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John Carlin | March 20, 2013

The most important race for second place

We’ve all been there or, if we’ve led limited or emotionally uncomplicated lives, we’ve seen it in the movies: a relationship where the passion runs all one way. It is in this category that the long affair between Madrid’s two biggest clubs belongs. For Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid barely exists. At most, Atlético is an irritation, a bothersome flea. For Atlético, Real is a big, towering, handsome beast. When the two meet for a date, Atlético is all aflutter; for Real, it is one more night out with yet another in a long line of breathless suitors.

It is the game they really, badly, desperately want to win, the one on which their prestige and self-love stands or falls.

It’s a sad case. There are other football clubs in Madrid, but Real and Atlético are the biggest in terms of fan base, achievement and wealth. Atlético is generally regarded as the third biggest club in Spain, after Real and Barcelona, but a distant third in Real eyes. When the two teams go head to head, it is the Big One for the Atlético fans and players. "El derby", "el Clásico", they call it in the southern end of the Spanish capital, where Atlético has its stadium. It is the game they really, badly, desperately want to win, the one on which their prestige and self-love stands or falls. Usually it falls.

For Real’s fans and players it matters not whether they are playing Atlético, Sevilla, Mallorca or Racing de Santander. Three league points are in dispute, which is no trifle, but that is the end of the matter. Real only gets really, truly excited when they play Barcelona. Now there’s a contest, a clash of titans rich with politics, revenge, mutual loathing and a remarkably even historical tally of wins, losses and draws. Atlético has not beaten Real since 1999.

Yet this season, at long last, Atlético has been standing up to its aristocratic neighbor. The two teams have been locked in a race for second place in the league. Barcelona has raced away in front, so far ahead of the rest of the field that the outcome of the championship has been inevitable since Christmas, the season’s halfway mark. The fun and the excitement has centered on whether Atlético might rub its snooty neighbor's nose in the dirt for once, pipping Real to the runners-up spot. All season long, up until this month, Atlético had been gamely, at times grimly, holding onto second place. But Real has just shaved ahead. It promises to remain tight right down to the wire, with a league game between the two at Atlético’s Calderón Stadium on April 28 certain to be one of the most decisive and hotly disputed games of the season—quite possibly THE game of the Spanish season. In yet another measure of the great leap forward Atlético have made, they will be playing Real a third time this season, in the final of the Spanish Cup, the "Copa del Rey," in May.

the biggest fixture on the calendar for Real was not the game against Barcelona, but the one against their pesky neighbor.
Photo Credit: Getty Images

And yet, and yet … the dispiriting thing from plucky Atlético’s point of view is that the one encounter between the two teams so far reverted to past form. The game was a dud. Real swished the flea away with disdain. Normal service was resumed.

The thing is though, until not all that long ago, normal service meant Atlético going neck and neck with Real for the big prizes, not what it has become today. Barely 25 years ago Real’s archrival was Atlético; the biggest fixture on the calendar for Real was not the game against Barcelona, but the one against their pesky neighbor. As it had been for 25 years before that.

Real Madrid was named FIFA’s “world club of the 20th century” on the strength of the extraordinary team that won the European Cup—now known as the Champions League—five years in succession between 1955 and 1960. The game’s global reach was not what it is today but, making allowances for this large truth, Real Madrid was bigger than Barcelona is today. Real Madrid elicited admiration, as Barcelona now do. They were the benchmark; football at its best. But Barcelona has not matched that run of five in a row; they have not been as gloriously invincible as Real was. They were football’s aristocracy (Real means "royal"); they were the game’s undisputed kings. And yet the team that posed the stiffest test for them at home back then was not Barcelona, but Atlético. The alter punctured the Real ballon twice during those epic years, defeating them in the final of the Spanish Cup at the height of their achievement, in 1960, and then again in 1961. When Real won the European Cup again in 1966, Atlético beat them to the Spanish league championship. In the first half of the '70s, Atlético was a more powerful force in Europe than Real. Barcelona was in the picture, but as a background blur.

Adelardo Rodríguez played for Atlético during the club’s glory years. No one has worn the team’s shirt more often. He played for 17 seasons, from 1959 to 1976, taking part in nearly 600 games. During his long spell with the club, never outdone, he won 10 trophies, including three Spanish league championships.

