It was billed the "Match against Poverty", but recent events in the Spanish capital meant the hugely successful charity game played on Tuesday in the Santiago Bernabéu was also about the sport's rejection of racism, terrorism and fear.
The bomb scare that had forced the evacuation of the stadium and the abandonment of Real Madrid's match last Sunday did not intimidate team captains Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane, who insisted the event should go ahead as planned. The two galácticos organised the evening in their role as Goodwill Ambassadors to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). As well as raising money for impoverished children, the game also offered the footballing world a chance to show its staunch opposition to terrorism.
For the Bernabéu, it was a chance to start anew and leave behind any lingering fears, as the Real Madrid stars and their invited friends laid on a fantastic evening's entertainment for a very good cause.
The doors of the mythical stadium were thrown open to one and all, and though the entrance was free, the crowd were encouraged to make a voluntary donation given the charitable nature of the event.
The decision to provide free entrance in exchange for a discretionary donation not only ensured that substantial funds would be raised for the UNDF's projects in Brazil and Algeria, it also allowed families with limited resources to bring along their children to the wonderful stadium to cheer on their heroes. Showing their disdain for those who carried out the bomb threats last weekend, the crowd of 65,203 enthusiastically entered into the spirit of the game and were a model of good behaviour throughout.
On a special night when the result (4-4) was of secondary importance, Real's French star Zinedine Zidane thanked everyone who lent their support to the cause. "It has been a great evening; we're all very happy with how it worked out. After what happened on Sunday, tonight was very important. The people of Madrid wanted something to celebrate. It has been a real pleasure playing alongside all those stars who turned out to help us."
|Formula One Champion Michael Schumacher (L) and England star David Beckham smile during a United Nations Development Programme charity soccer match at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, December 14, 2004. Real Madrid hosted an all-star "game against Poverty" on Tuesday despite their Primera Liga match on Sunday being abandoned because REUTERS/|
Good humour for a good cause
After a colourful opening ceremony with flags, balloons and family photos, the main event got underway. With some of the best ball jugglers in the game determined to show off their impressive skills, the match was always going to be entertaining. There was the rare sight of Iker Casillas still smiling after conceding three goals, and the more typical one of Michael Schumacher leaving others in his wake - even without his Ferrari. There were cheers for another great driver, Carlos Sainz, who volunteered to take a penalty generously awarded by Pierluigi Collina after a challenge by Solari on Ronaldo. Although Sainz slipped during his first attempt from 12 yards, he managed to outwit Cañizares with his second.
Another blast from the past came from Emilio Butragueño, who rolled back the years when he ran out as a second-half substitute. "I think I've lost a bit of pace, but it's always a pleasure to play football, especially in this stadium. I was struck by the solidarity among the sportsmen taking part and the atmosphere generated by the huge crowd. Everyone involved deserves a big pat on the back," said the former Real striker.
Spain's up-and-coming tennis star Rafael Nadal did his part too and joked afterwards that he felt more at home playing on clay instead of grass: "I haven't quite got the same flair for football as I have for tennis, but I did the best I could. I'm delighted to have been able to participate in an event like this and help those people who haven't had the same good fortune that we've had."
"It's great to see the response of the public and those in the footballing world to this type of initiative. It makes you feel proud to help out in your own small way," said the ever eloquent Fernando Redondo. "The support from the local people has been phenomenal and we are grateful for their backing. Personally, I was thrilled to be playing and I thoroughly enjoyed the evening. By all doing a little bit, we can ensure that there's a lot less suffering out there."
The appreciative crowd, who were treated to an array of dribbles, dummies, step-overs and flicks throughout the match, responded with a series of huge Mexican waves. The biggest cheers, however, were reserved for two former Madrid favourites, Davor Suker and Pedja Mijatovic, who were part of the star-studded side that lifted the club's seventh European Cup. "This was a beautiful evening. I struggled a bit out there, as I hadn't played for a couple of years. Having said that, it was an honour for me to have participated in such a worthy event. I hope it won't be the last one either," said Mijatovic afterwards. "The people of Madrid still have a place in their hearts for me, which was very touching. I really appreciated that," he added emotionally.
|Brazilian star Ronaldo (L) runs with the ball followed by Spanish Michel Salgado during a United Nations Development Program charity soccer match at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid December 14, 2004. Real Madrid hosted an all-star "Game against Poverty" on Tuesday despite their Primera Liga match on Sunday being abandoned because of a bomb scare.|
Suker had a similar message: "Some of us have put on a few kilos - you don't look after yourself as much when you retire - but the important thing was just to be here to support such a wonderful cause. The public deserves praise for the way they have supported the event. I was thrilled to have taken part last year and I'm equally so this time round. I'd be happy to turn out again in the future to do my bit for the programme. There are countless impoverished families with very uncertain futures, and that's something we can help alleviate."
The extra kilos did not bother Didier Deschamps, however, as he opted to stay on the bench and help Marcello Lippi and Luis Fernández coach Zidane's side. "It was a great evening, especially for us coaches, as for once there was no pressure on us to get a result. The whole event was special and I think the crowd went away very contented. It wasn't difficult for the three of us to work together to organize the side, the difficult part was finding room for everyone as there were just so many great footballers here," said the Frenchman.
4. Ronaldo and Friends: Casillas, Sergi, Roberto Carlos, Helguera, Roque Junior, Davids, Mauro Silva, Figo, Schumacher, Ewerthon, Ronaldo, Valdo, Carlos Sainz, Mascherano, Yorke, Fernando Torres, Walter Samuel, Frey, Ricardo Costa, Sorin, Rossicky, Koller, Butragueño, Bonfin, Gascoigne and Sun Xiang.
4. Zidane and Friends: Cañizares, Salgado, Marchena, Panucci, Solari, Zidane, Redondo, Beckham, Luque, Raúl, Tristán, Oliseh, De Pedro, Stankovic, Vukic, Ailton, Schumacher (switched sides) Molina, Rafael Nadal, Pachón, Yakin, Lincoln, Suker, Mijatovic, Cavallero, Jankulovski, Manchev, Suazo and González.
Goals: 0-1, 4' Tristán. 0-2. 8' Raúl. 1-2, 16' Figo. 1-3, 22' Tristán. 2-3, 45+ Carlos Sainz. 2-4, 70' Yakin. 3-4, 73' Sorin. 4-4, 84' R. Costa.