Fernando Torres was an appropriate figure for the honorary kick off before Atletico Madrid’s first ever home match at the Wanda Metropolitano in front of 68,000 supporters. And while the new stadium is in theory a necessary move in order to fulfill Atleti’s financial and sporting ambitions, Torres reiterated that the memories of parents and children walking hand in hand to the Vicente Calderon must always remain with supporters. With Chinese property company Wanda lending its name to the stadium, the second part refers to Atleti’s home prior to the Calderon. Continuing the familial theme, Torres said that he’ll be able to tell his grandfather he too played at the Metropolitano.
In adding to the theme of familiar faces, Diego Costa appeared at the Wanda for Atleti’s second match at their new home against Sevilla. The striker completed a club record $78.7 million move from Chelsea that was one of the worst kept secrets in the transfer market and an appropriate and obvious homecoming. Costa, as much as any individual figure, symbolized the identity of the modern side with his grit, skill and sacrifice for the greater team in all facets of play.
Torres and Costa are appropriate headliners since the striker position had played a key role throughout the 2000s for the club with the likes of Sergio Aguero and Falcao passing through. It has also been Diego Simeone’s Achilles heel ever since Costa left in 2014. In the three years since, the club have spent over $137 million on Mario Mandzukic, Angel Correa, Jackson Martinez, Luciano Vietto and Kevin Gameiro in trying to find the combination of skill, determination and selflessness of the Brazilian turned Spanish national team player. Of the five strikers, Mandzukic and Martinez left within a year. Vietto has yet to play a role in the starting 11. Gameiro offers the work rate and team focus but is rumored to be leaving this winter. Correa is just now finally fulfilling his vast promise at age 22. From that perspective, it was much cheaper to replace Costa with the real thing.
The record money paid to Chelsea combined with financing Vitolo’s move to Las Palmas calls into question Atleti’s financial sustainability after the $280 million spent building Wanda. But piecing together a solution may have more to due to luck and timing than brilliant foresight. Clever getarounds aside, the transfer ban this summer not only forced the club to keep their best player in Griezmann but to look internally for answers to the aging core of Gabi and Diego Godin. Then again, Simeone has a gift for molding journeyman players into his image as opposed to splashy signings - Griezmann aside.
In an Atleti era defined by his trusted stalwarts of a 4-4-2, Simeone spoke of using a rotation and of an internal competition sparked by his youth. We know of Saul and Koke, and Jose Gimenez played early last season at center back, but Correa and 21-year-old Lucas Hernandez have emerged this season. Filipe Luis remarked that it’s never been harder to make the first team. 24-year-old Thomas Partey showed the physicality and discipline required to replace Gabi as defensive midfielder in spurts, and now is showing consistency as he receives more opportunities. The Ghanaian is tasked with the most essential responsibility of the new core as Gabi’s significance to the side lies beyond statistics.
On Costa, he returns a different player. For starters, he is 28 years old with a history of a nagging hamstring. But though his relationship with Antonio Conte deteriorated at the end, he did score 20 goals in 35 league matches for a title winning Chelsea side last season while showing his link up play alongside Pedro and Eden Hazard. He played alongside David Villa and Arda Turan when he left the side in 2014. Now featuring some combination of Torres, Griezmann, Correa and Yannick Carrasco, and in a new stadium completely, he too must straddle the feeling of familiarity and change.
The defining feature of the Wanda Metropolitano is the curved roof that took four months to construct. It’s described as a cloak marrying old ideas with the future, with the design signaling Atleti’s position in the forefront of the European game. And while the 2019 Champions League finals will be played at the Wanda, the Metropolitano also points to ambitions beyond soccer as a center piece to future Olympic bids.
Wanda’s location itself is a story of renewal. The stadium it was built on top of was originally constructed in 1994, again to signal Spain’s ambitions on a world sporting stage. Abandoned in 2003, it became a key figure in the country’s failed 2016 Olympic bid before ownership of the site was transferred to Atleti in 2013. The Sevilla-based architecture firm Cruz y Ortiz was tasked with building the club’s vision. They used a section of the old stadium’s seats as a reference point in the constantly delayed project that was originally slotted to open in 2015.
No architect nor Atleti supporter could have predicted how the symbol of the new stadium would change over the last four years. When the goal to build a new stadium was first announced in 2011, Simeone was in his first half season as manager and lead the side to a UEFA Cup title. Falcao lead the team in goals. They finished fifth in the league. Then Atleti took off with one league title and two Champions League finals appearances, all with a distinct identity. The most trying moment was last season when Simeone shortened his contract by a year. There were worries of whether the side that closed the 55,000 seat Vicente Calderon would be the same as the one that opened the Metropolitano. Maybe the club had overshot its position by relying so heavily on the Argentine manager.
And yet, Atletico Madrid beat Malaga 1-0 in the stadium’s inaugural match with Griezmann scoring the lone goal. It was hardly a classic, but the manner of the result was classic Atleti. A fear of moving into new stadium is in translating an intimidating atmosphere to comfortable seats and updated interiors. But with fans seated closer to the field, Simeone described the feel of an ancient Roman circus.
In what could have been a disastrous summer with a transfer ban and fallout from Simeone’s non-committal, Atleti inadvertently stumbled into having their stadium cake and eating it too without having to tear down their side to pay for it. They are in the process of replacing important pieces of an aging core on a budget. Simeone extended his contract to 2020. Architect Ramon Cruz of Cruz y Ortiz said he wanted to keep the recognizable structure of the previous stadium while adding harmony with the new construction. A common desire for many recent club rebrands is to look into the future, but with the Wanda Metropolitano, it was essential for Atleti to bring the past along.