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.
4/5/2016 - Atlético de Madrid vs. Barcelona – 2nd Leg, UCL Quarterfinals
When the tickets for the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinals vs. Barcelona were released on Atleti’s official website, I texted Sam and Alex.
Tickets are only 100 euros. Should we do it?
The response from Alex was swift: Yes. Yes we should.
We worried that the tickets were a bit of a gamble, because there was a chance that Barça would run Atleti off the pitch in the first leg at Camp Nou, and that the second leg would end up meaningless. We shouldn’t have worried. In Barcelona, Fernando Torres scored a classy opener through the legs of the keeper and promptly got sent off a few minutes later. Atleti managed to hold Barça to a 2-1 final scoreline, ensuring that we’d see meaningful football at the Calderón. It’d be a big task for Atleti to advance, but far from insurmountable.
On the day of the second leg, after slugging down a few Mahous at Sam’s flat and braving a tipsy 10-minute jaunt over to the Calderón, we were ready for what would be the live sporting event of our lives.
Describing the atmosphere as electric would be a disservice. On the winding, mazy path that runs along the river to the Calderón, fans were already screaming, supporter scarves twirling in the wind, a thick molasses of humanity moving slowly as one toward the stadium as late afternoon turned to night.
Once inside, we posed for quick pictures with the players’ Audis and contemplated our beverage options. In Spain, non-alcoholic and lemon beers are much more popular and prevalent, and these were the only two options at the concession stand.
It’s somewhat odd to see “hard,” “rowdy” football fans wandering around the stadium sipping what essentially amounts to the Mike’s Hard Lemonade of Spain, but such is the scene in the Calderón. I assume some element of managing the Ultras and fan behavior is involved, as the low percentage lemon beers aren’t necessarily conducive to drunken belligerence. Always something to be avoided.
“Juntos hacia la victoria” - or “Together towards Victory” - read the mosaic in the stadium that night, a self-aware, typical Atleti slogan emphasizing togetherness and winning. Lemon beer had caused us to miss the Champions League hymn and much of the pregame fanfare, but we were in our seats by the time the game kicked off.
The first half was a blur. Screaming and hoarse voices and profanity. Barça’s star Lionel Messi was invisible, aside from industriously tracking back into his own half to win the ball on one particular occasion.
Out of nowhere, Jordi Alba failed to clear, Gabi was quickest to the ball, and Saúl played a preposterous outside-of-the-boot cross into the box for Antoine Griezmann to head past Ter Stegen. “Seven Nation Army” blared over the speakers, the crowd screamed Griezmann’s name, Antoine threw up his now-signature “Hotline Bling” telephones and my eardrums exploded. Atleti had the advantage on aggregate, and if the scoreline held, would advance to the semifinals. A palpable buzz and excitement rippled around the stadium, as if people could scarcely believe our good luck.
The lemon beer took its toll, and there was a stadium-wide mad dash to the bathroom at halftime. The singing and cheering hadn’t stopped.
Every time Barça plays a team from Madrid, the affair is tinged with politics. The Catalan independence movement is an omnipresent spectre, a time bomb that is becoming more and more concrete, always exceedingly apparent in the capital. Gerard Piqué - best known globally as Shakira’s partner - openly endorses Catalan independence, so he always bears the brunt of opposing fans’ rage. This game was no exception.
In the bathroom, close to a hundred tipsy, testosterone-emboldened males who had just seen their heroes take the lead on the best soccer team in the world united behind a cause. The chant rang out:
“PUTA BARÇA, DE PUTA CATALUÑA……...PUTA BARÇA, DE PUTA CATALUÑA”
“F****ing Barça, from f***ing Catalonia.”
When it was my turn at the urinal, the man beside me asked me who had crossed for Griezmann. When I responded that Saúl had centered, he nodded knowingly. It was an odd contrast with the legitimate political furor raging around us.
In the second half, Filipe Luis won a penalty with a smooth counter-attacking run through Barcelona’s defense, with Andrés Iniesta having no choice but to handle the ball. After Griezmann slotted home and ran over to Simeone, Gabi arguably returned the favor with a handball in his own box, but the referee declined to award a penalty.
2-0. Full time.
As the final whistle blew, Juanfran turned to the fans and thumped the crest on his shirt with his hand. Diego Godín kissed his own shirt’s crest.
The fans stuck around to cheer on their conquering heroes. After briefly heading to the dressing room, the players wandered back out onto the field to thank their afición. Sporting matching jackets and dri-fit shirts and soccer slides, smartphones out and recording the crowd, faces revealing almost a sense of awe at both the crowd and themselves, at what they had just accomplished, it was hard not to love and idealize this team and these 21-, 22- and 23 year-olds living out one of the moments of their lives, looking for their parents in the stands. They seemed like real people, individuals.
Torres, who was suspended for the game thanks to his red card in the first leg, wore a white shirt and jeans, standing out from the team. The crowd acknowledged him nonetheless with his signature Atleti cheer, sung to the tune of “Can’t Take My Eyes off of You.”
“FERNANDO TOOORRRREEEES, LO LO LO LO LO LO, FERNANDO TORRES, LO LO LO LO LO LO.”
The other players jumped up and down, spurring on the crowd and pointing at El Niño, his red card forgiven.
Nick Hornby also writes about how he felt at the absolute center of the universe when he went to Highbury for big matches, like what he was doing mattered more than anything else.
After this game, I know what he was talking about. It was a singular event. Phones didn’t work in the stadium because there were too many people. I couldn’t feel my face for hours.