Last night saw the final European game ever to be held at Atlético Madrid’s Vicente Calderón stadium, the club’s home since 1967. With a spirited but ultimately doomed last stand against their gilded city rivals, it was a fitting tribute to a club that prizes its underdog identity above glory.
Every football fan thinks their club has it tough. We can all reel off a list off examples when it seemed as if the universe was conspiring against our teams. Superstition and the sense of being “cursed” are not rare sentiments in sport. But to Atlético Madrid fans, that idea is less a response to a run of bad luck than a fundamental what it means to support the team.
Vicente Calderón is a legendary figure in Atlético’s history. President of the club for 23 years, his name adorns the famous stadium set to close this season as the club prepares to move to a new, more modern home. It was also Calderón who first referred to Atlético as El Pupas, which roughly translates as the jinxed one. The nickname stuck, used to refer to Atletico’s seemingly endless propensity for bad luck, last minute losses and thwarted glory.
Added to this of course was the inconvenient fact that their cross-town rivals just happened to be the world’s most successful and celebrated club. Atlético’s image is a reflection of its relationship with Real, that juggernaut from Madrid’s wealthy north, with its limitless riches, glorious history and annual pre-season parade of its newly acquired superstars.
In contrast to Real, Atlético prides itself on authenticity, on an unshakeable faith that goes deeper than mere success. An example of this loyalty is the reaction to the team’s relegation in 2000, when membership actually doubled. While in the run up to yesterday’s game, Atlético’s Twitter account proclaimed, “I love you for your values not for what you win.”
There is also a class edge to the rivalry. Atlético portrays itself as the choice of Madrid’s working class as opposed to the more privileged sort and far flung glory hunters that flock to the Bernabéu. Real is the club of those at the top, according to this view, while Atletico is the outsider, the underdog fighting against the odds.
Of course, this view is a romantic one, as much a cherished myth as a reflection of reality. The idea that all Real fans are champagne swilling aristocrats whose loyalty is dependent on trophies is an obvious caricature. Meanwhile, Atlético’s supposedly anti-establishment and working class fan base includes Felipe VI, the king of Spain.
The idea of being jinxed is also clearly an exaggeration. The narrative of a loyal following stoically enduring eternal failure is slightly undermined by the fact Atlético has won ten league titles and the Copa Del Rey (the Spanish FA Cup) another 10 times. Over the last few years, the team has been amongst Europe’s elite, reaching two Champions league finals and winning the league since 2013. That’s not to mention two Europa League titles. Fans of Spain’s less decorated teams may find themselves struggling to sympathise.
But it is, of course, all relative. While Atlético where understandably delighted to beat Real to the title in 2014, it does little to remove the sting of losing two Champions League finals to the old enemy. The nature of those defeats will have done nothing to dispel the old legend of El Pupas.
This time the defeat was not so bitter. The 3-0 defeat in the first leg at the Bernabéu meant that a miracle would be required to reach another final and the fans knew it.
But it didn’t take long for fate, cruelly, to dangle the tantalising hope that perhaps, the impossible was within reach. Less than 20 minutes into the game, Atlético had two of the goals they needed. Was it so improbable that they could get two more?
But before the half time whistle blew, Isco all but extinguished the faint flicker of a chance that Atlético could advance. A stunning run from Karim Benzema created the goal, which turned Atletico’s prospects of victory from improbable to fantastical. From that point on the outcome was a formality.
The tie summed up Atlético’s experience in the Champions League these last few years. Diego Simeone’s team has excelled in Europe but always seems to find itself just short of the summit. Infuriatingly for Atletico fans, it has been Real standing in their way each time, just that little bit better, that little bit luckier. This time, though, there could be little real complaint. Losing heavily in the first leg meant Atlético had no real expectation to make the final. But seeing their bitter rivals celebrating again on the pitch of their soon to be retired home must have rankled with those watching from the home stands.
But ultimately the mood after the game was positive, despite the outcome and the driving rain that soaked the stadium as the game finished. Simeone eulogised the spirit of his players. His post match comments had the air of one era drawing to a close, but also of another beginning. Whatever the disappointments, this has been a remarkable era for Atlético. As sad as it may be to leave the Calderón they also have a new stadium to look forward to.
But uncertainty over the future is inevitable. Simeone has given no suggestion that his departure is imminent but there is a growing sense, amongst the football press at least, that perhaps he has taken Atlético as far as they can go. Other clubs are sure to be interested if they think Simeone can be tempted away. The team itself is ageing and many stars will need replacing. Antoine Griezmann could well be one of them. Europe’s biggest sides have been eyeing the striker hungrily and look ready to spend big to acquire his services. The team that takes the pitch next season could be very different.
But the game epitomised something about Atlético identity. In the face of another harsh defeat to their celebrated rivals, the reaction was not one of despondence, but of resolute defiance. As the teams prepared for the game, the home fans revealed a huge banner. “Proud not to be like you,” it read.