On Saturday, Real Madrid, the world's most famous and glamorous team, play for the world's most coveted club trophy. In their way? Bitter rivals Atlético, no longer the underdogs they were
The Copa del Rey, 2013. Spain’s FA Cup final was a Madrid derby: Real vs Atlético. It was an angry, dirty game, with 14 yellow cards and Real achieving the dubious distinction of having both their star player, Cristiano Ronaldo, and their then manager, Jose Mourinho, sent off.
And at the end of it all a dramatic goal in extra time, by an unsung hero called Miranda, saw Atlético, for so long the underdog, beat Real for the first time in 26 games. Their fans were claiming it was the greatest victory in the club’s history.
This weekend, though, is another derbi Madrileno that could surpass even that for the fans when Atlético and Real meet in Lisbon in the Champions League final.
Two clubs from the same city fighting to get their hands on the world’s most coveted club trophy; it’s unprecedented. It’s also a chance for Atlético finally to scrub out nearly two decades of hurt and a lifetime of being the poor relation.
The Madrid derby has always been one of the great grudge matches of football: top dog vs underdog, white collar vs blue collar, establishment vs the brash rabble. Real always give the impression of being immaculately coiffed and groomed. Atleti, in their blood-red and white strip, always seem battered and bruised, as if they’ve just turned up from a war zone.
It’s partly the difference between their respective grounds. Real’s Santiago Bernabéu is a vast, glossy, daunting pile of tiers set in the city’s business quarter. Classy.
The Vicente Calderón, home to Atlético, is next to a brewery on the banks of the Manzanares river. Cruddy.
It’s a contrast underlined by the respective appearances of their current managers. Carlo Ancelotti, calm, silver-haired, unflappable, looks like the kind of bloke you’d trust for pensions advice.
In contrast, Diego Simeone – in English eyes, the villain who goaded a young and raw David Beckham to get himself sent off in the 1998 World Cup – looks as though he shaves with broken bottles and eats live rabbits whole by the light of the moon.
Real have always been the club with the enduring allure. It’s that all-white strip, the silverware-stuffed cabinet, the financial clout that lets them lure the best players to the Bernabéu. They are the club every fan fears will come for your star player.
Of the 22 that have won the European Cup/Champions League, Real have the most victories to their name; nine since the first final was played in 1956. They own this trophy, almost.
In contrast, Atlético have had to come back from the spectacular fall that began midway through the 1990s, just after they had won the Spanish league and cup double, and spilled into the new millennium.
In 1999, owner Jesus Gil and his board were suspended pending an investigation into misuse of club funds, while a government-appointed administrator was drafted in. Relegation followed, with two seasons in the Second Division.
In ten seasons from 2003 to 2013, the league derbies went almost relentlessly Real’s way. Won 16, drawn the rest.
But in the La Liga season just gone, Atlético went to the Bernabeu and won 1-0. True, a magnificent goal by Bale won Real this year’s Copa del Rey, but it was Atlético who came away with the league title. Real could only finish third, a failure by their standards.
Can Atleti win their first European Cup? Real are a collection of galacticos, massive egos coaxed into togetherness only by the alchemy of whichever big beast is given the job of managing them that season.
For goals, they can rely on Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, the two most expensive players in the world.
Atlético, in contrast, will almost certainly be without their own star striker, Diego Costa, who staggered off injured in the first half in last weekend’s league title decider against Barcelona.
That said, it didn’t stop Atlético mustering all their resources of skill and bloody-mindedness to clinch the draw that saw them lifting the La Liga title off Barcelona’s hands.
They have heart and intelligence. They are fast and deadly in the tackle, they move the ball quickly and accurately and above all they are a team. All for one and one for all.
It’s a club ethos underlined by Simeone insisting on conducting his post-title-winning press conference surrounded by his entire technical staff.
If Real win, the natural order of things will have reasserted itself; the power of money and the football establishment. But if it’s Atleti, it will count as one of the most monumental feats in the history of football. Don’t bet on it not happening.
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