Atletico no longer Spain's cursed club
They have been sponsored by Spiderman and mocked as losers but face Barca tonight as equals
Atletico Madrid go by several nicknames. 'El Atleti'. 'Los Rojiblancos' -- the Red and Whites. 'Los Colchoneros' -- the mattress-makers, because mattresses in Spain used to be red and white.
But the one that hurts the most is 'pupas'. It means unlucky, or cursed. And until recently, it was a description that suited Atletico down to the ground.
The history of Atletico is a story of what-ifs. In 1959 they lost the European Cup semi-final to their great rivals Real Madrid in a play-off.
Had the away goals rule been in place, they would have gone through. In 1974 they were a minute away from beating Bayern Munich in the final.
In the dying seconds, Georg Schwarzenbeck equalised with a 25-yard screamer, and Bayern won the replay 4-0.
Though they won the double in 1996, they were relegated in 2000. To date, they are the only La Liga team to have been sponsored by Spiderman. Even one of the club's songs is called 'Que manera de sufrir' -- 'What a way to suffer'.
"Atletico fans", Fernando Torres once said, "are prisoners of a feeling".
Until last year, they went 25 matches without beating Real. But something strange is happening. Tonight they play Barcelona with both sides level on points at the top of La Liga. The team who were 66/1 to win the title at the start of the season have dropped only five points in 18 games.
And all this after selling £160m worth of players in the past three seasons.
Atletico's rise as potential champions has been one of the most sensational stories of the season. To put it into perspective, imagine Manchester City winning the title in 2012, but without the Abu Dhabi money. That would be the scale of Atletico's achievement.
Despite spending healthily on the likes of Falcao and Arda Turan in recent years, they continue to run a transfer surplus. They remain a selling club.
More than that, they retain a reputation as something of a basket-case club, largely down to their volatile fans -- the Frente -- and the machinations of former president Jesus Gil, whose first act as mayor of Marbella was to install a bust of Franco in the town hall and then walk through town shouting insults at prostitutes and the homeless.
When Atletico won the double in 1996, Gil celebrated by bathing in champagne, parading through Madrid on a white horse and telling reporters that he "could be God".
But the Gil years were as humiliating as they were captivating. Gil disbanded the youth system, in so doing losing a talented 15-year-old striker called Raul. A sponsorship deal with Columbia Pictures meant the logo on the club shirt was changed at regular intervals to reflect whatever blockbuster movie was out at the time.
By the time Atletico took the field with the words 'European Gigolo' on their shirts, the joke was wearing a little thin.
Relegation in 2000 formed the club's nadir, but even in the second division the club attracted attendances of 50,000 and above. Though they made a swift return, the 'pupas' tag still hung around their necks, not least when getting knocked out of the UEFA Cup by Bolton in 2008.
In 2010, Atletico won the Europa League. It proved a turning point. The following year a new coach arrived: Diego Simeone, bete noire of David Beckham and one of the heroes of the double-winning side.
Simeone, an honorary Madrileno, set about assembling a side with a strong local core, built around captain Gabi and the brilliant young midfielder Koke.
Simeone's meticulous preparation and tireless energy have driven Atletico up the table. "There are many similarities with Pep Guardiola in the intensity of what he does," David Villa said month. "He's one of the best trainers around."
Last May, Atletico shook off the biggest hoodoo of all, beating Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final -- at the Bernabeu. Suddenly the giant had been cut down to size. Carlo Ancelotti's side now languish five points behind their two great rivals.
"The spirit of this team is the secret of this team," Gabi said. "We're afraid of nothing."
Atletico's secret has been to defend deep and very well. Up front, following Falcao's departure, Diego Costa has stepped brilliantly into the breach, matching Cristiano Ronaldo goal for goal this season.
The veteran Villa remains the dainty creator of his Barcelona vintage, wafting in and out of space, creating angles. And yet the future remains clouded in mystery. For all their good work, the smart money is on Atletico to fall short again. This summer -- and possibly sooner -- the vultures will pounce again.
Diego Costa has already turned down a move to Liverpool, but other clubs are beginning to musk up in anticipation of an advance. Manchester United are keen admirers of Koke.
And with Spain's big two mopping up almost four times as much television money as Atletico every season, any narrowing of the gap is likely to be only temporary.
But there are signs of hope. A new 70,000-seat stadium is scheduled to open in 2017, along with a new training ground. And even if they finish the season empty-handed, Simeone's side have achieved something more impressive than trophies: a shift in perceptions.
"I think what Simeone has done at Atletico Madrid is far more impressive than what I've done here," said Barcelona manager Gerardo Martino, "considering how far his side have come on since he arrived. My position is much easier."
Whatever happens tonight, that may well be Simeone's ultimate legacy. 'Pupas' no more. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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