March of the Underdogs: the rise of Leicester & Atlético

Last night, the once lowly Leicester City clinched the most extraordinary league title win in football history. This time last year, the Foxes were fighting for their lives in a relegation battle. The Midlands club were only promoted to the Premier division in 2014, but now they’ve achieved the impossible. Leicester City – Premiership Champions 2016. It feels weird and wonderful to type that.

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The Leicester fairytale is as inspirational as it is improbable. They aren’t the only underdogs who will be in the headlines this week. Atlético Madrid have spent most of their existence in the shadow of their giant city rivals Real Madrid, whose fans used to cruelly dismiss Atleti as Pathetico Madrid. Not any more. They could qualify for their second Champions League Final in three years and they’re neck and neck with Barcelona on points at the summit of La Liga.

Both Leicester and Atlético have achieved stunning success against all the odds, bringing a refreshing air of romance and unpredictability back to a sport strangled by obscene amounts of money. La Liga had turned into a drab duopoly in recent times, until Diego Simeone’s side upset the apple cart. With José Mourinho’s stock at a new low following a catastrophic season at Chelsea, Simeone is arguably the best manager in Europe. His team is extraordinarily well organised and incredibly driven. They might not possess the flair of Barca or Real, but they more than make up for it with blood, guts and passion. Before the team disembarks the club bus before a game, their pre-match ritual includes pumping out ‘Thuderstruck’ by AC/DC at a high volume to get the players psyched.

In Madrid, Atlético fans, or Atléti, are nicknamed Los Colchoneros (The Mattress Makers), referring to the club’s working class background. Another nickname is El Pupas, which roughly translates as “the jinxed.” When Atlético won the Spanish league and cup double in 1996, their former President Jesús Gil paraded through the streets of Madrid on top of an elephant. Four short years later, Jesús was suspended from football, and Atléti were relegated.

Twenty years later, the Vicente Calderón has become one of the most intimidating fortresses in Europe. It’s a terrific stadium. I saw Atlético win 2-0 at home against Granada in January 2015, which was absolutely freezing. Even though talismanic French striker Antoine Griezemann didn’t get on the score sheet, his work rate was phenomenal. The Atléti fans sung for the entire game, in stark contrast to the rather dull and sterile atmosphere at a lot of games in Camp Nou. Vicente Calderón may not be as jaw-dropping a venue as Bernabau or Camp Nou, but it is an amazing football experience. The Barrio de La Latinas and its legendary tapas bars are within walking distance.

“If you are driving a Seat Ibiza and you are in the same race with a Ferrari and a Porsche, you have to do perfect to compete. Real Madrid and Barcelona have €300m, €400m more to spend every year. Better infrastructure, better training facilities, better contracts for players. So how can you compete against them? You have to be more concentrated, every game.” – Fernando Torres

Even though Madrid has lost a little bit of its lustre as the hordes flock to its cooler Catalan cousin for footy, food and music festivals, you certainly couldn’t claim Atlético has put the Spanish capital back on the map. Leicester is a completely different phenomenon. Until now, the Midlands city was best known for cheese, crisps, Kasabian, Gary Linekar, Engelbert Humperdinck, Showaddywaddy, Sue Townshend and Adrian Mole. Many Leicesterfarians believe the city’s fortunes turned around when the body of Richard III was found in a car park. The most racially diverse city in the UK was more readily associated with rugby rather than association football, but now the world knows its name, even though Americans have difficulty pronouncing it.

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The story that most endeared me to Leicester City F.C. this season wasn’t widely reported, as the club understandably didn’t want to publicise it. Nine-year old Leicester fan Charlie Keyworth tragically lost his mother to cancer. His uncle arranged a visit to the club shop with Charlie two days later, and the club unexpectedly pulled out all the stops to accommodate the bereaved boy.

“With no notice Leicester City have rolled out the red carpet for a nine-year old boy who has just lost his mum,” Charlie’s uncle wrote on Facebook. “Thank you Leicester. Thank you. Leicester City – proper football club. It’s impossible to put into words how much appreciation we have for everyone involved who made this happen.”

It remains to be seen if Leicester’s history making exploits herald a new era for football. Indeed, some commentators have already remarked the demands of European football may prove to be so draining  that Leicester could conceivably finish in the second half of the table next season. However, their achievements are the most heartening football story in years. Leicester and Atlético represent an alternative to what Mourniho once called “the usual sharks”; namely Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. It is far too soon to predict the end of their reign, but at least there are some exciting new kids on the block.

The Champion’s League Semi-Final, 2nd leg, Bayern Munich (0) v Alétlico Madrid (1), will be played tonight from 7.45pm.

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