It is said that Football in Spain comes a very close second behind Catholicism as the national religion. If this is true then it can be said that, in Madrid, Atletico Madrid come a very close second behind Real Madrid as the capital city´s favourite sporting attraction.
Whilst the history of Real Madrid is one of European championships and domestic domination that of their cross city neighbours Atletico Madrid is one of «nearly men» and barren trophy cabinets. Such has become the commonality of spectacular capitulations from winning positions that the club and the fans are known as, «los suffrodores,» the sufferers!
If Atletico are that poor on the football field (and there is no evidence to the contrary) what drives 55,000 people to turn up week in, week out, at the traffic congested city centre Vincente Calderon stadium?
The matchday experience!
Take the party atmosphere of the Rio carnival and the passion of a political rally and you still have not arrived at the intensity generated on Atletico Madrid matchdays. From the devout Atletico supporters, known as «Ultras» and who populate the southern end of the stadium, there comes a three hour assault on the senses. The only brief respite from the barrage of noise being when the teams change ends at half time.
Football matches in «la liga», The league, typically start at 1700 on a Sunday afternoon (this is frequently changed to meet TV demands) however the matchday experience starts far earlier at around 1300. In the numerous small bars around the ground and even up to 3km´s away the Atletico faithful are preparing to enjoy one of Spains other great traditions: Lunch!
As in the rest of Spain, Lunch is a two hour marathon of five or six different Spanish dishes accompanied by and washed down with copious amounts of beer or wine during which players of a bygone era are remembered, team selection criticised and games replayed in the minds of those present. Rapidly the Salt, Pepper and Sauce bottles are rearranged as a particular goal or movement is re-enacted to shouts, screams and arguments of those straining their memories of thirty years past.
With the relaxed affair of lunch over by 1500, and notwithstanding the vocal chords being sufficiently lubricated, the crowd begins to move towards the street party building in the neighbourhood immediately surrounding the Vicente Calderon.
Thoroughfares are closed off by the police as the streets rapidly fill with a sea of singing red and white punctuated only by the sound of drums and horns. This happens every Atletico Madrid matchday and every matchday the staff of the many small bars lining these roads try valiently and fail to serve refreshments to the crowds on their doorstep.
«Atleti! Atleti! Atleti!» Is the dull roar that becomes more distinct as you approach the stadium itself. Having arrived a good thirty minutes before the match is due to start the «Ultras» are starting to whip up the rest of the crowd so that as kick-off approaches the sound of singing, chanting, drums and trumpets has blurred into one indistinguishable noise. Five minutes before kick off and as the teams are walking out onto the hallowed turf the PA system crackles into life and fifty-five thousand voices sing as one the «Atletico Hymn.» Should the players have needed reminding how important the game is the flowers placed at the side of the corner flag in remembrance of those players who died in the Spanish civil war certainly brings things into focus.
What follows the referees short blast on the whistle to start the game is 90 minutes of continuous vocal encouragement of those who were the red and white stripes. Well almost continuous as this may be interuppted for the singing of a couple of choice songs questioning the origin or the virtues of the referee, the opposition or the other team from up the road (Real Madrid).
Almost as a relief the final whistle blows, as the referee brings proceedings on the field to a halt, however for the Atletico Madrid fans this signals a mad rush to the nearest bars and restaurants to analyize the days performance and to quench those parched throats!
With an atmosphere like this and an enterance price of less than twenty euros it is easy to see why those 55,000 hardy souls are willing to endure a stadium, that is only a quarter covered, to see their team flounder in rain in the middle of December.
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