While awaiting their primetime tilt with reigning MLS Cup champion Portland Timbers FC Saturday (7:30 p.m. CT, CSN Chicago), members of the Chicago Fire are likely to join most of the soccer-spectating universe in watching a certain international final over 4,500 miles away.
“It’s amazing. You can’t imagine how important.”
Those are the words of Chicago Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic on Saturday’s UEFA Champions League final featuring intracity rivals Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid, which kicks off at 1:45 p.m. CT and airs live on FOX. Paunovic’s rooting interest is clear, having appeared for Atlético Madrid 98 times during a lengthy playing career that spanned 17 years and included stops in five countries.
“I played in Champions League with Atletico Madrid and with Mallorca, and it’s an amazing competition," he said. "It’s different from any other. It’s special. Reaching the final, it’s something that not everyone can say they achieved. The people who reach the final, it’s forever.”
While Paunovic’s last appearance for Los Rojiblancos came in 2005, his ties to the Spanish club remain strong. He’s kept in regular contact with the club he credits as having had a major hand in his development as both a soccer player and a person.
“We have many friends still talking on the phone,” he said. “They’re following my games and I’m following Atlético Madrid, of course. For this Saturday, it’s going to be a very important game in the Champions League in a competition like that which is huge, amazing.”
His relationship with and enthusiasm for the club on an occasion as special as this doesn’t go unnoticed, either.
“People call me for tickets for the final,” Paunovic said with a grin. “I was able to help some, but it’s not easy.”
Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid both enter this Saturday’s clash -- a rematch of 2014’s 4-1 Real Madrid UCL final victory -- boasting unique strengths in their teams' respective styles of play.
“Individual qualities (are important) for sure, but it’s two different styles of play,” Paunovic said. “Real Madrid – big stars, great players. They also have an offensive, very determined style of playing. Atlético Madrid is a team that plays as a team. Everyone plays for the team and they all know what to do in any situation at any moment on the field. They are working together. They wait for the weaknesses of their opponents to punish them and take advantage of it.”
One important quality he’ll be looking for, though?
“Everything is important," he said, "but at the end, mental toughness is what decides this kind of game.”
Paunovic remains fixated on the Fire’s preparation for their Cascadian visitors this Saturday, but he’ll certainly have an eye on how things play out in Milan.
“I’ll be focused on our game for sure,” he said. “Of course, you still have enough time to know how the things are going out there and I will review the game after, probably on Sunday.”
In Paunovic’s ideal scenario, he’ll get to spend his Sunday morning reviewing the tactics and qualities that made the Fire victorious and Atlético Madrid champions of Europe. Should that come to fruition, Sunday morning in the Atlético strongholds of Madrid may present an entirely different ordeal.
“There are two fountains in the city where Atlético Madrid fans and Real Madrid fans go,” Paunovic said. “They celebrate the titles there. Fuente de Neptuno is the one where Atlético Madrid fans celebrate and the other one is (Plaza de) Cibelis where Real Madrid fans celebrate. I hope Neptune is going to be full.”