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.
Nick Hornby wrote in Fever Pitch about how, at certain vulnerable points, certain things will begin to occupy odd spaces in your life that would ordinarily be filled by “adult experience.” A book will suddenly seem to apply directly and specifically to your current situation. A movie will lay out your next two years for you. Or you’ll begin to apply the values of your favorite football club to your own life and experience.
As fall trickled into winter, I completed adopted Atlético de Madrid, subsuming who they were as a club into my self-perception. I consumed as much news about the club as possible, compared the post-match player ratings from three or four different websites, and – convincing myself that I was adopting the hardworking ethos of the club - I told myself that I took pride in going into work every day.
It was easy to get behind the band of brothers, working-class values of Atlético Madrid. The club seemed to take the Bill Belichickian “do your job” aura and make it infinitely more personal. The Vicente Calderón has a Fenway Park or Wrigley Field-esque appeal, located in an easily accessible, more “of the people” area of the city, as opposed to the posh Santiago Bernabéu of Real Madrid. I had no trouble ignoring Atlético’s undeniable embrace of football’s dark arts and “win at all costs” mentality. It’s easy to root for an underdog team like that.
Over Christmas, I visited the Real Madrid museum with my girlfriend and her mother. The museum is truly a 21st century marvel, with odd touch screens and rotating computers and the latest developments in technology. Throughout the museum, they make sure you understand the point of the whole thing; “Real Madrid: THERE IS NOTHING GREATER” is plastered around the complex. It’s easy to root against a team like that.
As someone fresh out of college holding down my first job, it was a simple choice to support Atlético. However, the irony of co-opting the working class ideals of the club was apparent. My language assistant job only required four days and 20 hours of work a week. The fact that I was born in an English-speaking country gave me immediate access to a cushy job in a country with 25% unemployment, a figure that won’t be improving any time soon. Appropriation had certainly entered the mix somewhere.
However, here’s another irony: the common narrative is to portray Atlético as the working class, underdog foil to Real Madrid’s opulence. But if Atleti – the 15th highest-earning club in the world according to Deloitte’s Football Money League – are branded as an underdog, what does that make clubs like Rayo Vallecano, Leganés and Getafe? Most Spanish fans still see Atleti as a big fish, which is what they truly are. So while it’s fair to label the club as a plucky underdog in the context of the whole of Europe, the domestic context is far different, and native Spaniards scoff at the idea of los colchoneros as an underdog.
A clean dividing line is extended to Madrid and Atlético’s respective fan bases as well. In media terms, Madrid’s fans are the elite, wealthy northerners, the posh crowd, the bankers and the consultants and the finance professionals. Atleti fans are working class, the blacksmiths and the glassmakers and the service industry.
On a macro scale, that distinction is true both historically and in terms of values, even if the class divide between the two teams’ fan bases is narrowing: Madrid were the establishment team, right of center, the “best ambassadors” the authoritarian Spanish government could have, according to Franco. Atlético played the role of the slightly leftist, bohemian, alternative team.
Moreover, Madrid fans have always wanted nothing but the absolute best, mercilessly whistling their own players and coaches at the Bernabéu when they underperform. There is nothing greater.
Meanwhile, Atleti’s afición - sharing at least a few helixes of DNA with the Chicago Cubs’ fan base - value loyalty above all, supporting the team whether it wins or loses, almost pridefully referring to the club as el pupas - “the cursed one.” The fans seem to delight in their misery, emitting a sort of lovable loser vibe. The road leading to Atleti’s Vicente Calderon stadium - in an almost too-perfect twist of fate - is aptly named “Paseo de los Melancólicos,” or “Melancholy Walk.”
During home games, the song incessantly roared by the Frente Atlético - the club’s main ultra group - reflects this pride, this belief in loyalty over everything:
“No importa lo que pase....no nos separarán...Atléti yo teamo...contigo hasta el final!”
Whatever happens, it doesn’t matter...they won’t separate us. I love you, Atleti...I’m with you until the end!
Nevertheless, in Spain, all sorts of people are Madrid fans and all sorts of people are Atleti fans. There are blacksmiths who like Madrid and investment bankers who are diehard Atléticos. Class lines are blurring amongst the two teams’ fan bases.
A case in point: Fuenlabrada – where my school was located – is the hometown of Atleti legend Fernando Torres, and the population is almost entirely working-class. The local stadium is even named after Torres. In theory, it should be an Atleti stronghold. But in reality, there are at least as many Madrid fans as Atleti fans in Fuenlabrada, if not more.
A lot of fans just picked a team when they were kids, or decided to root for one team or the other, or chose the team that their dad rooted for. The divide between the fan bases isn't so cut-and-dried.