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FOOTBALL

Milan readies for all-Spanish Champions League final

Milan’s San Siro stadium is preparing for a glitzy all-Spanish final of the Champions League final on Saturday, as fans of Real and Atletico Madrid packed the city in glorious summer sunshine.

Milan readies for all-Spanish Champions League final
It is the fourth time the final of Europe’s premier club event will to be held at the San Siro. Photo: AFP

Record ten-time champions Real, who won the inaugural trophy in 1956, are gunning for their 11th title from European football’s premier club event two years after a stunning comeback victory over Atletico in Lisbon secured ‘La Decima’.

Cristiano Ronaldo has given Real fans a huge boost with the news he is 100% fit following a training ground scare on Tuesday and coach Zinedine Zidane is counting on the Portuguese superstar to rise to the occasion.

“He’s 100 percent fit and he’s playing a Champions League final, when you transcend yourself,” said Zidane, appearing in a first Champions League final as a coach after succeeding Rafael Benitez at the helm earlier this season.

Zidane, who won the trophy as a player with Real in 2002, is seeking to emulate Italian Carlo Ancelotti in steering Real to victory, in what is the Frenchman’s first season in charge at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium.

“We’ve had two weeks to prepare and now what the players want is for the ball to start rolling,” said ZIdane.

It is the fourth time the final of Europe’s premier club event will to be held at the San Siro, and the first since Bayern Munich beat Valencia in 2001.

Even before kick-off, a slice of Champions League history will be made.

R&B star Alicia Keys will become the first artist to perform live at the final during a glitzy, nine-minute opening ceremony that will feature 400 dancers and be capped by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli singing the competition’s anthem.

Atletico, however, are the ones hoping to be singing and dancing in the streets of Milan later Saturday as the ‘Rojiblancos’ go in search of a maiden trophy.

Coached by former Argentina international Diego Simeone, Atletico have won the Europa League — European football’s second-tier competition — twice in recent years (2010, 2012) and threatened the decades-long dominance of Real and Barcelona in ‘La Liga’, which they won in 2014 to add to a Spanish Cup victory in 2013.

Two years after Real’s shock comeback win in Lisbon, Simeone is ready to end a 113-year wait to be crowned kings of Europe.

“I like to have 113 years of history on my back. I love the pressure,” said Simeone, who will be hoping seven-goal striker Antoine Griezmann or Fernando Torres continue their fine form in the competition.

Torres — a Champions League winner with Chelsea in 2012 — said he’s ready to give it everything.

“There’s no doubt, it’s the most important game I am ever going to play,” said Torres, who returned to his childhood club in 2014 following an ill-fated spell in Serie A with AC Milan.

“With Chelsea and the Spanish national team I’ve won a lot of titles, but this is really special for me. To me it means everything. It’s the game of my life.”

FOOTBALL

Putellas becomes second Spanish footballer in history to win Ballon d’Or

Alexia Putellas of Barcelona and Spain won the women's Ballon d'Or prize on Monday, becoming only the second Spanish-born footballer in history to be considered the best in the world, and claiming a win for Spain after a 61-year wait.

FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award.
FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award. Photo: FRANCK FIFE / AFP

Putellas is the third winner of the prize, following in the footsteps of Ada Hegerberg, who won the inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or in 2018, and United States World Cup star Megan Rapinoe, winner in 2019.

Putellas captained Barcelona to victory in this year’s Champions League, scoring a penalty in the final as her side hammered Chelsea 4-0 in Gothenburg.

She also won a Spanish league and cup double with Barca, the club she joined as a teenager in 2012, and helped her country qualify for the upcoming Women’s Euro in England.

Her Barcelona and Spain teammate Jennifer Hermoso finished second in the voting, with Sam Kerr of Chelsea and Australia coming in third.

It completes an awards double for Putellas, who in August was named player of the year by European football’s governing body UEFA.

But it’s also a huge win for Spain as it’s the first time in 61 years that a Spanish footballer – male or female – is crowned the world’s best footballer of the year, and only the second time in history a Spaniard wins the Ballon d’Or. 

Former Spanish midfielder Luis Suárez (not the ex Liverpool and Barça player now at Atlético) was the only Spanish-born footballer to win the award in 1960 while at Inter Milan. Argentinian-born Alfredo Di Stefano, the Real Madrid star who took up Spanish citizenship, also won it in 1959.

Who is Alexia Putellas?

Alexia Putellas grew up dreaming of playing for Barcelona and after clinching the treble of league, cup and Champions League last season, her status as a women’s footballing icon was underlined as she claimed the Ballon d’Or on Monday.

Unlike the men’s side, Barca’s women swept the board last term with the 27-year-old, who wears “Alexia” on the back of her shirt, at the forefront, months before Lionel Messi’s emotional departure.

Attacker Putellas, who turns 28 in February, spent her childhood less than an hour’s car journey from the Camp Nou and she made her first trip to the ground from her hometown of Mollet del Valles, for the Barcelona derby on January 6, 2000.

Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas (R) vies with VfL Wolfsburg's German defender Kathrin Hendrich
Putellas plays as a striker for Barça and Spain. GABRIEL BOUYS / POOL / AFP

Exactly 21 years later she became the first woman in the modern era to score in the stadium, against Espanyol. Her name was engraved in the club’s history from that day forward, but her story started much earlier.

She started playing the sport in school, against boys.

“My mum had enough of me coming home with bruises on my legs, so she signed me up at a club so that I stopped playing during break-time,” Putellas said last year.

So, with her parent’s insistence, she joined Sabadell before being signed by Barca’s academy.

“That’s where things got serious… But you couldn’t envisage, with all one’s power, to make a living from football,” she said.

After less than a year with “her” outfit, she moved across town to Espanyol and made her first-team debut in 2010 before losing to Barca in the final of the Copa de la Reina.

She then headed south for a season at Valencia-based club Levante before returning “home” in July 2012, signing for Barcelona just two months after her father’s death.

In her first term there she helped Barca win the league and cup double, winning the award for player of the match in the final of the latter competition.

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