Thursday, February 6, 2014

Shall we celebrate Atletico Madrid now?

Let’s take a minute to appreciate and thank Atletico Madrid. La Rojiblancos have just interrupted a 119-week stint in La Liga in which the Big Two rotated at the league’s apex – the last 59 manned solely by Barca – and mourned favourite son Luis Aragones in a loamy, rose-tinted weekend.

Former coach Aragones, who spent nearly a quarter of a century at the club as player and manager, passed away on Saturday as a result of leukaemia at the age of 75. In helming La Furia Roja to victory at Euro 2008, he managed Spain to their first major trophy since 1964.

Despite selling each of its past five most appealing assets* for significant sums and looking likely to do so again this Summer*, Atletico Madrid has invested in an exciting lineup of young playmakers who are able to build from a stoic defence. Despite a 3-0 loss to rivals Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey last night, their 2013-14 season has been a successful one.

It’s time to recognize that achievement. Breaking football’s class caste system – even temporarily – occurs so rarely nowadays that it’s a pleasure to behold, sometimes if it comes at your own club’s expense. In Spain, the top tier contains Real Madrid and Barcelona; there is room for no one else. Underdog appeal underpins every sporting movie simply because the masses can relate, giving the trope box-office pop. When an unfancied squad (even if they are the fourth-largest club in the country) wins a battle in real life then, we should similarly enjoy those small victories.

An old adage states that the only way of finding out how good you are is to actually play the games.

Over the past decade or so, this statement has lost some of its cache as this class system has quickly become entrenched. In 2014, the major Euroleagues are dominated by a plutocracy derived from cash nouveau or Boston-type old money, resulting in nationwide competitions that have devolved into mini-leagues that limit hope to besting their immediate rivals at year’s end.

The rise to prominence of football-based computer games and social media editorialisation – with or without taking in more-available-than-ever match footage – only heightens this perceived stratification: excepting the odd Manchester United/Stoke City outlier, we now accept that the same predictable teams finish in (about) the same predictable positions.

While Atleti certainly aren’t paupers, they certainly haven’t been in the same strata as their now-direct rivals. A change at the top is nice, even if it isn’t always entirely successful or long term. Not only will Montpellier HSC fans forever embrace their 2010-12 Ligue 1 performances (that came straight from promotion), but so will football. La Rojiblancos have perhaps a more storied history than the la Pallaide, breaking into the Iberian duopoly is still a triumph that should have knowledgeable fans smiling.

* Fernando Torres, Sergio Aguero, David De Gea, Diego Forlan and Radamel Falcao

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