Atlético Madrid: Underdogs of La Liga
If you’re a follower of La Liga you know that Barcelona and Real Madrid have reigned supreme over their Spanish counterparts for many seasons. It has been considered a “two-horse race” by fans and experts alike in recent years. You would have to look back as far as Rafa Benitez’s Valenica sides that were impressively able to win La Liga two of three seasons in the early part of the 2000’s. Only Real Madrid and Barça have captured more La Liga titles than Atlético Madrid who last achieved the feat in 1995-96. The club strangely fell into administration just a few years after as after club president Jesús Gil was removed during the 1999-2000 season. The club plummeted into the 17th spot and was relegated from La Liga but bizarrely also were able reach the Copa del Rey final, narrowly losing to Espanyol.
Atléti have always had this “underdog” label with even former star Fernando Torres referring to them as “a club where feeling matters more than the results.” Always in the shadow of their intra-city rivals Real Madrid, Atlético tend to be over-looked. Real Madrid of course have always been amongst the glamor clubs in world football. “Los Blancos” have won the Champions League/European Cup more (9) than any team in Europe. They play in their pristine all-white kit in their theater the Santiago Bernabéu. There is even a regal element that surrounds the club after King Alfonso XIII granted them the name “Real” (Royal) Madrid in 1920.
On the other hand, Atlético Madrid have always been seen as a “working-class” sort of club. Their Vicente Calderón Stadium is located near factories and breweries in far different setting than Real Madrid’s luxurious colosseum. Originally founded as a branch for Athletic Bilbao in 1903, they were joined by separatists of Real Madrid. Affectionately known as “Los Colchoneros” (The Mattress Makers), one legend maintained that the club changed their original blue and white uniforms to red and white because the material was cheaper. The same cloth used for mattresses at the time was easily altered into their kits. They were even forced to change their name from “Athletic Madrid” to Atlético Madrid in 1941 by fascist dictator Francisco Franco who banned non-Spanish names. Franco also removed Barcelona’s Catalonian flag from their logo and barred their Catalan language from being spoken. A few years before his decree, Franco’s troops murdered Barcelona’s club president Josep Sunyol and in 1953 the Francoist government influenced the transfer of the legendary Alfredo di Stéfano ignoring the agreement made with Barça and forcing the player to Real Madrid. Barcelona aside, match officials were threatened regularly and the Spanish cup was renamed the “Copa del Generalissimo.” It seemed that Franco had his tentacles in all Spanish football matters.
During the mid 1960’s to the late 70’s Atléti enjoyed their most successful era winning four of their nine La Liga titles and taking the Copa del Rey three times. They were even able to reach the European Cup final in 1974 drawing 1-1 in the first game before being thrashed by Bayern Munich 4-0 in the replay. “Los Colchoneros” fell upon lean years in the 80’s only winning a single Copa del Rey but again had a resurgence when they won the it again consecutively at the start of the 90’s and completed the La Liga/Copa del Rey double in 1995-96. As mentioned earlier, only a few years after that success the club went into administration and were relegated to the Segunda División.
Atlético made the climb back up to La Liga for the 2002-03 season but by this time Real Madrid had once again become a super-power with their “Galácticos” teams. It seemed though that Atléti were back on their way up as they were able to produce a superstar of their own in striker Fernando Torres as the club were able to lure stars like Ariel Ibagaza, Martin Petrov, Maxi Rodríguez and Maniche. Even with their young superstar and the talent built around him “Los Rojiblancos” floundered around mid-table during the middle part of the decade. Barcelona now were the club playing dazzling football led by the supreme Ronaldinho as well as Xavi, Eto’o and Iniesta. Torres eventually decided to leave his boyhood club and made it known that he wanted a move to Liverpool and the two clubs completed a swap deal involving Luis García.
Atlético spent their money wisely as they signed golden boot winner Diego Forlán who was able to form a dynamic striking duo with the blossoming Kun Agüero. The acquisitions of skillful wingers Simão and José Antonio Reyes were a major coup for the club as this group were able to qualify for the Champions League in consecutive seasons. It had looked as if “Los Colchoneros” were finally being recognized as a footballing power as they entered the 2009-10 season. They were about to embark on one of the strangest seasons in their history. In their La Liga campaign they were able to beat the likes of Barcelona and Valencia, even narrowly losing to Real Madrid in both meetings. On the other side of the coin, Atléti disappointingly conceded late goals against teams they were far superior to and were dumped out of the Champions League group stage. They finished a disheartening 9th in La Liga but somehow put together tremendous cup runs. Atlético knocked out Valencia and then impressively dispatched Liverpool in the Europa League before their triumph over Fulham in the Hamburg final. An equally impressive Copa del Rey drive ended in defeat to Sevilla.
Despite never reaching the highs of either Real Madrid or Barcelona, Atlético Madrid have formed their own unique identity. Their supporters at the Calderón are more vocal and colorful than the two Spanish giants. “Los Rojiblancos” have developed a likable underdog label through their heartbreaks on the pitch. Their supporters embrace their second-class identity due to social and political changes made under Franco as well as their neighbor Real Madrid’s dominance. They are truly the “people’s club.”