Atlético's fans had tasted only pain against Real since 1999. Now, at last, they can begin the first day of the rest of their lives
Cibeles was all dressed up with nowhere to go. Friday night in Madrid and the goddess of victory had been getting ready for weeks. Those council workers had long been and gone, circling her with barriers three deep and leaving her gleaming. Now she only needed to wait, resplendent atop her chariot. Soon they would come, and in their thousands, just as they do every time Real Madrid win a trophy. It was going to be some night. But 11.30 arrived and no one was there, the streets deserted, silent. 11.45, midnight, 12.15, 12.30 … something was wrong. There were people now, but they hurried past. Some laughed at her as they went. A noise rose from the south: 650 metres away down the Paseo del Prado, they were partying like it was 1999.
Beware of worshipping false idols. Two statues, two gods, stand in the centre of Madrid. Cibeles is the meeting point for Real fans. It used to be the meeting point for Atlético supporters too, but these days they gather at Neptune, just to the south. They've been there quite a lot recently – two Europa League titles and a European Super Cup have ensured that – and Neptune was ready too, but few truly expected this: Atlético won the Copa del Rey. Against Real Madrid. At the Santiago Bernabéu. In this battle of the gods, Neptune defeated Cibeles, 2-1 after extra time. "This is historic," beamed the full-back Juanfran.
Historic is the word. This may even be Atlético's greatest ever night. "If we win it will be forever," Adrián had said before the game. Diego Simeone said he didn't know where it ranks in the club's history. But, he added, "in many years' time, it will be remembered." And how. Atlético had not defeated their city rivals this century. They had not defeated them this millennium, in fact. The last victory came in October 1999, back when Christina Aguilera was being rubbed the right way, the Pet Shop Boys didn't know what you wanted and Thibault Courtois was seven.
That year, victory was empty. Atlético were relegated to the second division for the first time in their history, "one little year in hell" that turned out to be two. In the first derby for almost three years upon Atlético's return to the first division, a last minute free kick and a penalty save from the then-goalkeeper and current assistant manager Mono Burgos – with his nose – earned them a 2-2 draw but they have not won since. Twenty-five games, not one victory. Over 60 teams have beaten Real Madrid since 1999 but their neighbours weren't one of them and it hasn't even been close of late: Madrid had won the last 10 matches.
There is a whole generation of kids – and in fact, Spanish football correspondents – who have never seen Atlético win against Real. No matter what they tried, no matter what they did, no matter what the conditions, they simply couldn't win. There was a crushing inevitability about defeat that fed into an identity being built on failure. Atlético were El Pupas, the jinxed one, that famous advert showing a father lost for words when his son asks him: papá, why do we support Atlético? There was even a supporters club called The Suffering and their centenary hymn, from gravelly-voiced folk singer Joaquín Sabina, lauded: "What a way to suffer! What a way to lose!" When their centenary came around, a problem over the rights meant that they could not play it at the Calderón. So they chose the Rolling Stones' You Can't Always Get what you want instead.
Although the Pupas legend was not founded solely on defeats against their neighbours – it started with a European Cup final loss to Bayern Munich – part of Atlético's identity is: they are the team fighting against the odds and against Real, always at a disadvantage and more authentic for it. That at least is how some liked to portray it. "I couldn't play at Madrid because of how I look," Mono Burgos insisted once. "I'm not joking. They'd make me cut my hair. Atlético is synonymous with workers. Atlético fans are brickies, taxi drivers, and churros sellers."
The Pupas legend became a millstone and an excuse, something to hide behind, avoiding responsibility and overlooking the fact that they have a successful history. Besides, in the last three years they have actually won as many trophies as their neighbours and this season any sense of mental weakness had been broken by their coach, Diego Simeone. But the resurgence would never be complete, the jinx not entirely broken, until they had defeated their rivals. Sure, there was hope, maybe even a sneaking feeling that this could be their moment, but they had learnt not to hope. When it came to facing Real, there was always something that stood in their way. Fate, destiny … a curse.
Until now. And what better way of breaking the spell than this? Afterwards, Arda Turan was grinning, his hair shaved off as promised. Filipe Luis came through with the match ball under his arm, slapping Courtois as he went: "Madre mía, what a save," he shouted, "the world's best goalie!" "This is amazing: glorious," the keeper smiled. Simeone conjured up the rather unlikely image of Jesús Gil in heaven and dedicated victory to everyone struggling in life: "we're an example, proof that you can do it," he insisted. As for Miranda, scorer of the winning goal, he said: "I wanted to score that goal for all the kids who laugh at my son every day for being an Atlético fan."
