Plenty of football clubs around the world suffer from second-team syndrome but surely none have been the bridesmaid quite as often as Atletico Madrid.
Back in November, I decided I wanted to pay a visit to Real’s crosstown rivals before they move out of the ground they’ve called home since 1966, the Vicente Calderón. It’s one of those stadiums that’s instantly recognisable, with its curious band of behind glass boxes decorating the top of its uncovered three-sided stand. There’s something of Boca Juniors’ La Bombonera about it.
Despite how imposing it looks, the Calderón only holds 55,000 people, so if Atleti hope to consistently compete with Real and Barca a new home is needed. Estadio Wanda Metropolitano is due to open in time for the 2017/18 season but having landed in the city on a sunny Friday afternoon, we spotted it from the tarmac as our bus trundled from the plane to the terminal. Let’s just say it looks like it still needs more than a lick of paint before it’ll be ready for its new tenants.
I’d recruited three mates for the trip and we’d picked Atleti’s game against Sevilla, mainly because we’re Brighton & Hove Albion season ticket holders and it didn’t clash with a game at the Amex, but also because the alternative was Betis in mid-January. It was a no-brainer.
La Liga has an interesting habit of only deciding its kick-off times a few weeks in advance, so we'd booked accommodation until Monday, knowing that the game would fall somewhere within that four-day period, probably towards the end due to both teams’ likely involvement in the last 16 of the Champions League.
It was only after booking the match tickets through Atletico’s website that we realised the opportunity potentially available to us: Leganés and second-division Rayo Vallecano were both playing at home that weekend too. We couldn’t, could we?
Having spent most of the season watching train ticket and hotel prices rise while we waited for Sky to decide whether to move the Albion’s games for TV (they invariably have), the fixture gods had smiled on us for once: all three games were on Sunday, with four hours between each kick-off. Would we have gone to Getafe as well if they'd been at home? What do you think...
Bagging Rayo Vallecano tickets was easy. A few days before we left they went on-sale at marcaentradas.com and I picked them up for €20 each. Leganés, however, wasn’t so easy.
//12:00 - Leganés v Malaga
If you thought Atleti lived in the shadow of Real’s giant chequebook spare a thought for the Pepineros (‘the cucumber growers’, a hangover from the days when Leganés was an agricultural village before the city swallowed it up). I didn’t even know they were from Madrid until I Googled them.
Lega are currently spending their first-ever season in La Liga and their barely covered Estadio Municipal de Butarque holds just 11,000 people, although unsurprisingly they’ve been getting decent crowds so far this season. Tickets were cheap (just €15 behind the goal) but only available in person from the club shop. We just had to hope they had some available on the day.
We made the 20-minute journey from our apartment in Malasana by cab, arriving 45 mins before the midday kick-off. “What are the chances we see three goalless draws?” my friend Owen joked as we walked up the hill, through a tree-lined car park towards the stadium.
I speak Spanish about as well as Chris Kamara might play Only Connect, but armed with an iPhone and Google Translate I approached the desk: “Comprar entradas aqui?”
I didn’t grasp all of what the chap manning it said in response but the shake of his head, the words “no entradas” and something about “socios” (the club’s members and season ticket holders) were enough to convince me that the plan was doomed before it had begun. We were gutted.
Estadio Municipal de Butarque is way out of town by a retail park. It’s a bit like Reading but with some element of charm, although that’s probably something to do with the blue skies and temperatures in the high teens at 11 am rather than the easy access to Carrefour and Toys ‘r’ Us. But having come all that way we weren’t about to give up and get a cab all the way back home.
Almost as soon as we’d left the club shop we were approached by a tout. It’s weirdly heart-warming to know that ticket touts look the same in Spain as they do in the UK. Overweight and balding with a fag dangling from a mouth full of knackered teeth he wanted €40 for each one. After some fairly optimistic haggling, the best we could get him to do was knock €10 off. It was twice face value but having paid £35 for a restricted view at QPR just a few days before, we decided it wasn’t so bad. At least we'd be able to see the goal without standing up.
Leganés’ opponents were Malaga, 17th and 16th respectively in La Liga at the start of the day, but with just enough of a gap over the bottom three that a point would probably suit both. Sat behind the goal that was exactly what we watched them get.
