Atletico the underdog giants

By Steve MellenIF JOE Royle takes a close look at tonight's opponents, it's likely he'll find several reminders of a club he spent some time at.Atletico Madrid sit in the shadow of their more illustrious neighbours, yet consider themselves the real team of the Spanish capital.

By Steve Mellen

IF JOE Royle takes a close look at tonight's opponents, it's likely he'll find several reminders of a club he spent some time at.

Atletico Madrid sit in the shadow of their more illustrious neighbours, yet consider themselves the real team of the Spanish capital. What they lack in success, they make up for in fanatical support.

When the club was relegated from La Liga in 1999, their crowds still continually topped 50,000, something unthinkable up the road at the Bernabeu when Beckham, Zidane and Raul strut their stuff in front of the most spoiled supporters on the continent.


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And if you talk to Atletico's supporters, they will tell you that when it comes to Madrid, their club are the peoples' team, the sporting heroes of the working class.

So it's clear - tonight's visitors at Portman Road are the Manchester City of Spanish football.

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Well, sort of.

Because while the light blues of Manchester get goaded by their rivals for a lack of trophies in living memory, Atletico are actually the third most successful team in Spain behind the big two of Real Madrid and Barcelona, and won the Spanish double as recently as 1996. True to form, they then got relegated three years later.

And despite their successes, they remain a club associated with glorious heartbreak, in fact it's part of their identity that they revel in the pain of disappointment. The official club anthem even contains the line: “What a glorious way to lose.”

All that hand-wringing and self-pity may have to change though, as Atletico currently have on their books one of the hottest properties in Spanish football - striker Fernando Torres.

A lifelong fan of the club, Torres is every supporter's dream. Talented, speedy and a full Spanish international who passed a half-century of goals for his club before he'd turned 21, he has become a symbol of the club.

Last season he scored the goal of the campaign against Real Betis, an outrageous volley that had even the opposition manager drooling. It's no surprise then, that a queue has formed at his agent's door.

AC Milan have already made inquiries, while Chelsea, Arsenal and in particular Manchester United have been keeping tabs on Torres.

As the English season approaches kick-off however, he's still in Madrid, and having gone on record in the summer saying he wouldn't want to leave to play for another Spanish club, Atletico fans can cling to the hope he may stay for another season yet. He also ruled out ever signing for Real, which went down well.

If Torres is an unfamiliar face to Ipswich fans, there is a more familiar face in the Atletico squad.

Goal-shy striker Mateja Kezman has swapped Stamford Bridge for Spain, although another former Chelsea player, Jesper Gronkjaer, is set to leave Atletico for German side Stuttgart.

Spanish football pundits rate the atmosphere at an Atletico home match as probably the best in the country, and the fans are fiercely proud of their club. When they celebrated their centenary in 2003, thousands of supporters marched through Madrid bearing a flag in the club colours that stretched for 1.5km.

The club plan to move to the 73,000 capacity Estadio La Peineta in 2012. For now they'll make do with the 54,000 all-seater Vincente Calderon. And even if Torres goes and they get relegated again, chances are they'll fill it.

steve.mellen@eadt.co.uk

www.clubatleticomadrid.com

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