Atletico's moment to step out from the 'white shadow'

Upon exiting the intricate bowels of Madrid’s exquisite metro in May 2010, I expected to find a city giddy with excitement about hosting the UEFA Champions League final. The real scene was very different.

Atletcio Madrid

Atletico Madrid have the chance to be top dog in the Spanish capital. (AAP) Source: AAP

The streets were lined with paraphernalia – not of the two competing teams, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan, or even Real Madrid. It was all about Atletico.

They’d just won the UEFA Europa League for the first time. Their first continental trophy in 37 years; their first triumph of any kind since 1996.

The red, white and blue half of the city went loco. Big time. And days after the result, the party remained in full swing, banners still covering the Neptuno fountain.

Before you dismiss the value of Europe’s second-tier competition, consider what it might mean to be an Atleti fan in Madrid.

You’ve spent your life seeing your snooty neighbours collect trophy after trophy. Street parades. Galacticos. Endless moments of glory. Unofficial fan clubs on every corner of every street in the country. A history written in silver, recounted the world over.

Meanwhile, you’re selling your best players and praying for miracles. You’re hoping against hope for something. Anything. And that day had finally come.

But as Los Rojiblancos celebrated, Spain’s press and Real Madrid's fans already had their eyes on something else: Jose Mourinho, fresh from masterminding that semi-final win over Barcelona.

And here he was, in Madrid, performing a dress rehearsal ahead of his inevitable move to the Bernabeu. He even took Inter’s training sessions at Real Madrid’s training facility wearing an all-white tracksuit.

The pre-match press conference? Basically a first date between himself and the media. Just like that, Real Madrid had the spotlight back.

But something was changing at Atletico. That win – albeit against a Fulham side that seems distinctly ordinary in hindsight – infused a potent mix of belief and ambition.

When I returned to Madrid 14 months later, I saw Radamel Falcao score twice on debut in a Europa League match against Celtic.

The Vicente Calderon roared as though he was the second coming. In a way, as the replacement for Sergio Aguero, he was. The Colombian scored 70 goals in 91 games in just two years.

This was no longer a club to be pushed around. They could replace their best players with better ones: after Falcao, Diego Costa, David Villa and Mario Mandzukic took turns before Antoine Greizmann’s mercurial talents emerged.

And when they wanted a better coach to replace Gregorio Manzano, they found one.

Diego Simeone, a former hero, was a gamble. Hugely talented, but perilously hot-headed. Was he appointed to appease mutinous fans or because the board knew he could be something special? Probably the former, but the results have been spectacular.

Simeone has transformed Atletico from comfortable middle-class citizens – a status long-held by Sevilla, Villarreal, Athletic Bilbao and Valencia – to fighting Barcelona and Real Madrid on an annual basis.

It’s that last part which is most impressive. He’s crafted a team using his own nous to be competitive year in, year out. Magnificent as their 2013-2014 La Liga championship was, the rage has been maintained.

Remarkably, it’s still a relative no-name squad by world standards, even if their most famous name, Fernando Torres, only starts half their matches.

Yet here they are again in the final, having overcome Bayern Munich and Barcelona to get here, proving their absolute right to play on Europe’s biggest stage.

The hallmark of a great manager is to make players better and to have them execute their role for the betterment of the team. That’s exactly what Simeone does, and right now, perhaps better than anyone.

As the exquisite Griezmann has come to embody French elegance, Diego Godin appears carved from Uruguayan granite. Felipe Luis and Juanfran hardly get beaten at wing-back.

At 24, there aren’t too many better players in the world than Koke, likewise 21 year-old Saul. Successors to Xavi and Iniesta? Hyperbole aside, comparisons are inevitable.

Speaking of grand statements, Jan Oblak, just 23, is tracking as well as Gianluigi Buffon and Iker Casillas at the same age. And Gabi: no frills, just heart, soul, lungs and drenched in sweat, as all great captains are.

The scene is set, as it was two years ago in Lisbon, for Atletico to make their mark against their city rivals. They went so close. Stage fright? Maybe.

They’ll be better for having lost that final and Simeone – no hint of white in his attire – has been waiting for his moment ever since.

No club, nor manager, could be more deserving.

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5 min read
Published 25 May 2016 at 12:36am
By Sebastian Hassett