Outsiders’ tag no longer a fit for progressive Atletico Madrid

There is a sense this is the last team Real wanted to draw in the quarter-final

Gareth Bale of Real Madrid heads in their second goal during the UEFA Champions League Final between Real Madrid and Atletico de Madrid at Estadio da Luz on May 24th, 2014 in Lisbon, Portugal. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

They say the word “underdog” originated some time in the mid-19th century, which was well before Atletico Madrid were founded by three lonely Basques in Spain’s capital at the start of the 20th. Nevertheless, the entity patronised as “Madrid’s second club” have worn the underdog tag for long periods from 1903 and even now, as champions of La Liga, Atletico still retain the image of outsiders, underdogs.

In Phil Ball's celebrated book Morbo – 15 years old now – Atletico are described as "one of the most complex and paradoxical of Spain's clubs . . . they always seem somehow marginalised". This, as Ball points out, was despite their record of achievement: "They stand in third place in the all-time Spanish league."

He goes on to mention their European feats, which have been added to since Morbo was penned. Atletico won the Europa League in 2010 and 2012 and, of course, reached the Champions League final in Lisbon just 10½ months ago. In front from the 27th minute when Diego Godin exposed Iker Casillas's decline, to the third minute of injury-time, when Sergio Ramos belted in a headed equaliser, Atletico then lost 4-1 in extra-time to their city rivals Real Madrid.

It was Real's 10th European Cup; Atletico's tally is 0. And as Gareth Bale made it 2-1 to Real (thanks to Angel Di Maria) and Cristiano Ronaldo struck home the fourth from the penalty -spot, Madrid's upstairs-downstairs impressions were confirmed. Real money versus Atletico graft. Insiders v outsiders.


This helps explain why, when the two clubs were paired in the last eight of this season’s competition – beginning at the Vicente Calderon stadium on Tuesday – favouritism was quickly allotted to Real.

Seventh meeting

One Atletico director said, all very cap in hand, that they would offer “the respect that Real Madrid deserve for all they signify”. Maybe he was being facetious, because the fact is this will be the seventh meeting since Lisbon, and in the previous six, across Spanish Super Cup, La Liga and Copa del Rey, Atletico have won four. The other two games have been drawn.

In the last meeting, in the league in February, Atletico won 4-0. On goals scored this season Atletico are ahead 12 to 4 and there is a sense that this is the last team Real wanted in the draw. Since that February meeting, moreover, Atletico have played 10 games and kept a clean sheet in seven. They are accomplished at both ends of the pitch, while in Koke, they possess one Europe’s most engaging midfielders.

And yet. Underdogs. Atletico could have a chip on the shoulder about this, and perhaps privately they do. But publicly their status suits them. As manager Diego Simeone said at the start of the new La Liga season: "I don't like lying to people and one thing is clear: we can't compete with Madrid and Barcelona. Our rivals are Sevilla, Valencia and Athletic Bilbao. Our objective is third place."

That might have been the case in the days when Simeone was an Atletico player, which he was for five years in two spells from 1994, but Atletico did a domestic double in 1996 while ‘Cholo’ was in midfield, and both man and club have come a long way since then.

Atletico are no longer “kept at arm’s length from the mainstream, out on the polluted banks of the Manzanares River,” as Ball had it. They are a serious club with new money and in Simeone, 44, they have arguably the best coach in Europe.

Simeone has been described as the best at getting most from the least and that is what management is about if you’re not at Real, Barcelona, Manchester United or Chelsea.

Atletico sold Radamel Falcao to Monaco for €60 million the summer before last. Then Diego Costa and Filipe Luis left for Chelsea, for a combined €60 million. There were other departures – Thibaut Courtois was in goal in Lisbon – so Simeone knows how to cope.

But it would be wrong to characterise this Atletico as merely a shop window. They spent all last summer's money on bringing in seven players who cost €10 million and upwards. Antoine Griezmann, from Real Sociedad, and Mario Mandzukic, from Bayern Munich, cost close to €60 million together.

New contract

So while it is still possible to portray Atletico as the poor (er) relations in the city, it does not apply across Europe. There are few clubs looking so progressive and the retention of Simeone on a new contract – to 2020 – is a marker laid down. This week there have been reports of a deal for Anderlecht teenager Youri Tielemans, one of the brightest prospects in Europe and coveted by Chelsea.

The Simeone contract extension came shortly after news of fresh Chinese investment in the club. Atletico Madrid are now 20 per cent owned in Asia; they have Azerbaijan emblazoned on their jerseys; they have a club website in Spanish, English and Chinese. The formal ratification of that investment was announced in Beijing.

Losing last season’s Champions League final could have marked the beginning of an unravelling at the Calderon stadium. Instead it is part of a longer, joined-up coming together off the pitch and, as their last six results against Real demonstrate, on it. Real Madrid have quarter-final favouritism but Atletico Madrid can no longer be considered outsiders.