When Chelsea travelled to Spain to meet Atletico Madrid in a Champions League group stage game in November 2009, six-and-a-half years ago, they were up against a club in crisis. Atletico were stuck in the relegation zone in La Liga, with the division's worst defensive record (no, it’s not a misprint).
This wasn’t just a temporary slump, either. In an article in The Guardian, published on the day of the game, football writer Sid Lowe described Atletico as “what could well be the worst run club in Europe”.
The “Rojiblancos” were saddled with debt to the tune of €300 million and had not won a trophy for more than a decade. In fact, they had spent two years in Spain's second tier, the Segunda, between 2000 and 2002.
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The recently sacked Watford manager Quique Sanchez Flores had just taken the reins at Vicente Calderon back then, but nobody really expected Flores to stay for long, as he was the club's ninth coach in six years.
Since then, Atletico Madrid have reached no less than four European Cup finals, winning two of them. They have won two European Super Cups, one La Liga title, one Copa del Rey title and one Spanish Super Cup title. Not bad, for a club in crisis.
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The first trophy of this new golden era, the Europa League in 2010, was actually won when Sanchez Flores managed the team, but the miracle worker above all others at the Vicente Calderon has, of course, been Diego Simeone. The feisty Argentine, nicknamed “El Cholo”, became Atletico’s first team coach in 2011, and has worked wonders with the club he captained to a famous league and cup double back in the nineties.
Simeone has moulded the Atletico team in his image, to such a degree that you would’ve thought that his ultra-competitive, spirited DNA had been injected into the backbone of every player in the squad. Nobody runs, fights, battles and harries like Atletico Madrid, and more often than not, that is enough to beat opponents with far greater resources at their disposal.
To say that Atleti under Simeone are solely about graft, guile and defensive solidity, however, would be slightly misleading. Since he took over a team with Falcao as line-leader five years ago, the Argentine has kept alive Atletico's tradition of bringing in good attacking players and turning them into fantastic attacking players, before eventually selling them on.
The latest example is Antoine Griezmann. Brought in from Real Sociedad nearly two years ago, the Frenchman arrived as a promising winger, with bags of potential. Promise and potential, however, is a common commodity in Europe's biggest leagues. What Simeone has turned Griezmann into is the refined product; the consistent world-class performer, who now provides a lot of the stardust in the current Atletico side.
On Saturday, Atletico can write a new and amazing chapter in their rags to riches-like rise to the top of European football, when they face city rivals Real Madrid in the Champions League final. The trophy that Jose Mourinho once described as “the one with the big ears” is the only prize that has eluded Atletico during those glorious last six years.
They came as close as it is possible to do without winning it, of course, when they lost the 2014 final to Real Madrid in the most agonizing way, conceding an equaliser three minutes into stoppage time -and eventually losing 4-1 after extra time – after holding on to a 36th minute 1-0 lead for so long.
The ultra-competitive Simeone has taken a surprisingly philosophical approach when asked if this final represents an opportunity to extract revenge for the bitter defeat in Lisbon two years ago; “I don’t believe in revenge. There are new chances in the life, not revenge. And this is another chance.”
Do not for a second, though, underestimate just how much Simeone would love to win the Champions League trophy, and above all, to do it by beating Real Madrid at the iconic San Siro stadium in Milano. El Cholo knows better than anyone how much games against their traditional big-brother means to the Atleti fans.
Unlike Barcelona or Atletic Bilbao, Atletico have never been a symbol of opposition towards the Franco-regime. In fact, the Rojiblancos were the regime's preferred club for a considerable period during the 1940s. The rivalry between Real and Atletico, however, is still rooted in deep and profound socioeconomic and cultural differences.
Real Madrid's home ground Estadio Santiago Bernabeu is located in the wealthy business district Chamartin, while Atletico's Estadio Vicente Calderon lies four miles further south, in the industrial neighbourhood of Arganzuela. Real is the all-white symbol of power, wealth and establishment, traditionally perceived as the ruling classes' preferred club.
Atletico meanwhile, are the working man's club, the dreamer's club; infamous for its tendency to choke when it matters, but famous for their fans' loyalty. The latter illustrated by how the membership doubled when Atletico were relegated in 2000.
Saturday night, in Milan, that loyalty might be rewarded in the most magnificent way.