“Wanted: Worthy Rival for a Decent Derby.” Oh, they got that alright. It was November 2011, more than a decade into a long, long run of dominance from Real Madrid and their fans were getting bored, or so they claimed. They said they actually wanted Atletico Madrid to give them a game for once: it wasn’t much fun when it wasn’t much of a match. And so, they mocked up a classified advert that they lifted up at the south end of the Santiago Bernabeu stadium “appealing” for their opponents to be a slightly less useless football team. Laughing at them, in other words. It was so easy to do, after all.
Be careful what you wish for.
The Madrid derby has always been special, even when for a while it wasn’t very special because it was just too much of a foregone conclusion. There are loads of good stories too, loads of quirks going all the way back to the day they met in 1903, the first of 227 matches between them, and loads of personalities, too.
Santiago Bernabeu, the man who was Real Madrid, but played for Atletico for a few months in 1920-21 – “treason,” one former teammate called it. Atlético president and owner Jesus Gil, the man who loved to have a go at Real, telling his players that he would not pay them if they didn’t knock Madrid out of the Copa del Rey in 1994 — and then following through with that threat. Helenio Herrera, the man taking Atletico to the title twice, while still accusing Real of playing with 12 men.
There was German Burgos saving a penalty with his nose, blood everywhere. Brazilian Ronaldo scoring after only 14 seconds. Atletico winning the first derby day cup final (at the Bernabeu) in 1960 despite going 1-0 down to a goal from Ferenc Puskas. Atletico scoring five against Real in 1947 back when they, not Real, were the power. Their first-ever meeting in the European Cup — their last for 55 years, too – in the 1958-59 semifinal, a tie that finished 2-2 on aggregate and had to go to a replay in Zaragoza six days later.
There was even Ramon Grosso, the Real Madrid legend who would win seven leagues and a European Cup, going on loan to Atletico… and helping rescue them from relegation. Hugo Sanchez was the league’s top-scorer five years in a row: the first was for Atletico, the rest came across the city. Oh, and the 1982-83 derby with two goalkeepers from the same family. Santiago Pereira was the Atletico No.1; Agustin, his nephew, was between the posts for Real Madrid. Above all, some would place Raul, the Real Madrid legend who had started his career at Atletico, until they decided that there was no point in an expensive youth system. His derby day in 1997 is still talked about.
When it comes to “talked about” games between the two, before the 1992 Copa del Rey final, then-Atletico Madrid manager Luis Aragones gathered his players and grabbed a bottle of Coke (family size) and told his players that if they didn’t win, he would insert it where the sun doesn’t shine, finishing his tactical talk by saying: “none of that matters anyway.”
He’d continue: “You’ve got to do them. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for: Real Madrid at the Bernabéu,” or so the story goes. “They’ve been sticking it up our a—- for so long, now it’s our chance to stick it up theirs. You’re better than them, and I’m sick of losing to them and losing at this place. There are 50,000 fans out there who would die for you. Now, get out there and stick it up their a—-!”
It’s a weird way of motivating them, but it worked.
That’s just one moment. The rivalry has been built over many, many years and many, many moments. There have been times when they’ve been strong, even when they both have been. Real won three European Cups in six years from 1998. Atletico won the double in 1996, unexpectedly. There may have been no decade quite like the 1970s, when Real Madrid won six league titles and Atletico Madrid won three – plus the Intercontinental Cup, despite not winning the European Cup, having been caught by an absurdly long-range Bayern Munich equaliser deep in the last minute of extra time, giving birth to the legend of them as “El Pupas,” the “jinxed one.”
Yet even that might have been eclipsed by the past 10 years, during which time Real and Atletico have won five leagues (3 to 2), two cups (1-1), four Champions Leagues (4-0) and two Europa Leagues (0-2) between them. More important than the actual trophies is the fact that the rivalry itself may never have been greater, a feeling deepened because of where it came from.
It became a proper fight — “Ramos kicks me, I kick him,” Atletico striker Diego Costa once said of Real’s Sergio Ramos, while Atletico coach German Burgos once warned Real’s Jose Mourinho “I’ll rip your head off” — and a proper battle, at the highest level, almost never-ending. Right down to the fact that in 2014-2015 they face each other eight times, having just met in a Champions League final.