"No question about it," said Rodríguez, "in my day a Real-Atlético game was a much bigger deal than Real-Barcelona. It was the game of the year in Spain. It was the game of the year for Real’s greatest player, Alfredo di Stéfano." Never mind Cristiano Ronaldo, Di Stéfano is the most legendary figure in Real’s history. Plenty of people of his generation believe that he merits a place as fourth man alongside the holy trinity of greats, Pelé, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. He was the driving force and the most prolific goalscorer of that all-conquering Real on which the club’s reputation was built. "Yet we were never intimidated by them," recalled Rodríguez. "We went toe to toe with them in those years, beating them to the Spanish league a number of times. We stepped onto the field and we forgot all about their big names. At that time when they were at their very best, they badly wanted to win the Spanish Cup, to win everything there was, but even though both times we played at their stadium, the Bernabéu, both times we won."

the beginning of what would turn out to be a gradual, but inexorable, downward slide came in 1974. Photo Credit: Getty Images

The turning point in Atlético’s history, the beginning of what would turn out to be a gradual, but inexorable, downward slide came in 1974. It can be traced to one particular game, the European Cup final in May of that year against Bayern Munich. Rodríguez was captain. "We were 0-0 after 90 minutes and the game went into extra time. Then we scored. We had the game practically sown up. We were watching the clock ticking down; we could see, we could feel the Europan Cup in our hands. We were playing keep-ball and doing so very effectively but then we suffered a terrible lapse of concentration." There was some confusion about whether a throw-in should have gone to Atlético or to Bayern. Bayern, to the Atlético players’ dismay, took it and Adelardo found himself, among other teammates, out of position. "I found myself suddenly in the role of spectator in the decisive moment, in the very last minute of extra time. One of their players ran down the middle of the field and let fly from way outside the penalty area with a shot that could have gone anywhere but somehow made its way through a thicket of legs and screamed into the back of the net." The player was a defender named Schwarzenbeck who very rarely scored, who very rarely shot on goal. He had other successes, notably lifting the World Cup with Germany in 1974, but this would remain the single most glorious, most stunningly unlikely moment of his career.

In those days, drawn finals were not resolved by penalty shootouts. Another full game was played a few days later. Atlético’s mood going into that second final was bad. They felt defeated, demoralised. Schwarzenbeck’s goal felt like proof that destiny was against them, that God, at that particular moment in football history, was a German. Sure enough, they lost the second game—4-0—and never again would they come as close to claiming club football’s biggest prize.

Barcelona had supplanted Atlético as Spain’s other big team, as the one Real most wanted to beat.

It wasn’t an instant drop into oblivion. They did win the Spanish league again three years later, and one more time in 1996. But by then Barcelona had supplanted Atlético as Spain’s other big team, as the one Real most wanted to beat. As Barcelona rose so, as far as Real was concerned, Atlético fell. In talking to a couple of journalists at the big Madrid sports daily, "As" (Spanish for "Ace"). One of them is a lifelong Atlético fan named Iñako Díaz-Guerra who has been covering the club day in, day out for the last 10 years. The other is Alfredo Relaño, the veteran editor of "As," an unabashed Real fan and an encyclopedia of the Spanish game.

What happened? What went wrong at Atlético?

First, that defeat against Bayern left its mark. A sense gripped the club, not lost to this day, that they were not fit to compete at the very highest levels of the game. The club president at the time did not help. He made a remark after that European Cup loss that has never been forgotten. He said Atlético had revealed themselves to be football’s "el Pupas." What does that mean? Hard to translate succinctly. It’s a Spanish slang term for someone who is chronically accident-prone. If there’s a banana to slip on, your shoe will find it; if a flying pigeon drops its load, your head will be its target. Misfortune is your middle name; you are fate’s plaything. Like a creeping disease, the "Pupas" mindset took possession of the club, the fans and its players until, by the time the present century had begun, it was written into their collective DNA.

“You expected not to win. You expected to lose finals. You expected, above all, to lose to Real Madrid.”

"Defeatism was drenched into the club’s walls," a former player said. He asked that his name not be published, for fear of making unnecessary enemies, but he was interesting to talk to for he had had the distinction of having played both for Atlético and Real over the last 15 years. "What I found when I arrived at Atlético was a team of underachievers," he said. "You had to have a very strong character not to succumb to the malaise. The prevailing attitude, and it reached every level of the club, including the fans, was mediocre, way below what it should have been for a club of such standing. You expected not to win. You expected to lose finals. You expected, above all, to lose to Real Madrid." The former player said that after losing a game many of his teammates would be perfectly cheerful on the bus home, joking and playing cards.

