Misery loves company, and apparently so do I
Story by Dylan Lewis // Photos by Maria Amasanti
At 11:30 p.m. on Saturday night, I stood a few feet away from an American tourist in a sea of screaming Real Madrid fans, hating every second of the ride to the Banca de Espana metro stop, where their UEFA Championship celebration was underway.
“I have never been so devastated by the result of a game my team wasn’t playing in,” he said, while wearing a knock-off Atlético Madrid jersey he’d bought earlier in the day with “Azerbayan Land off Fire” across the chest. His words might as well have been my own.
I began the day an indifferent American journalist on assignment, documenting the atmosphere in Madrid as the sibling rivalry unfolded on the pitch in Lisbon, Portugal.
But like so many others, I fell for Madrid’s notorious band of heartbreakers.
I can’t say I wasn’t warned.
On our way to Vicente Calderón Stadium to cover the fanfare surrounding the match, my reporting partner, Maria, and I turned onto Paseo de los Melancolicos – a street name that translates to exactly what you might expect. My bilingual colleague confirmed, we were standing on “Avenue of the Melancholy.”
But the scene was anything but sullen.
The Atleti fans gathered into what could best be described as a slightly libated block party. College-age fans jubilantly hopped on top of garbage cans, nearly eye-to-eye with kids perched atop their dads’ shoulders. People drank and set off flares in a jungle gym next to an old man pushing his grandson on the swings – all of them wearing the same red and white striped jersey that made them look like a herd of mutated Zebras. The name on the back of the old man’s kit, “Abuelo,” or “Grandfather.”
This was nothing like the entitled, raucous, frat party formed by Real Madrid supporters celebrating on Calle de Marceliano I’d seen earlier in the day.
I tried to nimbly traipse through a pathway cluttered with trash and human feet, only to look up and see an Atleti fan waiting for me to complete the pass rather than bump my shoulder.
The atmosphere was so neighborly, I half expected someone to invite us over for dinner, or ask if I needed to borrow a lawnmower.
Then, as if on cue, Valle, a young woman in her 20s, asked if we had tickets to watch the telecast of game in Vicente Calderón Stadium. She explained that she had two buddies bail last minute and was hoping watch the game in Atleti’s house on the jumbotron with two new friends. Knowing we wouldn’t be staying the whole time, we told her she should ask someone else.
As it neared 8:30 p.m., the crowd in the streets thinned. People either made their way to the stadium or found a bar to watch the game with their Atlético brethren.
Maria and I took this opportunity to enjoy a brief break from reporting and grab something to eat. We settled on a restaurant a few blocks away where we could have a greasy sandwich, a Big Gulp-sized serving of cerveza, and watch the fans watch the game from the outdoor patio.
We’d figured we would eat, catch some photos and vignettes from the bar and make our way back to Real turf for the majority of the game and the presumed celebration after. Then at 9:22, in the 36th minute, Diego Godín’s header snuck over an out-of-position Iker Casillas to give Atlético the first goal of the match.
I felt myself slipping into the trap of fandom. Atleti’s constant struggle for legitimacy, and the bond it forged among its fans, reminded me of the pains of rooting for the Red Sox up until the mid-2000s. Against my better journalistic judgment, I bought an Atlético scarf from a vendor on the street corner next to our table.
During halftime the bar emptied out, as fans took to the sidewalk to quell their nicotine urges. A few made phone calls to friends and family watching the game elsewhere, I think. It was hard to tell with everyone speaking Spanish.
The smokers outside hummed with the possibility of an Atleti win. They felt Madrid’s jesters creeping up, ready to snatch the crown from European soccer royalty, about to defeat the ingrained complex of upper-class over blue-collar.
There was the distinct sense that this time, this team, was different.
And it looked as though they were. In the second half they thwarted an onslaught of attacks from Real.
Around the 60-minute mark in the match, Maria and I committed to staying on Atlético’s turf for the remainder of the game. Their lead, coupled with the logistical nightmare of navigating soccer-apocalypse Madrid, made it an easy choice. We saw the upset story coming into form and walked a few blocks over to Vicente Calderón Stadium to continue covering it. I saw my new team half an hour away from a championship.
Outside a bar attached to the stadium, there was a crowd of more than 100 standing on the sidewalk watching the game on what must have been a 40-inch television, cheering and gasping in unison with each turnover and challenge.
Their defense bent, but didn’t break. The underdog narrative would hold.
At the 90th minute, with Atlético still milking a one-goal lead, I made my way to the back of the crowd to film the group’s reaction to the referee’s final whistle – the sound that would cement their status as Europe’s champion.
Fans swung their scarves over their heads and hopped up and down, barely able to contain generations of anticipation.
I struggled to hold my iPhone steady enough to capture the scene.
The crowd rallied for one last defensive stand “ATLETI, ATLETI, ATLETI!”
And then, silence.
I was too focused on getting the shot to see the screen, but I already knew. I felt the endorphins drain out of my body.
They had staved off the richer, prettier, more popular Real for 94 minutes, but the match lasted 95.
Just like that, the congregation of believers turned agnostic. The magic was gone, and the inevitability of a Real victory in extra time set in. Of course, that’s how the rest of the match played out.
The favorites ended up hoisting the UEFA Cup, while Madrid’s lovable losers had once again fallen short for their fans.
Even worse, I was now one of them.