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What I learned from watching the Madrid Derbi with an American Atleti supporters group

An experience like no other — taking in el derbi with a New York-based peña.

The Football Factory at Legends sits in the shadow of the Empire State Building on West 33rd Street in Midtown Manhattan. One street over, on West 32nd, you enter Koreatown in full force, its neon signs advertising watermelon soju cocktails, dumpling spots, bubble tea cafés, hair cutting clubs and Korean barbeque joints. If you walk in the other direction, you join Broadway, a diagonal, curvy artery slashing through the orderly, rectangular blocks formed by Manhattan’s planned avenues and streets. Walking this way, you pass an enormous Uniqlo, a packed-to-the-gills Shake Shack and — if you walk a half mile or so in one of two directions — Madison Square Garden or Times Square.

So the Football Factory straddles the line between local and tourist, immigrant and sightseer. It’s open from 11 a.m. to 4 a.m. Monday through Friday and 7 a.m. to midnight on weekends. Some people, thirsting for a taste of home, spend entire days here, from the crack of dawn until close, gorging on soccer while consuming an equal amount of Guinness or Corona. Some of them live in New York, while others are just visiting, but still can’t bear the thought of missing their club play on Saturday. It’s a place where it’s easy to establish community, whether you share a penchant for the sport, an appreciation for beer or a love for Atlético Madrid with your neighbor.

For example, when I walked into a bathroom in the Football Factory, I saw a fan dressed in Borussia Dortmund’s black and yellow.

”Atlético,” he said in German-accented English from his place at the urinal, pointing at my scarf. “4-0. Then 0-2. But you all are very good.”

”Pulisic,” I responded.

He smiled, washed his hands and clapped a hand on my shoulder. “Very bad,” he said.

Atleti’s New York Peña assembles to watch all of the club’s matches at the Football Factory. The weekend of the Madrid Derbi, I’m in New York visiting a couple friends. My hotel’s just a few blocks away from the bar, so I send a Facebook message to the Peña to ask if I can join them for the game.

”Hello, Mikeie. You’ll be welcomed. We await you in New York. #LetsGOAtleti.”

I throw on my Fernando Torres scarf to identify myself as a friend to the cause and start the short walk from the hotel. When I reach West 33rd, I see a group of four extremely Spanish-looking people, well-dressed in red and white and chatting excitedly. I follow them into the bar, which looks like a typical Irish sports pub/restaurant.

The first floor is calm at the moment. Guests are seated, enjoying their Saturday morning breakfast and using their inside voices, for the most part. There’s a host stand, where a friendly waitress offers to show us to a table. The Spaniards thank her, but turn their attention to a staircase to the left, which descends a floor, bends at a right angle and deposits us into a dimly-lit space that looks like a smaller Irish sports pub/restaurant. This is clearly where the action takes place.

The stairs belly up to a bar. Between them, there’s an open 100-to-200 square foot space that could almost be a dance floor in the right setting. There’s not a lot of seating — just a couple round bar tables around the perimeter. It’s 9:30, but everybody has a beer in their hands and everybody’s standing, with the exception of four Dortmund fans. Three or four Crystal Palace fans are getting hype before their London derby against West Ham. This space smells like New York, or maybe like the Calderón — reminiscent of an overcoat that’s been in the subway, in bars, in places where old men smoke cigars.

After stepping down to the basement, the Spaniards turn right and push through a set of floor-length supporters flags, which cordon off a private-ish space for supporters groups whose matches are about to start. The room’s walls are full of floor-to-ceiling soccer memorabilia.

The thing about the Football Factory is that it’s not designed for Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich or top six Premier League supporters, not really. The Supporters Groups that hold their official meetings at the Factory root for middling English clubs like Middlesbrough, Queens Park Rangers, Crystal Palace, Watford, Fulham or Leicester City, or second-tier elite clubs like PSG, Juventus, Milan and Atlético. The pieces of memorabilia most prominently displayed in that back room include a signed, framed Christian Fuchs Leicester jersey and a framed River Plate jersey. The Real Madrid Peña (The Playwright) and the Barça Penya (Smithfield Hall) watch matches at their own Midtown Manhattan Irish pubs, quite possibly because they have too many members to share such a small space.