Things could not have been more different at Real. "If we lost it would be silence, gloom, anger on the team bus. The expectation was that we would win every match. Real was the mirror image of Atlético. Everyone, from the club president to the fans to the team doctors, expected us to win, always. And if we did not it was a catastrophe. As for the games against Atlético, it never crossed our minds we could lose. We simply did not take them seriously. Barcelona was the only rival we feared."

There was much more to Atlético’s decline than the self-inflicted "Pupas" syndrome. As the sports journalists Díaz-Guerra and Relaño explained, there are three additional factors that explain why Barcelona supplanted Atlético as Real’s chief object of fear and loathing.

“The new political dimension in the Barcelona-Real rivalry raised the emotional stakes to levels we had never imagined.”
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Politics was one. The death of the Generalissimo, Francisco Franco, in 1975 after nearly four decades of dictatorial rule opened the doors to democracy, releasing powerful waves of long bottled up, harshly repressed Catalan nationalist sentiment. Nationalism, by definition, needs an enemy. That enemy, for Catalan nationalists, was Madrid, the home of central government, the city in the geographical heart of Spain from which Franco had ruled. No one was proposing sending in the troops, but the air was thick with revenge and recrimination. Sport became, not for the first time, war by other means. Barcelona Football Club became Catalonia’s unofficial army and the enemy to defeat was Real Madrid, Franco’s club, according to aggrieved Catalan lore—the beneficary down the decades of all sorts of crooked favors purportedly engineered by the tyrant himself. Real responded with predictable indignation, concocting a sort of Spanish nationalist fury of their own, and one of the most bitter rivalries in world football was born. As Relaño said, "Real-Atlético had been at each other’s throats for ages, but it was an antagonism of the regular kind you find between big clubs that share the same big city. The new political dimension in the Barcelona-Real rivalry raised the emotional stakes to levels we had never imagined."

Fascinating as it was, all this would not in itself have amounted to much, or would not have lasted long, had it not been for Barcelona’s spectacular improvement on the field of play, and Atlético’s simultaneously dwindling decline.

"Until the late '80s, Atlético and Barcelona had more or less the same number of historically accumulated Spanish cups and league championships—and neither had won the European Cup," Díaz Guerra said. "Then two things happened: Johan Cruyff took over as club at Barcelona and big money started flowing into the game from TV."

The Dutchman Cruyff, one of history’s greatest players, transformed Barcelona, upped their competitiveness, gave them a distinctively elegant style and, most important of all, won them the European Cup in 1992. From that moment on Barcelona and Real Madrid monopolized the lion’s share of the money in Spanish football from the sale of TV rights, leaving Atlético and the rest to pick up the crumbs.

The nail in the Atlético coffin came in the shape of Jesus Gil, a gangsterish individual who was club president during the '90s. "He was impulsive and capricious, as well as famously corrupt," Díaz-Guerra said. "He hired and fired coaches for no rhyme or reason, he sometimes ran out of cash to pay the players and the team never had a chance to define any sort of identity, much less to build up anything resembling morale."

So that was that. The combination of the "Pupas" mentality, the corrupt incompetence of the club’s management, the surge in Catalan nationalism, the great leap forward of Barcelona on the field and the diminished TV income relative to the Big Two all fatefully combined, banishing Atlético to the shadows. From the late-'80s on, they ceased to be the major force they had been; Real stopped taking them seriously.

