“They weren’t there in the flesh, but they were they in spirit.”
This was how Diego Simeone explained the support he felt from the Atlético Madrid fans during Saturday’s 1-0 win over Real Valladolid, the team’s first home match since March 7. It was poetic and it was true. The fans were there in spirit. They were also present through stems, leaves and petals.
Since 1996, Atleti season ticket holder Margarita Luengo has carefully placed a bouquet of flowers beside the corner flag next to her seat ahead of each home game. Twenty-four carnations — 12 white and 12 red. Only once, due to a family emergency, was she unable to attend and unable to carry out this very special pre-game ritual. Even following the move from the Vicente Calderón to the Wanda Metropolitano, the 73-year-old fan has carried this on and places the bouquet next to the equivalent corner — the far right corner if looking out at the pitch from the tunnel.
On Saturday, however, Margarita wasn’t there. No fan was. Football is back, but the COVID-19 crisis means that fans aren’t back with it. The players were there, though, and they know just how much this tradition means to all Atleti fans and to Margarita.
As club captain, Koke took on the responsibility of bringing the 24 carnations to Saturday’s match against Real Valladolid, and he wandered across the turf before kick-off while video-calling Margarita.
“Shall I leave them right here? Is that ok?” Koke asked.
“Yes, that’s perfect,” came the reply.
Koke had one more comment to make before hanging up.
“Let’s hope this brings us a lot of luck, let’s hope that we win and let’s hope that we score from a set piece,” the captain added. That’s because Margarita loves set pieces, particularly those that were taken by Milinko Pantić.
When Atlético won the double in 1995/96, they scored 37 of their 75 (49%) LaLiga goals that season from set pieces, most of which were taken by Pantić. As Margarita once recalled on Spanish radio:
“The tradition started because I really liked Pantić and the way he took corners and freekicks so well. Ahead of one match, I saw beforehand that a member of my fangroup had carnations and I asked for four of them. He asked why and I explained that I was going to throw them onto the pitch by the corner flag and that we’d score four goals.”
They did. In that match against Athletic Club on Jan. 28, 1996, Los Colchoneros won 4-1, with Pantić scoring once and assisting two other goals.
“Ever since then, I’ve brought some flowers for Pantić,” Margarita added. “At the start he moved them away, as they maybe even annoyed him. But, one day I left a note asking him not to and we’ve had a great friendship ever since then. He’s like a son to me.”
Now, no player dares move the flowers out of the way. Even when an unaware opposition player does so, they’re quickly reprimanded by the crowd and by the players wearing red and white.
On Saturday night, there would have been no whistles had one of the Real Valladolid players decided to interfere with this holy bouquet, but none of them did. That meant the flowers were right there in the 81st minute when Koke walked back over to the spot he’d visited ahead of the match. This time he was there to take a corner, and he curled a ball perfectly into the path of the clumsy José Antonio Caro, who spilled it enough to allow Vitolo to head in.
The ball only just crossed the line. It passed just enough over, before Kiko Olivás’ header swatted it away in vain. It crossed just to the point where the ball was perfectly parallel to Margarita’s bouquet of flowers. Then, the job was already done.
“Let’s hope that we win and let’s hope that we score from a set piece,” Koke had said. Prophetic words from the captain. Even on the day without any fans in the stands at the Wanda Metropolitano, Margarita’s carnations still brought the home team some luck.