I went to Madrid to see the glamour soccer club of the 20th century play. I mean Real Madrida team that, I proudly confess, I detest. Growing up partly in Massachusetts, I nursed a passionate hatred for the New York Yankees that today finds its echo in soccer, the world’s most popular game. Across the planet—the U.S. and perhaps the Yukon excepted—soccer (better termed football) weaves deep into the very cultural tissue. Your choice of club is pungent with politics, incipient nationalism, and class. Your tribal and social identities pulse in team colors. And perhaps nowhere more so than in Spain, where fútbol still evokes raw feelings involving Franco more than 30 years after his death. Beyond the chance to marvel, bitterly, at Real Madrid’s fancy foot-work, I wanted to witness El Derbi Madrileño, one of the great Spanish rivalries, to watch Atlético de Madrid (nicknamed Atleti), the town’s star-crossed, traditionally working-class club, take on Franco’s favorite team. Atleti is for rebels, declares my friend Carlos Bardem, a swashbuckling novelist, actor, older brother of Oscar-winning Javier, and lifelong fan, who gave me an Atleti scarf. I was hungry now to savor at peak intensity the unique Atleti fan spirit, doomed but ever loyal, ever—somehowindomitable. I wanted to cry Hasta la muerte! (Until death!) alongside Carlos. Though strictly speaking, I’m not an Atleti fan, just anti-Real.
Poor Los Colchoneros! The “mattress makers” (another nickname, because their red-and-white-striped shirts resemble mattress ticking) don’t even enjoy the dignity of being Real’s main rival. That distinction belongs to Barça, the club (for which I root) from Barcelona, Spain’s second-largest city and the capital of Catalonia. Most Catalans, and many Spaniards, fists clenched, feel Real owes its wealth of trophies to Franco’s favoritism. This preferential treatment stretches from the skulduggery behind the legendary player Alfredo di Stéfano’s switch from Barça to Real to the 1940s real estate deal that got Real its magnificent Bernabéu Stadium to suspicious (a euphemism) decisions by game referees to, um, coarser touches like the chief of state security turning up before a big clash with Real in 1943 allegedly to advise Barça players to mind their indebtedness to the regime. (They minded, losing 11–1.) The white uniforms of Real continue to symbolize the team’s sense of power and noblesse oblige, versus Barcelona’s continued sense of being neglected—but culturally superior. “History doesn’t forget in five or six decades!” exclaimed my friend Xavi Argullo, a Barcelona journalist. “Real is fucking Franco. It’s crazy, it’s disgusting, it’s not simpatico.”
Not even second fiddle, Atleti has long been considered Spain’s number three. The club did enjoy a particularly ecstatic, triumphant season in the ’90s. But then it actually sank out of the top league for two years (an anguish no American team knows, no matter how bad—not even the New York Knicks). At least Atleti is free of its previous president, Jesús Gil y Gil, a corrupt, bullying, gold-chain-wearing buffoon who moonlighted as the much-indicted mayor of Marbella and whose loony Franco-admiring politics clashed with a team traditionally aligned with the working folk.
What’s remarkable is that Atleti’s fatalist fans are at one with their agonies. When Los Colchoneros descended into its second-division “years in hell,” game attendance actually went up. “They’re the only team in the world who embrace defeat,” marvels Sid Lowe, who covers Spanish football for the Guardian and is finishing a doctorate on 1930s Spanish politics. El Pupas, yet another Atleti nickname, means “the jinxed.” Their whole identity derives from being anti-Real—being the team of life’s long, rubble-strewn road, not of the high powers that be, not of the gaudy easy victory. The best fans in Spain, Atleti’s faithful are called.
“They’re freaks,” mutters Giles Tremlett, a foreign correspondent and the author of Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through a Country’s Hidden Past. Tremlett should know: His two boys root for El Pupas.
The team has even taken to building its publicity campaigns around this real-folks suffering, as I learned when I visited Atleti’s chirpy young PR department. Incredulous, I watched a series of ingenious award-winning TV spots. One featured a little kid asking, “Papá, why are we for Atleti?” and getting in response a far-off, misty, defiant stare. Another had a toil-weary immigrant from the Americas shown vérité-style, proudly donning the red-and-white shirt.
However! The forthcoming El Derbi looked to be a thriller—winnable, not just tieable! After years of fecklessness, Los Colchoneros were playing exciting, aggressive football. Teen superphenom Kun” Agüero (his nickname invokes boy characters in Japanese anime) had made up for the shocking loss of Fernando “El Niño” Torres, Atleti’s youthful icon, who’d galloped off to Liverpool. Real, leading the league, had jettisoned its unbearably glitzy galáctico model—which relied on a jumble of megastars like Beckham and Zidanefor a solid, more, dare I say, modest team approach. “No Soy Galáctico, Soy de Móstoles” (a Madrid suburb), insisted billboards featuring Iker Casillas, Real’s magnificent model-handsome goalkeeper, now rebranded as a regular, down-to-earth guy.
