, with great players, but it was hard to get in the team," said Forlan, who has 23 goals in 61 appearances for Uruguay and is set to lead their attack at the World Cup in South Africa.

"I told Alex Ferguson that I wanted to leave and play regular football and that's why I'm here."

Helping Atletico win their first major title in 14 years was more rewarding that winning an individual prize, he added.

"I'm happy if my goals win games and in this case to win the title. I'm really happy and enjoying it."

"I'm very happy at my goals helping the team. Last year was great, with the golden shoe, so is this year, very fulfilling.

"It's good to have an individual title but if you earn it with the team, it's so much nicer."

GetRTR 3.00 -- MAY 13, 2010 06:01:39


Forlan double seals Euro glory for Atletico


Kevin Fylan

Reuters/HAMBURG

Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero proved too classy a double act for Fulham in Wednesday's Europa League final, the two South Americans combining to earn Atletico Madrid a 2-1 win and a first major European trophy in 38 years.

Uruguay's Forlan scored both goals, the second just four minutes from the end of extra-time in a game that crackled with excitement from the start, after being set up on each occasion by his Argentine team mate.

Fulham showed all the strength of character that had earned them their first European final appearance and came agonisingly close to a penalty shoot-out that might just have delivered them the title in the first season of the rebranded UEFA Cup.

Instead an epic journey that began back in July and took in 19 matches ended in heartbreaking style.

They had recovered from Forlan's first goal in the 32nd minute, with Simon Davies popping up unmarked at the back post to squeeze in a first-time shot for an equaliser five minutes later, and lived with their more fancied opponents comfortably enough until Forlan's second sealed their fate.

"Unfortunately, Diego Forlan popped up to score a goalscorer's goal in the first half and again at the end, and then there was no time to recover," Fulham manager Roy Hodgson told reporters. "It was a bitter disappointment."

That disappointment was a familiar experience for Hodgson, who also tasted UEFA Cup final defeat 13 years ago when his Inter Milan side lost on penalties against Schalke 04.

For Atletico, it was another glorious night in Germany following their only other European final success, in a replay against Fiorentina in Stuttgart in 1962.

It also delivered a first major title of any sort since their double-winning season of 1996 and they still have a King's Cup final to come.

"I told the players to be courageous and not be lazy," said Atletico coach Quique Sanchez Flores. "I said they should be proud and they should remember how they'd dreamt of winning cups, and to go out and win this one."

Fulham, a modest London club with precious little European experience before this year, took time to settle in front of the 49,000 crowd, despite the confidence that victories over the likes of Juventus and Hamburg in earlier rounds had given them.

Aguero always looked like troubling them, with the Argentine's ability to keep the ball at his toes and wriggle into space in their penalty area a constant worry.

There had been several close calls before he set up the opener, with a little bit of luck it must be said, as he controlled the ball on the edge of the box, seemed to mishit a shot across goal and watched as Forlan snapped it up.

After the equaliser from Davies came almost immediately the game drifted a little, as both teams became more cautious.

Fulham had their best spell at the start of the second half but rarely threatened Atletico's cool 19-year-old keeper David de Gea.

The second half fizzled out as the drizzle returned. Still Aguero looked the man most likely to create something out of nothing and so it proved.

As the game stretched long into extra-time Aguero chased down yet another lost cause, beat his marker for the umpteenth time and sent in a low cross that Forlan diverted in expertly.

Fulham players slumped to the ground and barely managed to rouse themselves for a couple of hopeless punts in the general direction of the Atletico goal.

"Even if we'd had the legs to get back, we didn't have time," said Hodgson. "We had quite a few players running on empty."

GetRTR 3.00 -- MAY 13, 2010 05:13:02





Daddy, why are we Atletico fans?

Mark Elkington

Reuters/MADRID

Many expected a club from the Spanish capital to be playing in a European final this season. The big surprise is that the club is Atletico and not Real Madrid.

Real's multi-million-euro spending spree last summer was partly inspired by the chance to win a tenth European Cup in this year's Champions League final at their own Bernabeu stadium on May 22.

Instead, it is their scruffier, less-fashionable neighbours who are rounding off a European adventure that started in the Champions League and is ending with a trip to Hamburg to play Fulham in Europe's second-tier club competition on Wednesday.

Real fans may look down their noses but success-starved Atletico supporters are determined to milk the moment, camping outside their club's stadium overnight in near-freezing temperatures in the hope of getting a ticket.

Why, though, do thousands continue to support Atletico in the shabby 55,000-seat Vicente Calderon, underneath which runs the M-30 motorway, when they could be watching Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and company in the luxury of the heated Bernabeu?

"I don't know why really. There's no logical explanation," Miguel Angel, an unemployed 29-year-old, told Reuters as he queued for tickets.

"Only my father supported them in my family, everyone else supported Real. Obviously supporting Atletico is much more difficult, but with us it isn't all about titles.

"It's about the passion and the atmosphere at the games. With them (Real), it's all about money."

The Calderon's rowdier atmosphere, warmed by lusty songs and chanting, is in marked contrast to the Bernabeu's less boisterous and more refined ambiance.

If Miguel Angel fails to get a ticket, he even has a second chance at a final because Atletico are also playing in the King's Cup trophy match against Sevilla a week later.

