Undercover at the Calderon
Lunch at my mother's on Sundays is probably one of the few family traditions I still practice consistently. Our long chats after a full meal have become the perfect warm-up for the football afternoon/evening, plus my mother's original views on the country's political and social situation always crack me up.
I usually stay around for the full evening, watching every match on the telly and talking politics until the 9pm game finishes. That's why she voiced her surprise when I wore my jacket and gloves at 7.45pm: "Where are you going?" she said. "To the Calderon. I'm going to watch Atletico and Valencia," I replied. Utter contempt then appeared on my mother's face. "Why on earth?"
Even though her reaction was purely based on her contempt for both atleticos and valencianistas, she did have a point. The footballing week was eventful in Spain, and I had plenty of topics to write about on Sunday night, while completing my part of the swap deal with Phil Ball.
For instance, Vicente del Bosque's selection for next week's friendly match against France deserved attention. With his traditional composure, Mr Del Bosque announced his chosen 23 without any notes last Wednesday, as though reciting one of those poems you learnt when you were a child and now you wouldn't be able to forget even if you wanted to.
Despite his statement that this is not the final list, one can't help thinking that he has already made up his mind, and that it will take serious injuries (God forbid) or an amazing slump in form for one of these 23 to lose their spot.
Most of the squad was already decided by the end of 2009, and the very few open positions at that point seem to have a rightful owner now. Sevilla have been the biggest winner, with Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas (in impressive form) securing their spots and apparently leaving Fernando Llorente (Athletic de Bilbao) and Pablo Hernandez (Valencia) and Santiago Cazorla (Villarreal) out of the final 23.
But another subject stole the most headlines this week: the comeback of the classic Tenerife-Real Madrid at the Heliodoro Rodriguez, to be played again after an eight-season spell (the amount of time Tenerife spent away from the Primera Division).
Spaniards were treated to a full week of TV, radio and newspaper flashbacks, showing in (add 'excruciating' for the madridistas, 'exhilarating' for the azulgranas) detail Real Madrid's two consecutive defeats in Tenerife, which cost the club two titles in the early nineties. If you were alive and followed Spanish football back then, you'll never forget Tenerife's amazing comeback win in 1992, nor their authoritative victory the following year.
But on Saturday, Gonzalo Higuain easily took care of the chicharreros and exorcised his club's demons in Tenerife. In the following match that same evening, Barcelona had enough chances to demolish Malaga, then saw the malacitanos draw level in the final ten minutes, and had to use another trademark rescue mission from Lionel Messi (it had been some time since we last saw one) to prove Mr Ball's hunch wrong and maintain their two-point lead over Real Madrid.
Nothing had changed at the top of the table, so I decided I couldn't lose anything if I went to the Manzanares to watch arguably two of the best Spanish sides. I answered my mother's question with a quick "It'll be a good match", but she came back with another issue: "Who are you going to root for? Are you going to pretend you support Atletico? You don't look, sound or behave like an Atletico supporter!" My response of: "Whatever, mother," got the following putdown, as only a mother can: "OK, son, I might be wrong - you just behaved like one of them".
I left the house reflecting on how, during the last two seasons, the rojiblancos have made an art of their historical trait of beating the best sides and losing to the worst ones. I can state with no fear of being wrong that watching Atletico this season is the 'Ultimate Entertainment Football Experience'.
Nothing is off limits when they are on the pitch. If they're up 3-0, you have the distinct feeling that they can still lose the match, and if they trail 3-0, you easily talk yourself into an unforgettable comeback. This is simply fantastic when you're a neutral, and worth the price of every ticket to watch them play, but utterly insufferable if you count yourself among their fan base. Thank God I was born far away from the Manzanares river.
I hopped into a cab. An Atletico flag hung on its rear-view mirror. When I told the driver my destination, he said: "Are you going to watch Atletico? What for? It's a La Liga match. This season we only care about knockout tournaments". A great way to justify their poor La Liga form, and their good performance in both the Copa del Rey and the Europa League.
We had a good chat about the team, during which I played the role of die-hard rojiblanco until we arrived at the stadium. "Do you really support Atletico?" he asked as I was paying for the ride. "Why that question?" I said. "You just don't sound like an Atletico supporter, mate," he replied.
