Ahh, Madrid. Always one of my favourite destinations for a weekend break in Spain. There are just so many places to explore and things to see and do that, even after my fourth visit, I still have a list of things ‘for next time’. And then there’s the football. No other city in Spain can offer such a concentration of top-level football as the capital. I’ve already dealt with Real Madrid and the Santiago Bernabeu in a previous post, so this early-December trip was all about visits to my two favourite Madrid grounds. As you may have guessed, Atletico’s Estadio Vicente Calderon is one of them. The other, well, that’s for Part II.
Now sadly coming to the end of its lifespan, with Atletí due to move to the new Wanda Metropolitano stadium next season, I planned this trip specifically as my last chance to pay tribute to one of my favourite Spanish grounds. It remains the only one I’ve visited on every one of my visits to Madrid, firstly for an abortive attempt to buy a ticket for the Madrid derby during Atletico’s historic title-winning season in 2014, a stadium tour the following year and eventually, a game last December, which saw them come from behind to beat Athletic Club, thanks to a screamer from star man Antoine Griezmann.
I guess I’ve always had a soft spot for Atletico too, whether that stems from their supremely cool kit, which was copied by six-a-side team I spent part of my time at university playing for, or their status as permanent underdogs, compared to their bigger, richer, more successful neighbours, so the last few years, where they’ve established themselves as the third force in Spanish football and given the traditional big two a few bloody noses along the way, have been a welcome occurrence.
The Calderon itself is a wonderfully atmospheric and idiosyncratic ground. I mean, there can’t be too many grounds in the world with a road running underneath one of the main stands. Built on a bend in the river Manzanares, it’s only a short ride on the metro out from the city centre. Getting off at Piramides station, I was instantly confronted by a street lined with stalls selling all kinds of merchandise, scarves, shirts, badges, hats, pretty much anything you can think of, along with classic Spanish match day snacks. This is pretty much the same all the way down to the ground. I spent ages poring over the merchandise stalls, I always buy a scarf as a souvenir of avidity to a club and there’s often more value to be found on the stalls outside and at Atletico, there’s definitely more variety. Player specific scarves seem to be very popular at the Calderon, with images in varying degrees of likeness to the player in question. Nothing will ever top my finds last year of a Torres scarf, seemingly modelled on German forward Andre Schürrle, and a terminally ill/depressed Antoine Griezmann.
Atletico’s museum, also located at the stadium, is well worth a visit. It’s pretty small, most of the really interesting items are contained within one room, so it’s perfect for a quick visit if you arrive at the ground early, though probably not worth going just to see it. Word of advice, if you’re staying in a hotel/hostel, check the lobby/front desk for discount cards. One of these gives you a little bit of money off the Atletí museum visit and stadium tour, though bear in mind that the stadium tours don’t run on match days.
So, onto the stadium itself, most of it is uncovered, so if you are going in the winter, be prepared for Madrid’s sometimes temperamental weather. The stand which backs onto the Manzanares river is covered, and as a result is more expensive,while the other three stands are all connected, forming a U shape on three sides of the ground. Most of the noise comes from the Fondo Sur, where Atletico’s Ultras congregate, but I paid a little extra (€60) for a seat right on the halfway line. Sometimes it is worth paying more for the view you want. Last season, I paid €50 for a seat high up behind the goal in the Fondo Norte and I found it difficult to make out everything happening at the far end. No such problems this time!
The night began in somber fashion. During the week the football world was shocked by the plane crash involving Brazilian side Chapecoense, and around the world, players and supporters United to remember those who died. It was particularly poignant at the Calderon, as one of the victims, Cléber Santana, had played for Atletico between 2007 and 2010.
After an understandably subdued start, the atmosphere soon lifted as the fans looked to inspire their heroes to victory, perhaps encouraged by the draw between Barcelona and Real Madrid earlier in the day which gave Atletí a chance to make up some lost ground on both. But Espanyol were in no mood give up easily, managed by Atletico’s 2010 Europa League-winning coach Quique Sanchez Flores, they had, after a poor start to the season, established themselves as one of La Liga’s meanest defences, and in goal they had former Real Madrid ‘keeper Diego Lopez, who predictably enough came in for constant stick from the home fans. Given the performance he put it, perhaps winding him up wasn’t such a good idea…
It would be quite a frustrating evening for Atletico. Griezmann was shadowed throughout, having to come deep to get the ball and limiting the amount of damage he could do in the final third of the pitch. Diego Simeone (back in his iconic black suit, having swapped it for a maroon club tracksuit when I saw them play in Seville) prowled his technical area menacingly, no doubt furious at the number of overhit passes, marginal offsides and how easily Espanyol were frustrating his team.
The second half was much the same story, but with added rain. Atletico pushed and pushed, but Lopez was equal to everything they threw at him. Oblak then came to the rescue as Espanyol broke quickly, but the Slovenian ‘keeper made a great save to keep the scores level. Atletí forced a number of corners in the dying minutes, the noise within the stadium rose as the fans tried to push them over the line, but Espanyol held firm. Frustration for Atletí, and frustration for me, my third 0-0 in a row (the other two courtesy of Recre, the 0-0 kings of Spanish football). Although it wasn’t a bad game, it was tense and the outcome was in the balance right up to the final whistle, with the amount of attacking talent on display, it was hard not to feel disappointed.
A late night meal at Opera Pizza (not a patch on its Belfast namesake) followed by chocolate con churros at the famous San Gines chocolateria was not a bad way to finish off the day, but as I wandered back to my hosel through the rain-lashed streets of central Madrid, I wondered if Sunday would bring any goals…
To be continued…