Fans stared into space, stunned, shaking their heads in silent surrender. Iker Casillas booted the ball skywards, had another go at the lad who’d hurriedly pressed it into his unwelcome hands like a sevillana with a sprig of lucky heather and let out a roar. Meanwhile, the Son in Law of God pulled at his shorts, bit his lip and mentally eeny-meeny-miney-mo’ed between Milan and Manchester. Down the Calderón stairs, cunningly carpeted to conceal the crumbling concrete below, and into the bogs the post mortem began. Paddling through the piss, they were asking the same question: how the hell did that happen? The answer was obvious: it’s the derby, stupid. And we’re Atlético.
That’s Club Atlético de Madrid, the team that just can’t help themselves from not so much falling on their sword as taking a running jump off a cliff and plummeting 100ft on to its glistening blade. They might have finally made it into the Champions League, but when it comes to playing Real Madrid there’s no escaping their fate. Every year, they tell themselves that this time more than any other time they’re going to find a way to beat Madrid. And some years you even believe them. Every year what they actually find is another way to lose, more convoluted and cruel than before. Another improbable twist. Normally of the knife.
This year was no different. Saturday, 10.30pm at the Vicente Calderón and Javier Aguirre shrugged sadly, the knife twisted in his side, a whole set of them poised to stab him in the back. “Football,” he said, “can be cruel.” And this latest derby — attended by the government minister who admitted “Madrid make me sick”, the Frente Atlético ultras who unfurled a banner saying “Jorg Haider RIP”, and not the columnist who insisted fans proved “Platini and his little friends wrong” — was perhaps the cruellest yet.
You see, just five minutes before Casillas booted a celebratory ball into the air, he had booted his post in disgust, worn his Iker Casillas face — the one that says, “you call that a defence?!” — and defecated on Gonzalo Higuaín’s prostitute mother. As he looked across, Atlético’s players were leaping into the crowd in delight; as he looked up at the stadium clock, it showed 90 minutes. And 1-1. It might not have been a win, but to the Calderón it felt like one. Down to 10 men and a goal behind, Atlético had fought back, led by a shattered yet superb Aguero. And just when it looked like they’d suffer a familiar fate, Simao Sabrosa curled in a free-kick. It was a fantastic end to a mad game that had it all — one injured ref, two red cards and three disallowed goals. At long, long last, Atlético had ended a derby in delight not despair.
Only it wasn’t and they hadn’t. Because if Ruud van Nistelrooy had brilliantly scored Madrid’s first 34 seconds after the opening whistle, Higuaín was about to get another barely 34 seconds before the final whistle. Substitute Royston Drenthe tumbled, Carlos Clos Goméz pointed to the spot, and Higuaín wrestled the ball off Rafael van der Vaart. The roar of “Atleeeeeeeti”, replacing a helpful reminder that Spain won the European Championships without Raúl, died in atlético throats. Higuaín thumped in the penalty. The clock showed 96 minutes. “That’s the way to win a derby!” screamed AS. Atlético fans crumpled, hopes destroyed. Normal service was resumed. “Life,” insisted Marca, “remains the same.” “It was,” AS added, “the same result as always.”
Whatever route Atlético take, they seem to end in the same place: depression. They’ve been beaten by good Madrid sides and rubbish ones; conceded after 14 seconds; battered their opponents only for an unwanted porker and a striker who’d never scored to snatch victory away; missed last minute sitters; and even overcome adversity only to be crushed by the fist of fate. They’ve blamed it on the sunshine, the moonlight, the good times and the boogie. Mostly, they’ve blamed it on the ref even when it hasn’t been his fault. They’ve been rubbish and robbed, good, bad and ugly. What they’ve never been of late is victorious.
In fact, it will now be a decade since Atlético have beaten Real at the Calderón. They’ve not won anywhere in 14 derbies. Only once since they returned to the First Division have they even ended one feeling pleased — and even that was tinged with regret after a performance in which AS’s mad Madridista Tomás Roncero gleefully pointed out that “despite being sacked and violated, Atléti failed to crush us.” “The 600,000 children born in the capital in the last 3,409 days have only read one story: this one,” gloated the rabid Real fan this weekend, “that’s why 95% have become faithful to the religion professed in the Bernabéu temple.”
If that sounded suspiciously like Roncero was making up his figures — and as if kids capital-wide have been cruelly denied access to Billy Blue Hat, Balooky Klujypop, and even Topsy and Tim — he was right, and there was something strangely probable about Atlético’s improbable defeat. “Typical”, “inevitable”, “classic” muttered the men in the men’s room, while AS’s resident atlético Manolete spat: “this is impossible. The jinx is endemic — I’m throwing in the towel.” A man sent off, a last-minute penalty, a dodgy ref, and a painful defeat: they’d been cheated again.
Except they hadn’t. Madrid too had a player sent off — and not only was Madrid’s red harsh and Atléti’s justified, but anyone would happily swap Luis Perea for Van Nistelrooy. Madrid dominated until Ruud’s red, the three disallowed goals were all Madrid’s, the best chances fell their way, Wesley Sneijder hit the bar, and the penalty was right. Coach Bernd Schuster insisted that but for the ref Madrid would in fact have won 5-1. Now, Madrid’s coach has been wrong before, but this time you couldn’t accuse him of bias, or refusing to see the other side. “Hang on a minute,” insisted one interrogator, “Atlético had loads of chances in the second half.” To which Schuster stroked his moustache and nodded. “You’re right,” he conceded. “Five-two, then.”
Espanyol 0–0 Villarreal; Atlético 1–2 Real Madrid; Valencia 4–0 Numancia; Racing 0–0 Deportivo; Sporting 2–1 Osasuna; Betis 3–0 Mallorca; Athletic 0–1 Barcelona; Almería 0–1 Sevilla; Málaga 2–1 Getafe; Valladolid 1–1 Recreativo