The home team were definitely the better of the two but sloppy passing, a lack of quality in the final third and an amazing late save by the Leganés ‘keeper saw the first step of Owen’s prediction come worryingly true.
The Estadio Municipal de Butarque was hardly a hotbed of ultra culture, although there was one kid down the front who spent most of the game holding up a banner scrawled in biro on A4 paper. What’s Spanish for #WengerOut?
Occasionally spells of coordinated singing and scarf twirling would break out but apart from a small pocket of enthusiastic home fans, who at one point launched a Spanish version of the Will Grigg’s On Fire song, and a reasonably vocal away end that spilled out around us (somehow without killing each other), the atmosphere was often not much more ferocious than that of a friendly. A lot of the time the football seemed to match, but with the midday sun shining we had very little to complain about.
Final score: Leganés 0 - Malaga 0
//16:15 - Atletico Madrid v Sevilla
I almost wish I could tell you we dashed across town on public transport, barely in our seats at Atletico to hear the ref’s first whistle, but when in foreign cities Uber really is your friend.
With well over an hour to go until kick-off, we were sitting on the pavement outside the Calderón drinking cold lager from huge plastic glasses, bought from a surprisingly quiet service window at one of the ground’s bars. Occasionally huge choruses of “Atleti! Atleti!” would swell from somewhere unseen as the crowds around the ground gradually grew bigger and bigger. I could get used to this.
I decided to break open the packet of sunflower seeds I’d picked up in a supermarket earlier. Ever since I went on a tour of the Camp Nou, two days after Barca had won the 2015 Copa Del Rey there, I’d known of the Spanish obsession with having a bolsa de pipas to watch the game with. The shells were absolutely everywhere; it looked like a load of squirrels had been sat on the terraces. Evidently, the clean-up could wait while there was still celebrating to do.
I should’ve practiced eating them in advance. You have to crack the outer shell between your teeth, being careful not to crush the inner kernel - that’s the bit you eat. The locals can do all of this in their mouth before spitting the remnants onto the floor - presumably, they can tie knots in cherry stalks with their tongues too - but I ended up throwing away more than I ate. Not worth the hassle. Take a look around if you go to a game, though. It’s quite impressive, although once you start to notice the constant crunching sound it’s pretty hard to ignore.
On entering the stadium the view was every bit as majestic as I’d hoped. Something about the way half the ground is in shadow while the other half gets burned by the sun makes it that bit more arresting.
We’d bought the very lowest level VIP seats for €82 each, through necessity rather than any kind of affluence or heightened expectations. There were no prawn sandwiches but it meant entering from underneath the huge main stand, which a main road also passes through. It’s quite something.
As you walk up the steps the stadium opens up in front of you and everyone stops to take photos. The ultras were to our right, in the fondo sur, a load of them sitting on a railing at the bottom of the stand, dangling their legs over the front - the kind of thing that would make a steward at an English game wake up in a cold sweat.
As we squeezed into our seats alongside some overly camera-happy Germans, the home fans unfurled a banner: “De padres a hijos,” it read, which I later found out means “From fathers to sons,” - they took it down before I could fire up Google Translate. It turns out that particular Sunday is Father’s Day in Spain.
It didn’t take south-western Madrid’s favourite sons long to give the crowd something to cheer about. After latching on to a neat through-ball from the unrelenting Yannick Carrasco, former Sevilla striker Kevin Gameiro almost sparked muted celebrations when he hit the bar with a delightful chip.
Sevilla were not their usual selves, no matter how much Jorge Sampaoli prowled his technical area, the wind had been well and truly knocked out of their sails by Leicester the previous week. Captain Diego Godin put Atletico in front with an expertly guided header from a set piece and from that point on there only looked like one winner. More importantly, Owen’s prediction was history. A goal!
Local hero Fernando Torres came on for the first time since sustaining a nasty head injury against Deportivo La Coruna at the start of March. The Atleti fans sung his song to the tune of the one we sing at the Albion about wanting ginger hair like Steve Sidwell (and letting him do unmentionable things to our wives).
