And then there were four. In truth, Madrid’s influence both socially and politically in Spain renders it somewhat unsurprising that the same region be so omniscient in sport as well, now boasting a quartet of teams in Spanish Primera División. So who are La Liga’s Madrileño representatives? Well, there’s Real Madrid, that perpetually prominent villain to all. Then we have Getafe, the baby of the bunch with imminent financial aid from some no doubt sincere investors. Also, there’s Rayo Vallecano, that debt ridden side who, next season, will return to La Liga for the first time in 8 years. Which leaves Atlético Madrid, whose identity isn’t quite so explicit.
Optimism has ultimately been the bitter-sweet prelude to many an Atlético season, but never more so than this year when a rejuvenated outfit on the back of a Europa League triumph looked set to flourish everywhere from under the floodlights of the Calderón to the hostility of the Bernabéu. So what of their credentials? A much sought after, world class centre forward? Check. An accomplished manager? Check. A potent mix of prima donnas and experience? Check. However, the benefits of a such a formidable arsenal never materialised and when Atlético Madrid placed 7th in the league with no direct qualification for even the Europa League, that pre-season optimism had turned to staunch resentment at the team’s relentlessly erratic performances and comprehensive failure to capitalise on the momentum of their first European trophy in almost five decades.
Perhaps more aggravating than the team’s losses this season, have been those tantalising matches in which they exhibited a supreme guile and a fortitude for attacking football that would be conspicuously absent just a week later. Indeed, not once over the course of the campaign did they manage to record more than 2 consecutive victories, accumulating just 17 wins overall. Any chance they had of salvaging something from an already underwhelming season was dashed by February when they amassed precisely zero points in a run of 4 games. This was not the season the fans had envisaged but it is consistent with the stagnation that has plagued the club for some time now. A stagnation for which someone will likely be held accountable.
A very specific someone as it transpires. His name is Enrique Cerezo and in recent months he has been thoroughly vilified by both the media and the Rojiblanco faithful. So, who is he? He is of course the president of the club and, though we might not know it, we are all rather well acquainted with this character. You know that chairman we all dread? You know, the one who feigns an affection for the club as a requisite prelude to betraying the interests of the fans by, oh say, selling their star player (Fernando Torres), or perhaps even the stadium ( the Estadio Vicente Calderón). Certainly these actions are taken collectively by the board of directors but it is the the president’s trigger-happy inclinations that have often been cited as the catalyst for the club’s relentlessly dwindling prospects.
The primary product of such mismanagement has been the eternal parade of managers at the club: some 9 coaches have come and gone since Atlético’s promotion to La Liga in 2002 (Q and, as such, continuity has been an elusive virtue. It hasn’t helped that the team-sheet in recent years has read like a who’s who of European football’s most wanted, featuring players who, considering the often precarious status of the manager, have all but left rather unceremoniously. This season brought the sale of dynamic midfielder Simão Sabrosa to Besiktas, who will likely be imminently accompanied by Diego Forlán whose interest in Atlético notably diminished this season. Worse still is that, following revelations earlier in the week, Sergio Agüero will likely follow suit to pursue his self confessed ambition to play at a bigger club and, prior to this, head coach Quique Sánchez Flores announced his decision to leave after just 2 seasons at the helm. Needless to say that, for Atlético Madrid, the confines of mediocrity are looking a more permanent fixture every day.
Yet, the future may still be somewhat bright for los rojiblancos. A vacant manager’s position, an exasperated fan-base and an Agüero-shaped hole (an agüjero, perhaps?) are all set to feature at the club and, though the scenario isn’t ideal, it may afford the somewhat haphazard president a fresh canvas on which he can address the errors littering the past. First off, a more astute selection of management might serve to ensure a longer tenure than a meagre two or three seasons. A recent poll onmarca.com highlighted Rafa Benítez as the fan’s selection but his notoriously cold personality may clash with the compassion that has characterised both the team and the fan-base of Atlético Madrid. Luis Enrique could be a more appropriate candidate. He may not have previous with Atlético but he is a hot prospect as a manager, having recently left his post as coach of Barcelona B who he led to the play-offs of the Spanish Second Division.
Secondly, the imminent absence of Sergio Agüero will need to be accommodated and, with Forlán set to follow suit, the most viable solution would be to dip into the transfer funds. The young Argentine’s lucrative buy-out clause may serve to subsidise any replacement purchase so there’s a rare opportunity to think adventurously here. However, with no guarantee of European football next season, Carlos Tevez, Antonio Di Natale and the like will be difficult to lure. There of course remains a plethora of potential replacements but none are likely candidates to assimilate the contributions of the affectionately titled ‘Kun’. Well, not immediately any way, though perhaps a period of awkward transition is imperative to any club’s recovery.
What’s disconcerting is that Atlético Madrid seem to have been enduring a transition period for some time now. Aside from a couple of flashes in the pan, the Madrileño club hasn’t managed to forge any sort of prolonged prominence. As such, the club may continue to have its nose pressed against the window of the Champions League as it simply doesn’t boast the same omnipresence as other clubs. The daunting reality is that even within the context of Madrid, it is unlikely to be invited to a ball where the ubiquitous Real Madrid will be flaunting its prestige. Which leaves this Rojiblanco Cinderella where exactly?
Well, in something of a rut as it goes. But, while the atmosphere at the Bernabéu is undermined by its inherent formality, the Vicente Calderón has always boasted a remarkable vibrancy that would be the envy of even the most passionate club. During a 2-2 draw with Sevilla back in February (in which Atlético squandered a rare opportunity to grasp 3 points from a superior team) the ambience in the stadium remained both convivial and buoyant, seldom descending into the hostility that often features heavily elsewhere. So, even at a club where the axe falls more often than Drogba in the penalty box and where the star players are only ever temporary residents, it is the unconditional passion of the support that will be paramount to remedying a forgettable campaign. However, it is likely that with so much turbulence, next season’s overture is likely to be more of trepidation than optimism. But perhaps that’s all part of forging a new identity.