The reason for the turnaround in fortunes for Atletico this year is crystal clear and its name is Diego Simeone. Photo Credit: Getty Images

The reason for the turnaround in fortunes for Atletico this year is crystal clear and its name is Diego Simeone, signed as club coach in December 2011. A former player at Atlético, Simeone has worked wonders, the chief one of which has been able to wash off the defeatism staining the club walls. Last May they won the Europa League, a second-tier, but not insignificant, continental competition, in fine style, going on from there resoundingly to beat the Champions League winners, Chelsea, in the European Super Cup three months later. Simeone, knowing the club well from his playing days, has come up with the antidote to the Pupas factor. An Argentine, Simeone is, as Argentines in the football world tend to be, an overachiever, and a man with an exalted sense of his own merits. (There’s an old joke known all over Latin America and in Spain: What’s the best business in the world? Buy an Argentine for what he is worth and sell him for what he thinks he’s worth.) He has transmitted his self-belief to the players and a team that for most of the last 25 years has been less than the sum of its parts is today more than the sum of its parts. "Player for player, they are not all that great," Díaz-Guerra opined. "Only our Colombian superstriker Falcao would get into the Real team, if we are honest. But Simeone has done what all good coaches do, he’s got the best out of what he has."

Best was not good enough to beat Real Madrid, though, when the two teams met in December. Real won comfortably. The score was 2-0, but it flattered Atlético. Had Real not let the foot off the pedal in the last half hour, the margin of victory might have been embarrassingly wider. Simeone had done all he could when it came to facing the old enemy in a game that means so much more to Atlético than to the Real fans. The old complexes kicked in, the old fatalism reasserted itself.

Irrespective of what is happening in the league this season, the sad truth remains that the balance of power between Atlético and Real is not what it once was. José María Rodriguéz, a 56-year-old executive, is an Atlético fan who remembers the glory days vividly, but is guarded in his optimism about the team’s future, for all the recent improvements. Will Atlético beat Real in the race to second place in the Spanish league? Will they defeat them in the final of the Spanish Cup, due in May? "I combine hope with resignation," he said. "Unlike the Real Madrid fans, we have learnt from bitter experience not to expect to win. I fear this is just a passing phase we are going through, that our best players and coach will leave in the summer and it’ll be back to the familiar doldrums again."

Why was he an Atlético fan? Where was the charm in it? Rodríguez said he had grown up within a family and in a part of Madrid where Atlético was the team one followed. If he had never contemplated abandoning his cruel fate, he said it was because there was one quality he valued in being an Atlético man that his Real neighbors manifestly lacked. "We have a sense of humor about our team. When we lose or do badly over a season, it’s not an earth-shattering calamity. It’s an opportunity to laugh at ourselves."

“we celebrate our triumphs so much more intensely than Real fans. We live much more for the day.”

Nacho Millán, who is 25, echoed the older fan’s sentiments. "We’re like a big family, united in our capacity to smile when times are hard," he said. But he pointed to a deeper reason why he had never wavered in his support for Atlético, despite the fact that the rest of his family is Real followers. "Because in my lifetime we’ve won so little it means that when we do taste victory we savor it so much more. We know defeat and failure, we know tomorrow we may suffer a terrible collapse so we celebrate our triumphs so much more intensely than Real fans. We live much more for the day."

Millán said he was living his sweetest era as an Atlético fan, but nothing would be sweeter than beating Real to second place in the league. "All the more so because of the way they dismiss us. For us they are THE rival. We are not that for them, Barcelona is, and that hurts."

Whether Atlético hangs on to second place or not, their best player right now, Colombian striker Radimir Falcao, will almost certainly leave in the summer for richer pastures. Simeone could go too, in which case Atlético will almost certainly not consolidate the successs of this season and the hurt of spurned lovers, or spurned haters, that Nacho Millán and his soccer "family" feel will endure.

Atlético remains Watson to Real’s Sherlock Holmes, Salieri to Mozart, Carmelo to LeBron. As Alfredo Relaño, a dyed-in-the-wool Real fan, said, digging his finger into his neighbor's wound: "What Atlético fans really hate most of all is that they know we feel pity for them, that we take them so lightly we even want them to win when they play in Europe!" So what about Atlético’s lead in the Spanish league? "Oh, that’s nothing. No Real fan seriously doubts that we’ll overtake them before the season is over."

Real fans might be wrong, of course, but the fact that they are sure—that they know—they will end up higher in the league than Atlético gives the measure of disdain they feel toward their once-mighty neighbors, of how far they have fallen since the days, not so far distant, when they walked with kings.

About the Author

John Carlin is an award-winning, globetrotting author and journalist who has covered genocide in Rwanda, the social revolution in South Africa, food, wine, and football (er, soccer). The film Invictus was based on his book Playing the Enemy. He lives near Barcelona, Spain, and writes a weekly soccer column for Spain's leading newspaper El Pais.