Last Year in Football (Part II)

Hello! This is Shawn’s cousin, Nate, continuing to guest post while Shawn is on vacation at an undisclosed location. Some of you may remember me from the last time I wrote some guest posts. This time around I’m doing a mini-series on recent events in soccer. Or as 2 billion people call it, football.

Welcome to “Last Year in Football”. Below is part II. If you missed Part I, it’s right here.

If you have any feedback or comments about these football articles, you can email me here.

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I’m going to cheat a little bit here because in the last article I said I was going to talk about the Spanish Premier League. What I’d really like to talk about is the story of Atletico Madrid.

Quite a few of the big cities in Europe have more than one professional football club competing at the top level. I’m probably going to embarrass myself by trying to list some (and leaving others out) but here goes:

  • Manchester, England has Manchester City and Manchester United.
  • Milan, Italy has Inter Milan and AC Milan.
  • Munich, Germany has Bayern Munchen and 1860 Munchen.
  • Madrid, Spain has Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.
  • London has somewhere between 4 and 13 clubs playing in or near the top flight at any given time!

Typically in these pairings, there is a dominant force and a lesser one (although there are exceptions). Think the Yankees and the Mets and you’ll get the picture. In Milan the balance swings back and forth over the years, but in Madrid there is always one big club: Real Madrid.

In my prior piece on the EPL, I mentioned that Liverpool are one of the clubs that seems to have to sell their players once they become superstars, rather than attracting superstars. If that is the case, Atletico Madrid have been a breeding ground for superstars and potential superstars in recent years. I’ll define a superstar in practical terms: a player that most big clubs in the world would sign if they had the money (Messi, James Rodriguez, Ronaldo, and Zlatan); a potential superstar would be someone who has shown that they can perform at that level, but maybe the big clubs are waiting on some consistency, or to see if the player can avoid injuries for a season or two, or the player seems to need to mature as a human being to achieve their full footballing potential (Balotelli, and, err, no one else springs to mind right now).

I don’t know what the scouts at Atletico Madrid have been eating, but in the last ten years or so they have been identifying players even before they get to that potential superstar level. Whatever they are doing, they’re doing it right, because they have been finding exceptional players on the cheap, developing them into world-class players, and then selling them as the offering prices become too high to resist. Sergio Aguero, Fernando Torres, Radamel Falcao, and Diego Costa are the most notable players who have come up through Atletico recently, which they’ve eventually had to sell. Atletico have also had other world-class players that were perhaps not superstars anymore, or maybe they never were quite at that level, but whom Atletico made good use of nonetheless — such as Diego Forlan, Maxi Rodriguez, and Jose Antonio Reyes.

The point is that Atletico have been doing more with less for quite a while now. When you’re constantly taking risks on new talent, the best you can usually hope for is to be a perennial also-ran (see: Arsenal). But every once in a while the stars align and you get a team with two or three genuinely world-class players on the come-up and a solid team around them, and the right coach for the job.

That’s what happened at Atletico last season. With Diego Costa as the main man, and Diego Godin, Juanfran, Turan, Miranda, and Courtois all playing solid or spectacular football on a weekly basis, Atletico shot out of the starting gate with menace and then, to everyone’s astonishment, kept up pace with the two giant Spanish teams Barcelona and Real Madrid all season. The toughest part of the season for smaller clubs is the end, because they don’t have the depth on the bench that the big clubs do, and Atletico had everything in place to give them an easy excuse should that prove the case. On top of competing for the Spanish title, they were also deep into the Champions League tournament, playing against the best teams on the European continent.

To every football lover’s delight, Atletico just flourished under this pressure, first knocking Barcelona out of the Champions League, and then the English Club Chelsea. This was particularly sweet, because Chelsea had previously nipped one of Atletico’s greatest players, Fernando Torres, for a fee 20 million pounds more than the cost of Atletico’s ENTIRE starting 11 for that game!

Then a weird thing happened. Just like in England, none of the teams in contention seemed to want to win out at the end of the season. Atletico itself was in a seemingly unassailable position with three games to go, whereupon they lost and drew the first two.

This set up one of the most nailbiting ends to any campaign in history: their last game, which determined the winner of the Spanish League, would be played against Barcelona AT BARCELONA. All they need is a tie in the game to win the league. And then a week later, the Champions League final to be played against their cross town rival, Real Madrid. Oh, the drama!

Then the worst happens. Early in the game against Barcelona, their star man Diego Costa limps off the field. Then Barcelona takes the lead. Barcelona is notorious for being impossible to get the ball from once they have the lead.

But DRAMA! Atletico Madrid scores to tie the game, and holds on to finish at 1-1. Atletico wins the league! I have to admit that even as a Barcelona fan, I was pulling for Atletico.

Now every Atletico fan, and every neutral fan who wants to see a great game, begins to sweat Costa’s fitness going into the Champions League final. Weird reports of horse placenta treatments surface. Then finally the news: Costa is going to start the game. NNNNNGGGGHHH YEAH.

Then: tragedy. It was all for naught and Costa limps off again early in the game. Doomed, everyone thinks. Barcelona wasn’t particularly consistent this year, but Real Madrid had been tearing up the Champions League, annihilating the former champions and making it look easy. But Atletico wasn’t done yet — they draw first blood! The tension rises to a fever pitch as Real look for a way back into the game, but as the time rolls into stoppage it looks like Atletico will have pulled off the most incredible double of all time. OF ALL TIME.

Then: tragedy strikes again. Freaking tragedy, you suck! Sergio Ramos delivers a beautiful header to tie the game in the last minute of stoppage time, and Atletico’s heroic resolve finally collapses. Real Madrid scores 3 in overtime to win the game.

Alas and alack. It was still a heroic effort and season from a wonderful team, and everyone saluted them. All good things must come to an end, unfortunately, and Chelsea (who else) bought the agent of their torment, Diego Costa, this summer.

Another tragedy to come from this story is that we didn’t get to see a fully (or even minimally fit) Diego Costa at the World Cup this summer, his injuries at the end of the season coming too hard on the start of the World Cup. Tune in soon for the next installment in . . . Last Year in Football (and by last year I mean last season and summer), to hear about this year’s World Cup.

Last Year in Football (Part II)