Madrid's Mostly Friendly Rivals Face Off for a Big Prize

Updated: 21 May 2014 15:29 IST

Unlike those in many other European cities, derby matches between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid have rarely descended into bitterness or, worse, violence between their fans.


The century-old rivalry between Madrid's two main clubs, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, will reach its zenith Saturday when they meet in the Champions League final in Lisbon, Portugal, the first time that teams from the same city will play for the top prize in European club soccer.

Yet unlike those in many other European cities, derby matches between Real and Atletico have rarely descended into bitterness or, worse, violence between their fans. In fact, over the past decade, the Madrid intracity rivalry has been eclipsed by the Clasico matches between Real Madrid and Barcelona, the teams that had turned Spanish soccer into a duopoly with their financial clout before Atletico broke through and won the league in its final game of the season Saturday.

"We've got a long and strong sporting rivalry, but it's a healthy one," Enrique Cerezo, the president of Atletico and owner of 25 percent of the club, said in an interview. "You're, of course, always going to have to deal with a few hooligans, but this has been an example of a good rivalry."

Whenever Real Madrid plays Barcelona, he added, his preferred winner shifts depending on which team's victory that day would benefit Atletico more. "It's a pure calculation rather than about emotion," Cerezo said.

Yet six years ago, Cerezo upset Atletico fans when he was photographed holding a Real Madrid shirt. "All sorts of stupidities were said," Cerezo recalled, claiming that the shirt had been a birthday gift from Ramon Calderon, a former Real Madrid president and personal friend. "I just showed it during a private dinner."

Asked what differentiated Atletico's fans from Real's, Cerezo said that "winning is always welcomed, but if there is something that characterizes our supporters, it is that they are always behind us and ready to win or lose.

"We know how to win just as much as we know how to lose." Such tolerance, rare among Real's larger and perhaps more expectant fan base, has come in handy given the roller-coaster path followed by Atletico; the club was relegated to the second division in 2000, only four seasons after it won the league and the Spanish Cup.

On Saturday, Atletico is hoping to win Europe's most important club tournament for the first time; it lost the only other final it played, 40 years ago against Bayern Munich. Real Madrid, on the other hand, is going for "la decima," a record 10th trophy, the pursuit of which has been the main justification for the club's record-setting spending on players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.

"We've got used to the highest standards, and our experience is not one of suffering, like that of Atletico, but of winning, with style and with a capital W," said Carlos Martinez Cabrera, an advertising executive who is a socio, or shareholder fan, of Real Madrid.

Like many Real Madrid fans, Martinez Cabrera said he felt sympathy for Atletico, which has nowhere near the financial clout of its bigger neighbor. Real Madrid had a budget of 515 million euros this season (about $706 million), more than four times the amount spent by Atletico (120 million euros). And while Real Madrid's shirt sponsorship deal is one of the world's richest, in 2012, Atletico spent a season unable to find a main sponsor - until it reached a deal with the republic of Azerbaijan, whose "Land of Fire" slogan is now printed on the players' shirts.

"I think that being a Madrid fan is also being a bit for Atletico," Martinez Cabrera said. "If Madrid doesn't win, let it be Atletico."

Martinez Cabrera also acknowledged that the atmosphere in Atletico's stadium was "impressive and really a lot more intense" than that in Real Madrid's Bernabeau stadium.
Indeed, when Real Madrid plays smaller teams, its giant stadium is rarely full, and many of the tickets held by members are resold to tourists. In contrast, the year that Atletico was relegated to the lower division, its ticket sales at home - a stadium only two-thirds the size of the 81,000-seat Bernabeau - actually rose.

Adelardo Rodriguez Sanchez, a retired Spanish national team player who played a record 511 games for Atletico over 17 seasons, said, "The difference between Madrid and us is that Atletico has always really had good and bad moments." He added with a chuckle, "I think people get bored of the same thing and like the diversity."

Martinez Cabrera, the advertising executive, said that as a child, he could see the Bernabeau stadium from his family home. But even if Real Madrid has long been located on the northern side of the Spanish capital, not many fans have such a strong neighborhood connection with their club. In fact, in the 1920s, both teams played in northern Madrid, in neighboring stadiums that were designed by the same architect and easy to reach on Madrid's first subway line - Stadium Metropolitano for Atletico and Campo de Chamartin for Real Madrid.

Real Madrid moved in 1947 to the newly built Bernabeau, from which it dominated European soccer in the 1950s and provided a showcase for the Franco dictatorship at a time when Spain was internationally isolated.

Atletico eventually switched to the southern edge of the city, to its Vicente Calderon stadium, which opened in 1966. Atletico, however, is set to switch sites again in two years, leaving the Calderon for a larger stadium on the opposite side of the city. "We don't worry about where our fans come from," said Cerezo, Atletico's president.

Fernando Castan, a sports journalist who wrote a book about Atletico, said that "even if it's a bit of a cliche, Madrid is about power and money, while Atletico is for more humble and marginal people."

Even so, Crown Prince Felipe of Spain has backed Atletico since childhood, and Luis de Guindos, Spain's economics minister, is also among its supporters.

A victory in the Champions League final could allow Atletico a chance to shake off its nickname, pupas - a term normally used for a person who gets hurt repeatedly.

Rodriguez Sanchez, who was the Atletico captain 40 years ago, recalled that when he led the team back from Brussels after losing the 1974 European Cup final against Bayern Munich, "our fans were sad, but nobody was angry, because we'd been unlucky and had done everything possible to win."

He forecast a similar reaction from Atletico's fans on Saturday. "We're all hoping for the cherry on the cake of what has been a fantastic season," he said, "but I think nobody will forget all the effort and everything that has been achieved this year, even if we lose."

© 2014 New York Times News Service

Topics : Football
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