For Atletico Madrid, beating Real in the derbi is about more than three points
Outside the Wanda Metropolitano, Atletico Madrid's new home some twenty kilometres away from the Vicente Calderon, are a series of plaques honouring the club's most significant players. Built on an exposed and dusty patch of ground to the northeast of the city, it's not exactly Hollywood Boulevard and it's not Vine Street either, but that's more or less the idea: it's part of a plan to create a sense of continuity, celebration, identity and history that could bridge that gap between this bit of no-man's land and what for half a century was, and still is, atletico country.
The criteria is simple: every player who played more than 100 games for the club has a metallic shield set into the concrete walkway around one side of the stadium. On the opening night, against Malaga, supporters strolled around looking at them. Inevitably, some were more visited and more photographed than others: Luis Aragones, Diego Simeone, Jose Garate, Fernando Torres, Abelardo, Paulo Futre, Larbi Benbarek.
And then there was Hugo Sanchez.
Sanchez's plaque was different, no sooner unveiled than it was covered up again, no sooner tidied that it was tainted: scuffed, drinks poured over it, stickers fixed to it, dirt kicked from soles across the surface, rubbish scattered across it. Hugo Sanchez played for Atletico for four years and won the Copa del Rey. He was Spain's top scorer while at the club, Pichichi in 1984-85. But feeling is everything and he also did something more important than all of that, something they never forgave him for, which is why over 30 years later, they were quite literally dragging his name through the mud.
He went to Real Madrid.
Sanchez had been on the verge of joining Barcelona, sitting in one room of the Rey Juan Carlos hotel as Steve Archibald sat in another, new manager Terry Venables eventually putting his foot down with the directors and decisively tipping the scales Archibald's way. So instead he went to Madrid, where he won the Pichichi award again three years in a row, and then a fourth time two seasons later. He also won five successive league titles, the Copa del Rey and the UEFA Cup. "I went because I was hungry for titles," he said.
He became a Real Madrid legend but here he is, outside Atlético's stadium, part of their history and identity. And here's the curious thing: could it be that, in his soiled state and with his sullied reputation, he is maybe more a part now in fact than if he had never left? Could it even be that there's something oddly fitting about that, however uncomfortable? Could it be that him being there is useful, somehow?
Even more than most clubs, Atletico Madrid's identity is built on what they are and what they are not. Who they are not. And that's Real Madrid, their opponents on Saturday night. Bigger, better, richer.
This is the first time they will have met in Atletico's new stadium; the last time they met in the old one, the thunder rolled round, Atletico were knocked out of Europe and a gigantic mosaic delivered a message that was short but said much. For Atletico, it was over -- for the fourth season in a row their progress in the Champions League was ended by their city rivals -- while Real were on their way to the final where they would collect their twelfth European Cup. Atletico do not have one but still, the message said "Proud not to be like you [Real]."
The very fact that they were there to raise that banner in a European semifinal showed that Atletico were a little like Real, that they aspired to compete with them and had come to do so. Their stadiums have showed that too: famously, a banner held up on the opening day at the Calderon boasted that everyone there could sit to watch the game while at Real they had to stand. And while the move to the Wanda is an economic constraint in the short term, it's seen as necessary for them to compete in the mid- to long-term.
Maybe Hugo Sanchez underlined that too. "I went because I was hungry for titles," he said. But that version of the quote above is incomplete. He also said "I wouldn't have left this Atletico." It's up to you whether or not you believe him (and Atletico fans don't) but the point he makes is one that has been analysed on these pages many times before: their revival under Diego Simeone and the revival, too, of the Madrid rivalry, some semblance of parity restored. Competition, at least.
Under Simeone, Atletico have won three major titles, starting with the Europa League, and they have reached two Champions League finals. They won the Copa del Rey at the Bernabeu, against Real, and beat them to the league title. But in the end, Real overcame them. In the Simeone era, Atletico's best in a generation, Real have still won two league titles and three Champions League titles: two of them were against Atletico and they were cruel. Add to that the fact that they knocked Atletico out in the quarterfinals and the semifinal.
The last-ever European game at the Calderon ended with Real celebrating. Atletico, though, clung to the fact that they had won the match. There was pride. There was also the fear that it might be the end of an era, underlined by Simeone talking about how the one thing he could not control is age. He said he wished he could clone his players, carry on somehow. And that is a debate that continues this season: there's a transition, a new generation, a search for identity at the new home, a search for themselves. There are the inevitable doubts about whether they can compete. There are doubts too about the commitment of players like Yannick Carrasco or Antoine Griezmann, suspected of seeking success elsewhere as Sanchez once did. "Whoever isn't committed can go," said Koke.
Atletico's Champions League future this season is bleak indeed after they were unable to defeat Qarabag, leaving captain Gabi insisting: "right now, the Europa League looks s--- to me." It's not much consolation that at least it is not Real who have finished them this time. In the league, Atletico have slipped eight points behind the leaders, Barcelona. They have only won six of their 11 games. They need to win this weekend if they are to compete for the title -- it may be significant that the title is even an aspiration -- but there are concerns about the way they have played. Goals are hard to come by, shots few.
Even if Simone insists, and quite rightly, that they have not yet lost a single game; only Valencia and Barcelona can say the same. And there's the thing: if Atletico are not at their best, what of Real? They have the same number of points; Zidane's team have drawn twice and lost twice. Both Atletico and Real have prepared for this match over the international break, most of their players staying behind, increasing that sense of this being a long-awaited moment. Because, well, it is. And because of what is at stake, because of the sense that this might define their seasons.
While Atletico have everyone fit, Real lost Gareth Bale again: his 24th injury since joining the club means that he will be out for another 10 days at least (if not, they hope, the rest of 2017 as originally feared). In both cases, it felt like a collective recovery mission: a moment to get their seasons on track. More importantly, a mission to find themselves again.
And if not...
The cover of the sports paper Marca called this "the derby of desperation." That may be laying it on a bit thick but there's something in that idea for both teams, especially for Real. If they were to slip further behind, the title may be gone. Talk of a crisis may be absurd but lose and it will return. For Atletico fans, the crisis is continental more than domestic right now and the title is not such an obligation, but the two things go together in the need to simply improve. And anyway: in the Simeone era, the league is still an aspiration, even if a vague one, rarely articulated. So is helping prevent Real from winning it. Victory would bring some small sense of revenge to go with their own recovery.
But it's more than that, more timeless. It is that this game is... well, this game. Every new home has its opening nights: the first game, the first European game, the first big game. Now it is the first derby at the Wanda Metropolitano, the match that symbolically matters more than any other this season. The first visit from the team they aspire to beat but don't aspire to be, or so they say. And that matters beyond form, beyond the table, beyond the injuries, beyond the doubts and way, way beyond the end of the season. Just as Lisbon did, and Milan. Just as that last night at the Calderon did.
Just as the papers recalled how Madrid won their first visit to the original Metropolitano and drew on their opening day at the Calderon, this result will be remembered. This runs deeper: this is "we can't let them win." It is forever. If Atletico are beaten by Real on their opening night at the Wanda, it will never go away, a bitter reminder of the rivalry and of Real but also an odd source of pride too, a reflection of who they are through who they aren't, of what they're up against and how they will keep on, how they have built a story not so much of success but of suffering and sacrifice.
Maybe it would somehow fit more, be a more atletico way for the rivalry to restart in a new arena. Lose and it will always be there, just like Hugo Sanchez.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.