For a good decade since the side’s last victory in 1999, there was always the hope that maybe this time the match would turn out differently, that a breakthrough would be made.
But every single opportunity ended in disappointment.
18 matches without a win. 19 matches. 20 matches. 21 matches. 22 matches. Three weeks ago, the drought hit 25 games when a second-string Real Madrid side went to the Vicente Calderón and still managed to beat the Rojiblancos.
In Spain’s capital city, cup final day was unseasonably cold, grey and rainy, with few Atletico fans daring to dream of what would be an incredibly cleansing win.
It was Real Madrid who had the greatest incentive of all in football going into the game: the fear of failure. Atletico had finished third in the league—the target for the year—and were expected to roll over in the Santiago Bernabeu once again.
Jose Mourinho’s side needed to lift a trophy in their own stadium to salvage some kind of pride after a campaign the Madrid manager would admit was a failure following the final.
On the south side of the ground where the Real Madrid supporters had gathered to welcome the team coach two hours before kickoff, the atmosphere seemed more charged, more intense, more driven. On the opposite end of the Santiago Bernabeu, the Atletico Madrid supporters were drinking beer and singing songs. The vibe was of a big day out rather than a must-win match.
But then something began to change. Half an hour before kickoff, nearly 30,000 Atletico supporters were inside the stadium, singing the songs that normally belong at the Vicente Calderon. Real Madrid’s fans rallied, but it was the Rojiblancos that were generating a wave of intensity ahead of the match.
There was the start of a beginning of a seed of an inkling of a feeling that history was going to be made.
That was dashed 13 minutes into the match when slack defending left Cristiano Ronaldo with a free header to take the lead. Radamel Falcao had vanished from the game with a bustling Madrid midfield cutting off the supply to the forward. Atletico’s set pieces were awful, with corners and free-kicks ending up in the arms of Diego Lopez.
However, a moment of magic from Falcao and an inch-perfect finish from Diego Costa made the scoreline level.
Real Madrid began to get desperate as the match progressed towards extra time. Every time the post or bar was struck, Atletico began to believe in themselves a little bit more and the burden of the past 14 years began to slip from their shoulders.
15 minutes before the end of normal time, an agitated Mourinho goaded the referee into sending him off. The official obliged. It was Diego Simeone, the Atletico coach, who looked in control, barking orders from the touchline, almost coming onto the pitch himself.
Seven minutes into extra time and Miranda put the Vicente Calderon club into the lead. However, there was still the lingering sensation that normal service would be resumed, that Atletico would somehow find a way to blow it once again.
That moment looked like it had arrived 108 minutes into the match when an Angel di Maria cross found an unmarked Mesut Ozil. This match was set to be different, though. Thibaut Courtois in the Atletico goal scuttled across his box to make the save.
This was the point in time when the Rojiblancos in the stadium, the city, the country and all over the world knew that the day was going to be different. This was moment they knew the curse, the mental block, the debilitating inferiority complex against Real Madrid was set to be shattered.
Atletico Madrid had not just won a cup in the Santiago Bernabeu, they had regained a sense of dignity.
The club has had an awful lot to be proud of in recent seasons with three European trophies won, but what had been lacking was an ability to look Real Madrid in the eye.
Speaking after the match to TVE (h/t AS.com), their Argentinean coach perfectly expressed the feeling in the Atletico world that more than a game of football had been won. “We are the hope for society, a reference for people suffering, who are not enjoying the best of times,” declared Simeone. “If you work hard your moment will come.”
After 14 years of disappointment, Atletico Madrid’s moment arrived on Friday night.