Atlético are the side for entertainment
An American chap asked me on a podcast a couple of weeks ago which Spanish club I would recommend to an outsider to 'join' or to follow, if they wanted to get the full-on, in-your-face experience of Spanish football. Now there's a question to get your teeth into.
I was about to launch into a kind of half-meditated answer when I realised that it was impossible to respond without breaking up the answer into sections. What I tried to tell the chap, in a stuttering sort of way, was that your choice would depend on the kind of person you were, and on the sort of experience you were seeking. This is because practically all games in Spain are in-your-face, so you would need to state your preferred criterion.
Do you want sheer noise? Try Valencia's Mestalla. Fancy the quirky type, with weird rituals, songs and colour? Try Betis or Cádiz. Prefer the regionalist, political experience, with a bit of sepia-tinged nostalgia thrown in? Try Athletic Bilbao. Fancy being at the centre of the universe, where all things began and all things will probably end? Try the Bernabéu. Fancy a bit of style, a bit of the catwalk, a touch of hip innovation? Try The Camp Nou. Want too see what Spanish grounds used to look like before the corporate suits took over? Try Osasuna for size. And so on and so forth.
But perhaps all the above rather missed the point. If you'd been at the southern Madrid derby at the weekend between Atlético Madrid and Getafe, you would have seen a game unique in its statistics, and almost unique in its result.
Referee Clos Gómez, working on a new definition of the phrase 'losing the plot', managed to show 18 cards during the fun-packed ninety minutes, six of them red. Four players and two staff were sent off, and the rest were bookings. Getafe's full-back Cosmin Contra ended up in goal, which was slightly weird, since he was returning to the ground where he spent three years as an Atlético player, and perhaps the strangest thing of all - there was only one goal (scored by Atlético's Diego Forlan).
This was odd because the second most famous side in Madrid had managed a 4-3 result in each of their last three home games, against Sevilla, Valladolid and Villarreal - the latter game being the only defeat of the three. And the game before this famous streak of results was a 4-0 win at home to Zaragoza, meaning that Atlético's fans have been entertained to an almost orgiastic degree. Add to that the fact that a win would take them to second place, albeit temporarily (pending Barcelona's result at home to Deportivo) and the scene was set for this most interesting of derbies.
It would be difficult to explain to the outsider whether Atlético Madrid were representative of Spanish football or just some kind of aberration - but the Calderón is a not a place for faint hearts. Atlético are a little bit like the English team Millwall once were - their old ground was called 'The Den' and was situated on Cold Blow Lane, in London's East End, by the wonderfully named Isle of Dogs. Such a litany of bone-chilling names would have told you, quite correctly, that Millwall was a place to be feared both for visiting teams and their supporters. Millwall loved to be hated, out there on the margins of a grandiose city where other teams plied their trades in more prosperous surroundings.
Madrid's story is very similar, with Real Madrid sitting pretty on the Castellana, Madrid's equivalent of Mayfair, and Atlético hidden out on the banks of the murky Manzanares, where the factories used to churn out spirals of smoke and the neighbourhoods were several shades meaner. Atlético's fans have always been harder than Real's Ultras, despite the greater public notoriety of the ever-dwindling band of the Bernabéu-based hooligans, and they have always populated the long sloping terraces of the Calderón in greater numbers than their more famous counterparts. There has always been an edgy feeling to the ground and its surroundings, with something inevitably thuggish in the air. No-one likes to play there.
A current Real Sociedad player told me that it was the worst place to play in the whole of Spain - intimidating, hostile and threatening. 'Even the ball boys used to tell you where to get off. All you wanted to do was to get the game over and get back on the coach in one piece. Never mind the result.'
King Juan Carlos, mindful of the fact that Franco had done him a favour by allowing the royal family back to Spain before the official transition to democracy, carried on the tradition of monarchical and political patronage of Real Madrid as if it were somehow his duty, particularly in the early years of his reign. But in case this were seen as a step too far, he ordered his son, Prince Felipe, to support Atlético, in a gesture of balanced support to the capital's two principal sides. Felipe did as he was told, but he never looked comfortable there, especially during the Jesus Gil years, when the team and the institution became a byword for corruption and scandal. Back then there was never a dull moment, although now the fireworks are rather more connected to matters on the field.
Atlético's reputation as a hard side who take no prisoners is based on their double-winning side from 1996, but the present team have no really dedicated thugs and are prepared to play attractively for their supper, as long as the occasion demands. Getafe, despite the fact that their previous manager (Bernt Schuster) and their current one (Michael Laudrup) were both famous for their dedication to the aesthetic as players, have nevertheless garnered themselves a reputation as a side who are not afraid to mix it, and came to the Calderón determined to ignore the hostile atmosphere. Hence the mayhem.
Interestingly, the sending off of the Argentine Kun Agüero, voted before the game as Europe's top under-21 player, carried a certain poetic logic to it. Booked initially for diving in the penalty area, he was then given a second yellow for apparently handling back in his own area, although he appeared to have been pushed.
Last season, you may recall, Agüero tried to emulate both the old Maradona and the new Maradona (aka Messi) by punching the ball into the net and getting away with it, in a sort of 'Hand of aspiring God' episode. The team to suffer the consequences were Recreativo de Huelva. Next week, of course, Agüero will be suspended for the game against - you've guessed it - Recreativo. God may move in mysterious ways, but when it comes to football, He seems to have got things a little clearer.
But things are looking up for Atlético. They may not have the strength in depth to mount a serious title challenge, but a Champions League berth is surely a feasible target. And like their sparring partners Getafe, they're doing just fine in the UEFA Cup so far. They've had good squads on paper before, meaning that the summer signings of Jose Antonio Reyes, Luis Garcia, Simao and Forlan did not necessarily mean that they would improve on last season's decent(ish) finish of 7th, but a new spirit of togetherness seems to have bubbled up from somewhere, as if the departure of iconic attacker Torres to Liverpool needed to be seen as a positive, as a spur to finally achieving something, as opposed to always being seen as the supporting cast.
Elsewhere, there was trouble at San Mamés, where objects were hurled at Casillas in Real Madrid's 0-1 victory, and rival fans clashed after the game. In Pamplona, police intercepted the notorious 'Yomus' group from Valencia, and found a stash of weapons fit for an invading army.
Despite all this jiggery-pokery, Real Madrid stayed firm in their obvious desire to keep some distance between themselves and Barça, in preparation for the big one in the Camp Nou on December 23rd, after which the league closes down for Xmas and players will want to relax in a positive frame of mind. There's nothing like opening your presents on the 25th knowing that you're top of the domestic table and still in the Champions League.
Atlético Madrid most probably won't be top of the table, particularly if their depleted ranks suffer the inevitable at an improving Huelva next weekend, but they can rest assured in the knowledge that they represent some particular aspect of Spanish football, something down-to-earth and resonant, and certainly different. Don't go to the Calderón expecting a family day out, but do go expecting to be entertained. Chances are you won't be disappointed.