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Sep 25, 2005

Another side of Madrid

Haunting Los Merengues' shadow since the end of the Spanish Civil War, Madrid's second team, Atlético, stand poised to revive glories past. After languishing in the Segunda División for two seasons, Club Atlético de Madrid S.A.D.'s latest spell in la Primera kicked off with the capture of man-child Fernando Torres prior to the 2002-03 campaign. The future looked bright indeed for Los Rojiblancos.

To the frustration of players, management and fans, however, the return to the championship days of yesteryear, last seen with the 1996 league-cup double, has yet to spark at the Vicente Calderón. But, a few key signings, including a new coach, may be just what Atlético needs, as the weekend scalp of FC Barcelona hints.

Atlético registered consistently inconsistent performances since their most recent promotion. The last two La Liga tables tell no lies: in 2003-04 Atlético finished seventh, just outside the European places; they slipped to a listless eleventh last season. Statistically, the official league site ranks Atlético third all time in Primera points, behind only giants Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. However, the side's undulating form has plagued the club since Franco's ascension to power. The club won just two titles - 1949-50 & 1950-51 seasons - under nationalist rule until the 1965-66 season.

Meanwhile...across town, Real began consolidating its position as Spain's foremost futebol power (some would contend with the support of Franco). Four Primera titles in the 1950's and an astounding eight in the 1960's, Real also won the first of its now nine European championships during this time. Atlético, on the other hand, founded in 1911 as an ancillary to Basque-side Athletic Bilbao, an outfit strongly associated with Basque nationalism, was never going to be popular with the dictator who demanded all things cultural and successful come from Madrid. As the record demonstrates, Franco wasn't a proponent of cultural tolerance.

The 1965-66 championship kicked off the club's golden era. Los Rojiblancos won three more league titles - 69-70, 72-73 & 76-77 - as well as two King's Cups - 1972 & 1976 - under the leadership of José Eulogio Gárate Ormaechea (known professionally as Gárate). With the Buenos Aires-born, Eibar-raised forward, the club flourished. A three-time Pichichi winner, Gárate, netted 109 times in 271 appearances for Atleti and is regarded amongst the greatest and most important figures in the club's century-long annals. The Liga title of 1976-77, the side's lone achievement after Gárate's retirement, began a tumultuous period. The ensuing slide into fits of peak and trough form has dogged the proud club ever since.

In the 1980's and early 1990's the club spelled in the Segunda. However, the appointment of Jesús Gil y Gil, a familiar of legendary Atlético supremo Vicente Calderón, to the club's board of directors would change all that. Born March 11, 1933 in the sleepy Sorian town Burgo de Osma, the would-be veterinarian (reportedly too squeamish to wield a scalpel) eventually found his way to property development after a stint in auto sales.

His success (and failure), not to mention his massive personality, solidified his media position. Gil, in his spare time, founded a pro-business political party Grupo Independiente Liberal (GIL) in June 1991 and became mayor of seaside Mediterranean Marbella in 1995; propelling the revitalization of the local economy with a one-two of Gil-backed redevelopment and tourism. He also adorned the town hall, funding construction of a Generalissimo Franco bust, who pardoned the fledgling magnate for his role in a 1969 construction disaster. A modern day Alcibiades-clad in businessman's get-up and wielding statistics, the incidents in his life of playing both ends against the middle in the name of self gain, while colorful, are far too vast in occurrence to even attempt listing in so modest a framing.

A former amateur center back, Gil professed his love of futebol the course of his entire part in this universal play. In June, 1987, he was elected president of Atlético, and by 1992 was owner. The administration began with promise, Gil vowing to recapture the club's glory days. The double of 1996 was the greatest on-field achievement under the direction of the one-time stopper. Sadly, charges of mismanagement, embezzlement and fraud clouded those achievements. Gil was eventually indicted for tax evasion and financial misappropriation to the tune of $54 million.

Temporarily stripped of his title and majority stock, Spain's most outspoken businessman returned to plant seeds of future greatness before his passing in May, 2004. Signing "El Niño" to a professional contract in the summer of 2002 may cement the tycoon's legacy at Atlético. Fending off bids from Real, Barça, and a host of Europe's biggest clubs, Gil managed to retain the most promising gem the club's youth system has yet unearthed despite many clamoring hands.