In that back room — which is still relatively empty — the Madrid Derbi occupies the two central big screen televisions. On the right, PSG are set to host Bordeaux. The screen on the left, obligatorily, is showing the Liverpool game, although there aren’t any Liverpool supporters present (they watch at 11th Street Bar in the East Village). There’s a small group of erudite-looking Frenchmen wearing square-rimmed glasses and Edinson Cavani jerseys over button downs occupying a table or two, but the majority of people — a cluster of probably 10 or so supporters — are there to see Atlético play.

I see a man standing by himself and go over to introduce myself. His name is José. He’s a neutral man, about six feet tall with classically Spanish dark hair, wearing an inexpensive khaki jacket, jeans and European-looking shoes. He’s from the Ventas neighborhood of Madrid, a northeastern area traditionally known for commerce and its bullfighting ring. He’s loved Atlético ever since he can remember. He thinks his family instilled it in him. Now, he lives in Washington D.C. He’s in New York visiting his cousins. Like me, he’s never watched a match with the Peña — he just didn’t want to miss the Derbi.

Like a lot of O.G. Atleti supporters, he values history with the team and style of play when considering his favorite players.

”I like Tiago the best,” he says. “But if I had to pick someone on the current team, it’d be Juanfran Torres.”

He thinks Saúl is a good footballer, but he needs to “give more.” He thinks Koke is solid, but a bit overrated.

”He’s not really what people think he is,” he says. “He’s not the next Xavi.”

José also likes Antoine Griezmann, acknowledging that he’s the best player on the team right now and that he should be appreciated for staying this past summer.

Kickoff is approaching. Beers have seemingly materialized in people’s hands. Corona is the drink of choice, perhaps adhering to Atlético’s stereotypical Latin American affiliation. People who aren’t drinking Coronas opt for tallboys in cans. No craft brews in sight. Nothing snooty for colchoneros supporters.

It turns out that the group of Spaniards — two men and two women — that I followed into the bar are also first-timers. They’re on vacation from Madrid, just happened to be in the City, and couldn’t bear the thought of missing the Derbi. If they weren’t on vacation, they’d be at the Wanda Metropolitano.

The leader of the pack is Juan Carlos. He installs himself at the table closest to the television. He pulls a wad of four or five supporters scarves out of his backpack, selects one that honors Cholo Simeone and immediately heads to the back of the room to take a picture next to the peña flag.

When I ask him his name and if I can take his picture, Juan Carlos makes it clear that he’s ready for the Derbi. He’s ravenous, seemingly frothing at the mouth. When I talk to him, he can’t even maintain eye contact because he’s so jacked up.

”My name is Juan Carlos, and I’m anti-Madridista ‘til I DIE!”

”’Til I DIE!” he repeats for emphasis.

Still holding the scarf aloft, he starts back toward his group at the front of the room. He launches into a solo version of the Atlético hymn. Immediately after he finishes a chorus or two, he starts a classic “Olé, Olé, Olé! Cholo Simeone!” chant before moving on to “Quien no salta es madridista,” jumping up and down in the bar. He is a one-man cheering section.

That we define ourselves at least partially by what we are not probably says something about us as Atlético supporters. Before the second leg of the 2017 Champions League semifinal, supporters unfurled a tifo that read “Proud to Not Be Like You.” The one thing that Juan Carlos wants to get across is that he’s anti-Madridista. In one sense, this definition-by-opposition could be interpreted as spiteful, pitiful or even childish. Madridistas would surely make this point. Atleti aren’t a big enough deal to stand on their own, they might say, so supporters have to define themselves in opposition to something bigger.

