For the last 30 minutes of the 2014 Champions League final, Juanfran Torres could barely walk. He was bleeding and limping, and he could do nothing but bite his lip and keep pushing. There were no more substitutes left to offer. He looked on the verge of collapse, standing upright by sheer force of will. As the game had gone on, I’d begun to feel like that too. I was running on fumes, or beer, one more game-induced heart attack and I’d be done. We were holding on. An entire season of going constantly full-sprint with minimal rotation, perhaps, had finally caught up. It was mentally and emotionally draining in a way that’s probably left me with permanent damage.
We lost. It was awful. I felt my heart break and the strength go out of me when Sergio Ramos scored in the 93rd minute. I was at Percy’s Tavern in the East Village and I was the only Atleti fan in the bar and I felt my knees buckle. It would spiral downwards from there. I could argue for days that the 4-1 didn’t accurately or fairly reflect the game, but it doesn’t much matter. We let it slip away, and that was that.
That season, Atlético Madrid won La Liga and almost won its second Doblete with the Champions League. Instead, Real Madrid won La Décima, its 10th European title. But regardless of the result, we’d completed the final step in our return to the top tier of soccer. Diego Simeone’s project was essentially complete. But the loss became fuel. And if you’ve seen Cholo Simeone stalking the sideline, you know that giving him more drive is a laughably dangerous move.
I had the blessing, or maybe the curse, of inheriting a team bad enough that literally every year of my fandom has seen a marked improvement. Atlético Madrid had a 13-year winless streak against Real Madrid, two of those years because the team had been relegated to the second division. I’ll never forget the brutal tifo in 2011 that read “Se busca rival digno para derby decente.” It was valid, at the time. We lost that game too. We were in a bad place. But oh man, karma’s a bitch. Our growing unbeaten Derby streak is nice. Watching Real lose to anyone is nice, I suppose. Getting to do it ourselves is just an extra privilege.
Let’s be clear: Atlético Madrid’s underdog story no longer applies the way it once did. We’re not struggling. We’re not a one-off. We’ve knocked out the last two Champions League winners, and that was just this tournament. If we win it all, it will be three consecutive champions felled in three consecutive games.
Early this year, droves of trophy-spoiled madridistas had resigned themselves to a season of “disaster.” It was cute. I think Atleti will be more than happy to oblige in helping make that come true.