Born Fernando José Torres Sanz March 20th, 1984 in Madrid, the player known as Fernando Torres has rarely disappointed. Regularly the side's captain, the phenom's catapulted onto the Spanish futebol scene with 13, 20 and 16 strikes in his first three professional seasons. To date his record is 56 tallies in 142 Liga games. He is the youngest player los rojiblancos have ever fielded and their youngest goal scorer (at sixteen). "The Child" is also the youngest Spaniard to play for the national selection, of which he is now a staple, winning 19 caps at the ripe old age of twenty-one.

Frustrating to both himself and Atlético's fans, Torres hasn't helped the club win silverware. In fact, after last year's Copa del Rey semifinal exit to Pamplona's Osasuna, Torres and other players publicly apologized for the squads' shortcomings. The arrival of Boca Junior's iconic sideline wizard Carlos "Bunch" Bianci, however, may signal the end of days of apology and mea culpa. The legendary Argentine coach arrives at the Vicente Calderón amid great expectation with an impressive record at the helm of the Buenos Aires giants - one Clausura, three Apertura, three Copa Libertadores, and two Copa Toyota titles in two spells totaling six years.

"Bunch" inherits a side that's rebuilt its defense over the last season and a half. In 2003-04 the club conceded more goals (53) than it scored (51). Acquiring French defensive midfielder Peter Luccin (Celta Vigo) and Argentine shot-stopper Leo Franco (Mallorca) as well as Columbian Luis Perea (Boca Juniors) and Spaniards Juan Velasco (Celta Vigo), Antonio López (Osasuna), Pablo Ibáñez (Albacete) in defense, the club conceded a stalwart 34 goals, third best in La Primera, during the 2004-05 campaign.

Despite the defensive record, the club finished eleventh. Last season it was the offense, which frustrated after suffering the retirement of Greek international Demis Nikolaidis after Euro 2004. The team's anemic 40 goal return ranked sixteenth, above only the relegated sides - Albacete, Levante, and Numancia - and Héctor Cúper's sixteenth-placed strugglers, Mallorca.

For Atleti's offensive tribulations, failing to replace Fernando Torres' retired Hellenic strike partner was no help at all. Toward that end, Bianci has signed two Argentine flankers Luciano Galletti (Zaragoza) and Maxi Rodríguez (Espanyol) in addition to recruiting ex-Chelsea striker Mateja Ke?man and Bulgarian road-runner Martin Petrov (VfL Wolfsburg). These world class reinforcements have stirred quite the buzz around the training facilities. With three of the players posting banner seasons and Kezman looking to recapture the goal-scoring form that made him a target for big-spending Chelsea while at Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven, Atlético's offensive woes should be cured.

This revamped Atlético is far more balanced than two seasons ago and should rely less heavily on Fernando Torres going it alone up top. With danger men on the flanks (lefties Maxi and Petrov, Galletti attacking from wide right) and the Serb international playing off the bull-like Torres, the side is no longer a predictable, play it over the top, single-faceted attacking threat.

Coupled with Bianci's inclination toward attacking football, the future yet again looks quite promising indeed for Los Rojiblancos. The slow start to the campaign with a draw and loss which left them goalless after two rounds may have concerned some amongst the club support. However, finishing with ten men, Bianci's charges showed the makings of an excellent side, one full of fight and grit, en route to a 2-1 home Liga upset of defending champs, Barcelona.

Quietly, in the shadows of the Bernabéu, the second team of Spain's first city has retooled for a run at the top. Qualifying for Europe has been the club's goal since its return to the top flight, and Bianchi has promised it for next season. With current squad and coach, what were whispers of a title run have become bold statements.

Current club president Enrique Cerezo has stated: "In my view we have put together a great team. The fans can't wait for the season to start ... All the players believe the time has come for the club to reclaim its rightful position." While possibly too late to match Real's title count, there's no reason this Atlético side can't compete with Los Galacticos for an anticipated Primera title. Maybe, just maybe, Jesús Gil will play a benevolent ghost of Christmas future making good on his promise: returning Atlético Madrid to its glory days of the 1960's and 70's.

Jim Kopcak is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross. He covers European and world soccer for ESPNsoccernet and currently lives and works in Providence, RI. He can be reached at JimKopcak@hotmail.com