The black shorts are purposefully featureless so as to not draw attention away from the design up top. 5 off-centre red stripes vertically dissecting an otherwise entirely sunflower yellow jersey achieve an unconventional look, while a scribbly font identifies player names on the back, also in jet black. The effect is retro, stunning, and very conspicuous. As the wearers consign themselves to a likely defeat, the least they can do is make a scene. The travelling fans appreciate the effort. A chorus of boos, whistles and cheers answers their slow chants sung in clear Catalan, just in case you didn’t get the message behind the shirt design. Spanish flags are raised, brandished toward the away block. “Plus Ultra”, the motto of Carlos I/ Charles V (the head of state during Spain’s golden era), shines in the face of the separatists.
This was not Real Madrid CF playing against FC Barcelona. This was not a fixture that will be discussed and debated for years to come. There was no sellout crowd, no star-studded audience, no extensive punditry or triple figure entry price. My 20€ ticket was purchased 40 minutes before kick-off, yet I was able to roam quite freely through the cavernous stadium. This was the second leg of the Copa Del Rey tie between Atlético Madrid and UE Sant Andreu. To all intents and purposes however, it was a minor version of El Clásico.
The relationship between Real and Atlético is an unusual one. In purely sporting terms, the two are great rivals, both having deservedly earned the “megaclub” status while bumping elbows in Europe’s Capital of Football (if I may describe Madrid as such). The two clubs frequently meet in domestic and international competition, and each match between the two is a parade of top level Football.
However, when we consider the clubs’ politically tainted histories, any existing animosity between Madrid’s two largest Football clubs fades somewhat. While the simplified narrative of “the favourite club of El Caudillo Franco himself” may not hold up to historical scrutiny, in popular culture Real Madrid have come to embrace the role of Football club for Madrid’s conservatives and centre-right voters. Indeed, a leading but banned Ultra group known as Ultras Sur are known for right-wing salutes and nationalist chanting during matches. Across town, the “Frente Atlético” are also known for their right-wing sympathies, a legacy of the long association between Atlético Madrid and the Spanish Air Force during the Franco years. As such, it is hardly surprising that Atlético’s fan culture has largely internalised right-wing sentiments that continue to manifest themselves in modern times. Madrid derbies are intense, but the relationship between Real and Atlético fans is not particularly hostile thanks to a shared vein of political affiliation.
As such, Copa Del Rey cup-ties that pit Atlético Madrid against opposition that so blatantly identifies as Catalan evoke the spirit of El Clásico, the modern proxy Spanish Civil War. Cup-ties such as this one.
We have intentionally withheld information about Atlético’s opponents in this match until this stage. UE Sant Andreu play in La Tercera División against exclusively fellow Catalan teams. The club that represents the eponymous, working-class neighbourhood situated to the North of Catalonia’s main city may be small is size but boasts a very intense fan base. The Desperdicis, Sant Andreu’s far-left Ultra group, frequently produce merchandise and tifos promoting their Catalan heritage, their anti-fascist agenda and their distinct identity a a town separate to Barcelona. In this encounter, their fans did not see themselves as a surrogate FC Barcelona. The Desperdicis present inside the Wanda Metropolitano that evening were nonetheless keen to propagate the Catalonian separatist message in the face of the monarchists and conservatives of Spain’s capital. To all extents and purposes, this was a bootleg El Clásico.
As the divisive Catalan push for independence trundles along, fixtures between professional sports teams followed by Madrid’s nationalists and Catalonia’s separatists will continue to inspire such partisan atmospheres. A feisty, vocal, Catalan away following provided a cause against which home fans could rally and generate a bit of feeling inside a brand-spanking new stadium that would have otherwise been dead. A few beats of a drum and waves of a flag do little to get the heart racing when you are sat entirely the other side of a giant, corporate-friendly, soulless bowl. A 4-0 drubbing of the visiting underdogs helped raise the voices of the home fans. The celebration of Catalan identity visible off and on the pitch provided a touch of context for the constant chanting heard in the away block. But Atlético’s new home does not feel conducive to passionate atmospheres.
The scale of investment that has been made in the Wanda Metropolitano (indeed it is a world class sports facility) means that a return to the Estadio Vicente Calderón will never be on the cards. Atlético Madrid’s centrally located former home now sits uninhabited, its coloured plastic seating slowly fading in the Iberian sunshine. The multipurpose Mecca madrileño located way out in the East of the Spanish capital will be Atlético’s definite home for years to come. But it is, sadly, a step that indicates the desires of a Football club that is focusing on building a brand capable of attracting more paying supporters than working to satisfy those it already has.
Evidence of this is the reaction of many Atlético fans to a proposed logo change. Outside and inside the ground, lampposts, doorways, street signs and railings are coated with fan stickers that suggest dissatisfaction; the slogan “No se toca” can be seen with alarming frequency. The proposal by the club’s management to move away from the existing and very “Spanish” looking badge to one capable of a more global appeal indicates the board’s intentions. Fans however feel they have been left out in the cold, having been peeled away from their spiritual home into a perfect yet sterile new venue whose acoustics and sheer size make atmosphere building a futile exercise, and now subject to a paint job on their club’s historic crest.
Atléti fans better hope that their new home fills quickly. The club cannot rely on proxy political confrontations in the form of visits from Catalan teams to provide a touch of atmosphere every weekend. Otherwise the club’s directors will be forced to continue its rebranding efforts.