But there’s also something noble to it. By defining ourselves in opposition to an ideal, a grand project, we are essentially the Resistance. We love supporting a club that doesn’t sign galácticos, that aren’t frontrunners, whose fans generally avoid whistling their players (with the exception of Griezmann, and the supporters made that right later in the match).

This is a rose-colored of interpretation of football fandom, and I don’t mean to trivialize resistance or the fact that both clubs’ ultra groups have unfortunate far-right tendencies. But in my experience, people who choose to support the rojiblancos — even in New York — are often individuals with strong value systems.

The players walk out onto the Metropolitano pitch, the hymn blaring over the loudspeakers. This time, Juan Carlos isn’t alone in singing along.

Buzz is building in the Football Factory. We’re now probably 20 strong in red and white. The camera pans to Álvaro Morata. The response is lukewarm.

”We’ve got to at least give him a chance,” José says to me. “He could come good.”

Another man isn’t so optimistic. “¡Eres la puta rata, Morata!” You’re the fucking rat, Morata.

The man screaming at our new, on-loan striker appears to be the leader of the pack, the alpha in the room. He’s wearing a personalized home jersey from the 2015/16 campaign, the year of the San Siro final. Number 19, “Peña N.Y.C.” on the back. He wears a hard part with plenty of pomade, a tallboy can in hand. He’s someone who never sits down during the match, full of nervous energy for his club, switching locations and pacing throughout. He’s possibly ex-Ultra, with the crest and “Coraje y Corazón” tattooed on his forearm. Given the caged animal vibes and the potential energy he exudes, I begin to refer to him as El Tigre in my head. I don’t really know why.

The camera pans to Thibaut Courtois stretching.

”Rata!” This time, El Tigre isn’t the only one whistling.

As the starting teams for both sides flash on the screens, nervous murmuring starts to ripple through the group.

”No Rodri?” José voices what we’re all thinking.

Tío, Thomas is excellent. No te preocupes.”

Another voice has joined the fray, and it belongs to a tall man of South Asian descent. I don’t catch his name over the din of the bar, and I don’t ask him to reintroduce himself after the moment has passed, so I’ll call him Manuel. I’ll spend much of the match talking to Manuel and José.

If José is the OG fan, Manuel represents the new age. It’s also his first time watching a match with the peña. He found out about the meetup on Reddit, and he has some hot takes on Atlético that he’s more than willing to share. His favorite player on the team is Santiago Arias. I overhear him describing Arias as “the defender of his generation” to another fan in the bar.

”He can attack AND defend!” Manuel says excitedly, waving his arms to make his point.

To be fair, Arias has been a real find this year. He’s earned minutes during his first season and mostly displaced Juanfran, no easy feat under Simeone. Moreover, Manuel represents an earnestness and an enthusiasm that’s exciting for a newer supporter. He began to root for Atlético right before the first Champions League final against Madrid, and became involved in Atleti’s Reddit scene thereafter. He’s decided to support the club with no apparent connection to Spain or the team, which seems to bode well for the club’s American presence. There are three or four other English-language fans in the bar who clearly live in New York and aren’t just Spaniards on vacation.

However — rose-colored glasses again — Atlético’s American presence doesn’t even begin to approach Madrid’s or Barcelona’s, or that of any Premier League club. Perhaps that’s another draw for American Atleti supporters — being a part of a movement that’s more underground, under the radar. It’s easy to cheer for Madrid, Barça, Arsenal, or any other club that operates supporters groups in pretty much every major city. Cheering for these clubs in the United States provides a clear set of benefits — trophies and community. Not so for Atleti.

Supporting this club stateside can be a lonely experience — there usually aren’t other fans around. I love watching Atlético’s matches at home because it reminds me of my gap year in Madrid, a simpler time with few responsibilities (and plenty of privilege, I should acknowledge). The one or two times I’ve seen people rocking Atleti jerseys in my hometown of Nashville, I’ve felt an absolute need to speak to them, feeling like we share this unique bond even without knowing each other. They’ve all felt the same way, blown away by the existence of another Atleti supporter in their general area.

