Madrid’s second club labors in the significant shadow its in-town rival Real Madrid. They reached the Champions League semifinals by dispatching Barcelona on Wednesday. Even if this Barcelona team can’t live up to the standard of previous Barcelona teams, the feat is incredibly impressive for Atletico.
Atletico Madrid operates at a distinct disadvantage to both of Spain’s giants domestically and certainly at Champions League level. They subsist on a fraction of the television revenue and depend on the sale of its best players to remain in good financial health. Because of the inequities built into the Spanish game, Atletico Madrid’s achievements on multiple fronts this season are all that more impressive.
Manager Diego Simeone, an Argentine who spent two different stints at Atletico during his playing career, is a major reason why the club is a Champions League semifinalist and leading La Liga late in the domestic campaign. Simeone’s star is rising, and rightfully so. The problem for Atletico is the same that it faces with the host of world-class strikers the club has turned out over the years. Simeone’s success will make it all the harder to keep him around.
The hierarchy of European soccer is as stratified as it has ever been. Clubs can fall briefly out of the top level with an underwhelming season or two (see: United, Manchester).
A club like Atletico can occasionally surprise, but the top Champions League contenders are the usual suspects from year-to-year. That's primarily determined by spending power. Only with an obscene amount of investment can a team like Chelsea, Manchester City, or PSG hope to break into the group.
Even massive spending doesn’t guarantee a spot in the final four of the world’s biggest club soccer tournament. The Champions League is about excellence. It carries a price tag, but it also requires performing when it matters.
There's another layer of exceptionalism to Atletico’s run. The club is doing all of in spite of a financial position that does not measure up to any of the remaining teams. By no means is Atletico a poor club. It’s worth noting that the team does have a lucrative sponsorship with energy rich Azerbaijan. Still, there are several degrees of difference between Real Madrid’s vast spending power and Atletico’s decidedly average operation.
Atletico Madrid’s surprising success should be a point of interest for American soccer fans. For a generation of fans accustomed to Europe’s one percent owning the continental championship, Atletico is the closest thing to a “Cinderella” the competition is likely to provide. Simeone’s mastery of opponent after opponent provides hope that winning a title can come down to something other than direct infusions outside cash. Namely, adept tactical management and the collective spirit of a team.
Fans of the biggest clubs in England, Germany, Italy, or Spain might not care. After all, their teams are challengers for the Champions League trophy year after year. For anyone else looking for sliver of competitive balance, this is a big deal.
The last time a club not immediately identifiable as 'super' won the Champions League was in 2004. That was pre-”Special One" Jose Mourinho's Porto. That victory significantly raised Mourinho's status and led him to jobs with bigger clubs. That's a bad precedent for Atletico fans hoping Simeone stays on. It was long enough ago that it hardy registers with many American soccer fans.
Like a mid-major college basketball team making the Final Four, it's nice to see a new name listed among the Champions League semifinalists. Maybe for a few of the less-informed American fans, Atletico will expand their soccer horizons. Spain isn’t just Barcelona and Real Madrid, even if it seems that way most of the time. Spain certainly isn’t just Barcelona and Real Madrid this season.
The depressing reality, however, is that Atletico will find it nearly impossible to stay at the heights they’ve achieved in 2014. The club is moving into a brand new 70,000-seat stadium in 2015. Even that won’t help them gain equal financial footing with the European elite.
La Liga’s television rights, the major revenue stream for every professional sports team around the world, heavily favor Spain’s two traditional giants. Considering Barcelona and Real Madrid's influence, it's highly unlikely La Liga adopts a more even distribution of revenue. With that in play, Atletico's destiny is to watch its best players and brilliant young coach leave for greener pastures.
That too, makes Atletico something akin to a mid-major Final Four Cinderella. Those teams rarely become perennial powers based on one great string of wins, typically settling back into their usual level in the aftermath. As troubling and unfair as that is, it also makes their success all the more notable, exciting, and unique.
We can recognize that something special is happening because the system makes it so difficult for it to happen in the first place. European soccer’s system doesn’t like upstarts. Certainly not upstarts who make so much noise without dropping hundreds of millions on new players.
Celebrate Atletico, American watchers of the Champions League. Celebrate them because the hill they’ve climbed is so steep. Celebrate them because they prove that money’s hold on the game isn’t absolute. Celebrate them because they embody so many of the underdog attitudes our own culture holds dear.
Mostly, celebrate them because they’re something different and we very rarely see something different anymore.
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