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The red-and-white underdog roars

It’s not easy being an Atlético Madrid fan. There’s the administrative and boardroom chaos, the unbalanced books and the revolving door of coaches, each hailed as a saviour before being dismissed as a false prophet. There are the financial scandals from the years when Jesús Gil was president, leading to his arrest in 2000 for […]

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It’s not easy being an Atlético Madrid fan. There’s the administrative and boardroom chaos, the unbalanced books and the revolving door of coaches, each hailed as a saviour before being dismissed as a false prophet. There are the financial scandals from the years when Jesús Gil was president, leading to his arrest in 2000 for embezzling his own club. And then there is the ultra hooligan group, among the most violent and xenophobic fans in Europe.

Atlético Madrid: the school of hard knocks. Photo by César Poyatos

And that’s before you get to the football itself. Atlético has one of Spain’s most impressive trophy cabinets: nine league titles, nine Copa del Rey titles and the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. This is a European giant, albeit one which has been asleep for a long time. In 1996 Atlético won the Liga and cup double, an astounding achievement which only Barcelona, in 1998 and 2009, has managed since. And yet, by 2000 the club was in the second division, where it stayed for two seasons before returning to the top flight and underperforming woefully in the decade since.

Until 2010, that is. On February 11, Atlético qualified for the Copa del Rey final after eliminating Racing Santander 6-3 on aggregate. It will be the club’s first final since the 2000 Copa del Rey, which it lost, heartbreakingly, to Espanyol having lost in the final against Valencia the year before.

The prospect of Atlético winning its first trophy since 1996 was thrilling enough for its long-suffering fans, the colchoneros. But three days later the team beat Liga leader and European and World champion Barcelona 2-1 in the league with their finest performance of the season. The only downside was that in doing so, Atlético let cross-city rival Real Madrid back into the title race.

It’s a title race which Atlético, languishing mid-table, gave up on months ago.  And with the kind of consistency the red-and-whites have been showing this season, that’s not surprising. Just days before teaching Messi, Xavi, Ibrahimovic and company a lesson at the Calderón, Atlético were meekly rolling over and losing 2-0 to relegation candidates Málaga (on the first day of the season Málaga also beat Atlético, this time 3-0).

Maybe they’re just a cup team, is the cry. But they didn’t look like much of a cup team when losing 3-0 to second-division Recreativo in the fifth round of the Copa. The colchoneros rallied for the return leg, winning that game 5-1, but there is more than a hint of Jekyll and Hyde about this club, which was founded by a group of Madrid-based Athletic Bilbao fans. Maybe that’s not surprising for an institution run for 16 years by Gil, a man who declared that his idols were “Jesus, Franco and Che Guevara.”

So why support “Madrid’s second team” at all? Perhaps the answer lies in that moniker. The city’s undisputed first team, Real, shamelessly spends its way to success, priding itself on being a finishing school for the world’s greatest players. Cristiano Ronaldo heard the siren call, so too did Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane. Always aiming high, Real invited Plácido Domingo to sing at the club’s 2002 centenary and royalty and the prime minister attended a lavish banquet. The following year, Atlético, by contrast, celebrated its own 100th birthday by getting the Rolling Stones to play a gig and cooking a massive paella for the thousands of fans outside the stadium.  If Real is finishing school, its neighbours are the school of hard knocks.

Atlético’s best player, Sergio Aguero, might well leave for more stability – and sanity – in the summer.  If he does, he might just go with a Copa del Rey winner’s medal round his neck having ensured that for once, this underdog triumphed.





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Published: Feb 15 2010
Category: Sports
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
Short URL: http://iberosphere.com/?p=548
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