thumbnail Hello,'s Cyrus C. Malek gears up for the Madrid derby - but this time from an Atletico perspective...

After a thrilling victory against Barcelona that effectively raised La Primera Division's temperature back to fever pitch, Atlético de Madrid take the short bus ride north tomorrow to face their bitter cross-town rivals, Real Madrid, in an historic encounter that will keep the Spanish capital buzzing even more wildly than it does on a typical Saturday evening.

They say you can’t choose your football team, so it’s hard not to have a bit of sympathy for Atlético fans (at the very least, until you meet them in a dark alleyway). While historically one of the most successful clubs in Spain, over the last 15 years the club that climbed far enough out of Real Madrid’s shadow to earn the “other team from Madrid” title, has been more famous for reliably underachieving. After all, it was this perennial frustration that drove Atlético poster-child and homegrown hero Fernando Torres away from his beloved club.  

Through and through, Atlético represents the “people’s team”, Madrid’s club of the working classes. Although the stadium is not too far away from the glitzy hubbub of La Castellana (the wide North/South Madrid avenue crowned by the Bernabéu), the contrast between the two clubs could not be more stark. On the banks of the murky Manzanares, the Vicente Calderón opens into the industrial south of the city, a region that not too long ago was framed with ominous smokestacks and even more ominous neighbourhoods. The people are hard here, and Atlético hinchas (fans) tend to be the hardest of the lot. The fans make Real Madrid’s Ultra Sur section (die-hard fans with a typically right-wing political ideology) look like pussyfooters and the ardent Atléti make the Calderón a hornet’s nest of a place to play. Many a team (and this year, especially those visiting in the Champions League) have been boiled alive in the stadium’s steaming cauldron.

One of Spain’s most historic clubs, Atlético de Madrid was founded in its current name on October 9, 1939 just as the Spanish Civil War was ending and Spain was enveloped by Franco’s dictatorial rule. The original club, however, was founded in 1903 as Athletic Club de Madrid by three Madrid-residing Basque students who hoped to establish an extension of Athletic Bilbao in the capital. In 1904 they were joined by defecting members of Madrid FC — Real Madrid’s predecessor club — and Athletic Club de Madrid began playing in their blue and white (the same colours as Athletic Bilbao at the time). It was only later, in 1911, that both clubs began playing in their famous red and white stripes. The reason for the change remains somewhat uncertain, but it is widely believed that it was a simple matter of economics. Mattresses in Spain were made using red and white striped cloth and the excess fabric made for a cheap resource in weaving shirts. Adopting the new colours slightly before Athletic Bilbao, the Madrid club became colloquially known as los colchoneros — the mattress makers.  

It was at this time that the club also adopted its crest—the striped shield with Madrid’s bear, the oso de madrono. The bear carries its own story and is a symbol deeply rooted in Madrid’s history: following a dispute in the 13th century over hunting rights on the land, (which was owned by the church) an agreement was reached that the church owned the soil, but Madrileños owned everything above the ground. Thus the symbol of Madrid was born - a bear (the church's emblem) sniffing a Madroño tree (a madroño is a berry not too different from a strawberry). The bear/tree symbol can be seen across the city today, emblazoned on taxis, buses, pavement, bins, banks, and almost everything belonging to "the city" — including Atlético.

In 1939 the current club was conceived, as Athletic Madrid was merged with Aviación Nacional of Zaragoza, a club that had been founded in 1939 by members of the Spanish Air Force, to form Athletic Aviación de Madrid. Finally Atlético was born in 1941 as a decree issued by Franco’s government banned teams from using foreign names and the club became Atlético Aviacion de Madrid. While historically Real Madrid has been seen as the ‘establishment’ club, it was Atlético that was the preferred team of the Franco regime with its close ties to the military. In 1947 the ‘Aviacón’ was dropped altogether leaving the current Club Atlético de Madrid and in that same year, Atlético beat Real Madrid 5–0 at the Metropolitano (the old rojiblanco stadium). Afterwards, with the arrival of Alfredo di Stéfano at Real Madrid, Franco’s preferences shifted; Atlético would not enjoy such success against their cross-town rivals again — the 1947 ‘manita’ remains the most decisive win against Real Madrid to date.

Atlético retained their thuggish south-side reputation for a great deal of their illustrious history, becoming the pride of ‘the true Madrid’ and winning nine Ligas, nine Copa del Reys, and losing one European Cup final along the way, but presently the side seem to have lost a bit of their identity. During the late '90s, local madrileño Fernando Torres stole rojiblanco hearts by demonstrating his loyalty to his favourite club since boyhood. But as it has come to be known in Madrid, one of the greatest tortures is to be an Atlético fan. Los colchoneros have taken on the reputation of providing fans with fantastic beacons of hope, only to collapse in the final stretch, and this failure to deliver became so widely accepted that Fernando Torres’ heartbreaking move to Liverpool was received with more understanding among fans than animosity. The club has since lost a few of its sharp teeth and has adopted a much more tolerant philosophy to signing players. Ironically, today’s Atlético have a paltry nine Spaniards on their active roster — the same amount as the famously cosmopolitan Real Madrid roster — and today’s hometown hero is the adopted Argentine, Sergio ‘Kun’ Agüero, a phenom who may also be driven to seek more prolific pastures next season.  

As many rojiblanco fans would have you believe, this could be the season. Still alive in the Champions League and coming off a superlative win against a Barcelona that until recently was ubiquitously considered invincible, Atlético could well finish this season in brilliant fashion. But even if the mattress makers remain true to their reputation and Atlético flop by season’s end, a win at the Bernabéu on Saturday would melt even the hardest of rojiblanco fans to tears of joy. If not and history remains true to form, when Madridistas victoriously raise their glasses after the match, the traditional ‘Salúd’ will be more of a prayer than a celebration in anticipation of the tense metro ride home.

Cyrus C. Malek,