Soccer religion
Cáceres (Spain), June 2nd 2016

The last Saturday of May 2016 is in Madrid only dedicated to one thing. It is a shared passion that seems to some almost a form of religion. However, the believers worship different gods; one part of the city cheers for Real Madrid and the others adore Atletico Madrid. Tonight the Champions League final is a real Madrilenian city derby, as it also was two years ago. The actual titanic struggle is thousands of kilometres away, in the Italian metropolis of Milan. Only a fraction of the tickets are sold to the supporters of both clubs; the majority of the tickets are given to the sponsors of this super commercial event. However, this does not mean that the fans don’t make a party out of it. Real Madrid’s Bernabeu stadium is packed with supporters who are going to see the game on big screens. Atletico Madrid on the other hand, clearly the underdog in terms of budget and status, hired the Palacio Deportes in Madrid and sold 15,000 tickets to their fans. We were able to get tickets for the soccer mass of Atletico and headed to the Palacio Deportes for a great evening out.

Atletico Madrid is known as the people's club of the two, and their supporters come mainly out of the suburbs of the city. The campsite where we are staying, is located in the district of Boadilla, west of the city, at the end of a metro line. We asked the reception of the campsite to print the tickets for the game, and when they noticed that we bought tickets for the Atletico event, they didn’t want us to pay for the prints. At the huge flagpole near the metro station, where there normally waves the Spanish flag, the red and yellow flag was replaced by a huge Atletico flag. Many people with Atletico shirts were hanging around, obviously nervous for the game to come. Once in the city centre the picture changes. Real Madrid fans, here in the majority, socialize and drink a beer with their Atletico friends. The atmosphere is very good. A few hours before the game the groups separate. We follow the red-white-blue group to the Palacio Deportes. The hall turns slowly in the team colours. In the seats in front of us, two fathers and their sons are visibly nervous. The fathers are in their forties and wear an Atletico football jersey with the name of their hero Simeone on the back, now the trainer of the team and immense popular with the fans. They sing each song that blares from the loudspeakers, while they fanatically swing their club shawls in the air. Next to us are two elderly ladies. They are in their seventies. One of the ladies isn’t very mobile, but despite this disability she jumps up on a regular basis to support her club.

Us with an Atletico shawl in the sports palace in Madrid

So here we are, with our newly acquired Atletico shawl, on which is printed: "Never stop believing". It gives a double feeling to cheer for the club which kicked out our club PSV Eindhoven in an earlier stage of the Champions League competition, but for some reason Atletico is a club simpatico and we hope they win this match. The text ‘never stop believing’ on the shawl is well chosen. Two years ago, Atletico lost in the final from Real Madrid while Atletico was actually the better team of the game. So tonight must be the night that they win their first Champions League competition in the club history. There is a lot at stake and we would love it if there is finally a new club that wins this price, rather than an established name like Real Madrid. The crowd around us believes that it is possible tonight. They sing their lungs out of their bodies, clapping their hands, and whistling on their fingers when a Real Madrid player appears on the big screen. A strange sensation: singing in front of screens for a game that is played thousands of kilometres away. But the atmosphere is fantastic. Goosebumps!

However, after fifteen minutes, fate strikes; Real Madrid scores. The objective viewer would probably say that Real is the better team on the field at this stage of the match, but our new Atletico friends are devastated. But not for long. They start singing and clapping louder, and occasionally cross themselves to try to turn the tide. Also the trainer Simeone on the screen tries to motivate the fans in Milan to support the team even more. The Argentine has a long history at the club as a player and now as the coach, who brought the team this far. Atletico does not play the prettiest game, but they play with passion, and that means according to Simeone: "Play every game like it's your last." Simeone appears often on the big screen when he tries to inspire the players.

15000 Atletico fans in the Palais Deportes in Madrid

The game goes from one magical moment to another, until Atletico gets a penalty. The fathers in front of us cross themselves again, and turn around with their shawls before their eyes because they do not dare to look. But the Lord does not answer their prayers; the penalty is missed. The two sons must fight to keep their tears away. But just before the end of the match the tide turns and Atletico equalizes. The hall explodes! In the extra time none of the teams score which means that penalty kicks must decide who wins the 2016 Champions League. The nerve-racking penalty shoot must have cost the fans a few years of their lives. Singing, whistling, nail biting, cheering and cursing: it's all part of the rituals of football religion. But at the end, Real Madrid is the winning team when Ronaldo kicks in the fifth penalty while Atletico missed one.

The Real Madrid players celebrate on the pitch in Milan that they crowned themselves for the eleventh time champions of Europe, while the disillusioned Atletico fans leave the Palacio Deportes in Madrid. Mothers, fathers and children, everyone is trying to bear this loss as good as possible. A few still sing Atletico songs, but most just stare to the ground while leaving the stadium. How long will it take before they finally take this biggest prize in European club football?

In the metro, the Atletico and Real Madrid supporters meet again. Spain has no real history with football hooliganism and also now, fans of both teams respect each other. Of course some Real fans celebrate their win, but none of the Atletico supporters is provoked. Eventually, both fans follow the same religion; they only admire different gods. On one of the stations in the city centre, a girl in her late teens comes into the metro, dressed in a Real Madrid shirt and wrapped in flags. It's 01:00 at night and she goes home after a beautiful football evening for here. She first wanted to sit next to a few very disappointed Atletico fans. But when she see their faces, she decides to sit a few seat further away. The loss is still too fresh!

The Royal Palace in Madrid
Anti-terror police in Madrid
Street scene in central Madrid
Minion tries to earn some Euros on Plaza Mayor

With the bike from the campsite to metro station Puerto de Boadilla

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