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On Melancholy Walk: New Fandom and Atlético Madrid, Part 1

Part one of this eight-part series on what it means to support Atlético Madrid

Club Atletico de Madrid v FC Rostov - UEFA Champions League Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Editor’s note: Several months ago, a reader contacted us wanting to pen some guest posts for the blog about his experiences in Madrid and learning just what it means to support Atlético. That reader, Mikeie Reiland, is a high school Spanish teacher who spent a year as an educator in Madrid, and this eight-part series will be published throughout the week as we prepare for Saturday’s Madrid Derby.

After finishing up school at Davidson College – the small North Carolina school that Stephen Curry put on the map – I didn’t have any sort of plan in place. My girlfriend and a few other college buddies were heading to Madrid to work as English teaching assistants in bilingual schools, so - having no career in particular in mind, equipped with only the typical liberal arts toolkit of a degree in French Literature and the alleged ability to think – I decided to join them for the ride.

On my first day of work, I hopped on the Cercanias commuter train out to Fuenlabrada, the capital’s last urban outpost before concrete slabs and skyscraping apartments melt into the desert that separates Madrid and Toledo. As I walked through the worn halls of the elementary school where I was to work – the very same halls, I would later learn, where Fernando Torres once attended preschool – I noticed a few of the kids out back on the patio, kicking a tennis ball around, already immersed in the day’s fútbol-related activities.

Throughout the day, three other teaching assistants – a British girl and two American girls – and I paraded from class to class, answering the kids’ get-to-know you questions, often delivered in stilted English. “How old are you?” “What is your favorite color?” “Do you have a boyfriend, Katy?”

Finally, in the 6th grade room, a surly boy in the corner asked the question on everyone’s mind:

“What is your favorite football team?”

This, I would learn, was a loaded question in Madrid. The two teams I had witnessed in Foster’s Hollywood - the famous, all-white Real Madrid and the further-from-the-spotlight, red-striped Atlético Madrid - are bitter rivals, sharing the city limits and dividing the city’s soccer fans.

The first girl, playing to the crowd, immediately answered that her favorite team was Real Madrid. Two-thirds of the room erupted in cheers, while the remaining kids exploded out of their desks, jeering at the poor shell-shocked girl. The surly kid didn’t tip his hand, looking expectantly at the rest of us.

After the other two girls said they didn’t watch football, it was my turn. I’d left soccer by the wayside in 6th grade myself, the gilded age of CapriSun, Fruit Gushers and orange slices after games and participation trophies after the season. During that particular 6th grade season, my squad – named either the Maroon Silver Bullets or the Royal Pain, I can’t remember now – managed to lose every game. I was our leading scorer with two goals in the entire season.

I was stumped. Not wanting to say the US Men’s National Team, I wracked my brain for a suitable answer. I vaguely remembered having read somewhere that Liverpool were essentially the Boston Red Sox of soccer, so I offered them up as a neutral, hopefully crowd-pleasing response.

The principal went over and protectively placed her hands on the shoulders of the kid who had asked the question. He was still glowering.

“Diego y yo somos de Atleti,” she said by way of explanation.

“Diego and I are Atlético fans.”