Are Atleti still Atleti without the Calderón?

Almost the minute they went on sale, they disappeared. For the last six months of Estádio Vicente Calderón’s busy 51-year working life as a football stadium, tickets for Atlético Madrid’s home matches were next to gold dust, even for meetings with less glamorous opponents such as Osasuna or Eibar. 

When Atleti took to the pitch for one final time against Athletic (as one of the other grand old clubs of the Spanish Liga, a fitting opponent), there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. That Fernando Torres, who first came to the stadium with his grandfather as a child, found a spark from his back catalogue to score twice in the curtain call was as fitting as it was relatively incongruous, as El Niño rages admirably against the dying of the light. 

More than most, Torres embodies what the Calderón has meant in recent years. He joins the dots between the seeds sown back at the dawn of the century, having been in the team with assistant coach Germán Burgos when he himself was a player, and what has flowered today, having found his way home to savour the good times which never came around in his first spell here. 

The Calderón is no modern beauty, being very much of its time. It’s about as open to the elements as it can be, with three-and-a-bit sides of it uncovered. Yet that indefatigable spirit has been pumped up to fever pitch in the Diego Simeone years – almost literally, with the common sight of him waving his arms, imploring those present to take the noise up a notch further. The Calderón’s heart has thumped as strongly as ever in this era. “La Historia,” as they said here during the run to the 2014 La Liga title, “se escribe latido a latido.” History is written beat by beat. 

There’s considerable trepidation – and, in some cases, anger – among sections of the fan base over the prospect of leaving it all behind even if the Wanda Metropolitano, a 67,000-capacity redux of the old Olympic stadium where they will play from 2017-18, looks impressive and should give Atleti a leg-up towards Europe’s biggest clubs (or at least consolidate their place on the continent’s mezzanine below the elite).

The biggest problem, whichever way you look at it, is that the new place is not in the barrio. Nowhere near, in fact. The Wanda Metropolitano is 10 miles east of the Calderón, out by the airport. This isn’t just a question of travel time, but a threat to the club’s very identity, with the understanding being that they take their very essence from the working-class neighbourhood in which they are based, a feeling immortalised in the supporters’ chants on that final day against Athletic. “Manzanares, cuánto te quiero” – “Manzanares [the original name of the stadium, after the river that runs by it], how much I love you”. A feeling, also, frequently accentuated by Simeone’s words. “We’re like Maradona’s Napoli,” he said in September 2014. “The team of the people.” It wasn’t the first – or the last – time that Simeone went heavy on this, the idea of Atleti personifying an emotion, and a way of life, as a team. 

For older fans and those with a thirst for history, there were plenty of great moments in the old ground’s past, going all the way back to the beginning. When the late Luis Aragonés, still the club’s ultimate icon as player and coach, became the first player to score there, against Valencia in October 1966. When Aragonés, five years later, hit a hat-trick to complete a second leg comeback in the European Cup second round against Cagliari, on Atleti’s route to the semi-finals where they lost to eventual winners Ajax. When they mounted another comeback, to win the Intercontinental Cup against Independiente of Argentina in 1975, with future Deportivo La Coruña boss Javier Irureta on the scoresheet and with Aragonés on the touchline as the coach. When, in October 1993, 10-man Atleti came back from 3-0 down and completed a monumental comeback to beat Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona Dream Team, with José Luís Caminero finishing a counter-attack by sliding the ball under the advancing Andoni Zubizarreta to spark pandemonium, and to confirm Caminero’s own legend at the club. Or when, in May 1996, Atleti beat Albacete on the final day of the season to clinch the title and complete the double, with Simeone heading the opener.

Yet it is under Simeone’s coaching reign that the magic has been distilled and almost turned into a brand. His personality and his manner on the touchline – and, of course, the team’s success on the pitch, with the announcement of Atleti’s new stadium coming in September 2013, with a Europa League and Copa del Rey in the bag and the team on the way to the title – kindled the spark further.

It’s a question of style, too. The effort, the attrition, the almost gladiatorial manner of Simeone’s team has instigated the crowd to become even more involved, as part of the struggle, making them a living, breathing (and by the end, exhausted) participant in the effort in every match. In wringing every last bit of sweat and endeavour out of the Calderón, Simeone’s era has been either the best thing that could have happened to the stadium’s final years, giving it the perfect bookend, or the worst. In those final encounters of spring 2017 – and particularly in the Champions League semi-final second leg, a valiant but vain fightback against Real Madrid, of all teams – the feeling was inescapable. How can they leave this? 

There are some recent cases that back the argument that Atleti – and more importantly, the fans – will adapt quickly enough. Lyon’s move from Stade Gerland to Parc OL (now Groupama Stadium) in January 2016 has gone smoothly and the shift is of a similar distance to the one Los Colchoneros are about to take, with 12 miles separating the two sites. Good form on the pitch covers a multitude of doubts (such as the issues with insufficient transport links which provided various teething problems), with Lyon surging into the Champions League in the second half of 2015-16, with an unbeaten home record. 

Sometimes, the issue of scale just has to be addressed, which you might say was the case for Atlético. It certainly was for Galatasaray, whose move to the Türk Telekom Arena in 2011 gave them more than twice the capacity of the loved, intimidating old Ali Sami Yen. The noise levels remain reassuringly high at a venue to the north of the centre, off the E-80 motorway. Again, winning the SüperLig title for the first time in four years in the first campaign there certainly helped. 

Lyon and Galatasaray faced very different challenges to other movers like Beşiktaş, Athletic or Benfica, whose displacements could be measured in metres rather than kilometres. When we think about what really gives a football stadium its soul, it’s about games that burn themselves into the consciousness and stay there, moments where there’s genuine communion between team and supporters, which is perhaps not as easy to create as it once was.

They didn’t have to wait long for that in Lyon, beating the mighty Paris Saint-Germain in front of a full house little more than a month after moving in, before flaming Monaco 6-1 in the last home game of the season, a heady Saturday night that catapulted Les Gones into the Champions League at their visitors’ expense. These sort of occasions stick in the mind from the debut term at TT for Galatasaray, too. An imperious victory over Fenerbahçe in December (in which the Guinness world record for the loudest sport stadium was broken) was topped off by a dramatic win over Beşiktaş on the home straight in spring, sealed by Johan Elmander’s stoppage-time header. 

Atlético are trying to make it as easy as possible for those displaced supporters, one senses. The main access road to the west of the new stadium has already, inevitably, been named Avenida de Luis Aragonés, and a certain optimism is reflected in the fact that over 45,000 season tickets have already been sold. Yet this isn’t an adaptation that will happen overnight even if, for most of us neutrals, it will quickly fade into insignificance. Clubs move on and much to the chagrin of their most loyal fans, the rest of the footballing world doesn’t even notice. A small hardcore of Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain fans, while not themselves moving stadiums, could relate to that feeling in certain ways. 

That, of course, is what it’s all about; the feeling, the soul of something, and in this case a stadium. No wonder Simeone, who understands that concept more than most, feels he has to be there for the first season in Atleti’s new world to make sure that nothing is lost on the journey.