Atlético's players and staff wore T-shirts. "Winning is not an aim, it is an attitude," read the front; "Madrid is red-and-white," read the back. At 2.15 am, Atlético's team bus finally pulled out of the Bernabéu, home of their great rivals, with the Copa del Rey on board. Miranda had nailed it. This was cathartic, revenge at last. This time there was a hint even before the game, that the psychology and pressure had shifted. Now, it really has, at long, long, long last. All year banging on about the décima (the 10th), all decade in fact, and it turned out they were right: this was the year of the décima … just that instead of Madrid's 10th European Cup, it was Atlético's 10th Spanish Cup. In 18 months, Diego Simeone has won as much as José Mourinho in three years.
This time, Real Madrid were the Pupas, hitting the post three times, while Thibault Courtois made two stunning saves. For Atlético, this was not just a victory, it was an exorcism. Fourteen years and 26 games later, they had finally beaten Madrid. The never ending story ended. It is worth playing after all. There will be defeats against Real but they will not be the same. Goodbye Ctrl C, Ctrl V. Goodbye fatalism. Goodbye fear. Goodbye Pupas. Goodbye pain. Goodbye Cherry Street Bed and Breakfast, Punxsutawney. Goodbye and good riddance.
"If you had made the fans an offer in which you'd said: 'we won't win against them for 14 years but when we do, it will be in the Cup final at their stadium, with them scoring first, hitting the post three times and us winning in extra time,' they'd have signed up for that'," Simeone smiled. "Tomorrow there will be a few more Atlético fans. I invite them to all wear their shirts. Tomorrow will be a special day." The first day of the rest of their lives.
• Poor Alex Song. Carles Puyol collected the league championship trophy and walked towards the Barcelona players lined up on the Camp Nou pitch, signalling for a team-mate to step forward. For some reason, Song thought that team-mate was him ... at which point, Eric Abidal nudged past and took the trophy. If it was a little embarrassing for Song, it was a lovely moment for Barcelona, and another great gesture from Puyol. Their 22nd league title, lifted together by Eric Abidal and Tito Vilanova. "We're happy to have won the league," Puyol told supporters, "but we're happier that Tito and Eric are here."
• The fallout continues at Real Madrid. Cristiano Ronaldo and José Mourinho didn't go up to collect their medals after they lost the Copa del Rey final. When Aitor Karanka, Madrid's assistant coach approached, King Juan Carlos wasn't sure what to do with the medal, asking: "Do I give it to this guy?"
• Real Sociedad climbed back above Valencia in the race for the final Champions League place with another impressive performance, this time winning 2-1 in Seville. Ivan Rakitic scored twice - once for each team. That's the good news for la Real; the bad news is that it is becoming increasingly likely that, even if they do qualify for the Champions League, their manager Philippe Montanier will not continue next season.
• Granada are virtually safe after a 3-0 win over Osasuna, that included another super cool penalty from Guilherme Siqueira, despite all the pressure. Zaragoza, meanwhile, are still in trouble, after Fernando Llorente – remember him?– and Ibai Gómez scored twice in 10 minutes to give Athletic Bilbao a victory at the Romareda. Ibai Gómez – trying saying that without turning ever so slightly Yorkshire – got his with a clever flick in the 92nd minute. Mallorca are bottom on 29 and will be down if they lose tonight. Celta have 31, Zaragoza 34 and Deportivo, who beat Espanyol 2-0, have 35. Osasuna are still not safe on 36.
• Congratulations to Elche, who will be back in the first division next year for the first time in 24 years. Villarreal, Almería, Girona, Alcorcón and Las Palmas are the sides behind them.
• Next weekend, every game will be played at 8pm on Sunday ... oh, wait, what's this? An asterix? Three of them? Oh. Espanyol-Barcelona, Atlético-Mallorca, Valladolid-Celta all have an asterix by them, meaning "not definitive kick off time." Yes, that's right, six days to go (or maybe five ... or four ... or seven ... ) and we still don't know what time they kick off. Or even what day. Good work, LFP! Again.
Results: [Celta 1 - 3 Atlético], [Real Madrid 6 - 2 Málaga], Getafe 0-1 Valencia, Granada 3-0 Osasuna, Sevilla 1-2 Real Sociedad, Levante 2-3 Rayo, Deportivo 2-0 Espanyol, Zaragoza 1-2 Athletic, Barcelona 2-1 Valladolid, Mallorca v Betis tonight