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Football, violence and café con leche - In with Atletico at the Copa del Rey

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A supporter of Atletico Madrid lights a flare as supporters celebrate at the Neptuno square in Madrid on May 18, 2013, after Atletico de Madrid won the Spanish King's Cup (Copa del Rey) final football match Real Madrid vs Atletico de Madrid
A supporter of Atletico Madrid lights a flare as supporters celebrate at the Neptuno square in Madrid on May 18, 2013, after Atletico de Madrid won the Spanish King's Cup (Copa del Rey) final football match Real Madrid vs Atletico de Madrid

“Football has a habit of doing these things.”

These were just about the last words I said to Ben Hayward, a fellow journalist, just before I left the Café & Té cafeteria on Calle de Arenal seven hours before the kickoff of the Copa del Rey final in Madrid.

The city hadn’t been brimming with excitement about the Kings Cup final taking place that night, mainly because there was no traveling entourage, no visiting fans to descend on the Spanish capital. Both sets of supporters were local and were likely sleeping in or at their jobs, as per usual, preparing themselves for a night against the old enemy. 

Two hours before kickoff the city’s football fans suddenly came alive. The streets around the Santiago Bernabéu were suddenly alive with colour as fans poured out of the bars and cafes, beers in hand, to chant and dance the evening away.  Both sets of supporters were stood behind their respective ends outside the ground, the Real fans lighting white flares and chanting – surprisingly - Jose Mourinho’s name while the Atletico fans danced to the beat of a drum, singing their clubs anthem over and over again. 

The city center was just as much a hive of activity, as the tapas bars and cafeterias filled with those dressed in rojo y blanco of the city’s perennial underdogs and the all white of Royal Madrid. My chosen haven, just 600m or so from Plaza de Cibeles – where the Real fans and team would party the night away if the Copa del Rey made its way back to the Bernabéu – was full 40 minutes before kickoff with a handful of Atletico fans mixed in with their Real counterparts.  I spoke to some of the Los Blancos faithful who all had unwavering confidence in their side taking a victory on the night, a last piece of silverware for the manager brought in to win the seemingly unattainable La Decima

Cristiano Ronaldo’s header after 14 minutes silenced Los Rojiblancos’ army but their fight back against a Real side that had not lost to their city rivals in 14 years was not only commendable but almost magical as it unfurled.  Falcao brought cheers to the bar as he mingled between the Real defense before sliding in Diego Costa for Atletico’s equalizer. Ronaldo was berated by both sides as he failed to find a final ball or a way through a stern defense and Thibaut Courtois had both sets of supporters on their knees as he made save after save while his woodwork continued to be battered by Mesut Ozil and co.’s efforts.  Miranda’s header in extra time may have been the deciding blow in a gritty ill-tempered final but it seemed divine intervention too was playing its part to in the night’s events.

Those Real fans that had joked and laughed confidently before the game had grown ever silent as the night progressed and many began to call for the head of Mourinho by the final whistle. The red and white fans in the bar chanted throughout the final 22 minutes after their side took the lead, before immediately heading out of the door to go to Fuente de Neptuno where the victorious Atletico fans would party until the early hours of the morning.

The hordes of people heading to the fountain were only matched by those in white heading in the opposite direction, looking more like a funeral procession then football fans.  A handful stopped and reeled off a list of managers who they felt should take over their beloved side for next season. Mourinho’s name was mud on the stony streets of the city, while Carlo Ancellotti, Jupp Heunckes and others were now the new idols destined to restore the balance of power in both La Liga and on the streets of the capital.  They, like their Portuguese manager, called the season a failure, citing the lack of a true front man as the main source of their problems, Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain, it seemed, would not cut the mustard for another season. A dream of a Los Blancos lead by Robert Lewandoski was beginning to form.

Walking past the eerily quiet Plaza de Cibeles – a place that has hosted Los Blancos’ League, European Cup and Copa de Rey victory parties on 16 occasions since Real’s last loss to Atletico – local police began to usher the throng of fans down the 400m walk that separates the two sides’ victory venues.  Some called it the best night in their footballing lives, one man beamed that this was the first time his 15-year-old son had ever seen the side victorious over their arch rivals, others just showed their joy by singing at the top of their voices. New York is usually the city that never sleeps, but that night, Madrid would do its best to compete with that title.  The thousands in the square moved as if they were waiting for the headline act at Glastonbury, with impromptu mosh pits starting up all around as the people’s adrenaline caused impulsive and joyously aggressive body movements.  Bright red flares lit up the night sky, the smoke rising into the night like a signal to all those around to join the celebrations.  Fireworks were set off, first into the air, and then at the people in the surrounding the blast radius as alcohol and childlike exuberance took over the last few neurons in the human brain that channel any sort of sense of safety. No one in the firing line appeared to care. 

This wasn’t a night for rational thinking. Rational thought was the thing that had put Atletico second best to Real in every pundits pre-match predictions despite their three Copa del Rey final victories in four attempts against Los Blancos in the Bernabéu.

The clashes with police later in the night brought a dark cloud over an incredible night of football celebration and those in attendance will look back on Saturday morning with bloodshot red eyes and a rye smile. As euphoric chaos descended into the madness of running battles with Madrid’s finest and as those with scarves and bandanas wrapped around their faces began to burn Real attire – including shirts, flags and scarves – many of the less emotionally charged supporters began to head for their homes.  While those who did see themselves staring down a police baton can never have their actions condoned, the raw emotion and joy that fuels their movements is almost beautiful before it turns violent. 

Football, as I said, has a habit of producing these stories. Atletico fans might just have to wait another 14 years before they can have another one like this.