Madrid is a city synonymous with football and synonymous with fiestas. Sometimes both go hand-in-hand and the usual meeting point is the Cibeles fountain with the usual attire being the all white of Real Madrid. Usually. On Sunday night the fiesta wasn’t too far away but those attending were clad in the red and white of Atletico Madrid. The Neptuno fountain, less than a mile from Cibeles, has had its fair share of celebrations in recent seasons but nothing quite like the sight of an estimated 200,000 Atleti supporters welcoming La Liga’s newly-crowned champions back to the Spanish capital.
Diego Godin’s second-half header at the Camp Nou on Saturday night ensured a 1-1 draw for Diego Simeone’s men that secured a first league title for Los Rojiblancos since 1996, when the Argentine was a crucial cog in Radomir Antić’s midfield. Since then Atletico have won the Europa League twice and the UEFA Super Cup twice to spark wild scenes at their usual city centre gathering point but Sunday night exceeded all that had gone before it.
The celebrations started on Saturday night when the final whistle blew in Catalonia. The capital’s bars were packed with Atleti supporters and they spilled out on to the streets and headed straight towards the Roman god of the sea while their neighbours’ gathering point just up the road remained untouched. Only weeks ago Carlo Ancelotti’s side were on course for an historic treble but crucial stumbles left their focus firmly on the Champions League final as they welcomed Espanyol to a half-empty Bernabeu on Saturday afternoon.
Despite Los Blancos finishing the campaign at home all that could be seen on Saturday were the shirts of, quite literally, their noisy neighbours. There was a tension in the air, a tension coupled with excitement and a feeling that although many believed Atleti deserved to be the champions over the course of the campaign, Barca could very much snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. That tension and excitement stretched all the way until the final whistle blew at the Camp Nou and those emotions turned to sheer joy and relief.
Neptuno, already protected with fencing and police in anticipation, was the destination but although thousands celebrated long into Saturday night the real party kicked-off at 8pm on Sunday when Atletico’s open-top bus, complete with ‘Campeones’ decoration, set off from their packed Vicente Calderon stadium towards the city centre. Around 20,000 supporters had gathered by the Manzanares river, which the stadium sits next to, and thousands more lined the streets until the main gathering point at the Plaza Cánovas del Castillo.
Simeone, already a club legend but now part of the club’s fabric, called for a sea of red and white and his adoring public delivered. Atleti fans were as far as the eye could see from the platform erected around the famous statue, spilling out on to the adjoining streets and making noise that could probably be heard all the way up at an envious Santiago Bernabeu. The official celebrations lasted for a couple of hours and the unofficial ones continued long into the night. There will have been plenty of sore heads on Monday morning.
The current Atleti team is one not built around individual stars but built around a huge work ethic, organisation and a belief unmatched in La Liga this season. As each player, from goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to striker Diego Costa and Saturday’s goalscorer Diego Godin, was unveiled a hero on stage their adoring public delivered a song to match. The greatest cheers, however, were reserved for “Cholo” Simeone, the mastermind of Atleti’s success and the club’s one true leading star. Usually on the sidelines in all-black, the Argentine was more colourful in red and white and delivered a speech praising his “united and strong” group of players.
From their current hero to a past one. While Simeone’s name got its fair share of airtime, so did the name of Luis Aragones, who died in February aged 75 from leukaemia. Also a former coach of the Spanish national side, Aragones made his name as a player and a manager with Los Colchoneros and the Atleti fans who mourned his death earlier this year dedicated their league success with countless nods to their former boss.
It was seemingly meant to be for a club and its fans that usually play second fiddle to their more decorated neighbours from the north of the city. The final round of La Liga matches fell on the weekend of the capital’s San Isidro celebrations and the main gathering point to celebrate Madrid’s patron saint, the San Isidro park, overlooks the Calderon. Thousands were in good spirits when those celebrations kicked-off on Thursday, a bank holiday in Madrid, and Atleti’s league success made it a weekend that the red and white half of the city will not forget in a hurry.
The ‘Campeones’ cladding has been removed, the streets have been cleaned and the roads have returned to normal but Atleti’s season is such that hundreds of thousands of supporters could be back celebrating as soon as Saturday night if they achieve an historic double by lifting the Champions League trophy in Lisbon. Real Madrid, and Cibeles, will have something to say about that, but Atleti midfielder Gabi fired off a warning along with Sunday night’s fireworks: “The best is yet to come”. Madrid will be bracing itself for another fiesta this weekend but it remains to be seen if it will be all white or red and white.