Crumbs. This is what FC Barcelona and Real Madrid leave, more or less, to the rest of the Spanish football landscape. Traditionally the kingdom’s third club, Atlético de Madrid has been playing in the big leagues for a decade. Crowned twice in seven years, “Atléti” failed twice in the Champions League final, in 2014 and 2016. The Madrid club is once again in the quarter-finals of the competition, against Manchester City , Wednesday April 13 (1-0 for the Skyblues one way). At the same time, this “popular club”like love so much to remind coach Diego Simeone, has taken a sharp turn threatening his singular identity. Is it irremediable?
“Atlético is not just a football team, it’s a feeling”explained the former star rojiblanca Fernando Torres, in an interview for Sofoot in 2009. Founded at the turn of the 20th century, the club has historically relied on strong local and popular roots. “It’s the worker’s team. Considering the situation in the country, seeing the players lay down their lives on every action increases the identification of the public”, pointed out in 2014 Gabi, captain of the Colchoneros when Spain was suffering from the effects of the subprime crisis.
—Fernando Torres (@Torres) May 20, 2018
The opposition with a Real Madrid considered “elitist” – even if King Felipe VI openly supports Atléti – gives birth, in fact, to a social divide more than a political one. Often accused of having been protected by Franco’s power, the club has a fringe of supporters categorized on the far right. In 2014, the Frente Atlético group was banned from the stadium after one of its members beat to death a member of Riazor Blues, an ultra group from Deportivo claiming to be on the far left. UEFA had also closed part of the Wanda Metropolitano against Manchester City, after images showed club supporters performing Nazi salutes on the first leg, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), seized urgently , suspended this decision.
But unlike Rayo Vallecano, a team from the popular district of Vallecas clearly stamped on the left, “the club does not really have a political image”, points out Fran Castillo, journalist specializing in Atlético. This area in the south of Madrid, Captain Koke is precisely from there. He as a person embodies this identity colchonera. In 2017, he extended his lease for seven years, an exceptional period.
“When I was young, I went to the stadium with my grandfather, my brother and my father”he recalls for the review Libero. The enclosure in question, the boiling Vicente-Calderón, has literally disappeared. Theater of many European glories, its singular architecture like the proximity of the stands to the lawn made it a unique volcano. Since 2017, Atlético has been playing at the Wanda Metropolitano, an ultra-modern setting with 68,000 seats far from the city center, when the Calderón was a quarter of an hour’s walk from Puerta del Sol.
“The change of stadium was very radical for many supporters. But the Metropolitano has already had historic matches and is recovering, little by little, the atmosphere of the Calderón.”Fran Castillo, journalist specializing in Atlético
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Quique, an inveterate supporter of the Colchoneros, confirms it to us: “I preferred the Calderon. But the Wanda is a symbol of the new image of the club, which is no longer a ‘neighborhood team'”. This move was accompanied by a change of logo decried by some of the people rojiblanco. “Nobody expected it”, confirms Fran Castillo. The pill struggled to pass, to the point that the shops were stormed when a jersey with the old coat of arms was released in January.
Vote: ¿Te gusta el nuevo escudo del Atlético? https://t.co/pA3J5wFTEL pic.twitter.com/V2MCdMk0IA
— ABC Deportes (@abc_deportes) December 9, 2016
Uprooted, Atlético was even more so by being one of the founding members of the SuperliEuropean Union, last April. “It surprised me a lot”, recalls Fran Castillo. Many peñas (groups of supporters) have expressed their distrust of the project, forcing the club to backpedal in order. It goes without saying that this closed league project between the wealthiest teams in Europe is at odds with the values advocated by this club. In this little game, the soft declarations of the emblematic Diego Simeone (“Our club will make the best decision for its future”) had disappointed more than one.
Does this mean that these values are only a mirage? “Cholo” Simeone provided part of the answer in 2019: “You can’t claim the people when you have one of the best stadiums in the world or when you buy a player for 120 million euroshe told La Nación, referring to the transfer of young Portuguese João Félix. But we can still say that socially, morally and emotionally, we remain the people’s team. These are our roots, the club will not change it despite its economic growth.”
The Argentinian technician’s salary still tempers his own words: he is one of the best paid coaches on the planet. His style of play, based on great defensive rigor and incessant intensity, annoys. The Argentinian is regularly questioned, despite a successful tenure. His character and his aggressiveness fit perfectly with the identity of Atlético, where he also played in the 1990s.
Above all, in modern football where transfers are legion, many players remain faithful to the jersey rojiblanco. The unstoppable José Maria Giménez, Koke and Jan Oblak, for example, have been there for a decade. “In any case, Atlético remain as they are despite all these changes.concludes Fran Castillo. The very essence of the club continues, even though it is now known worldwide.”