This Sunday will see Atletico Madrid make the short trip across town to the Santiago Bernabéu where they will face Real Madrid in El Derbi, one of the most significant games in the Spanish footballing calendar. A fixture with more than 80 years of history behind it, this is a battle for both local and political pride in the heart of Castilian Spain.
Although the Madrid derby is usually painted as a clash between the working class ideals of Atletico and Real’s links with “the establishment”, the politics which provides the game with its famously febrile atmosphere is not quite as clear-cut as many might like to assume. Real Madrid may be politically infamous for being the pet club of General Franco, the one sporting institution held up as a Fascist ideal more than any other, but in the early phases of the Falangist regime it was Atleti who curried the most favour with the authorities.
Despite being founded in the working class area of Vallecas and having historical links to separatist Athletic Bilbao, Atletico Madrid’s merger with Aviación Nacional – the team of the Spanish air force – saw their standing with the militarist government dramatically improve. Managed by Spain’s legendary and politically divisive former goalkeeper, Ricardo Zamora, Atletico marched to the La Liga title in 1940 and retained it the following year, enjoying a sustained spell of success during the forties which culminated in a phenomenal 5-0 victory over Real
However, both Atletico’s military associations and their on-field fortunes began to weaken at the turn of the decade and Franco tactically shifted his loose sense of allegiance away from Los Colchoneros (literally, “The Mattress Makers”), instead aligning himself and his regime with Real, the club run by the wealthy businessman and regime sympathiser Santiago Bernabéu. From that moment on Real Madrid came to be seen as the club of the elite, a symbol of centralism loathed by those in the regions which longed for autonomy.
Real’s monopoly of success both at home and in Europe during the 1950s saw Atletico comprehensively overshadowed, the Metropolitano outfit only winning five of the twenty league clashes between the sides in the ten years that followed. Indeed, despite a brief upturn in fortunes in the late seventies and early eighties, it has been Real who have emphatically had the upper hand in El Derbi clashes over the years.
Shockingly enough, Atleti haven’t won a derby in La Liga since the 1999/2000 season when they claimed a 3-1 victory at the Bernabéu, the recent pattern of the tie having been total dominance on the part of Los Blancos. Last season brought a pair of 3-2 triumphs for Manuel Pellegrini’s Real; Kaka, Marcelo and Higuain scoring at the Vicente Calderon, the Argentine striker repeating the trick in the home tie along with goals from Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa.
Although Atletico possess arguably the third strongest squad in the division and one of the country’s most astute young managers, it’s hard to see Quique Sanchez Flores’ team overcoming their city rivals on Sunday evening. Jose Mourinho’s Los Merengues have been in impeccable form so far this season and, with Cristiano Ronaldo in the midst of a remarkable run of goalscoring, the visitors to the Santiago Bernabéu will be hard pushed to topple the league leaders.
Real will be the strong favourites come Sunday evening, but this most historic and intriguing of Spanish derbies should provide a wonderful evening’s entertainment in the Spanish capital.