As contrasts between bitter city rivals go the one between Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid is about as stark as they come.
The former is the club of the people, while the latter is the side of the elite. North vs. South, rich vs. poor, the difference is symbolized by the stadiums the two clubs call home.
The Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, located in the affluent business district of Chamartin, is a great cauldron of the European game, with its gleaming private boxes and shimmering trophy room. The Vicente Calderon, however, is tattered, crumbling around the edges and has a rumbling motorway running directly beneath it. This weekend it will host its last Madrid derby.
Atletico Madrid is preparing to leave their spiritual home next year for a new 70,000-seat stadium on the outskirts of the Spanish capital. It’s a move deemed necessary if the club is to keep up with their Spanish and European rivals, allowing them to compete financially at the top of the game. It’s a way for Atleti, estimated to be currently carrying around €500 million worth of debt, to ensure their rise to the top under manager Diego Simeone sticks in the long term.
The relocation of any club is enough to prompt supporter unrest, but Atletico’s decision to leave behind the Vicente Calderon has drove a stake right through the heart of their fan base. The spiritual connection between Atleti and their home stadium is strong. The two are intertwined. They cannot be separated, except that’s exactly what will happen ahead of the 2016-17 La Liga season.
But disgruntlement at the move isn’t necessarily over the stadium itself. Even the most ardent Atletico fan would surely admit that the Vicente Calderon is no longer befitting of an elite European club. What really has Atleti supporters unhappy is that their new home, the Estadio La Peineta, is located near the city’s Barajas airport, over 20 kilometres away from their current home on the banks of the Rio Manzanares. It’s not just a stadium being left behind, but a community, too.
Saturday’s clash with city rivals Real Madrid will mark another milestone in what is a farewell season for the Vicente Calderon. It, more than any other venue, epitomises the spirit of soccer in Madrid. The Santiago Bernabeu might have shone brighter more often, under the shimmering lights of the Champions League, but it’s the old stadium that sits perched next to a river, built over a motorway, that reflects the true character of the city and its greatest passion.
And so while Simeone whips his team into a frenzy even at their most subdued, the Atletico Madrid boss will surely convey to his players just how significant Saturday’s game will be in the history of the club that puts its people before everything else. Well, the club that used to put its people before everything else.
That’s what stings most about Atletico’s move to the outskirts, to the converted athletics stadium that will house the club from next season. It goes against the very grain of their identity. There is a fear that the fervent, zealous nature of the Atleti home support will be lost forever when they are moved into a state-of-the-art, sterilized new stadium, but it’s the symbolism of the move that has divided fans.
Of course, this is a case of history repeating itself for Atletico Madrid. Club president Vicente Calderon, the very man their current home is named after, faced fierce opposition over his plans to relocate the team to a large plot of land purchased in the south west of the city. Supporters clashed with Calderon over what they saw as a vanity project, with Atleti selling their Old Metropolitan stadium and moving into the new ground before it was even completed. They would, however, go on to credit the move with growing the club into what it is now, naming the stadium after Calderon.
Atletico Madrid must hope that a similar trajectory is followed upon the relocation to the Estadio La Peineta. Right now the hurt, sense of betrayal even, runs deep, with that pain set to be exposed as the final Madrid derby is played at the Vicente Calderon this weekend. Soccer in the city won’t be the same after this season. Atleti are counting on that being no bad thing.
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