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How Atlético Madrid conquered their Bernabéu demons

Once Atlético’s house of horrors, los colchoneros haven’t lost at Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in LaLiga since 2012. Here’s how they have overcome the aura and mystique of Real Madrid’s home ground.

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Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Real Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabéu defines the tranquil and residential Chamartín neighborhood. It towers above expensive clothing boutiques, wide boulevards, high-end hotels and flower gardens. For years, the pure white stadium in this trendy, exclusive neighborhood repelled all comers, a fortress that Atlético Madrid — the town’s other club, who played in a stadium that neighbored the Mahou Brewery on the banks of a man-made river — could not penetrate.

In September 2013, 79,845 fans — approximately 79,775 of them madridistas — filed into the Bernabéu expecting history to repeat itself. Atlético had scored an extra-time victory over los blancos at the Bernabéu in May’s Copa del Rey final, with center back Miranda heading in a late winner, but no matter. Reserve keeper Diego López had started the match in place of captain Iker Casillas. While López was slated to start again, Real Madrid owned Atleti in LaLiga, undefeated in the previous 11 league matches against their crosstown rivals at the Bernabéu.

In the 11th minute, Arda Turan hoofed a speculative ball toward Diego Costa, who was playing off the shoulder of Madrid right back Álvaro Arbeloa. The defender got up quickly to head the ball away. The ball pinged around and it eventually fell to Ángel Di María, who took off upfield. Filipe Luís was too quick though, as stuck in a foot and tapped the ball to Koke, Atleti’s rising star in the midfield. He crafted a clever outside-the-boot dink into space for Costa, who ran in alone on López, side-footing the ball into the bottom corner Thierry Henry-style as he did so. As the ball found netting, Koke rose to the top of LaLiga’s assist charts, while Costa led the Pichichi race.

This was the worst case scenario for madridistas. As the Brazilian-born antagonist stared into the crowd — celebrating in his inscrutable way, puffing out his cheeks and pointing at his face — the crowd screamed.

“Costa isn’t Spanish! Costa isn’t Spanish! Costa isn’t Spanish!”

Meanwhile, Atlético’s 70 traveling fans lost their minds in the upper decks.

Madrid were able to truly threaten Thibault Courtois’ net only once, when the lanky Belgian parried away Álvaro Morata’s acrobatic half-bicycle attempt. Near the end, it looked like los rojiblancos might fumble away the result and thus live up to their cursed reputation, restoring the natural order of things. Courtois nearly left the ball on a platter for Gareth Bale — the club’s record signing, sporting a different haircut on his debut — but the keeper recovered in time. In fact, it could have been worse for the hosts, as Atleti hit both the crossbar and the post.

Real Madrid CF v Club Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Supporters shuffled quietly out of the Bernabéu gates with the sense that something had changed. If once was a fluke, twice was a pattern — and nothing would ever be the same.

Throughout the 2000s, it was tough to consider the Madrid Derby a “rivalry” because it was so one-sided. Atlético spent 2000, 2001 and 2002 in Segunda, eventually earning promotion for the 2002/03 campaign. At that point, Real Madrid began repeatedly dunking on their neighbors, pulling off an entire unbeaten decade — 24 matches — against the colchoneros.

I saw the complacency — residue of the Madrid Derby’s decade as a mere formality — among madridistas firsthand when I spent 2015/16 in the capital. At the elementary school where I taught English, all the faculty supported Madrid except for the P.E. teacher and principal, siblings raised in a red and white household. When I spoke to the other teachers before the 2016 Champions League final, they were surprisingly blasé about the whole affair.

“It wouldn’t be so bad if Atleti won,” said one third grade teacher — a Real Madrid supporter and an Extramaduran who moved to Madrid after college. “We always beat them. We already have ten [European trophies] and they don’t have any yet. Atleti fans are mostly nice.

“Atlético aren’t Barcelona,” she continued. “I hate them. Catalans are so arrogant. Who’s the boy who’s dating Shakira? [Gerard] Piqué. I hate him. He is the f***ing worst. He stirs the pot for no reason.”

Unsurprisingly, while Atlético’s fanbase considers Madrid the eternal rival, madridistas hate Barça far more. There are entire books devoted to el Clásico. And though many people like to draw team lines along social classes, the great majority of madrileños support Real Madrid no matter how much money they make.

However, even with the discrepancy in grandeur between the two clubs, el derbi madrileño was one of LaLiga’s main fixtures before the tepid 2000s. Contrary to the popular narrative, in the early days of their regime, the Francoists supported Atlético. However, once Real Madrid began winning European titles, the regime couldn’t pass up the free press — especially as the country’s international relations soured due to Franco’s policies. As the popular quote by one of Franco’s ministers goes: “Real Madrid are the best ambassadors we’ve ever had.”

At that point, Atleti slid comfortably into the working-class underdog role they fill so well to this day. Although Atleti’s supporters often chanted that Madrid were “the team of the government, the shame of the country,” the Frente Atlético’s far-right politics and Rayo Vallecano’s status as the capital’s true left-wing club eventually muddled this narrative.

Pirri — the Real Madrid midfielder who was arguably the best Spanish footballers of the ‘70s — recalled some bitter derbies between the two sides during the Franco regime’s latter days.

“Barcelona mattered,” he said. “But for us back then the bigger rivalry was with Atlético Madrid.” Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, home field advantage mattered, with Madrid often winning at the Bernabéu and Atleti frequently holding serve at the Calderón.

The most famous derbi moment from Atleti’s perspective took place before the 1992 Copa del Rey final at the Bernabéu. A few hours before the match, manager and club legend Luis Aragonés stomped around his team’s locker room, ranting at his players.