EMPTY MUSEUM

Atletico's museum, in the bowels of the stadium, proudly displays the trophies from their nine league titles, nine King's Cups and the 1962 European Cup winners' Cup but recent successes are thin on the ground.

Maybe that is why this reporter was the only visitor apart from a Dutchman and his two sons on a recent day.

Atletico last won silverware in 1996 when they claimed a league and cup double, but relegation to the second division in 2000 for two years had a damaging effect on the prestige and psyche of the club.

Financial problems, 11 coaches since 2000 and a failure to beat their city rivals in 11 years have dented their claim to be Spain's third power behind Real and Barcelona.

Real fans delight in calling them "Patetico de Madrid".

Another term regularly used in the media is "el pupas" (the unfortunate ones) which came into being after they conceded a freak last-minute goal in extra time against Bayern Munich in the 1974 European Cup final. They were crushed in the replay.

Their fans are known as "los sufridores" (the sufferers) and the club helped to perpetuate this "victim" culture with an award-winning season-ticket campaign a few years ago where a child asked his father: "Daddy, why are we Atletico fans?"

The fact that Atletico now have some 48,000 season-ticket holders means it must have struck a chord.

"They're mad," says the owner of a cafe close to the stadium that is decorated with Atletico paraphernalia.

"One minute they're complaining and threatening to throw away their season tickets, but still they come back, and the next minute they're happy and very excited.

"The difference with Real is Atletico has extreme ups and downs. Real are more consistent."

Then he whispers so other customers cannot hear that he is actually a Real Madrid fan.

"Business is business," he says with a grin. "I hope Atletico's success continues. Two games a week is good for us."

ALARMING INCONSISTENCY

Atletico's alarming inconsistency has been glaringly obvious this season. They are the only team to have beaten Barcelona in the league yet they also lost at home to bottom club Xerez.

They sacked coach Abel Resino in October after a poor start to the campaign and they have gradually turned things around under his replacement Quique Sanchez Flores.

Miguel Angel credited him with having engineered Atletico's unexpected end-of-season success.

"Quique has changed things," he said. "The team haven't been playing particularly well but he has been getting results, in the Cups at least.

"Most importantly he got players like (Jose Antonio) Reyes and (Luis) Perea playing well again, and (Diego) Forlan scoring goals. That has been the main difference."

When asked if he thought Atletico would win one or both cups, he shrugged.

"It's possible. With this team anything is possible."

GetRTR 3.00 -- MAY 10, 2010 18:15:14


Road running defies the recession


John Mehaffey

Reuters/London

Road running is defying the global economic turmoil with record numbers entering the big city races.

Caption: Runners start the London men's marathon in London April 25, 2010. Road running is defying the global economic turmoil with record numbers entering the big city races. (Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

In last month's London marathon a record 36,549 runners had crossed the finish line by seven o'clock in the evening. The starting field of 36,984 was the largest in the 30-year history of the event.

February's Tokyo marathon had more than 310,000 applicants for 35,000 places in the marathon and 10-km race. The 21,000 places for the Austrian women's run this month over five and 10 kms were filled in a record 45 days.

Figures collated by Running USA, a non-profit organization devoted to road running, show 2009 was another year of record growth in the United States.

An estimated 467,000 people finished marathons, an increase of nearly 10 percent and the largest percentage increase for 25 years. "To date, 2010 looks as promising," the report said.

In a telephone interview from Santa Barbara, California, Running USA media director Ryan Lamppa said he believed several factors had contributed to the road-running boom.

"In an economy when people are watching their pennies they are going to look at where can I can cut off my budget, I'll cut off Starbucks, I'll cut off the gym. But they are not cutting out running because it is inexpensive," he said.

"I think another factor is more psychological: running makes you feel good, and it gives you energy back, it helps to blow off stress.

"But I think the more salient point is that running gives you something you can control. For the past couple of years there have been things that are out of control, the stock market and, in some cases, our jobs.

"People in general want to have some order in their life and when you have as much chaos as was thrown at us over the past two-plus years here is an outlet for you that does give you a sense of control, that makes you feel good and it's also inexpensive and affordable and convenient."

There have been two distinct road-running booms in the United States over the past 40 years.

The first was stimulated by Frank Shorter's gold medal in the men's marathon at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the feats of his contemporary Bill Rogers. The pair won the New York and Boston marathons four times each between 1975 and 1980.

"That first running boom was a narrow niche of people and it tended to be the more competitive runners," Lamppa said.

"By the 1980s that first running boom started to implode, our sport hadn't reached mainstream America then as it has now."

Lamppa said the second running boom had been inspired by celebrity television host Oprah Winfrey, who fulfilled her ambition of completing a marathon before her 40th birthday in 1994.

"She is the near-perfect symbol of the new runner because she found time to do that marathon and she did two shows on it," he said.

"She exposed our sport to millions and millions of women who didn't care or give a hoot about the marathon. She helped inspire a whole generation of new runners who no longer had the excuse of 'Well, I don't have a runner's body or I'm too busy'."

Lamppa said the information boom and, in particular, the internet had stripped much of the mystique away from the marathon with detailed training programs for people who 30 years ago would not have considered attempting 42.195 kms.

"That sort of information wasn't there 30 years ago, it was in a book or the coach's head. This boom has lasted longer than the first running boom and as far as we can tell it's hasn't plateaued yet."




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