IF YOU’VE visited Madrid recently, you’ve no doubt flown over the gleaming new home of Atlético Madrid, the Wanda Metropolitano. It’s an impressive site, fashioned out of a stadium built in anticipation of the Spanish capital being awarded the Olympic Games.
If Atléti play their cards right, they could be playing at home in the final of the UEFA Champions League in the first week of June 2019. The Wanda has been chosen to host the final this year, a slightly controversial choice given Atléti’s recent record in the Champions League – and the possibility of them reaching the final again – but an outstanding venue all the same.
In any other football league, Atléti would have been regular champions in recent years. Despite moving into the top bracket of Europe and becoming very adept at developing young talent, the club has won just one Spanish league title in the past 20 years and has been champions 10 times in its history. It’s tough being in the same stable as Barcelona and Real Madrid.
But in the past six years, Atléti have finished in the top three every season, establishing themselves as Spain’s third club. What is really impressive, however, is the club’s record in Europe, two UEFA Champions League finals (2014 and 2016) and three Europa League victories (2010, 2012 and 2018).
Consistency has played its part in making Atléti arguably the top club among those chasing the Real-Barca-Bayern group of elite movers and shakers in European football. And in 2018-19, it seems the club is maintaining that momentum – second in La Liga and on the brink of a place in the last eight of the Champions League.
Atléti won the first leg of their last 16 tie against Juventus by 2-0, giving them a better than even chance of progressing. So upset was their old Real Madrid sparring partner, Cristiano Ronaldo, that he had to taunt the locals with, “Ronaldo, five Champions League titles, Atlético nil” as he sashayed out of the Wanda, battered and bruised (and with an own goal to his credit).
If Diego Simeone’s team is to win the Champions League this season, they might never have a better chance, and the march of time suggests that 2018-19 might be their last opportunity with this particular team. As impressive as some of their older heads remain, it cannot be ignored that only José Giménez in their defence, at 24 years of age, has career longevity ahead of him. Juanfran, Diego Godin and Felipe Luis are all in their 30s and striker fiery Diego Costa has now reached 30.
To counter that, Atléti still have some younger players that may yet attract the attention of Europe’s monied names – players like Saúl, supposedly a Barcelona target, who was developed through the club’s academy. And of course there’s Koke, who is now 27 but has become one of the most consistent and coveted midfielders in the game.
The club is no longer an easy target for rivals with bigger cheque books, hence stars like Antoine Griezmann and Koke have not been tempted away. In fact, the club has proved it has muscle in the transfer market, luring Monaco’s highly-rated midfielder Thomas Lemar to Madrid and paying € 60 million in the process.
From being a debt-laden organisation, Atléti have moved up the hierarchy to become one of the most dynamic clubs. Consider that in all the major business-oriented rankings, Atléti are now ranked among the top 15 on a consistent basis. In fact, as rated by KPMG Football Benchmark, Deloitte Football Money League, Forbes and Soccerex, Atlético Madrid are placed 13th. Only in Brand Finance’s report, Football 50, is the club lower (14th).
The first full season in the Wanda stadium was 2017-18 and the club benefitted from higher attendances – a 24% increase to 55,000. Atléti’s last campaign at the Vicente Calderón Stadium, on the banks of the Manzanares river, saw crowds average around 45,000. The higher crowds contributed to revenues growing at the club to € 304 million, a remarkable rise from just five years ago when they totalled around € 170 million. But a glance at the income of rivals Real Madrid, some € 750 million, underlines the gulf between the two clubs.
In some ways, Atléti are in a better place than their illustrious neighbours. The weight of expectation is that much greater over in Chamartin and the politics seem to be more complex. There appears to be greater stability at Atléti than Real. Diego Simeone has been coach at the club since 2011, during that period, Real have had no less than six coaches. Simeone, whose win rate is 61.45%, has often been targeted by other clubs, but he has spurned all enquiries. He has just signed an extension to his contract with the club that will keep him at the Wanda until 2022. He can be a volatile character and courted controversy at the recent win against Juventus by making an obscene gesture, grabbing his crotch. When Atléti beat Villareal 2-0 in their first home game after beating the Italians, the fans showed their support for their manager. He explained his actions: “It means we have balls, a lot of balls. I did it as a player and I did it again to show our fans that we have cojones. It wasn’t aimed at the other team, I was turning towards our own supporters.”
Atléti’s victory saw the first goal for Alvaro Morata, following his move on loan from Chelsea. With Diego Costa returning after two months out with a foot injury, Simeone will have a strong frontline duo as they try to put more pressure on Barcelona at the top. There’s seven points between the two clubs, but they will meet in early April at the Camp Nou and there’s also the Clasico to consider, which takes place at the Santiago Bernabéu this coming weekend (March 2). Barca may be in control, but it could so easily change. Simeone is relishing the challenge, according to media reports. “I love it…I am proud of my players and the season we are having,” he said.
Whether they catch Barca or not, Atlético Madrid are having a good season, but much will depend on how they fare in Europe. A 2-0 lead is significant, but they are up against Cristiano Ronaldo, a player they know only too well. He can make the unexpected happen, but there’s no more steely outfit than Los Rojiblancos. They have no greater incentive – to anoint their home ground by playing the UEFA Champions League final at one of Europe’s finest arenas.