When Real Madrid meet Atlético in the Champions League final on Saturday, it will be more than just a historic derby, but a rivalry about power and wealth in 21st-century Spain
Cheeks flushed with excitement, they began crowding the roundabout only minutes after the game. They squeezed in next to Neptune, god of the sea, drowning the statue out in a sea of red and white, giving thanks for the 3-1 win against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge that had launched Atlético into territory unseen in 40 years. During the next few hours, thousands more fans arrived to lend their voices to the impromptu chorus of chants set to a steady rhythm of honking from passing cars.
Exactly 24 hours earlier and a few hundreds yards north, the same scene had unfolded, albeit with fewer fans and less astonishment. Real Madrid fans had gathered at Cibeles, goddess of fertility, to celebrate a 4-0 win over Bayern in Munich that had secured them a spot in the Champions League final.
On Saturday 24 May, after Madrid's two football teams go head-to-head in an unprecedented Champions League final in Lisbon, only one of these gods will welcome jubilant fans. After Atlético stunned Spain on Saturday by winning La Liga, Real Madrid fans are desperately hoping that they won't have to endure defeat at the hands of a team they once revelled in calling "Patético de Madrid."
The match, said Orfeo Suárez, a journalist with El Mundo, will show the world a rarely seen side of Madrid. "It's a confrontation of two very different ways of being Madrileño."
So different in fact, that the Community of Madrid recently backtracked on its decision to broadcast Saturday's game in Sol square. "Would anyone think of bringing together River and Boca fans in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, or putting Arsenal and Chelsea fans in any square in London to show a match between each of them?" asked Cristina Cifuentes, the delegate to Madrid from the central government.
Her opposition was rooted in the stark difference between the two teams; Real Madrid are football royalty, a club boasting a record nine European cups and the world player of the year in Cristiano Ronaldo. Atlético are a team whose red and white stripes spark memories of traditional Spanish mattress covers, an association that has earned them the nickname Los Colchoneros, or mattress makers.
The fundamental difference between the two teams comes down to cold, hard cash, said Suárez, with Real Madrid's budget eclipsing that of Atlético four or five times over. "It's a struggle of a rich club versus a poor club, of the north of the city taking on the south."
The temple of Real Madrid fans, the Santiago Bernabéu stadium, sits alongside one of Madrid's main arteries, in the posh business district of Chamartín. As the Spanish real estate market collapsed, this area was spared the fury of the storm with housing values that continue to hover among Madrid's most expensive.
Where applause will suffice in the heated Bernabéu stadium, raucous cheers bounce off the walls of Atlético's tattered Vicente Calderón stadium, helping to mask the constant rumble from the M-30 motorway that runs beneath it. Four miles south of the Bernabéu, it sits in the industrial neighbourhood of Arganzuela.
The disparities have bred a different kind of fan for each team, said Iñako Díaz-Guerra, a journalist with sports daily AS, whose family has followed Atlético for generations. "I want my team to win, but I don't love my team because they win." Atlético fanaticism runs in his blood. His father was born weeks before the team won the Spanish league in 1951. Díaz-Guerra was born weeks after the team won the same title in 1977. This year he had a hunch it would be a big year for the team – he and his wife welcomed a daughter only weeks ago.
Real Madrid are also synonymous with victory. Not so for Atlético, whose uncanny knack for losing games was summed up in the nickname El Pupas, the jinxed ones. Still, even when Atlético dropped to the second division in 2000, their membership doubled. "It was ridiculous. There's a loyalty through thick and thin with Atlético members," said Díaz-Guerra. A 2006 television commercial played on this sentiment, with a young boy asking his father as the pair sat in the car waiting at a traffic light, "why do we support Atleti?" His father never comes up with an answer.
Traditionally Real Madrid have been thought of as the team of the elite; their fans closely linked to the few that have seen their incomes grow as the rest of Spain suffered the weight of the economic crisis. Atlético is the home of blue-collar, working-class Madrileños, many of whom have watched as the crisis swept away jobs and shrank salaries.
Those notions did not hold nowadays, said Suárez. "Sure, if you look at the richest in Madrid, there are more likely to be Real fans than Atlético." But Atlético fans include many who are well-off, not least Spain's crown prince, Felipe. The stereotype plays into the idea of a resounding difference in the power structure of both clubs, according to Suárez. "Real Madrid have always been perceived as close to government power. Atlético, on the other hand, their power comes from the people."
Polls show that those who vote for the rightwing People's party are three times more likely to support Real Madrid than Barcelona, anecdotal evidence backed by former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar, a card-carrying Real Madrid fan who has repeatedly mused about joining the team's management.
Whether authentic or not, Atlético have not shied away from painting themselves as everyday working-class folk who have beaten the odds. "It's the working man's team," Atlético captain Gabi Fernández said in one interview. In another he took aim at the spending sprees of his rich neighbours, saying, "If we win it's because we've deserved it, not because we have some 'galácticos'," a reference to Real Madrid players such as Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.
Atlético midfielder Tiago Mendes told sports daily Marca in March: "Ordinary people see us as a sort of Robin Hood. It's us who are taking on the big and powerful."
It's an image that has struck a chord across Spain, said Michael Robinson, a football commentator on Spanish TV, who played for Liverpool in the 1980s. "It's a bit like the dog with fleas, you know? You can't help but love it. Atlético can defend well, they can attack well. But they're not particularly brilliant at anything other than giving everything they've got," he said. "They're irresistible. Everybody – even Real Madrid fans – has fallen in love a little bit with Atlético Madrid this year."
The team find common ground with Spain's working class in their financial woes. The debt-saddled club were late in paying 37% of their bills to suppliers last season, according to recent disclosures.
CEO Miguel Ángel Gil Marín pointed to the banks – a common sore point in Spain, where more than 150,000 families have been evicted from their homes in the past five years – for choking off loans to the club. The ultimate message is one of Atlético and their fans versus the world, according to Diego Torres, a football journalist with El País. "In this tough economic reality it's a message that there's still possibilities for the least favoured. In a world that's ready for the rich – because the Champions League is only ever won by the rich – it produces a feeling of anti-establishment that goes against all logic."
Part of Atlético's strategy of branding themselves as working-class might be out of necessity, he said. Real had built an empire out of the belief that they represented the very essence of the Spanish world, "the Spanish political centre, Spanish nationalism and Castilla. All of that. And Atlético, in many ways, just represent Atlético."
Saturday's final might be their chance to change that reputation once and for all, said Torres. "If Real Madrid win, nothing will happen. It's what everyone expects. Atlético fans will still be part of the fiesta, celebrating that they made it to the final."
But if Real Madrid lost, warned Torres, "you're going to see some real drama. It will be a monumental fiesta, while the other half of the city is in mourning."