For people like Manuel — who are really into Reddit and similar platforms, perhaps active online, perhaps searching for belonging — Atlético may provide something to cling to, even if the community is mostly on the Internet or at a distance. Manuel is clearly a friendly guy with a couple awkward tendencies. Before the game, he seems eager to prove his Atleti bonafides. He tells us that his greatest wish is to walk into the middle of Playwright — the Madridista bar a couple of blocks away — and shout “Madrid es Puta!

Translated literally: “Madrid is bitch.” No article or anything. Just “Madrid is bitch.”

His use of Pidgin Spanish phrases — “Amigo, can you put my cerveza on the table? Muchas gracias!” — also hints at a desire to belong. He’s clearly in his element among Atlético supporters, making the rounds socially and introducing himself to as many people as possible. It’s noteworthy that supporting Atleti provides this kind of home and belonging. At the risk of making the club sound too cultish, the strong value system that Atleti offers definitely appeals to certain people.

The match itself starts promisingly. Atlético are on the front foot. Morata wins a couple headers and produces a few nice pieces of hold up play, and all seems to be forgiven in the eyes of El Tigre.

Bonita, Morata!” he screams.

Vinicius tries one of his Brazilian tricks at the edge of the box and gets emphatically shut down by Arias and Diego Godín. El Tigre roars his approval.

”You can’t bring that shit in here, Vinicius! Not in here! Not in our house!”

Then, the Casemiro chilena, with Sergio Ramos winning the flick-on header over four Atlético players. For a club known for its fight, its never-give-up-attitude — porque luchan como hermanos — this moment is disturbing. Ramos — the supervillain, the anathema — seemed to just want it more. Graham Hunter will make a similar point in the pages of ESPNFC a couple of weeks later.

Cuatro hombres, tío!” El Tigre throws his hands up in the air in disgust.

”Oblak should have stayed, no?” José remarks.

Next, the Griezmann goal. A sick finish through Courtois’ legs, and everyone at the Football Factory appreciates it.

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

”What a golazo!” El Tigre shouts. “20 million? He’s worth every penny.


There’s an energy in the bar, and for a moment, it feels like we’re at the Calderón. People are hugging, linking arms, dancing, bouncing.


Juan Carlos is excited. He’s removed his red Atleti beanie and replaced it with one of his scarves, which he’s wound around his head like a bandana or a do-rag.

But the excitement is short-lived.

Vinicius scoots by José Giménez on the left wing. Josema’s naive, hauling him down at the edge of the box. Vinicius was probably outside of the box when Giménez grabbed him, but even with VAR, the refs rule that the foul continued into the area.

”Giménez, qué tonto eres!” El Tigre bellows.

“Giménez, what a fool you are.”

Ramos emphatically dispatches the penalty and adds insult to injury with a Griezmann-inspired Fortnite dance.

At halftime, the mood is definitely tempered but still optimistic. I make my way to the front of the room to speak with Lana, Juan Carlos’ wife. She’s originally from México. When she moved to Madrid, Juan Carlos told her that she had to give Atlético a chance. She fell in love quickly and completely with both Juan Carlos and the club.

”It’s something you feel,” she said, echoing sentiments you often hear in relation to Atleti. “And once you feel it, it’s impossible not to love and support Atleti.”

The second half starts. Less than 10 minutes in, Morata has the ball in the back of the net, chipping Courtois from outside the area. He clearly has no qualms about celebrating against his former club, wheeling away in delight. VAR steps in and disallows the goal. Maybe he was offside, maybe he wasn’t.

”It’s really close,” José says, always with the measured response.

(Notably, Atleti’s official Facebook page is less measured with its response.)

When Simeone brings on Vitolo for Thomas Lemar, there’s an excitement in the bar. “Venga, Vitolo! Canarias! Vamos, Vitolo!” The fact that Vitolo’s a native Spaniard isn’t lost on the group — and he’s just been more productive than Lemar in recent months.

