The wonder of Wanda: Atlético Madrid unveil their new home

Club hopes to attract Champions League final to their €310m stadium


There was a glint in Diego Simeone’s eye as he pointed at his chest, mouthed “me” and turned. Right-footed, he struck the ball into the back of the net, not far from the near post. It was Friday evening north east of Madrid, the final rehearsal before their grand opening night and one big question had been resolved already. Well, sort of.

Some 68,000 seats sat empty, yet to be broken in, and the tap-tap of training was the only sound still, real noise put on hold for 24 hours, but the first ‘goal’ at Atlético Madrid’s new home had been scored by the captain of their double-winning side and manager of the team moving in.

“The most important thing is the three points,” Simeone said soon after, but that grin underlined that he knew better than anyone that really wasn’t true.

“You try to focus on work but it’s not easy: we’re all human,” he admitted the following night. “When you get to the stadium, however much you tell yourself ‘don’t look, don’t feel, don’t watch, don’t gaze around’, you do it.”

Everyone did – from the moment they arrived on Saturday morning. This, wrote Atlético-supporting Patricia Cazón, “was one of those days that’s historic just because the sun comes up.” After 50 years at the Vicente Calderón, Atlético had a new stadium. “Your dream home,” Marca called it.

They were excited for sure, although the fear it wouldn’t be a home at all was as inescapable as it was natural. Twelve years after the idea was first proposed, Atlético were heading to the Wanda Metropolitano, a stadium their president Enrique Cerezo called “the best in Europe”.

There was much to cheer and, almost finished at last, he was cheering all right: about the escalators in the new metro station alongside, the acoustics, the architecture, the colour, the comfort: “The seats, please! They’re lovely for people of great weight!”

A huge concrete bowl near Barajas airport, with a waved roof and red seats, a little like Wembley, the Emirates or San Mamés, Cerezo insisted: “On the outside it’s pretty, on the inside it’s the business.”

No man’s land

It is also, he hopes, going to be the scene of the 2019 Champions League final. Which could, for those of a mischievous mind, prove the most classically Atlético thing of all: you build a stadium, take a decade doing it, missing deadlines along the way, spend €310m, ask for a Champions League final, get it, get there, and then lose. To Real Madrid.

But, some asked, would it be truly Atlético? Could it be? The Calderón was crumbling, a mess, and 13,000 seats smaller, but it suited somehow and they would miss it. There was something loveable about that place, raucous and rough, something theirs, the area around it Atlético territory. Now here they are, right over the other side of the city, on an exposed plot of no man’s land 20km from home, in a stadium called Wanda.

Not just Wanda, though. Atlético’s Chinese shareholders and investors provided half of the title; its history provided the other half. The Wanda Metropolitano is named after the stadium Atlético had before they moved to the Calderón in 1966. Aware of the sense of rootlessness the move could provoke, there has been a conscious attempt to embrace their history, to create continuity and recreate community. To make it fun, too. And fans have responded: 13,000 extra seats has not meant empty seats. Season-ticket sales have increased and the opening games have sold out.

The desire to celebrate what they had and also what they will have was clear on Saturday’s opening day, from the moment they got off the metro, decorated with images from the club’s history and their former homes at the Retiro, the Metropolitano and the Calderón. It was clear too in the fight to keep their best players this summer: offers came for a dozen footballers, but none were accepted and players were renewed instead. It came at a cost, and a big one, but it was important. It’s no good moving into a new home and not taking everyone with you. Improve the stadium and weaken the team doesn’t work. Still less in the debut season, where there is anxiety as well as anticipation.

Apart from the sense of being uprooted, there are concerns over the practicalities and the economic impact. What was originally presented as effectively a ‘free’ stadium, Atlético taking and rebuilding the arena earmarked for three failed Olympic bids in return for their old place, has in fact cost them €170m plus the €140m value of the Calderón site.

Costs have grown since it started in 2008; they needed a loan in 2016 to keep going. And keeping the players has increased the demands on them to the extent that Champions League qualification is not an objective, it’s an obligation. But Cerezo says it will be paid for in seven or eight years, and that it is a necessary step into a new era.

There’s a little of the modern stadium thing: broad passageways, ample aisles, space between seats, too comfortable?

A big step

It was a big step, and an uncertain one. The stadium is still unfinished - inside and out cables hang unconnected, painting is not yet done, trees are unplanted, taped-up print-outs act as signs, and dust from the building work lingers, while the access from the M40 motorway that borders it to one side have not been built. But on Saturday, the Wanda was ready at last. Car parks were full – although at €300, season tickets there cost almost as much as they do in the stands, and most come by metro. The travel chaos feared did not happen, not least because fans arrived early, encouraged to do so by opening-day activities. There were bouncy castles and fan zones, music and two happy hours.

And so, Saturday comes.

On the concourse outside the stadium there are metallic plaques dedicated to every player who has made 100 appearances for the club. Fans seek out Luis Aragonés, and Simeone, Fernando Torres, Garate, Kiko. They seek out defector Hugo Sánchez too, scuffing at it and putting stickers over the top. Players’ pictures run along walls. Red and white, the biggest flag in Spain flies outside.

