Atletico Madrid supporters are bound together by a shared sense of the imminence of doom. Putting on the Atletico colours is like joining a millennial prayer circle – the end is near. Forever.
The defining moment of that sensibility is the final of the 1974 European Cup, Atletico vs. Bayern Munich. The Spaniards had their arms wrapped around that European championship. And then some malign divinity intervened.
In the final seconds of added-extra time in a 1-0 game, Bayern came up the field desperately. The ball found its way to the feet of oafish German defender, Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck. From 30 yards out, he took a speculative and savable shot. It got in under Atletico goalkeeper Miguel Reina. Game tied. Bayern crushed them in the replay two days later.
Afterward, the Atletico coach would accuse Reina of being out of position because he was in the midst of giving his gloves away as a souvenir as Bayern turned up the field.
Reina has always denied it. It hardly matters. By this point, it’s too perfect a story to fact check.
Since long before, but with disorienting intensity ever since, Atletico is more a state of mind than a club. You come to the ground anticipating defeat in the games that really matter (i.e. the ones against crosstown rival, Real).
Atletico fans have a saying that captures this perverse and prideful sense of fatalism: “Atleti hasta la muerte; Real hasta la proxima derrota.”
Atleti ‘til I die; Real until the next defeat.
This adds a new layer to Saturday’s unlikely Champions League final between Madrid’s football polarities. What will Atletico do if their core narrative is spun round 180 degrees? This may be the most widely viewed psychiatric intervention in human history.
The divide between the two teams has its roots in class struggle – though, not really.
On the surface, Atletico is the workers’ team, while Real represents the elites. In fact, Real’s power base is so widespread, it encompasses far more of every type of person, rich and poor.
This is now the biggest sports concern in history. Real’s annual revenue ($700-million) is more than the total value of 26 of 30 NHL teams.
Atletico will tell you that Real was the favourite of the Fascist government of Francisco Franco. Which is sort of true.
Initially, the junta preferred Atletico, because of its ties to an Air Force club. Like bad fans everywhere, the generals drifted over to Real when it started winning.
Those Real sides of the ’50s and ‘60s – featuring two of the greatest of all time, Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas – may be the most romantic in the sport.
While the regime was a global pariah, their team was roundly beloved.
Franco’s foreign minister once said of Real, “It was the best embassy we ever had.”
More gallingly, in recent decades, Atletico has fallen off Real’s radar. Their measuring stick is Barcelona – and don’t even get started on the political implications there.
Atletico has become Spanish football’s kid brother. Third best, at best. They win occasional trophies, which only stokes their anger at being ignored by the elder pair.
All this nurses a profound sense of grievance – the most potent fuel for any sports rivalry.
This year, the kid went in swinging from the hips, and managed to hit a couple of noses.
Girded by a combination of transfer-market good fortune and the parallel rise of homegrown talent, Atletico have overturned the Real/Barca axis at the top of La Liga for the first time in a decade.
The key figure in all this is their manager, Argentine Diego Simeone. Simeone is one of those super-stoked, slightly lunatic figures that, had he born before the invention of the ball, might have been a Biblical prophet. His nickname from playing days is El Cholo. Atletico fans have built a cultish philosophy around him, Cholismo. This year, there were serious suggestions that it be added to the Spanish dictionary.
Essentially, it appeals to the idea of pushing through, fighting up from below. It flatters Atletico’s woe-is-me image of itself, while at the same time subverting it.
They will follow him to Lisbon for the championship contest – a six-hour drive away under optimal conditions. Seventy thousand are expected in Portugal (far more than will be able to attend the match live). The traffic jam could be more epic than the game.
Single tickets are fetching upward of $3,000 on the re-sale market. One enterprising fan offered sex in return for one of them.
Spanish authorities have already mapped out a plan wherein gas stations along the route will be designated either Real or Atletico sites. Since hotels were filled long before the competitors in the final were fixed, many plan to drive in and out on the same day. That should end well.
Will Atletico win? Probably not.
They will almost certainly be missing their talismanic striker, Diego Costa, through injury. When last the teams met, in a two-leg Copa Del Rey semi, Real won 5-0 on aggregate. From an objective tactical viewpoint, Atletico are (once again) doomed. This is where you insert something about God and a sense of humour. There is also something to be gleaned here about justice (in a milieu where justice doesn’t really matter).
Just at this moment, Atletico could be Europe’s ascendant side. If they had money, they would in the midst of building a dynasty. But this won’t last past the next 24 hours.
In the summer, the team will be stripped of its core talent.
Their two best players by position – Costa and goalkeeper Thibault Courtois – are headed to England. Several others can be expected to leave to pursue better wages on richer teams.
This, then, is Atletico’s one chance. One chance to redefine the core tenets of their secular religion. One really does wonder what will be more spiritually nourishing in the long run – an impossible, never-to-be-repeated win or another glorious and fateful loss.