Perplexed by this comment (and obviously thinking that my mother, as usual, may have a point), I walked into one of the iconic watering holes near the Calderon, a bar called El Chiscon, ordered the classic 'cana' (approximately 200ml of draft lager) and started to speak with the group of Atletico supporters standing next to me, all of them watching the second half of Sevilla and Athletic de Bilbao.
We amiably discussed the impressive form of Jose Antonio Reyes, the frustrating sequence of injuries Kun Aguero has suffered, and how Jurado could be an impressive offensive midfielder if he were a bit more... well... manly. The most talkative, named Miguel, bought me a 'tubo' (literally, a 'pipe', a tall and slim glass with approximately 300ml of draft lager) and kept talking about the club non-stop.
I turned down his subsequent offers of a 'cacharrito' (any mixture including two doses of hard liquor plus any soda or cola) or a taste of his 'calimocho' (wine, cola and ice, as terrible as that sounds) and got my stuff together to leave. He then grabbed me by the arm and said into my ear: "You're a nice bloke, but you speak like a madridista. Keep your mouth shut if you want to watch the match in peace."
Shocked, I entered into the stadium thinking this had to be some kind of conspiracy orchestrated by my mother, but quickly found my seat and got distracted by the almost full house and the chants of the Frente Atletico, insulting Valencia's keeper Cesar Sanchez because of his madridista past. The pitch conditions were far from ideal, as the rain and snow of the last few weeks had taken their toll, but the atmosphere was fantastic.
Both teams started poorly, showing that their midweek matches - Valencia defeated Club Brugge in the extra time, while Atletico won at Galatasaray in the very last second of normal time - had been tough. After a dull start, Atletico started to take control of proceedings, especially through the impressive Reyes.
In the 20th minute, he entered the Valencia area and was brought down, but the incident was completely ignored by the referee. In the following piece of play, with most of the stadium still booing at deafening levels, Valencia scored through David Silva, who kept the ball for a good 20 seconds inside Atletico's box while no one bothered him.
"Now it looks bleak," the guy next to me said. "Valencia are going to kill us with their fast counter attacks." But Atletico maintained their tempo and forced Spain international Marchena into an infantile mistake, giving the ball away to Aguero and then blatantly handling the ball inside his own box to prevent the forward from scoring.
Amazingly enough, the referee waved play on once again under infernal noise from the crowd. The fourth official called him and explained what had actually happened, so Marchena received his marching orders (no pun intended) and Diego Forlan scored from the penalty spot.
In less than five minutes, I had witnessed the essence of this Atletico season. When everything seemed lost, in just one play the match dynamics were completely inverted and everyone went from hell to heaven. After drawing level, Atletico completely dominated the game. Reyes kept creating scoring chances for Aguero and Forlan, but they were well below their own high standards and for a long time it looked like they were not going to be able to beat an impressive Cesar.
Valencia's keeper kept getting bigger and bigger, and made at least seven amazing saves from various positions. After each save, he stood defiant looking at the Frente Atletico, who stepped up their chants: "Cesar, you die" or "Cesar is not a goalie, is a w****** from a nightclub" were profusely repeated. Two months older than his coach, this season's Cesar looks more immature than ever, and has grown fond of provoking rival fans when he plays away from home - just remember Valencia at Sevilla last January.
His exhibition was ended by Aguero's delicate header in the 78th minute. At this point, the valencianistas lost their poise and were lucky to finish with nine players - Miguel saw a red card after a vicious tackle from behind on Reyes, while Manuel Fernandes and Chori Dominguez should thank the ref for not being sent off. Forlan and substitute Jose Manuel Jurado rounded an impressive 4-1 win for Atletico.
From what I saw, it's hard to explain how Atletico are 16 points behind Valencia in the rankings, but then you have to remember the rojiblancos' ability to show up for big matches and their lack of consistency when facing smaller sides. Currently, their biggest star is Reyes, who ranks up there with any of Spain's best offensive midfielders. It would make sense to give him at least one chance before the final 23 are chosen.
After the whole emotional rollercoaster ended, I left the stadium and hailed a cab. The driver wore a Real Madrid track top. "Were you watching the match?" he asked. "Yes, it was fantastic," came my reply. "But you don't support Atletico, do you? You don't look like one of them". The lesson, as usual: listen to your mother.