It is not an especially pretty stadium outside, but the doors open at 7pm, an hour and 45 minutes before kick-off, and the inside impacts. It is genuinely spectacular: huge, high and steep. The King is in the directors’ box. The radios are in early and they’re getting emotional. There is an homage to their former homes pre-game. The play-list in the arena is the same as was at the Calderón: 80s rock, mostly. Thunderstruck booms out.

Down in the tunnel, players head out to warm up. On the walls are the slogans that have been covered until the morning:

“It’s not just a league title. What these lads transmit to you is something much more important than that: if you believe and you work, you can do it” - Diego Pablo Simeone.

“You are Atlético Madrid and there are 50,000 people out there who will die for you. For them, for the shirt, for your pride, you have to go out there and express on the field that there is only one champion and he’s in red and white” - Luis Aragonés.

When they go out, there is a roar. When they return for the game, the anthem is played. It is the same anthem as ever, with the same opening line: “I’m going to Manzanares”, and, although they’re not going there any more, the fans belt it out. They’re almost ready. The match ball has been brought in by parachute. An Atlético flag follows, as does the Spain flag. There is a minute’s applause for the club member No1, a socio since 1933, who sadly didn’t make it.

Youth-team products

The honorary kick off – kept a secret – is performed by Garate, Torres and a youth teamer called Hugo. Past, present and future. “I’ll never forget it: it’s an honour to be with José Eulogio and a kid who we hope has a great future,” Torres says. He’s not a starter but eight Atlético youth-team products are, three of them for Málaga. And then the game begins.

It’s not always great: however impressive the stadium, however historic the day, it’s still Atlético versus Málaga in week four. On the eve of the game, Saúl had said: “I hope it’s a canterano who scores the first goal. It almost happens - just not the way they hoped. The first goal-kick is for Roberto, the first foul from Koke, and the first shot from Saúl, while the first shot on target is from Málaga’s Borja Bastón. All of them are Atlético canteranos, youth-team products.

But Atlético don’t have a shot on target until the 44th minute and an hour in, it’s still 0-0. Not much is happening. “New stadium, same football,” El País writes the next day. “Leaden,” they call it, and it is a bit – certainly until Yannick Carrasco comes on.

“We didn’t go to watch the football, we went to see the stadium,” Juan Tallón writes, but while the communion may not (yet) be complete, they still depend on each other.

The noise drops, there’s a lull. A few of them, in fact. For all the legend, and for all that it is real, there were lulls at the Calderón too, times when it went quiet there as it does here. At the new place, the songs from one end don’t always catch on at the other. Perhaps there’s a little of the modern stadium thing, too: big, broad passageways, ample aisles, space between seats, a little too comfortable? Boundaries are not yet broken down, nor communities created. They miss the Calderón. It may take time; they may need to live in it a little longer.

That’s when they see Torres by the touchline, ready. It is hard to do justice to just how much of an icon the Kid is for Atlético, and this seems set up, the perfect story. Simeone aside, if anyone should score the first goal here, just as Aragonés scored the first at the Calderón in 1966, it is him. But he is standing there waiting when Ángel Correa escapes and lays it to Antoine Griezmann to get the goal.

The Wanda Metropolitano erupts for the first time, and Torres returns to the bench. The moment is Griezmann’s: the man who was about to leave but said it would be “dirty” to do so, scores. “It’s not just any goal, that’s for sure,” he says afterwards. Griezmann has played at the Stade de France, San Siro, the Camp Nou and the Bernabéu, Ipurua too. “This is the best stadium I have ever played in, and I don’t just say that because it’s mine,” he insists.

“Luis Aragonés was a crack and Antoine is a crack,” Simeone says later. It is the first goal at the Wanda. It is also the last of the Wanda’s opening night. Victory is secured, which is a little unlike Atlético, and which is not reflected on the three giant scoreboards - they stop working soon after. At the end, gravelly-voiced folk singer Joaquín Sabina’s Atlético anthem is played, lauding: “What a way to suffer! What a way to win! What a way to lose!”

Lap of honour

It’s the same album they couldn’t play on their centenary, the night they were supposed to, because of a problem with the rights. The players go on a lap of honour, and fireworks race into the sky, round and round the roof. The stadium rocks.

Fans head out, happy. Cautiously optimistic. It’s not the Calderón and the nostalgia lingers, maybe even a sense of loss, but, wow, it’s certainly impressive. The first night has mostly been good and others will, they hope, be better. Down the stairs, through the press room, which is not yet finished and has suffered a minor flood in one corner, Simeone appears. “Since I have been a player and a coach I have never seen anything like it. This memory will stay with me my whole life; it was emotional,” he says.

“Fans will never lose the memories, the nostalgia, the love they had for Metropolitano before and the Calderón after and they’ll fall in love with the [new] Metropolitano as well because what really makes fans fall in love is the shirt.”

Guardian Service

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