Unai Emery took Sevilla’s defeat very sourly and was fuming on Sunday night: “Atlético Madrid won unfairly and got refereeing help.”
Besides being a false accusation, how should we, the fans, feel about that?
Well, the truth is, I feel great. I feel pretty fantastic every time I hear some Emery-esque complaint coming from either Valencia or Sevilla, the sides that seem the most displaced after Atleti’s recent rise as sole contender versus La Liga’s Big Two, leaving the rest of the pack trailing behind in the rear-view mirror.
The ascent began under Quique Sánchez Flores, but 2010 was like a mirage (or maybe a glimpse of what was yet to come) in the middle of a desert wasteland – what these last two and a half decades have been for Atlético’s trophy count, and also for the honour and respect accorded the third-biggest team in Primera.
El Cholo is helping the team take huge strides in returning us to our (long-lost) rightful place in history.
I remember when I was a kid, Atleti was widely considered the second team in Spain, next only to Real Madrid – the favoured team of Francoist Spain (the dictatorship is widely acknowledged as the era that tipped the balance of the competition forever Madrid’s way). In fact, until the mid-‘eighties, Atleti were just one trophy shy of Barcelona’s Liga count, and the two clubs boasted the same number of European trophies.
Then along came Cruyff – and his dream team – then Rijkaard, and then Guardiola, and then their rise to
second first place became fact. From Atleti-wannabes to the best team in the world.
In contrast, we got the Gil family.
Twenty-five long years of suffering and not living up to our hundred-year-old history, twenty-five years of living under the looming shadows of two monsters. Twenty-five years of “Pupas,” relegation, and mediocrity.
As to how we compared to Real Madrid, things just got worse. Atleti were relegated while Real Madrid had several multi-million-Euro players dubbed “Galácticos.” The Vicente Calderon was crumbling to pieces (it had to be practically rebuilt in the nineties due to aluminosis of structural concrete), while the Santiago Bernabéu got bigger and bigger, adding four huge access towers, a corner mall, classy in-house restaurants, very exclusive VIP boxes, and lots of trophies to its museum.
Can you, dear readers outside Madrid or abroad, imagine what it was like to show up in class the day after a derbi defeat, with your Atleti school folder inside your backpack and your dignity down the drain? Yet again? It wasn’t nice.
Many lost faith, abandoned ship, and switched sides. By the time I reached high school, only one or two classmates would remain Atléticos. We weren’t even second choice anymore for Madrilenian kids, who would start following other teams entirely.
Many turncoat fans switched to Cruyff’s Barça (yeah, I’m not exactly young, so what?). To Madrid fans, we stopped being a real rival, and became an ever-defeated and below-par foe. From second in history to Segunda Division. From almost touching Heaven to scraping Hell’s bottom. When I come to think of it, being an Atlético in those days was a cautionary tale.
But why do I sidetrack so much?
This past Sunday, when Diego Costa started overreacting and lost his competitive edge, and the match got tough, in any other given season, the match, the season, the chance to regain prestige, and the expectations would all go down the drain.
But this is Cholo’s reign. And in this new era we stand with pride and we defeat the sides that were previously deemed better and more competitive.
We see old rivals that we used to trail unsuccessfully fall behind our pace, complaining about how the bigger teams get an extra refereeing push (and we grin at being acknowledged as a “grande” once again).
We now face one of the biggest challenges in modern sports history – competing against the Big Two – and we say, “Bring them on!”
So yeah, maybe we won’t win on Saturday, or the following home match versus Barça, or even the Cup Final. But, what if we do? We all finally believe that we can, that we will.
Maybe, just maybe, when I take my kid to school on Monday morning and watch through my rear-view mirror, I will finally see him with his Atleti folder packed in his backpack and a smile full of pride.