Estadio da Luz, Lisbon - May 24, 2014 will forever be remembered in Spanish and European football history.
This was the first ever UEFA competition final involving two teams from the same city as well as the accomplishment of ‘La Decima’, Real Madrid’s tenth continental title that the Spanish giants were yearning for ever since that Zinedine Zidane volley in 2002.
The date, unfortunately for Atletico Madrid, also marked the end of football’s own Cinderella story. Only a week after shattering a decade of Real Madrid-Barcelona domination in La Liga, Diego Simeone’s side confidently approached the final hoping to defy all early-season logic and achieving Europe’s most sought-after crown.
Atletico are by no means a poor club and rank third in Spain on the financial table. However, their yearly budget of €125m is almost a fifth of Real’s (€535m) and Barcelona’s (€515m) and is symbolic of a league where the gap between the top and bottom tier clubs increases over time. Despite recent success in Europa League and the King’s Cup, pundits and betting services had Atletico’s odds of winning La Liga at 50-1 in late August.
|Diego Costa Champions League final lasted just nine minutes [Reuters]
Week after week, Atletico marched on and did little else than win every match they played. Meanwhile, everyone assumed that they would eventually fold and make way for either of the two giants. But they were wrong. Along the way, they even managed to defeat Real Madrid the league for the first time in 14 years (0-1 at the Bernabeu). After the 38-game marathon, the Madrilenian side surprised all by lifting the trophy courtesy a draw at Camp Nou.
Atletico’s triumph captivated audiences worldwide. The New York Times hailed it as “the greatest sports feat of the year”. Simeone’s outspoken philosophy of “playing every game as it if were your last” made a real impression on his players. Despite not having a Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, Atletico believed they had something greater: unity. Their Twitter hashtag remained #HeartAndCourage (#CorajeYCorazón). And it was precisely their heart and courage which made everyone believe that Atletico’s fairy tale was nearing the climax.
The fateful 93rd minute
And it was going to... until the 93rd minute when Real Madrid tied the game and took it to extra time. Sergio Ramos’ tying header will haunt Atletico supporters for the foreseeable future along with the thought of what could have been. The consensus among the losing side’s fans upon leaving the stadium was that an absolutely unique opportunity had been squandered.
Who knows when Atletico will be in another Champions League final. The road taken was long and extremely difficult, knocking out four different European champions in the process: Porto (group stage), AC Milan (round-of-16), Barcelona (quarter-finals) and Chelsea (semi-finals). It was also clear that reaching the most prized final in Europe against Real Madrid was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Many downcast colchonero fans (mattress-makers, the nickname they are known by in Spain) expressed that the loss was harder to swallow due to the fact that revenge can surely only be obtained on a smaller stage.
The ghost of Schwarzenbeck
Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck was probably the least reputable player in an extremely powerful 1974 Bayern Munich side with the likes of the legendary Gerd Müller and Uli Hoeness.
The name, however, sticks like a dagger in the memories of Atletico’s first ever European Cup final, exactly forty years ago. The match took place in Brussels and in it the legendary Luis Aragones scored a winding free kick which put Atletico ahead minutes from the end of extra time.
The fierce Madrilenian side was about defeat Europe’s then most-powerful side. However, in the 120th minute, seconds away from the final whistle, the defender with a name impossible to pronounce for most Spaniards beat Miguel Reina, father of the now Spain goal-keeper Pepe, to force a second match. Back then there were no penalty shootouts and in the additional tie-breaking encounter, Atletico’s efforts fell flat as they lost 4-0.
From Schwarzenbeck to Ramos, Atletico’s fame for suffering remains intact four decades later. It is a common saying among the supporters that, for them, winning as well as losing always comes in difficult form.
The evening of May 24 was as hard as they get but the story and lesson of this Atletico side will take a long, long time to be forgotten: belief, heart and unity are key in the David versus Goliath scenarios of football.