Earlier, while browsing through the pictures on the Atlético website – a standard routine – my attention was caught by one particular photo that was uploaded from the training session on Monday.
As some of you may know, I am, supposedly, the biggest Mario Suárez supporter outside of Spain. You likely suspect that it was a flattering photo of him, but no, it was not.
The photo was of Gabi, standing next to Tiago, holding one of the Champions League balls that Atlético trained with in preparation of tomorrow’s first group stage match against Saint Petersburg. Our captain is looking down at the ball with a smile.
The way he holds the ball, the way he looks at it, seems as if it were something sacred, something special, something demanding respect. You imagine the captains in conversation, like, “Wow, so this is what being in the Champions League feels like?” And Tiago, being the most veteran Champions League player on the team answering, “Yeah. Cool, isn’t it?”
For most of our players, tomorrow will be a special day, as many have never featured in the Champions League before. They will finally get what they worked so hard for, and experience walking into the (hopefully completely) packed Vicente Calderón, with the Champions League anthem resounding in the air. Just the thought of it gives me goosebumps.
Eight players on our team (Godín, Alderweireld, Insúa, Tiago, Arda, Cristian Rodríguez, and David Villa) have some Champions League experience with other clubs. But only one player on the whole squad has ever played in Champions League with Atleti, wearing the red and white in the top tier of European football: Raúl García.
He is the only player who was at the club the last time Atleti played in the Champions League, in 2008-09 and 2009-10 (the season that ended with us winning the Europa League).
Don’t get me wrong. I am happy about all the titles we won and everything we achieved. Personally, I think the competition is underrated, as a match like Bilbao vs. Manchester United could just as easily be seen in Champions. But, unfortunately, the Europa League is seen as minor in some countries, especially by those uninterested in Spanish football. The German press, for example, has reiterated that sentiment since Bayern president Uli Hoeneß’s rant when, having failed to reach the Champions League spots a few years ago, he complained that his club had to feature in the “cup of losers”.
I am not a friend to bandwagon fans, who begin supporting a club because it is successful, and lose interest in it as soon as the success is gone. I don’t care that people underestimate our success and achievements, because I know better. But considering Atlético’s financial state, we really need those fans to buy our shirts. And don’t even get me started about the positive effect just reaching the group stage has for our empty pockets.
Nevertheless, we are finally back in the top class, back where we belong, back where we fans have always seen our team: among the best of Europe. We earned our place. Our team and our coach worked so hard for it, for years, and never really got due credit, but I am happy for our players to be able to fulfill every footballer’s dream of playing in the Champions League.
It might be true that our chances to win it are quite small, but thanks to Cholo and our team of hombres, we know that nothing is impossible. You just have to give everything you have.
Maybe the conversation between Gabi and Tiago was something else entirely, and it was not about how Champions must feel, but instead, “Imagine this ball were the cup?”
Dreaming is allowed. Because, we all know, Atlético fans “dream awake”.