No city has ever had two teams in the European Cup final before, no two rivals had met on the greatest stage of all. Madrid did, and they did it again two years later, 70,000 people heading down the A5 to Lisbon and then flying to Milan.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, at least in part because Atletico weren’t supposed to be this way. There was something about the idea of them being a loser that they embraced. They made suffering their thing. They still do, in fact, even now in times of success. All that talk of being jinxed served some purpose; sometimes it served as an excuse for failure, for all those false dawns, becoming a blockade that was difficult to break.
Atletico went down to the second division for the first time ever at the turn of the century. It was a disaster that the president and owner Jesus Gil, a notorious figure with a big belly and an even bigger mouth, declared “one little year in hell.” But at the end of that year, they were still there. The most famous advert the club ever did — and they have done many — shows a small boy ask his dad why they are Atleti fans. The dad, sitting at the wheel of his car, looks at the boy in his rearview mirror and falls silent. There’s no logical explanation. But it meant something, they tried to say. Just not success.
All of which fed into the derby — off the pitch, at least. The city’s divide is one of the deepest there is. It is also, or so they like to claim, one based on social class, a clear sense of identity. Atletico midfielder Thiago once claimed they were like Robin Hood, stealing from the rich. The People against the Power, protegees against the persecuted. A lot of it was a myth, but myths matter and myths get told, getting bigger all the time. And there was something to build the storyline around.
The Santiago Bernabeu, Real Madrid’s home, stands on the Paseo de la Castellana, the smart, wide avenue that runs right through the middle of Madrid, with banks, businesses and nice buildings on both sides. Before they moved to their new Metropolitano stadium not so long ago, Atletico played at the Vicente Calderon stadium, alongside a brewery down by the river. A major road ran right under the main stand, choked with fumes. And the road that led to the stadium was called Melancholics’ Way. Which felt quite apt, quite often.
Real Madrid’s centenary anthem was sung by world-famous opera singer Placido Domingo, all operatic and accompanied by a full orchestra. Atletico’s was sung by folk singer Joaquin Sabina, the lyrics lauding “a feeling that cannot be explained” and insisting: “to understand what this is all about, you have to have cried at the Calderon… war on the arrogant meringues [Real Madrid] … What a way to win/what a way to lose/what a way to go down/what a way to come up/what a way to draw/what a way to suffer!”
Oh, and because of an argument over copyright, he couldn’t sing it at the centenary anyway. Instead, Atletico played Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
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Just ask Fernando Torres, perhaps the icon of Atletico Madrid: fan, youth-team product, first-team captain. Loser of derbies.
“When I was seven or eight, almost everyone at school was a Madrid fan,” he would recall. “I’d go in wearing my Atletico tracksuit to wind them up, but on the inside I was almost always pissed off because we’d lost. For years Madrid have been the big team in the city — not just the city; in Spain, in Europe — and we’ve been the poor team, the working-class club, trying to catch them. Our fans are prisoners of a feeling, Madrid’s fans are prisoners of results and if the results don’t follow, nor do they.”
The thing is, even if Torres was right — and he might not have been — the results did follow. When he left for Liverpool after seven seasons in the first team, he had never won a derby. When he came back to Atletico seven-and-a-half years later, he made his “re-debut” against Real in January 2015, and finally did win. It was the fourth derby in a row that Atletico had not lost, and the third they had won.
Eight days later, they met again and Torres scored twice. At the Bernabeu. They were his first ever goals there, and they knocked Real Madrid out of the Copa del Rey. A month later, Atlético beat Real Madrid 4-0 in the league.
Something had changed while he had been away. “Everything” had, Torres said.
Basically, since that comedy classified was raised a the Bernabeu. On 23 December, it be 10 years since Diego Simeone took over as Atletico Madrid manager. That demand for a worthy rival had gone up the month before. Sometimes it is worth stopping and considering what he has done. Not just for Atlético but the rivalry, the biggest of meetings once again.
