MadridRevisited

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by Sridhar Sarnobat 01 May 2015

It's well known that the first time for anything is always the most memorable. But some things are so enjoyable, you crave a second. Experiencing Atletico Madrid was one such urge.

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13 years since I sat in the Vicente Calderon (about 20 feet from then-club-president Jesus Gil) I suddenly found myself with the opportunity to revisit my beloved football team's home.

But this is not just watching a football team play. It's a pilgrimage - a journey seeking to reinforce one's core values. I love Atletico Madrid because it represents the part of me that believes in standing up for yourself against more powerful forces rather than conforming or surrendering.

My club is not the global powerhouse that Real Madrid or Barcelona is. But the most visible brands are not necessarily the most loved. Pizza Hut or Domino's are in more countries, but I pity those masses that haven't tasted SBarro's. They're missing out on something deeper. Actually this analogy isn't really working since SBarro's pizza-by-the-slice is more often thin-crust. But I digress...

In the decade that has lapsed since I watched Atletico climb one of the last rungs out of the second division, things have changed. I no longer live in Europe, but in the San Francisco Bay Area. I traded the Union Jack for the Stars and Stripes and in doing so presumably waived my rights to ever watch a competitive soccer match in person again.

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Atletico Madrid has been riding a wave of success in recent years, but older fans know that such golden eras are followed by barren years. The club remains fundamentally the same as I last saw it - rich on the outside but still a working-class club at its core. Nothing epitomizes this more than the stadium. The blue glass panels on the exterior have replaced the circus tent-like exterior in a seeming redefinition of the club's identity.

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But as I walked into the stadium on matchday, which just so happened to be against that other Madrid club you may have heard of in the Champions League, I saw what lied beneath those glass panels. The same old dark dingy concrete concourses, and rusty pipes and stained paint jobs.

The same paradox could be observed on the field. The club's lineage just continues to be blessed with great players somehow: Aguero, De Gea, Courtois, Falcao, Diego Costa (all of whom now ply their trade in the country of my country of birth). But the man pulling the strings supplements the talent with the same tactics that brought Atletico its short-lived peak in the 1970s. The "vicious bunch of thugs" as dubbed by Celtic fans would be proud of Diego Simeone for instilling a combative style in today's team that saw them achieve the impossible 11 months earlier by winning the league and outlasting Real Madrid and Barcelona who own the worlds two hottest properties in Ronaldo and Messi. Those 2 megastars continue shattering goalscoring records.

But the journey of one other star player of the 2000s has come full circle. I remember in 2002 when I was fortunate enough to be sitting in the VIP section and having access to the backroom area, my Spanish was not quick-witted enough to shout "Fernando, un foto por favor?" at an 18 year old Fernando Torres who walked past me. That tall, talented young star was destined for tremendous highs and also terrible lows. But as he came onto the field to try and break the deadlock against the club he vowed he will never play for, all seems right in this world. He is back at the club where the fans knew he is good and will give him every chance of succeeding. The gleaming look of happiness and assurance like a loved child had resurfaced having been absent since leaving 8 years ago. It was surreal seeing him in my proximity again knowing where all he'd been since he was last in breathing distance of me. He'd won major trophies, experienced long-term injuries, been the subject of huge transfer fees, and divided opinion among fans and .

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The match ended 0-0 but I got to brag not only that I'd been to a Madrid derby, but a sold-out Calderon (which isn't a regular occurrence) singing my heart out with 52,000 brothers and sisters.

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And I managed to get on TV, waving shamelessly to the hard camera in injury time near the flag of India I'd hung above the entrance to the block I'd been sitting in.

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I was absolutely exhausted from the travel - acquiring tickets, packing my bags, charging electronic devices, walking across the entire diameter of Madrid's airport, changing Metro stations and limping uphill to my hotel where I promptly crashed for 4 hours (and missed meeting some other foreign fans I'd known over the internet). Only 72 hours earlier I had been in California and had not adjusted to the 9-hour time difference.

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Seeing a match at the stadium that nestles on the bank of Madrid's Manzanares River was not a new experience - I'd done that in 2002. But what I had been dying to do for the first time didn't happen until the following day: a stadium and museum tour. I wanted to be see with my own eyes the trophies that the club had won in its 111 year history. It was not the biggest collection in the city (that can be seen in the northern half of the city at a bigger stadium), but every trophy was hard-fought for. Heroes had spilt blood, sweat and tears to acquire them. Most trophies were replicas, but one was the original: that League trophy that Atletico had had to wait 3 months to hold after officially winning at the Nou Camp.

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The photos in the dressing room with player nameplates will make for an interesting historical snapshot of the club's life, but I couldn't help but wonder how many of these names anyone will have any memories tomorrow. Diego Alonso, Otero, Hibic were all charged with bringing the club back from the 2nd division in 2002, which still seems like yesterday to me. But those names don't ring too many bells in 2015.

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The press conference room had slipped my mind as a forthcoming photo opportunity but I proudly sat in front of the club graphics in a momentary pledge of allegiance.

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The VIP area which had completely changed from what I'd seen last time. They had moved the museum and wall photos to the uncovered side of the stadium. All that remained was a spacious lobby with marble furniture and bars with dark blue counter tops for the rich and famous. But the most interesting unexpected experience was the player tunnel, which the tour administrators were nice enough to enrich with the Atletio hymn while I was walking through it as happens on matchday.

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The final spot we tourists were treated to was the dugout. One of them asked "which one is Simeone's seat?" I replied out of turn, "There" pointing at the corner of the dotted box. Simeone isn't one to sit down given the choice (a choice he wasn't given at the start of the season, serving two separate bans simultaneously sitting high in the stands). That drew laughter from people such as a Polish gentleman who kindly helped me capture my memories on camera.

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The club shop had all the expected merchandise though naturally had no historical shirts which is where all my emotion is soaked in (I dream of a store which sells every jersey the club has ever worn - maybe 3D printers will do that one day). I made a point to buy flags with that beautiful Atletico logo which I could proudly display anywhere I felt like displaying my belonging to this club of outlaws, as I'd done the previous night.

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