In the 65th minute, Simeone subs off Ángel Correa for Rodri. In the bar, fans appreciate Correa’s efforts — he provided the through ball for Griezmann’s opener — but they’re not convinced that Cholo should have left Rodri on the bench for so long.

”He should’ve been in since minute one!” El Tigre yells.

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

Gareth Bale provides the dagger in the 74th minute, hitting a perfect finish across Jan Oblak into the side netting after Atlético’s defense, uncharacteristically, switched off. During the celebration, he hits the Wanda Metropolitano with what essentially amounts to the Spanish middle finger. As BeIn Sports shows the replay in slow motion, Juan Carlos scoffs, repeating Bale’s gesture in the bar.

The mood turns funereal. The group of Frenchmen in Cavani jerseys and button downs — whom I had been so quick to judge as quiet, docile and professorial — have somehow multiplied and are now singing at the top of their lungs. We, the Atlético fans, allegedly some of the loudest in the business, are now the quiet ones. Juan Carlos isn’t even watching the match anymore. He’s just slumped over in his seat, sadly weaving his extra scarves into a little ball.

”There aren’t a lot of them, but they’re loud,” José whispers, impressed by the PSG supporters group, who are singing stadium chants in a remarkable display of coordination.

They only grow louder as Cavani converts a penalty. As the second half of PSG’s match against Bordeaux begins, they bring Kylian Mbappé — Kylian freaking Mbappéoff the bench.

Meanwhile, right before Bale’s goal, Simeone turns to Nikola Kalinić as he chases the game. The contrast is stark.

On the bright side, as Morata makes way for Kalinić, he receives a smattering of applause from the fans in the bar, even El Tigre. He’s begun to win us over.

As the PSG group grows louder, the Atlético supporters in the bar eventually grow weary of being silent. They turn their ire toward Thomas Partey, who, with the game already decided, offers up an absolutely brutal stretch of play. He gifts Madrid the ball for Bale’s clincher. He misplaces three or four passes in a row. And the pièce de résistance — he gets sent off.

El Tigre isn’t having it. “What an absolute shit of a game from Thomas!” he screams.

”Thomas, if you want more game time, you can’t do this shit!” An English-language fan in a peacoat and Warby Parkers joins in, speaking for everyone in the bar.

But eventually, the anger peters out, and we finish the game in relative silence, resigned to our fate. Only El Tigre continues to rage.

”Three goals at home, Simeone. THREE GOALS!”

The match ends. Hugs and handshakes. See you next time, everybody. People are disappointed — angry, even — but no one is apocalyptic. En las buenas y las malas, as they say. In the good times and the bad.

More than at any club, you earn your stripes as an Atlético supporter by suffering, by experiencing these types of matches. As an Atleti fan, I’ve always felt like a bit of an interloper, picking up the club when I lived in Madrid during the 2015/16 season. I got a title challenge that lasted through the final weeks and a magical Champions League campaign with wins over Bayern and Barça without dealing with relegation, heartbreak or reaching the pinnacle only to have everything snatched away by the eternal rival. Just as Atleti fans define themselves as the resistance to an ideal, they also define themselves by how they act when things are bad instead of when things are good. Hard work over flash. Suffering over triumph.

Perhaps this mindset puts a ceiling on what Atleti can accomplish. Maybe 4-4-2, Cholismo and the like have already taken the club as far as they can. It’s easy to feel that way after a match like the most recent Madrid Derbi. But the first leg against Juventus — in which Cholo subbed on Morata, Lemar and Correa — indicated a willingness to go for it all.

”Proud to not be like you.”

”Anti-Madridista ‘til I DIE! ‘Til I DIE!”

At the end of the game, I shake hands with José and Manuel. Even though we’re all from different parts of the country, we part not with a “nice to meet you,” but with a “nos vemos.”

Literally, “we’ll see each other.”