Diego Simeone conducted them energetically from the touchline, clad in his trademark all black - like a young Danny Trejo fronting New York post-punk revivalists Interpol. He even replicated Antoine Griezmann’s hand-waggling celebration when his sought-after French striker crashed a free-kick in off the bar. By the time Koke had slotted into an empty net, Sampaoli might as well have skulked back to his enclosure and shut the door.
Final score: Atletico Madrid 3 - Sevilla 1
//20:30 - Rayo Vallecano v Real Oviedo
Having walked far enough away from the stadium to break the boundaries of the policia’s strictly enforced no-car zone we summoned another Uber for the €10 trip across town to Rayo Vallecano for our final game of the day.
Rayo’s stadium, the Campo de Fútbol de Vallecas, is a concrete construction that appears out of nowhere as you drive up a gently sloped high-street in the staunchly working-class district of Vallecas - about a 15-minute drive from the Calderón in the south-east of the city. It squats on the side of the road like a supermarket, among scruffy blocks of flats and a couple of bars bustling with fans, not tucked away in the back streets like it would be over here.
Down a side street, we found a parade of kebab shops with tables and chairs set up on the pavement. In London, this would probably all be pop-up falafel and street food joints but Vallecas seems to have resisted the forces of gentrification. A couple of €5 buckets of beer later and kick-off was getting close.
Outside the ground, a small group of fans in t-shirts it was too dark to read the slogan on were shaking collection buckets. We found out later they were collecting money for 17 fans who were recently fined €1000 each and banned from the stadium for a month for protesting against a chairman who has overseen their fall from five seasons in La Liga to the relegation zone in the Segunda. They’ve probably got a point.
When the club forms such a conspicuous part of the neighbourhood it's no surprise there's such a strong community spirit at Rayo. They are well known for the left-wing leanings and commitment to social justice. It’s the kind of thing you might see at non-league clubs like Whitehawk, Clapton or Dulwich Hamlet but on a much grander scale.
Inside it was a bit like walking around an old multi-storey car park, albeit one with stickers of Villa-era Olof Mellberg and anti-fascist slogans in the toilets. We took our seats. Well, we took some seats. Some people were sitting in ours but with attendances down this season there were plenty going spare.
Watch any La Liga game on TV and you’d be forgiven for thinking Spanish clubs don’t let away fans in at all. Malaga had a fairly vocal, albeit small, section at Leganés, but at the Vicente Calderón that wasn’t far from the truth - a handful of Sevilla fans occupied a tiny area in the top corner of the fondo norte but even when Joaquin Correa pulled one back for the visitors five minutes from time they couldn’t be heard.
In Vallecas, however, a very English-style following greeted Oviedo in the top tier of the tribuna alta lateral. They were sitting right above us so it was difficult to tell how many there were but they certainly made themselves heard.
However, they were no match for Rayo’s ultras – the Bukaneros. Inhabiting almost the entire fondo (there’s only one stand behind a goal at Rayo, so there’s no need to specify which end it’s at), waving a huge arsenal of flags that were swapped in and out like costume changes at a Super Bowl half-time show, they didn’t stop singing for a second.
For once their team even gave them something to sing about. Early on, lively if wildly inconsistent German winger Patrick Ebert smashed a shot off the inside of the post, having just left a couple of Oviedo defenders chasing shadows. A few minutes later he was smashing a penalty into the back of the net.
Oviedo, with one-season-wonder Michu up top, rarely threatened, and on the hour Rayo went two up. If you’d had to guess which team was challenging for promotion and which one hadn’t won in 12 – or even scored in the previous 330 mins of football – it wouldn’t have been the men in white shirts with red sashes across their chests that you’d pick for the drop.
Protests aside, Rayo felt like a celebration of all the best things about watching football. Ignore the scoreline that night and things are about as bad as they’ve been for a long time in Vallecas – but the Bukaneros kept singing and the sunflower seeds kept cracking. Attendances might be down but nobody was getting on the players’ backs. The only person who got called a puta was the man in black – although that happened so often that day I began to think it was Spanish for referee.
More than anything else there was that sense of togetherness. At the Calderón I felt like a tourist. At Leganés, I felt like a guest. At Rayo, I felt like a fan.
I’ll even forgive them for their goal music.
By Tom Wiggins.