When Póg Mo Goal spent some time living in Madrid, the Galácticos hype was at its peak. The Bernabéu Stadium was a mecca for day-trippers as the glamour of the game’s biggest names proved intoxicating. Across the city, however, beleaguered Atlético supporters still packed the Estadio Vincente Calderon and sang the name of ‘El Nino’. Atlético Madrid, then the poor relations in Spain’s capital, have just clinched a first La Liga crown in 18 years, and, having dispatched Fernando Torres’ Chelsea along the way, now stand on the brink of European glory.
Back in the days of the greening of Sunderland, Irish ‘fans’ were highlighted for heading to Wearside in their droves on the newly opened flight routes to England’s north-east. There are not so many Black Cats followers on this side of the Irish Sea these days.
In Madrid in 2005, it was at the height of the Galácticos era at the Santiago Bernabéu. With the arrival of David Beckham two years earlier, the royal city saw its own influx of English visitors on every match weekend. Real Madrid always had the allure but now they had the Becks factor.
The policy of club president Florentino Pérez’s to sign a world star every summer saw the creation of a team of icons like Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo, and added to the mix, Beckham. The period also saw an explosion in Real’s global pulling power with bus-loads of Asian tourists also attending games every weekend.
The Galácticos reign saw Madrid overtake Manchester United as the richest club in the world but sustained success on the pitch didn’t materialise. Real couldn’t repeat their league title of 2003 and among Los Blancos supporters, Beckham’s popularity had started to wane. A number of red cards in season 2005-06 didn’t help matters and Madrid’s consistent runners-up spots in La Liga to rivals Barcelona paired with poor showings in the Champions League – a competition Barca won in 2006 – threatened to make the entire Galácticos project an exercise in feeding the egos of expensive prima donnas.
The gleaming Santiago Bernabéu with its futuristic exterior, daily tourists, heated seats, and bulging trophy room was in stark contrast to the scene across the city in the Arganzuela district. The Vincente Calderon stadium, home to Atlético Madrid, had played host to second division football just three years previously as Atleti fans endured lean years.
“But Los Rojiblancos supporters seemed like genuine fans in a city obsessed with football. The daily papers like Marca covered both clubs but the glamour of Zidane and Beckham overshadowed the city’s second team.”
At Real’s training ground in Valdebebas, the press and spectating areas were understandably placed at a distance as some of the sport’s major names went through their routines.
On the other hand, Atletico’s facilities at Majadahonda felt more intimate. Following a daily press conference, it was possible to shake hands and grab a word with Torres and others as they made their way to their cars.
Atleti felt modest in comparison to the spectator event of David Beckham taking a few post-training free-kicks in the Madrid sun.
If you got talking to Madrilenos in the bars and cafés of the capital, people would tell you Atleti supporters were real football fans as opposed to the consumers who followed the commercial juggernaut to the north of the city.
It’s an age-old argument that English Premier League clubs have coped with for decades. Success breeds success, and the reach of the winning clubs goes far beyond the communities outside their home arenas, as we in Ireland know all too well.
By 2005, Luis Aragonés, in his fourth and last spell as manager of Atlético, had brought them back to the Primera División and gave Fernando Torres his La Liga debut.
Diego Simeone was reduced to single digit appearances in the red and white shirt. With his weathered face making him looking every bit the movie villain painted in the British press after his World Cup ‘98 altercation with Beckham, there could scarcely be a greater contrast to the model club and model looks of the Galacticos.
But Simeone and Atleti did have their own star in their midst, the one they called ‘the Kid.’ Fernando Torres was the darling of the Calderon faithful. The baby-faced finisher had come through the youth ranks and had soldiered with the club as they battled in the second tier. Older fans spoke of ‘El Nino’ as if he were a child of their own. By then the subject of intense transfer speculation, after one more season, he would be on his way to Liverpool for a club record fee having scored 75 goals in 174 La Liga appearances.
Torres’ move to Stamford Bridge saw tougher times but in the intervening years he’s been a World Cup winner, two-time European champion with Spain, and claimed Champions League, Europa League, and FA Cup titles with Chelsea.
When the two clubs were paired in the semi-final tie, it was destiny that he should open the scoring and of course, he refused to celebrate.
“I was not a Liverpool fan or a Chelsea fan in Madrid,” he once said. “I was an Atlético fan. I still am. Maybe they’re the only badge I will kiss.”
Now his beloved Atléti are 90 minutes from being crowned kings of Europe. In a squad built by modest means, to claim the Spanish title by splitting Real Madrid and Barcelona, full to the brim with star names, has been an extraordinary achievement. Perhaps only Diego Costa threatens to become a world name. To complete an astonishing double, Atlético need to defeat their greatest rivals, the club of the royal family, and Cristiano Ronaldo, perhaps the greatest Galáctico of them all. Then, their original prince ‘El Nino’ can celebrate.
Images: Fernando 9 Torres Facebook