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Javier Matallanas and his son Mario enjoy a game at Atleti’s new home 

Javier Matallanas was still in his pram when he was first taken to the Vicente Calderón. He has since played in Atlético de Madrid’s youth team, supported from the stands and written from the press box. Here the AS journalist explains just what the club means to the red-and-white half of Madrid

To support Atlético de Madrid, you need a strong personality and an awareness that you can’t always win. Living in the same city as fans of Real Madrid is certainly character-building. In school, they constantly go on about how many European Cups they’ve picked up. However, their supporters have never been more afraid than in the Champions League finals of 2014 and 2016, when they could only beat Atlético in extra time and on penalties, respectively. During those two historic matches, Atleti got as close as they ever have to their rich and powerful neighbours; they went toe to toe and almost toppled them. Atleti also won hearts and minds off the pitch, through the sheer noise, energy and commitment of the Colchoneros faithful. 

My own heart and mind were won over long before. When I first visited the club’s old Vicente Calderón home, I was just three months old and still in my pram. Although my parents supported Real Madrid, my maternal grandfather and great-grandfather were huge Atleti fans, and grandad was also the club’s chief scout. I got to see both teams growing up, but I joined the Atlético family when I played in the club’s youth system, including one memorable junior derby against Real Madrid at their training ground. They ended up beating us 3-1, but we could have won 6-2. That day, I truly became an Atleti fan.

Fernando Torres bids farewell to the Atleti supporters

By then, Atlético had lost their one previous European Cup final, a 4-0 defeat by Bayern München in a replay in 1974. It was a result that left a damaging legacy for the red-and-white half of the city. After a 1-1 draw in the original game (Atleti led in extra time through a 114th-minute Luis Aragonés goal, only for Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck to equalise six minutes later), the club’s then president Vicente Calderón uttered the (in)famous phrase: “¡Somos el Pupas!” The ‘Pupas’ label, denoting a team that’s well and truly jinxed, stuck to Atleti for decades. And yet, traditionally, Atlético weren’t that kind of eternally thwarted team: the club was, is and always will be a team that, when opportunity knocks, wins trophies – look at the 2013/14 Liga title triumph, achieved at the expense of Lionel Messi’s Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid.

Curiously enough, the awful ‘Pupas’ tag was finally shed the moment Atlético hit rock bottom with relegation to the second division in 2000. A painful setback, undeniably, but also a turning point. The club’s season tickets had to be marketed with the slogan ‘Un añito en el infierno’ (A year in hell), evoking time spent in exile before rejoining the elite. What transpired, though, were two campaigns ‘in hell’, and it took a club great in Luis Aragonés – rejecting far more lucrative offers to return for a fourth managerial stint in 2001 – to restore Atleti to the top tier. 

That big-hearted gesture by Aragonés – the same ‘Sabio de Hortaleza’, or Wise man of Hortaleza, who later taught Spain how to win at EURO 2008 – helped to convert the former Rojiblancos player and coach into the ultimate club legend. Before, during and after Atlético’s Champions League finals in Lisbon and Milan, the fans chanted his name, in tribute to the man whose goal against Bayern in 1974 had made Atleti champions-elect of Europe for all of six minutes – until the equaliser by he-who-must-not-be-named.

Another epochal Atlético moment was the stadium move from the Calderón to the Estadio Metropolitano in 2017. Traumatic too, given the fans’ reluctance to leave the old ground alongside the River Manzanares where they had congregated with their parents and, in turn, handed down the faith to their children. I can still recall getting in with my youth-team pass and sitting behind the Atlético bench, watching the players emerge for the warm-up – always to the Dire Straits song Money for Nothing. I even got to play there as well, in a training game against the Spanish national team; the ground was packed and I had to mark Emilio Butragueño! 

"It's about this badge, about players who give everything; it's about family and togetherness"

However, at the conclusion to this, Atlético’s second season in residence, and with the Metropolitano hosting the final, fans are proud of their new home. Transferring to one of the world’s top stadiums has also brought about a major increase in potential. Until the move, you never had 70,000 supporters assembled
behind the team. The most you could expect at the old Metropolitano stadium, where the club played from 1923 to 1966, or subsequently at the Calderón, was around 50,000. Anyone who has seen games at all three grounds has felt the difference – and my favourite moment at the new arena was accompanying my grandmother there so that she could join that select club.

That said, Atlético had already experienced something of an exponential rise ever since Aragonés secured promotion in 2002, following those two ‘hellish’ seasons. A crucial factor, it goes without saying, was the appointment of Diego Simeone as coach in December 2011. The hero of Atleti’s 1995/96 double-winning campaign took the helm with another club favourite at his side, Germán ‘Mono’ Burgos, a star of that earlier promotion season – as well as a publicity spot in which he emerged from a Madrid manhole cover to announce the club’s return.

Together, the Argentinian duo have kept Atlético in the Champions League since 2013/14 and reached the knockout phase every year except 2017/18, when they responded to elimination by winning the Europa League. The philosophy behind this impressive body of work is taking each game as it comes, along with an enduring belief that you can achieve anything if you want it badly enough. This same philosophy of sweat and success has shaped the club’s 116-year history and has been honoured by the likes of Aragonés and his contemporaries Griffa, Collar, Adelardo and Gárate; by earlier greats such as Escudero and Ben Barek; and, of course, by more recent heroes Rubén Cano, Arteche, Futre, Caminero, Kiko, Torres, Falcao, Gabi, Godín and Griezmann. 

All in the family: Javier Matallanas with his mother ahead of an Atleti youth team game in 1987 and his grandmother at the Metropolitano 

Still, I’m reminded of an award-winning marketing campaign that, in one especially resonant video, featured a boy sitting in the back of his father’s car and asking the question: “Dad, why are we Atleti fans?” The father looked hesitantly at his son in the rear-view mirror, unable to find the right answer about a team that had dropped into the Segunda División and then stayed there for a second season. 

It is a question that young fans might well have pondered this season after Cristiano Ronaldo again wrecked their Champions League hopes. Atleti’s nemesis had left their arch-rivals, yet his hat-trick for Juventus in the round of 16 was another crushing blow – this time ending the dream of appearing in the final on home soil. 

But perhaps no one nailed the answer better than Fernando Torres in his farewell speech to Colchoneros supporters at the end of last season: “They ask why we support Atleti, and it’s hard to explain,” said ‘El Niño’. “It’s about this badge, about players who give everything in every game; it’s about family and togetherness. That is what Atlético Madrid represent.” 

So, dad, why are we Atleti fans? Because in football, as in life, you can’t always win – even if our roll of honour shows ten Liga titles, ten Copas del Rey, two Spanish Super Cups, one Cup Winners’ Cup, one European/South American Cup, three UEFA Europa Leagues and three UEFA Super Cups. So, dad, why are we Atleti fans? Because we have this wonderful stadium that is hosting today’s match. Welcome, then, to the Estadio Metropolitano – welcome to the UEFA Champions League final!

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