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It is said that Football in Spain comes a very close second behind Catholicism as the national religion. If this is true then it can be said that, in Madrid, Atletico Madrid come a very close second behind Real Madrid as the capital city´s favourite sporting attraction.
Whilst the history of Real Madrid is one of European championships and domestic domination that of their cross city neighbours Atletico Madrid is one of “nearly men” and barren trophy cabinets. Such has become the commonality of spectacular capitulations from winning positions that the club and the fans are known as, “los suffrodores,” the sufferers!
If Atletico are that poor on the football field (and there is no evidence to the contrary) what drives 55,000 people to turn up week in, week out, at the traffic congested city centre Vincente Calderon stadium?
The matchday experience!
Take the party atmosphere of the Rio carnival and the passion of a political rally and you still have not arrived at the intensity generated on Atletico Madrid matchdays. From the devout Atletico supporters, known as “Ultras” and who populate the southern end of the stadium, there comes a three hour assault on the senses. The only brief respite from the barrage of noise being when the teams change ends at half time.
Football matches in “la liga”, The league, typically start at 1700 on a Sunday afternoon (this is frequently changed to meet TV demands) however the matchday experience starts far earlier at around 1300. In the numerous small bars around the ground and even up to 3km´s away the Atletico faithful are preparing to enjoy one of Spains other great traditions: Lunch!
As in the rest of Spain, Lunch is a two hour marathon of five or six different Spanish dishes accompanied by and washed down with copious amounts of beer or wine during which players of a bygone era are remembered, team selection criticised and games replayed in the minds of those present. Rapidly the Salt, Pepper and Sauce bottles are rearranged as a particular goal or movement is re-enacted to shouts, screams and arguments of those straining their memories of thirty years past.
With the relaxed affair of lunch over by 1500, and notwithstanding the vocal chords being sufficiently lubricated, the crowd begins to move towards the street party building in the neighbourhood immediately surrounding the Vicente Calderon.
Thoroughfares are closed off by the police as the streets rapidly fill with a sea of singing red and white punctuated only by the sound of drums and horns. This happens every Atletico Madrid matchday and every matchday the staff of the many small bars lining these roads try valiently and fail to serve refreshments to the crowds on their doorstep.
“Atleti! Atleti! Atleti!” Is the dull roar that becomes more distinct as you approach the stadium itself. Having arrived a good thirty minutes before the match is due to start the “Ultras” are starting to whip up the rest of the crowd so that as kick-off approaches the sound of singing, chanting, drums and trumpets has blurred into one indistinguishable noise. Five minutes before kick off and as the teams are walking out onto the hallowed turf the PA system crackles into life and fifty-five thousand voices sing as one the “Atletico Hymn.” Should the players have needed reminding how important the game is the flowers placed at the side of the corner flag in remembrance of those players who died in the Spanish civil war certainly brings things into focus.
What follows the referees short blast on the whistle to start the game is 90 minutes of continuous vocal encouragement of those who were the red and white stripes. Well almost continuous as this may be interuppted for the singing of a couple of choice songs questioning the origin or the virtues of the referee, the opposition or the other team from up the road (Real Madrid).
Almost as a relief the final whistle blows, as the referee brings proceedings on the field to a halt, however for the Atletico Madrid fans this signals a mad rush to the nearest bars and restaurants to analyize the days performance and to quench those parched throats!
With an atmosphere like this and an enterance price of less than twenty euros it is easy to see why those 55,000 hardy souls are willing to endure a stadium, that is only a quarter covered, to see their team flounder in rain in the middle of December.
Spain’s La Liga has produced some thrilling moments and is sure to keep doing so all the way until the last game is played in the 2008/2009 season. This year we have seen some huge scoring numbers tallied by a large collection of players from varying teams. The current leader in La Liga, Eto’o from Barcelona has netted 27 with a few games still to be played. This looms over the much smaller mark of the leafing English Premier League scorer, Ronaldo, whom has collected only 17. Below some of the most influential players in this years campaign are profiled as well as a look ahead to next season.
Barcelona‘s Three: Incredible. That is just one way to describe Eto’o’s 27 goals he has produced so far for Barcelona. A key member of the “tri-attack” that Barca deploys, Eto’o fits in perfectly between Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi to form a devastating line of attack. Eto’o leads with 27 goals, but is closely followed by his partners Messi with 21 and Henry with 17 at the top of the score sheet. Combined they have been a powerhouse of offense and have led Barca at the top of the table nearly all season long.
Looking ahead, Messi is showing why he can be called the best there is and should do more of the same if not improve. Eto’o is a goal machine, and plan on huge returns if he remains with Barca. Henry has been linked to several teams including the MLS. Naturally, if he departs, his stock in fantasy La Liga will disappear.
Steady Real Madrid: Overshadowed by Barca most of the year, Real has been consistent as the year rolls down to an end, and we might find the boys from Madrid as the champion of Spain. Led by Raul and Gonzalo Higuain (whom have both struck 18 times) they have propelled Madrid along all season and kept pace with Barca’s furious winning clip. Madrid has seen solid contributions from Huntelaar when he came over in the transfer window, and he should figure into the long term Real Madrid plans along with Higuain.
Looking ahead, plan on Madrid to be very active come the off season and I would not be shocked to see Ronaldo finally come over from Manchester United. Raul will be another year older, and with Higuain showing his worth and Huntelaar providing additional stability, Raul may find there is more pressure to keep his spot in the starting eleven.
The Standouts: This year’s title race has once again come down to Madrid vs. Barca, but there have been some major performances from players around La Liga which have been huge to have from a fantasy perspective. The oft-talked about David Villa has had a spectacular year to follow up his great showing in EURO 2008. This year he has fired off 25 goals, which is second behind only Eto’o. Valencia may not be able to hold their super star, so Villa will likely be on the move to money laden pastures. Atletico Madrid has seen several noteworthy campaigns from Diego Forlan, whom has tallied 23 goals, and Sergio Aguero has had a solid year.
Looking ahead, the transfer window will just as it has every year of late be the big story, and can change fantasy values from one week to the next. Keep an eye on the news to see who goes where, and who’s fantasy value will increase or decrease by the additions or subtractions around them.