This week marks a special edition of Why We Play, as junior soccer player Desmond Curran reflects upon his experience with soccer culture in Spain.
One of the most remarkable things that I have encountered in Spain has been the complexity of factors contributing to the identities of professional soccer clubs and their fanbases. Among the three different levels of soccer in Spain, local amateurs, professional leagues and the national team, it is at the professional level where identities are not only shaped by traditional factors such as regional history, culture and socio-economic reasons, but also byzz each other. It is a profound experience to peer into the identities that Spanish soccer fans have erected around their preferred clubs and to begin to understand the bond between the clubs and their fans.
The connections that fans develop with their professional clubs have their origins in the local levels of Spanish soccer. In Sunday league soccer, amateur teams throughout Madrid collectively mobilize, mostly haphazardly, in the early morning light to travel to their respective games. The average age of each player is early 20s, with some outliers. Most have played together at some point, but what seems to be a unifying force among them is their club. The clubs in these amateur leagues are usually organized by the barrio, or the neighborhood. At these games, however, there are fans. Not many, but on average a dozen show up—and are actively engaged with the game, cheering on the team they support (or harassing the other team, and even the referee). These fans are there to support the players who hail from the respective neighborhood supposedly represented by their club team. While these teams make no claims of representing their neighborhoods, the team name is usually that of the neighborhood itself, and the majority of their players are from the same neighborhood. There is no competition among neighborhoods to have the best soccer team—outside of the actual league competition, of course—but the ultra-competitive edge that many of these fans bring derives from a desire to see their side win.
Professional clubs represent different cities, regions, cultures and histories (or sometimes politics, in the case of Football Club Barcelona and Catalonia). These differences create an interest among fans to see their team win—and they see it as a triumph for their values, their qualities and their home. In Madrid, however, where there are four professional teams, fans of each team share a home. Yet the two largest clubs, Real Madrid Club de Futbol and Club Atlético de Madrid have cultivated and developed an incredibly fierce rivalry. Intra-city rivalries are nothing unique, but the complexity behind the animosity between the two Madrid giants has a long and nuanced history.
The divide between Madridistas (Real Madrid fans) and Rojiblancos (Atlético Madrid fans) is complex, shaped by the differing histories of the clubs and of Madrid itself. Both clubs are currently among the best soccer teams in the world, but historically Real Madrid is not only larger than Atlético, but is also the largest, wealthiest and most successful soccer club in the world. Atlético’s success is also only recent: The past decade has likely been the best passage of time in the club’s history. Real Madrid, however, carries a certain amount of international glamour and swagger. Every day without a match at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists who pass through on paid tours. There are official Real Madrid stores throughout the city—much to the excitement of the millions of tourists who visit Madrid annually. Returning to Real’s identity in Madrid, the Bernabeu itself is located in an affluent region of the city, Chamartin, surrounded by international businesses and banks. Their international profile was largely established in the 60s, when they were the team favored by the Spanish dictator Franco. Franco saw Real Madrid’s international success in European competition as a sort of icebreaker for diplomacy, to thaw the isolation of Spain after the second world war. Consequently, in Madrid, Real’s image is one framed in gold leaf and polished by international factors.
On the other side, Atlético strives to display the heart of Madrid. As tourism has become one of the largest, if not the largest industry in Spain, many Spaniards feel as though they may be losing some of their national identity. In Madrid, however, Atlético pushes back. While a large and very accomplished club in its own right, Atlético is not as prolific as Real—but that may be partly by design. The old venue for Atlético, the Vicente Calderon, was located next to a brewery in the south of Madrid. Traditionally, Atlético has drawn its fans from the working class of Madrid. In response to Real’s role in Franco’s diplomacy, the fans would chant “el equipo del gobierno, la vergüenza del país” (the government’s team, the shame of the country). Atlético fans are drawn to the club for its success on the field, but more importantly, for the stark contrast it offers against Real Madrid’s globalist approach.
Another apt demonstration of this disparity between the dueling cultures of the clubs is their respective styles of soccer. Fans of Real Madrid expect a very specific style of play: flowing, rapid and potent attack. Both the affluent Madrid fans and international spectators watch Real to see incredible displays of talent, technique and flair, to have that jaw-dropping moment, to be left in silent awe. It is no coincidence, then, that players such as Cristiano Ronaldo (if you want a spectacle, watch a highlight compilation of his goals—he takes his shirt off frequently) have found their way to Madrid. Ronaldo’s recent goal against the Italian club Juventus is the perfect example of this: an acrobatic overhead chilena bicycle shot that thumped perfectly into the top corner, only for Juventus players to stand by helplessly and stare at each other. His performance even earned him the applause of the Juventus fans (this was in Italy, not Madrid), who were booing him only 60 minutes earlier. This is the Real Madrid way.
Atlético once again provides the opposing number. Coached by Argentine Diego Simeone, Atlético has found success in a very industrial, gritty and defensive style of play. For some viewers, it may be stressful or boring to see the team sit back and prompt the opposing team to take the initiative to break them down. For Atlético fans, however, it fills them with pride. There is nothing better than seeing their team frustrate other elite European teams (particularly Real) with a physically defensive style, while at the same time achieving victory. Diego “El Cholo” Simeone, the intimidatingly passionate manager of Atlético, personifies this style: A former Atlético player himself, his personal style has been described as tenacious and combative, as if he were playing while holding a knife between his teeth.
Returning to the topic of the fans, this past weekend I was fortunate to attend El Derbi between the Madrid teams. During the warm-ups, the Real players were greeted with enormous cheers and chants throughout, whereas Atlético players were met with deafening whistling and jeers. During the game, Simeone was the subject of a thunderous chant: “Simeone, Simeone, que amargado se te ve, mientras tu estas en el fútbol” (Simeone, Simeone, how bitter you look while you’re in the game). Simeone, in turn, could only smile. The game ended in a 1-1 draw, continuing a six-year winless streak for Real against Atlético at home in the Bernabeu. In the post-game interview, Simeone addressed reporters, saying, “We are up against two super- powers, like Madrid and Barcelona…What we have done in this decade is tremendous. Atlético fans should be proud of how their team is competing.” He’s right. Atlético may never reach the same heights as Real, but Atlético’s fans know that. The reasons that many fans, both Spanish and international, are drawn to Real is their extravagant success, the high-profile players and the high-flying style. Atlético and Simeone provide the antithesis to this: succeeding against their elite neighbors while being a club of notably less historical prominence. Frustrating the growing influence of international forces over the city of Madrid, and over Real Madrid, is a fantastic sentiment that many Madrid citizens desire to share, and as such desire to join El Cholo’s army in supporting Atlético.