Andy Mitten

Athletic ripping United fans off

Andy Mitten

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Athletic Bilbao fans at the San Mames

Jose Mourinho was satisfied with his side's single-goal win at Rayo Vallecano last weekend and he had every right to be. Madrid remain 10 points clear of Barcelona with just 14 games to play and in Mourinho's eyes, he's done what he's been asked and toppled Barcelona.

Well, nearly, but even Pep Guardiola conceded that Barça "won't win the league." Madrid have won 21 of their 24 league games and scored an astonishing 80 goals with just 21 conceded, but Mourinho made another point after the game which caused considerable debate.

He complained that only 300 Madrid fans had made the trip across the capital to watch the team at Rayo, adding that just 30 Madrid were at the match in Getafe, barely 20 kilometres south of the centre of the Spanish capital. That's not a mistake, they really take just 30 fans and you'd better believe it.

In 2008 I watched a clasico in the Bernabéu when just six of the 80,000 crowd were Barca fans. Six - and one of them was Xavi's brother. They really could have come in a (large) taxi. Their list of excuses as to why they didn't take more was as long as the Ebro.

Mourinho added that he could understand why fans didn't travel to games in Bilbao and Malaga. Spain is vast and it would take 11 hours, for instance, to drive from Barcelona to Seville. But Mourinho asked for a "little more" for games closer to home.

He's absolutely right, but Spain has never really developed a culture of travelling fans. Spain won the 2010 World Cup, yet they took fewer fans to South Africa than any of the European nations. Taking a great away following isn't a source of pride as it is elsewhere.

Domestically, fans seldom make the trip away, though there are many exceptions. Sporting Gijon took 8,000 fans to Deportivo La Coruna for a league game two years ago and were so loud they became a better spectacle than the game, Espanyol fans have travelled to see their team in great numbers and over 4,000 Barça fans applied for one of 800 tickets to see their recent cup game in the Bernabeu.

Fans travel en masse for finals - Atletico Madrid brought a mammoth 60,000 to Camp Nou for the 2010 Copa del Rey final, but Spanish fans don't travel with the regularity of fans in other European countries.

It's a lost opportunity for Spaniards are among the most hospitable hosts, but there are entrenched habits, economic reasons and logistical factors - kick-off times are only confirmed eight days before a match and can be at any time from 6pm on Saturday to a Monday night. It hardly helps with planning.

Some fans will argue that they don't want to support a rival club by buying a ticket to their stadium and there's an ingrained culture of watching matches in a bar with friends. Many official supporters' clubs (Madrid have 2,120, Barca 1,343 and Granada 23) are based around bars and the fans don't actually go to the games. They just sit, drink, moan and cheer with their mates.

Spaniards are used to this and away fans are thus an afterthought, but it becomes an issue when a foreign team plays in Spain. English teams have been charged sky-high prices in European competitions, the latest to profit being Athletic Bilbao, who will extort Manchester United fans to the tune of €92 (£77.50).

That price makes the 1,715 seats the most expensive for United fans in the history of the Old Trafford club - aside from seats at finals. In return, Athletic fans will pay £36 for each of the 3,800 away seats in Manchester, less than half what United fans are being charged.

Spanish clubs tend to look after their paid up members and have a 'to hell with the rest' attitude towards fans who only want to turn up to their biggest matches. That's understandable - they look after the loyal fans and sting the part-timers who just want to see the glamour games against Barca or Madrid. Working on the same principle in Europe, Athletic socios will pay €35 for a good seat for the United game, while non-members will pay three times that.

Why, though, should United fans be fleeced? Do Athletic expect United fans to become members of their club at the start of the season on the off chance of them being drawn together for the first time since 1957? It's ridiculous, but it's nothing new.

A similar pricing structure was in place for Athletic's last game in the Europa League against Lokomotiv Moscow, with €100 tickets in the iconic (but ageing) San Mames main stand. Most home fans don't pay these prices because most fans are members, but not away fans.

It's ironic too, for Athletic fans were themselves complaining when similar was done to them by third division Mirandes in the Copa del Rey semi-final recently.

United and supporters' groups like MUST are communicating with UEFA and not before time. Their fans were charged £70 at Villarreal in 2008 and supporters of several English clubs who have been to Spain will be able to relate to the rip-offs.

Clubs will maintain that they decide what they charge, but UEFA should put pressure on clubs to stop this rampant overcharging.

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