“If you don’t win today, I’ll stick a f**king family-sized bottle of Coke up my arse,” he spat. “Come on, lads, listen: you’ve got to do them. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for: Real Madrid, at the Bernabéu. They’ve been sticking it up our arses for so long, now it’s our chance to stick it up theirs. Forget tactics. It’s Real Madrid!”

Aragonés’ speech had its intended effect, with his team going on to win 2-0.

After leaving the club in 1993, Aragonés returned in 2001 to steer the club out of Segunda. However, with that mission accomplished, Zapatones departed for good in 2003, and the Bernabéu hoodoo descended upon the club for the next decade.

After that September 2013 victory at the Bernabéu — followed up by a 2-2 draw at the Calderón in the league and los vikingos’ 5-0 aggregate demolition of the mattress makers in the Copa del Rey semifinals — Lisbon completely changed the rivalry’s context. Real Madrid won la décima at their neighbors’ expense in May 2014, equalizing in the final minute and pouring it on in extra time. Atlético, minutes away from their first European title, were battered.

Nevertheless, it was Atleti who looked the stronger side to start 2014/15. A tense 1-1 draw away set up a Supercopa victory for Diego Simeone’s men, and the next league derby took place in early September at the Bernabéu. Within 10 minutes, the colchoneros scored off a vintage set piece, when Tiago slipped past Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo to head past Iker Casillas (without even jumping). The Bernabéu fans, displaying their typical impatience, actually whistled San Iker after the goal.

Real Madrid CF v Club Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Atlético performed poorly for the remainder of the half, and Cristiano tucked home a penalty after Guilherme Siquiera pushed him in the box. However, Atleti would recover in the second half. Substitutes Arda “Not Yet Rata” Turan and Antoine Griezmann injected life into the proceedings, and on 76 minutes the former produced a classy finish into Casillas’ side netting, and Atleti comfortably saw out the result.

While the traveling supporters predictably went crazy in the upper decks, there was little reaction from the club’s players on the pitch. They shook hands and exchanged hugs with Madrid’s players, victors once again on the road. Jeers rang out from madridistas. Business as usual at the Bernabéu.

As Sid Lowe put it, “Atlético have been revived and so has the Madrid derby.”

In large part, this newfound success at the Bernabéu boils down to the maniacal efforts of one Cholo Simeone.

Ironically, Simeone never actually beat Real Madrid during his two spells as an Atlético Madrid player. Perhaps his most notable contribution to the rivalry was his role as a speed bump during the buildup to a spectacular Ronaldo goal. However, when Cholo returned in 2011 as the manager, he instantly transformed the club. In his first six games in charge, Atlético kept six clean sheets. They hadn’t kept a single clean sheet in the nine games preceding his arrival. Cholismo provided the club with defensive solidity and collective belief. The Europa League, the European Super Cup and the Copa del Rey soon followed.

Under Simeone’s watch, Atlético are 3-2-1 when visiting Real Madrid in LaLiga — the one loss was on Dec. 1, 2012. Atleti continued to own the Bernabéu after that September 2014 derby, securing a vintage 1-0 victory the following season behind a Griezmann strike. They’ve also managed 1-1 draws at the Bernabéu the past two seasons, with Griezmann scoring in those derbies, too. It is now common to see Simeone exit the Bernabéu dugout, walking down the tunnel and pumping his fists wildly as the final whistle blows, an unthinkable sight less than a decade ago.

Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

While his side has managed to lose two European Cup finals to Real Madrid in the most excruciating possible fashion, their rivals’ posh stadium is no longer the fortress it once was. Cholo has taken up Aragonés’ mantle, wielding those metaphorical “family-sized bottles of Coke” that Zapatones waved around before the 1992 cup final.

In a recent Madrid Derby, the TV presentation’s opening shot lingered lovingly on the Bernabéu at night, the stadium’s sign commemorating 100 years of excellence. The camera pans over Cristiano Ronaldo, performing some of his patented, twisting warm-up moves. Antoine Griezmann jogs onto the field. Sergio Ramos looks menacing.

“No finer stadium in football, the Bernabéu,” announcer Martin Tyler crows. “The setting for one of football’s most demanding fixtures: the Madrid Derby!”

Atlético strike first, with Filipe Luís providing a cross that Griezmann meets spectacularly on the volley. Madrid strike back with pretty much the exact same goal, Marcelo providing for Ronaldo, who performs his trademark celebration while yelling his trademark phrase in the aftermath: “¡Siiiiiuuuuu!!!”

Next, Cristiano raids down the left wing, making his way past Koke and Gabi before Diego Godín fells him with a slide tackle just outside the box. The referee shows Godín a yellow card, and Cristiano assumes his patented wide stance over the ensuing free kick. Flashbulbs go off all around the Bernabéu, as if it’s the opening kickoff of the Super Bowl.

These are the opening credits to FIFA 18. At this point, the player is ready to assume control, beat Jan Oblak, and perform Cristiano’s jump, turn and thrust celebration again. And even though Real Madrid are unquestionably the good guys in this scenario, it’s telling that the Madrid Derby — specifically in the Bernabéu — is now competitive enough to earn FIFA 18’s title credits slot.

The two protagonists from that trajectory-altering September 2013 victory at the Bernabéu — Costa and Koke — still wear red and white. However, new protagonists must emerge for Atleti to continue to win at the Bernabéu. After one of the first nights at the Wanda Metropolitano, a Spanish publication wrote that “something very strange would have to happen for the Metropolitano not to belong to Saúl.” And indeed, it is Saúl — the canterano who left Real Madrid’s academy over bullying and paid Los Blancos back with a bicycle kick in a 4-0 shellacking at the Calderón — who could emerge as the best homegrown player on either side of the rivalry.

And if FIFA 18 is any indication, this fixture should stay competitive for years to come.