(I wrote this post for my friend Ike Allen’s CRASHING THE BOX soccer site a few months before Atletico Madrid did the seemingly impossible and won La Liga on the last day of the 2013/2014 season. As we go into the last three matches of the 2015/2016 season and the UEFA Champions League semi-finals, I thought I would post it again for good luck. Aupa Atleti!)
I’ve been prisoner of a feeling for years now. I blame that elderly Spaniard in a soccer bar some time ago who drunkenly slurred out his reasoning behind supporting a team that is effectively the New York Mets of Madrid: “it’s a feeling you get when they play.” It was decided there and then. I was one of the Los Rojiblancos – in all their mid-table glory.
Strange how we don’t find teams. Teams find us.
Watching Diego Simeone barking orders to the Atletico Madrid players from the touchline during the Copa del Rey Final (close to three years ago now, Atleti is presently tied with Barcelona once again at the top of the Primera table and facing Bayern Munich later this week in the Champions League semi-final…can history repeat itself? Oh, and by the way, it was a fantastic final resulting in Atleti’s first defeat of Real Madrid in ages), I couldn’t help but think of one of the indisputable sport icons of my high-school days: the irrepressible Pat Riley.
Simeone cut a strikingly similar figure to the legendary NBA coach. The smart, stylish suit. The slicked-back hair. The razor-sharp gaze. The relentless intensity. The vocal ferocity. This was a coach to fall helplessly in love with. As a player for the club years before, Simeone had shown a terse, tactical side that was a handful for defenders. Years later, now as a coach, he seemed to lose little of what made him an effective player, crafting a team that echoed and amplified all those athletic attributes. Atleti was now tough where it had previously been lenient in defense. It was offensively crafty where it had previously been short-sighted. This was a team to reckon with. After years of following this team feeling little more than unwieldy frustration, I felt an amazing sense of hope. Not only had the team just beaten their cross-town rival in banner-waving fashion, but they had revitalized the much beleaguered La Liga. Were Los Colchoneros possibly challenging Spain’s much maligned two-horse race between Barcelona and Real Madrid? The soccer of my childhood had suffered immeasurably from years of financial inequity between the haves of Barca and Madrid and the have-nots of the other eighteen teams that stood in like pinatas for the Spanish Old-Firm to pummel.
And, there was Atleti gloriously and convincingly beating Madrid in the King’s Cup Final. Forza Atleti, indeed.
Of course, there were only about ten of us in the bar cheering on Real Madrid’s noisy neighbors. The crowd that surrounded us were mostly fans sporting Ronaldo or Messi jerseys.
I thought back to my high-school days in the 1990s. Being a Knicks fan was really no different. There was a long, long shadow being cast by the immensely talented Chicago Bulls. Jordon and Pippen were a tandem that was unstoppable. The team won three finals in a row. The game was fundamentally changed by the coaching of Phil Jackson (who was a former player for the NY Knicks, interestingly enough). Thinking back, the long shadow was more than justified. The Chicago Bulls were the Barcelona of the NBA. Jordon was Messi. Pippen was Iniesta. Jackson was Guardiola. They were a force of nature.
The LA Lakers and the Houston Rockets were a close second in the early 90s to the almighty Chicago fortress. Ever present in the playoffs, often in the finals, these were teams that constantly jockeyed for supremacy. Their caps and jerseys were also ever present in the halls of my high-school.
And, then there were Pat Riley’s New York Knicks. A team that played sophisticated street ball. They weren’t always pretty. They weren’t always suave. They always played with verve. They made it to the finals once against Houston and lost narrowly in the seventh game. Despite the loss, I was enraptured in that epic summer drama. I was often alone in my support. I cheered them on anyway.
I was prisoner to a feeling.
I’ve been thinking back about that NY Knicks team of the Pat Riley era. Sometimes, there’s just a special combination of talent and moxie that makes a team truly special. This season’s Atletico has that something special.
Pat Ewing? Meet Diego Costa. Fantastic individual talent that also blends into the team dynamic with aplomb. A forward with great vision.
Doc Rivers? Meet Raul Garcia. Hard-nosed engine working in the center that often allows the stars to shine on the outside of the formation.
Atleti has always been a team of moxie. Of feeling. Now they’re a team with strength, finesse, and intelligence top-to-bottom. Heading into their first round of the Copa del Rey, they have the talent and guidance to gun for a second King’s Cup in-a-row. They also sit second in La Liga behind Barcelona on goal difference alone. If they can hold their own against their inter-league rivals (and cross-town enemies), they have a shot to get many more to fall for their wily charms.
To fall prisoner to that feeling.