Within Madrid city limits, there are two main ways to get to Estadio Vicente Calderón.
Both involve taking the metro. Specifically, line five — the green line. The first involves getting off at the Pirámides stop. When you get off the train, you climb the stairs and emerge onto a tranquil Madrid street, trees on a traffic island in the middle of the road forming a canopy that shades the sidewalks. There is a park on your right. The street slopes gently downwards.
On the sidewalk, someone has spray painted the Atlético Madrid club crest in white. Age has faded it and covered it with leaves and tar and sticks and dirt, but this wear and tear seems appropriate.
At the end of the road, there is a wide, makeshift memorabilia booth staffed by three older Madrileños, gatekeepers to the roundabout and the vista that await. When you pass the booth and turn the corner, the Calderón rises up in full view. From ground level, you can’t see the red, white and blue seats inside the stadium. Beige and gray with glass windows on top, with “Estadio Vicente Calderón” written in no-frills lettering, the building looks like a massive parking garage with a few office buildings on top. Allianz Arena, it’s certainly not.
As you follow the curve of the roundabout, you pass a few old-man bars. People are either standing inside, crowding around the bar and the TV, or seated outdoors at metal patio tables. Most are sipping cañas of Mahou, or Mahou Sin, if they’re trying to cut down on their drinking. Most are wearing Atlético scarves. People are well-mannered, most of them having made their way from the hip and tony La Latina neighborhood. There may be a few fans, clad in jerseys and scarves, walking to the stadium alongside you.
At the end of the roundabout, you turn right, following the path of the Río Manzanares. You turn right onto the famed Paseo de los Melancólicos, and most of the Calderón temporarily disappears from view. You pass an elementary school, deserted on game day. The stadium reemerges. You pass a dentist’s office - advertising with photos of Koke, Gabi, and Saúl in full kits - and enter the ring road surrounding the Calderón.
Suddenly, it’s a circus. It’s deafening. The atmosphere is immediately cranked up to 11. People are everywhere. Red and white is everywhere. Mahou is everywhere. A throng of people, 20 deep, surrounds the stadium, forcing their way towards the too-small entrances. Some are just walking in circles around the stadium, singing, sporting old jerseys that make you realize how many different sponsors Atlético have had — Kia, Plus 500, Azerbaijan, Marbella, Huawei.
But if you stay on the metro past Pirámides, you get off at Marqués de Vadillo. This 15 minute walk to the stadium is a different experience.
As you emerge from below ground, you immediately see the Calderón rising up in the distance across the river. As you walk to the stadium, you navigate a series of switchbacks, hedges surrounding both sides. You take a bridge across the river. As you progress toward the stadium, more and more people join you, merging together, singing. The town gets painted progressively more red and white. Your surroundings - from the jerseys of nearby fans to the random playground and lone tire swing dangling from a highway overpass on your left - become progressively more rojiblanco.
This walk is like a less sanitized version of that tone-deaf Kylie Jenner Pepsi ad. You’re a part of a mob, moving slowly but noisily and assuredly toward an end point. Eventually, you cross the Manzanares, and enter that same ring road surrounding the Calderón, just from a different angle.
For me, that crossing of the Manzanares is symbolic. The Calderón is north of the river, so people from the wealthier center of Madrid don’t have to cross the river to get to the stadium. People coming from the south, from immigrant-heavy neighborhoods, must traverse the Manzanares.
Whichever way you took to the stadium, whatever your socioeconomic means, everyone is on the same team once you go inside. The Frente Atlético are at full throat. The air is smoky. When the club anthem plays as the squad walks out onto the field, the crowd rises as one, punctuating each “ATLETI” by raising their scarves towards the sky with both hands. When there’s a call against Atleti, old men fire up out of their seats, purple-faced, shaking their fists. When Atleti score, you can feel the rickety old Calderón trembling, and it feels for a second that the whole thing just might collapse.
Even if you knew nothing about Atleti before the game, you find yourself subsumed in the experience. It’s impossible not to get swept up in it. When the ref blows his whistle after a questionable Gabi challenge, you’re parroting the Spanish you hear around you.
“¡¡¡Se ha tirado!!!” He DOVE!!
When Antoine Griezmann or Saúl scores a scrappy goal, you’re up out of your seat, screaming the guitar chorus from “Seven Nation Army,” getting too excited and whiffing on high fives with strangers around you and just hugging them instead. The PA announcer tells the crowd who scored, sharing just his first name, leaving you to finish his thought.
People have warned you about how this team is cursed, and how they’re going to tantalize you with gutty performances just to lose in some excruciating fashion. But in this moment, you’re all-in, ready to get hurt by this team.
After the game, win or lose, the walk to the metro is lively. The metro is hopping, even if on this particular day Real Madrid have crushed your heroes. People love and support their team, no matter the result.
Seeing a game at the Calderón is a progressive experience. You slowly build momentum, gradually being surrounded more and more by likeminded people on your walk to the stadium. When you’re finally inside and Atleti score and the Calderón hits the Richter Scale and you feel that sense of impending doom that comes with supporting Atleti, that momentum escalates. When you leave the stadium, you are still singing in the streets and in the metro, your entire face tingling, the hairs on your arms still standing straight up, ready to head home or to a bar and relive the whole experience by talking through it.
An Atlético Madrid home game is a completely singular sporting experience. And it’s the Vicente Calderón that makes that possible.