Madrid es rojiblanca. This is Atlético Madrid’s refrain, and it’s never louder than when they beat Real Madrid. It’s a pushy slogan, one that carries the pungent whiff of an inferiority complex, but any Madrid-based Atlético worth their replica Gabi shirt will tell you it’s also a statement of fact—that Real Madrid are the club to the north, supported by suburbanite lawyers with Audis and lawns. Madrid’s core, the biased claim goes, is always red and white.
Whether or not this is actually true, it does reveal a truth about the club: Atléticos insist upon ownership of the capital city because it’s the only real estate they could ever hope to hold. Real Madrid are the richest and most widely supported club in Spain, if not the world. They’ve won 10 European titles, 32 Ligas, and have a history that reads like a century-long compliment. Their aesthetic is expensive and superior. People who don’t follow soccer know Real Madrid are a big deal. Atlético Madrid still occasionally suffer the indignity of English-speakers calling them “Athlético.”
This makes Atleti sound smaller than they are, but they do that to themselves anyway. It has taken three years of competing with Real Madrid and Barcelona—consistently bettering the former domestically, knocking the latter out of the Champions League twice, and winning La Liga over both of them in 2014—for Cholo Simeone and his players to admit that Saturday’s UCL final is about 50-50. This qualifies as brash rhetoric for Atleti. When they won the league title two years ago, they protested until the last few matchdays that they didn’t stand a chance.
And they’re still downplaying their odds. They’ve defeated Madrid at the Bernabéu this year, played them to a 1-1 stalemate at home, and their record against them last season was four wins, three draws, and a loss, including a 4-0 demolition of Los Blancos at the Vicente Calderón. Atleti are slight favorites for this final. You won’t hear them saying that, because they don’t believe it.
This is deliberate. Atleti have a way of fooling themselves, adopting a kind of forced humility that keeps them from slacking. They are peculiarly placed in the European soccer hierarchy in that they’re more talented than nearly every opponent they face, but not as flush with attacking skill as megaclubs like Bayern Munich and Barcelona. They take the game to most of their domestic competition, pushing Juanfran and Filipe Luís forward, playing Koke in a floating role behind the front line, and giving Saúl free rein to make runs into the box. They don’t dominate possession, but they sap the life from lesser squads. They cleave midfields and starve strikers. It’s not unusual for them to go two or three games without conceding a decent scoring chance. The best way to describe it is Atleti rack up a lot of one-goal blowouts.
Against Spain’s duopoly and in the later stages of the Champions League, they’re a different animal. Atleti press high up the pitch like they do against everybody, but they also spend extended spells bound tight as a molecule in their own half, Augusto Fernandez dropping just in front of the center backs and their wide midfielders—sometimes even Antoine Griezmann and Fernando Torres—pushing attacks out toward the sidelines.
This creates a dynamic that looks more one-sided than it actually is, Atleti seemingly on the verge of giving away goals that never come. Crosses scream in and are extinguished by Diego Godín, Josema Giménez and Stefan Savić. One-twos at the edge of the box get gummed up and become counterattacks. Jan Oblak can make spectacular saves, but he doesn’t often have to. Where Europe’s juggernauts wear their opposition down with near-constant bombardment, Atleti turn attacking into a frustrating grind. It’s like the castle wall making the cannoneer ache. Bayern and Barcelona ran at Atleti for 90 minutes at the Calderón. They both got shut out and lost.
Real Madrid will run at Atleti on Saturday. They’ll do this because they have the players to do it, but also because they are Real Madrid: bold, powerful, aggressive. They’re like cologne ad copy spliced into Revelations, or a battleship hosting a yacht party. They’re not up to their usual level this season—they lack defensive solidity and have an on-again, off-again relationship with possession—but their idea of themselves persists. Only one club could embrace the nickname Los Vikingos. They are Europe’s conquerors.
Atléticos call Madrid players Vikingos, too, though they mean it as an insult. The history between the two clubs is extensive and complicated, but this is all you need to know as far as the manner in which their sensibilities differ. Not that Atleti are pure of heart. Atlético Madrid are loosely associated with the city’s working class, but they’re also a multimillion dollar corporation, with all the ugliness that implies. This a club owned by Miguel Ángel Gil Marín and Enrique Cerezo—who fraudulently gained control of Atleti and then stalled the Spanish courts long enough for the statute of limitations to run out—and a club supported by Frente Atlético, who count a number of racists and fascists among their members.
But it’s also a club with an underdog’s ethic. It says something that Atleti’s most venerated idol is Luis Aragonés, a player whose distinctive quality was proletarian anger and a manager who straddled the line between genius and frothing lunatic. It says another that they’ve accomplished what they have with a squad composed mostly of canteranos, castoffs, and bargain transfers. Gabi wouldn’t crack Bayern Munich’s first-team squad, but his positional intelligence and clarifying passes make Atleti sing. Juanfran was a middling winger at Osasuna before Simeone transformed him into one of the world’s best right backs. Fernando Torres has been washed up for five years and returned home to rediscover the confidence he possessed in his mid-20s. If there is something working class about Atlético Madrid—if there can be something working class about a group of rich men who play a game for a living—it is a sense that everything great they do is unlikely, that they suffer for what they accomplish.
That’s the term the arch-Catholic Spanish use—sufrir—for what Atleti are best at: locking down the penalty area while the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo or Franck Ribery try to take them apart. The team are proud of needing to suffer in a way their European peers don’t, and that pride filters out into the stands at the Calderón and whatever parts of Madrid are indeed red and white.
The identity of a soccer club is mutable, or it at least appears differently over time. Every club believes they are everything they’re meant to be when they’re on top and something aberrational when they’re struggling. But there is a concept that has lived in Atlético Madrid’s bones for decades: a knowledge of inevitable pain, and striving—successfully and not—to overcome it. When the full-time whistle blows at the San Siro on Saturday and the result hits Atléticos like a headlight suddenly switched on, tears will be shed.