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Inside Spanish Football’s Fiercest Rivalry

By Abhiram Girgaonkar

Spanish football since the 1990s is known for the fierce rivalry between arguably the two biggest clubs in the world, Real Madrid and Barcelona. This rivalry captivates almost every football fan worldwide due to its grandeur, world-class players, and the entertaining play that it has to offer. However, any Real fan would admit that before Barcelona emerged, Atletico de Madrid were their main rivals and a direct threat to the throne of Spanish football. While modern football fans would disagree, El Derbi Madrileno is and will always be a more significant rivalry and fixture than El Classico.

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Founded in 1902 and then known as Madrid FC, Real Madrid found instant success on the pitch, comprehensively winning 3 Copa del Rey titles. In the 1920s, the King of Spain, Alonso 13th, bestowed the title of “Real” on the club, renaming it as we know it today. Real did not become the club that we know until the 1950s. Santiago Bernabeu was the central figure behind this transformation. He held a vision of reshaping the club into a mega-business with a gigantic stadium, attracting world-class players. This vision only started taking shape with the arrival of the then greatest player of all time, Alfredo di Stefano.

Upon the arrival of di Stefano, Real began asserting their dominance on the pitch, winning eight league titles in 11 years. Di Stefano created a culture and mentality of success which remained constant throughout the ’90s and the Galacticos era. Even under the leadership of current club president Florentino Perez, the club wins the biggest trophies every season, signing superstars, and has cemented its place as one of the biggest clubs in the world of football. This culture of success has brought in 33 league titles, 13 Champions League titles, 19 Copa del Rey trophies, 5 Intercontinental Cups, and 9 Supercups.

On the other hand, we have the Rojiblancos (reds and whites), founded by three students from Bilbao who wished to have a team rooted in Madrid. Red and white generally used the colours to decorate carpets around that time; therefore, the nickname for Atletico arose, Los Colchoneros. A mood of pessimism and self-deprecation has surrounded the club ever since they lost the 1974 European Cup final replay to Bayern Munich. After this fateful match, the club’s president, Vincente Calderon, famously said, “We are El Pupas” (the unlucky ones).

Since then, Atletico fans seem to anticipate the worst every time the team competes for titles. Whether it be conceding a late freakish goal, players getting injured, referees giving decisions against them, you name it. Things seem to be getting worse around the reign of Jesus Gil, who paraded around the city in elephants and reportedly grilled his pet horse on how he should run the team. Gil disbanded the entirety of Atletico’s youth academy as, according to him, it was turning out to be expensive. Among the released players was a particular young player who crossed the divide, joined Real, and became a legend. The player turned out to be Raul.

Atelti suffered relegation in the 1999/2000 season, dubbed “un año en el Infierno” or “a year in hell.” A year turned into two, but by far the most mind-boggling stat around this period was that for 14 years, Atleti failed to win even a single Madrid derby. To rub salt on their wounds, the club couldn’t even play their centenary year anthem in their stadium due to copyright issues.

In December 2011, Atleti were at their lowest of lows. 4 points above the relegation zone and hurting after a loss in the Cup against a third division side. This relegation caused another managerial change. Enter Diego Simeone. He was dubbed “El Hombre” or the man to change Atletico’s fortunes, and so he did, with his unique, practical, and realistic approach of “Partido a Partido,” which means “game by game.” This approach was nicknamed “Cholismo.” Suddenly Atleti was winning matches consistently, with a great defense and a lethal attack. Under Simeone, the “El Pupas” jinx vanished (or so the fans presumed). Atletico won La Liga in the 2013/14 season at the Camp Nou. They also won the Copa del Rey on enemy turf against Real Madrid, with Miranda scoring an extra-time winner.

The rivalry reached a tipping point in the 2013/14 Champions League final, held in Lisbon. Atletico was leading, courtesy of Diego Godin, until the last minute of injury time, when a last gasp header from Sergio Ramos forced a tie. Real put three goals past a helpless and tired Atletico side, winning the coveted La Decima. For Atletico, it was El Pupas all over again. If that final caused them grief and suffering, nothing prepared them for the 2015/16 Champions League final. Held in Milan that year, the two Madrid clubs clashed again, with Real prevailing on penalties. It was the cruelest way for Atletico to lose the match against their eternal rivals at the grandest stage of them all. Simeone, after the final, stated that a period of mourning was required.

That win in Milan sparked a three-peat UCL win for Real under the management of club legend Zinedine Zidane. Real won the league in the 2016/17 and 2019/20 seasons, with Atletico hovering between third and second except for a solitary league win in 2020/21 along with a Europa League title in 2017. Madrid’s third UCL win in a row and Atletico’s Europa League win set up another tantalizing encounter in the form of the UEFA Supercup. This time Atletico’s final demons disappeared, and Simeone recorded a win and trophy against his city rivals.

While political views and differences fuel El Classico, this derby is more sporting and restricted to football. Mind you, hatred between the fanbases still exists, and violence is a common sight at the away ends of the stadiums during derbies. Atletico seems content in not being the biggest club globally, while Real remains determined to hold onto that mantle with all their might. The joy of winning over city rivals seems unmatched and determines the mood around the capital of Spain. With two polar opposite ideologies at play every time these two teams take the field, El Derbi Madrileno remains Spain’s biggest footballing rivalry.

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