Crucially, Atleti would have home advantage at its famous Vicente Calderón Stadium, located near a brewery in a working-class neighborhood and “the most exciting place to watch in the country,” according to Lowe. I’d planned to go with Carlos Bardem, but he was away on the Andalusia coast shooting a movie. So I went to El Derbi with my girlfriend.
With whom I was having a big problem. At one time pro-Real, she’d been shamed into switching her allegiances to Barça. But she’d started to backslide. And now, approaching a stall, she suddenly cried, “Ooh, I want a Real scarf!”
“Are you nuts?” I rasped. “See anyone daring to wear a Real scarf?” Of course not. We were tramping along amid red-and-white throngs by an expressway that runs beneath the west stand of the stadium. Outside, on Paseo de los Melancólicos (“Melancholics’ Way”—I’m not making this up), the throngs thickened into hordes of bar-front beer gulpers and chant bellowers. Opulent Indian headdresses drifted by as if from a Buffalo Bill show (Los Indios is yet another Atleti moniker). Riot-helmeted cops on horseback kept watch, wrestling their rearing mounts as jokesters tossed firecrackers. “Still want a Real scarf?” I taunted.
Inside the deafening stadium, from our unenclosed press seats way on high, we could see the distant Francoist skyscrapers of Plaza de España in the dusk. Down below, a gargantuan banner unfurled over much of the area where the most hard-core supporters sat: an epic portrait of an older man, somehow familiar but hard to place. It was Marlon Brando from The Godfather, we learned later, accompanied by a garbled quote about hurting your enemies.
The players warmed up, and the crowd roared afresh. “Guti Guti maricón! they chanted, a stadiumful of voices gleefully bellowing a homophobic insult at Real’s blond pretty boy José Gutiérrez, who’d been photographed kissing a male friend on the lips. At least there were no monkey noises directed at the black players, as has happened here and at other stadiums. This in a country that responded to its 2004 terrorist bombings by actually liberalizing immigration policy. But, man, the Spanish are foulmouthed.
“I can’t tell who’s who!” my girlfriend said as the game kicked off. “What’s happening?” “Just—watch!” I yelled over the noise, as Atleti controlled the ball deep in their end, where it was stolen by Real’s boyish Brazilian Robinho (was it?), who passed—
Bang! One-nothing Real. Just like that, 31 seconds in. The second-fastest goal in El Derbi history. Stunning, you’d have to say—but so … Atleti? “What happened? my girlfriend cried. “Which player scored?”
“I don’t know!” I cried back, clutching my head. Live soccer is one of the great spectacles, but unless you’re down in the club president’s box, details are tough to follow. No TV replays or commentary—even the reporters alongside us were checking the Internet coverage to keep informed.
The stunned crowd buzzed and bayed. Atleti found some equilibrium and started to attack, but Robinho kept dazzling down the left side for Real. Then Atleti surged, time and again they swarmed Real’s goal, young Kun Agüero lashed thrilling shots—but either Casillas, the goalkeeper, inhumanly saved them or the ball hit the woodwork. Close to halftime, while I was looking down at my notes, Real managed a corner kick. When I looked back up, Real players were rushing around deliriously. Two-nothing.
“Who scored? I asked my girlfriend. She held up bewildered hands.
At halftime all the beery chant bellowers around us stood munching the big bocadillos (sandwiches) they’d brought—a venerable Spanish halftime tradition. Food is part of everything in Spain, which perhaps explains why Spanish football waxes passionate but rarely violent. Tough to fight with your mouth and belly full. But no alcohol is served at the Calderón, to be safe.
In the second half, the action slowed. Atleti pressed, coming close once or twice. Robinho kept speeding, with twinkle-toes touches. Frustrated, Atleti started fouling. White uniforms tumbled, and the crowd taunted a Real player (who?) as he lay on the ground writhing. But the score just wouldn’t change. As the final minutes wore down, the jinxed ones roared, “ATLETI! ATLETI!” everyone still there till the bitterest end, baying into the heartbroken, losing, defiant night.
A couple of days later, I met the mayor of Madrid. A pro-Real sniggerer informed him that I was for Atleti. He smiled sadly. “Acostumbrado a sufrir,” he declared (You’re used to suffering). Spain’s Prince Felipe, they say, is an Atleti fan; perhaps the mayor has smiled sadly at him, too.
I rang up Bardem. He was on an Andalusia beach having suntan lotion applied. “Man, don’t make me suffer remembering the fucking game,” he groaned. Is everyone in your family for Atleti? I asked. The Bardems are sort of the Barrymores of Spain. No, he said. His mother, Pilar, was for Barça; his sister, Mónica, was for Real (!). “And my brother, Javier, doesn’t give a shit.”
Our driver back out to the airport was another Atleti fan. I could tell from the potbellied mascot in an Indian headdress on his dashboard. “We played like never before—and lost like always,” he said. What else was there to say? Nothing. So we just shrugged and fell silent. And my girlfriend played happily with her new Real cigarette lighter.
"GOL!" originally appeared in the May/June 2008 issue of Culture+Travel. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Culture + Travel's May/June 2008 Table of Contents.