Considerable amounts of time and effort goes into following a football team. Weekends are swallowed, despite the game only lasting for 90mins. You also spend vast amounts of money supporting your beloved over the years, without taking any extra-curricular activities into account. You experience highs and lows, perhaps one more-so than the other dependant on where your loyalties lie. Furthermore, you go through life supporting a team, only to pass away with the men in power hardly ever noticing the time, money and energy you devoted to the cause.
Actually, all of this depends on who you class as the men in power. Do you believe these to be the Middle Eastern sheikhs, Russian oligarchs, American debt-loaders or numerous low-profile shareholders? They might hold the power at club level, but do they hold the power at fan level? Some owners might say they do, but deep down they’d reluctantly accept not. The ones that hold power over the fans are other fans. These might be battle-hardened individuals or someone that hasn’t missed a game in donkey’s years. They might not command respect, but they certainly deserve it. They’ve been there, seen it and done it – no matter what level your team plays at.
This leads me to being outside the Vicente Calderon in September for a La Liga match. Atleti were playing Sporting Gijon on a sweltering Saturday afternoon. Around an hour before kick-off, many had gathered outside a bar opposite the grand stadium. Chanting could be heard, smiles could be seen. Atleti had started the season in decent fashion, immediately picking themselves up from a second Champions League final defeat in three years to their cross-town rivals, Real Madrid.
Diego Simeone’s name echoed around the Madrid streets. That previous day he announced the 2016/17 season would be his last with the team, meaning Atleti would head into the new 70,000 Estadio la Peneita with a new manager. The news spelled disaster to an outsider like me, but the Atleti fans seemed proud to have had Diego Simeone lead their team since 2011.
It is no coincidence that Atleti have seen improved fortunes with El Cholo at the helm. He’s a true warrior and wears his heart on his sleeve in every meaning of the phrase. He’ll be remembered in the same breath as other Los Colchoneros managerial greats like Ricardo Zamora, Helenio Herrera and former Atleti player and four-time coach, Luis Aragonés. They are part of the Atleti history and so will Diego be.
Nevertheless, a sudden spell of silence engulfed the previously joyful fans. Something wasn’t right. The street opened like the Red Sea being parted by Moses. Around 40 fans took centre-stage, standing still with flares lit above their heads. Tears were shedding down some of the faces. They began chanting but not like previously heard. This was actually a remembrance.
I normally despise the modern society element of taking your phone out to film everything a tad out of the ordinary, but that is exactly what I did. Despite the back-tingling atmosphere which struck each and every one in the surrounding area, this was actually a moment to behold in a rather sinister way. It showed what fan culture truly meant.
The flares eventually died out but the embracing continued. An emotional fan by the name of Alby approaches having seen me video what had just taken place. He asks if I could send it over to him, given the person was an Atleti ultra and one of his best friends who had died a fortnight earlier. He mentions that the crowd included the deceased’s girlfriend and sister.
He emphasises: “He was taken too early and this is how we celebrate his name.”
At times during the football season, you spend more of the week with your friends and fellow fans than you do at home with your family. Perhaps you go from watching your team at home on a Saturday, to seeing them play a midweek European fixture and play a domestic away the following weekend. You might not have handpicked the individuals you spend this vast amount of time with, but you share more highs and lows with them than any outsider could care to imagine. You look out for each and every one because you all believe in the same thing. Together you celebrate or anguish, sing and shout, laugh or cry.
The match played out a 5-0 victory for Atleti against an awe-struck Sporting Gijon side. This was an appropriate celebration of a lost life. From what my limited Spanish gathered, the deceased wasn’t mentioned once by the stadium operator. His family, friends and fellow fans wouldn’t have been bothered in the slightest though – they had just given him a better send off than anyone could hope for and his team had also delivered.
That day, an El Colchonero was remembered.