There have been plenty of them, but none perhaps more than these three, the derbies that made the recent rivalry.
May 18, 2013: “Party like it’s 1999”
“This is historic,” said Atletico full-back Juanfran, who had come through the club’s youth system, and he knew. Here it was, the change. The revolution — one newspaper would later mock up Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone as Che Guevara — the arrival, the burying of the ghost. No more fatalism, no more failure.
It was the Copa del Rey final, against Real Madrid, at the Santiago Bernabeu… and Atletico won it. Madrid had hit the post three times, Thibaut Courtois — now Real keeper, then Atletico keeper — had made two superb saves. And then deep in extra time, Joao Miranda got the goal that changed everything. The goal that said: we’re coming for you, and for real this time. The goal that made it all worthwhile.
“If you had made the fans an offer in which you’d said we won’t win against them for 14 years, but when we do, it will be in the Cup final at their stadium, with them scoring first, hitting the post three times and us winning in extra time, they’d have signed up for that,” Simeone said afterwards. “Tomorrow there will be a few more Atlético fans. I invite them to all wear their shirts. Tomorrow will be a special day.”
Not just any day: the first day of the rest of their lives. Atlético had not beaten Real all century, all millennia in fact. Not since 1999 had they won — and that year, they went down. It had been 25 games without a win. They had lost 10 in a row. Now, suddenly, here they were, celebrating at the Bernabeu, the beginning of something. A year later, they were league champions.
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May 24, 2014: “92 minutes, 48 seconds”
So much for the revolution. Atletico were league champions, and they might even have been favourites to win the Champions League. — except that this is Real Madrid — and they were 1-0 up in the first-ever final between two teams from the same city. Their first European final for 40 years. The clock was ticking down, deep into injury time, so close now. To the ultimate derby victory, to avenging 1974, to completing life.
Ramos has a tattoo that simply says 92:48, the exact moment he broke their hearts. “We do not forget and nor do they,” he said. Disaster for Atletico, the decima (10th European title) for Real. It couldn’t have been crueler for Atletico, nor more enjoyable for Real. Except that two years later, it was. “If I had to write a film, I’d do it that way; I’d do it all again, exactly the same way,” Ramos said.
May 10, 2018: Adios
“Proud not to be like you,” read the huge banner that stretched across the stand on the last-ever European night at the old Vicente Calderon stadium. And that, in the end, was expressed here. By both teams. Atlético had lost the semifinal first leg at the Bernabeu 3-0, but roared into Real Madrid in the opening minutes of the second leg, going 2-0 up and the place going absolutely wild, the dream of a historic comeback suddenly seeming to be on. But then Modric took responsibility and control and Karim Benzema produced a piece of magic to end it. Atletico won 2-1, but went out.
It was the fourth time in a row that Atletico and Real had met in Europe – final, quarter-final, final, semi-final – and every time it had been Real at progressed. It was over, again. After Milan, Simeone had suggested he would walk away he was so hurt, but he continued. And this was different. Because if the game was over, the night was not, everyone hanging on to the last time. There was thunder and lightning but no one moved, singing away. They sang in the Madrid section high in the south stand – they would go on to win the second of a three European Cup run – and they sang everywhere else too, celebrating a derby win that was a derby defeat, identities embraced.
“Those 20-25 minutes will be in the history of the club, the atmosphere. This was a magical Calderón night that will be in people’s memories for ever,” Simeone said after. “I’m proud: we competed yet again. And that makes me emotional every day.”
For too long, they hadn’t.
On Sunday night, they will do it again and so will Real. Simeone’s Atletico Madrid face Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid. Familiar faces, reunited. Ancelotti has been away and come back — in the mean time, Madrid have been coached by Rafa Benitez, Zinedine Zidane, Julen Lopetegui, Santi Solari and Zinedine Zidane again — but he is still there. They have met in 13 derbies, and the very biggest, the peak of what has become a proper contest: over the past eight years, Atletico have won as many leagues as Real, and they have finished above their rivals in three of the last four seasons but they trail them now.
On Sunday, they meet as defending league champions and present-day league leaders. Worthy rivals for a decent derby.