The Atletico Madrid press team and even a few players had said I was a lucky charm for them in 2016 when they went on a spectacular run all the way to the Champions League final.
They beat the Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven, Spanish champions Barcelona and German champions Bayern Munich, only to fall at the last hurdle to their bitter cross-town rivals Real Madrid in Milan.
I had covered all of those knockout games, except the final, when their “luck” ran out. It’s something they joked about when I went back the following campaign.
That’s the thing about Atleti – who will reach a fifth Champions League quarter-final in six years if they convert a 2-0 advantage into a victory in their last-16 second-leg tie at Juventus on Tuesday – they are such an easy club to like.
They are one of my favorite teams to cover in the Champions League and the cauldron of the old Vicente Calderon on those big European nights was my number one venue. It was impossible not to develop a soft spot for them.
That says a lot, coming from someone who spent two seasons working for Real Madrid TV!
Back then (2008-2010), Atleti could only dream of reaching such heights. They were by far the inferior club compared to their more illustrious rival, both in terms of overall success and stature. Putting it crudely, “el derbi Madrileno” was an easy three points for Real Madrid.
|Atletico Madrid in the Champions League|
|2008-09||Last 16 (2-2 v Porto, lost on away goals rule)|
|2013-14||Final (lost 4-1 v Real Madrid)|
|2014-15||Quarter-finals (lost 1-0 on aggregate v Real Madrid)|
|2015-16||Final (1-1, lost 5-3 on penalties v Real Madrid)|
|2016-17||Semi-finals (lost 4-2 on aggregate v Real Madrid)|
The transformation to a genuine European force isn’t something I could have envisaged. Winning the Europa League under Quique Sanchez Flores in 2010 was the start, but it is under club legend Diego Simeone the following year that the rebirth really began.
From their landmark first derby victory in 14 years – beating Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final at the Bernabeu in 2013 – to winning La Liga in 2014, a further two Europa League titles, reaching two Champions League finals and opening a new stadium, this is a club that has earned its place among the continental elite.
A mark of how far the club have risen is summed up by Atleti’s public enemy number one, Sergio Ramos. Infamous for his audacious goading of the fans after their two Champions League final defeats, even the Real Madrid captain admitted to me once that he has grown to respect the club as a true adversary.
Spending time around Atletico, you find there’s a genuine warmth and openness at the club. The head of press told us that they had carefully studied how other big clubs operated and decided they wanted to conduct themselves differently.
That ethos is clear to see. From the hierarchy, to Simeone, to the players, there is no room for arrogance – be that from the always amiable club hero Fernando Torres, goalkeeper Jan Oblak or defender Filipe Luis, to the former captain Gabi in fits of laughter at my Spanish accent. This was a good group of down-to-earth people.
I found Simeone himself intriguing. A passionate, heart-on-your-sleeve character, rough around the edges, a bit cold at first – or even suspicious – but his warmth became apparent pretty quickly. It was quite the contrast to the impression I had of him after his World Cup antics with David Beckham in France 1998.
In fact, ‘El Cholo’ is held in such high regard and with such affection in Spain. When his team play their hearts out for him, you know why.
Luis once told me that Simeone is someone who has to get everything off his chest if he is upset with you: “Even if he sees you in a restaurant, he will come and tell you straight away.”
Every pre and post-match interview I did with the Argentine was honest, open, obliging and no-nonsense. From my perspective, I appreciated that too.
Having lived in Madrid and worked with plenty of Atleti fans, I had a good idea of what the club represented. The best insight, however, was from Torres.
Before the 2016 Champions League final, we asked several players to read one line each from a script about the rivalry between the two Madrid clubs, which would be edited together. Torres refused to read the line “out of the shadows” – because, he said, “we were never in their shadow”. My respect for him went up several notches.
Another occasion was before his farewell match, the 2018 Europa League final. He stared down the camera lens and started with: “When you grow up in Madrid, you can take the easy route and support Real Madrid… or you can do it the hard way and support Atleti.”
It’s quite something to hear a world-class player, who has won virtually everything there is to win, speak with such raw passion about the football club his grandfather took him to support as a child.
That passion is personified by the man at the helm, of course. Consider the crotch-grabbing celebrations that have earned Simeone a fine after the first-leg victory over Juventus. I would probably deem it vulgar or attention seeking from any other manager. From Simeone, it’s all part of the fun.
With Atleti travelling to Turin with a 2-0 advantage, it will be intriguing to see which team progresses to the quarter-finals in a match-up of two powerful narratives. This was the tie I was looking forward to the most. Two teams that simply couldn’t afford to be knocked out at this stage. Two teams who were owed a break in this competition.
Last year’s Europa League title didn’t do Atleti justice, they were far too good to have ever dropped into it. Even their Uefa Super Cup win in August, when they finally beat Real Madrid in a European showpiece, will never be enough (where myself and other reporters were doused in champagne on the pitch by Diego Godin!).
If they can avoid a Juve comeback, they would surely be considered among the favorites to win the one trophy that eludes them, the one that has caused them so much pain.
Three-time finalists Atleti are now a club with success, stability, progress and a true identity. Moreover, they’re hitting their rhythm and are a potent threat.
They’re not always pretty to watch, mind you, but their grit and determination is staggering. Their story is exciting to follow and their rise has been extraordinary.
The incentive for Atleti this year is greater than ever, of course, with the Champions League final being held in their new Wanda Metropolitano stadium on Saturday, 1 June.
After all, it would be rude to be the host, but not turn up for the party.
(Culled from BBC sport)