REVIEW BY PAUL McPARLAN – @paulmcparlan
Euan Mc Tear is establishing himself as the new kid in town when it comes to Spanish Football and becoming a serious rival to authors such as Sid Lowe and Phil Ball. His first book on the subject was the acclaimed “Eibar The Brave” the Cinderella story of Spain’s smallest club who made it into La Liga. This is his second offering describing how Atletico Madrid managed to break up the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid by winning La Liga in the 2013/14 season.
This is not a straight forward history of the club nor is it solely an account of the 2013/14 season. Instead it weaves together elements of the Atletico history, together with detailed background stories of the club’s owners, managers, supporters and key players and despite his supposed affinity to Real Madrid, the role of the sinister General Franco.
The author puts together an engrossing story of how Atletico fought back from relegation to the Segunda Division and being minutes away from bankruptcy at the start of the century to regain their status as a serious rival to Barca and Real both at La Liga and Champions League level, interweaving it with snippets of the club’s past. Any story concerning a single football club can fall into the trap of overwhelming the reader with tedious detail. Fortunately, that is not the case here as McTear focusses on several key dates in Atletico’s development and the stories behind those events and their consequences both on and off the field.
The book starts with the culmination of the 2013/14 season describing Atletico winning La Liga at the home of one of their deadly rivals, Barcelona, in their final fixture and then losing the Champions League final to Real Madrid, after extra time, in Lisbon one week later. The emotional highs and lows of these occasions are brought to life in vivid and heartbreaking detail, though that defeat in Portugal was, considered by most Atletico fans more in terms of progress made rather than a setback. But to fully understand the achievement you have to understand the background to how Atletico were able to emerge from the dystopia of the Segunda Division to challenge for these titles again and emerge from the long-standing shadow of domination cast over them by Real and Barca.
One of the key characters in the Atletico story is the infamous Jesus Gil, a stereotypical larger than life character who probably holds some type of record for the number of managers dismissed by one owner. After Gil took control in 1969, Atletico experienced some glorious successes alongside some desperate nadirs, from winning the Intercontinental Cup in 1975 to relegation to the Second Division and being minutes from going out of business on more than one occasion. Gil at times used the club to finance many of his non-football related businesses and personal expenses which eventually caught up with him. As a non-economist, McTear’s impressive accounts of the intricate investment dealings of Gil and the web he spun to extricate himself from any responsibility for his illicit actions bring to life this world of financial embezzlement. However, the Gil dynasty still prevails at Atletico as his son Miguel is still Chief Executive but as McTear elaborates, he rarely attends matches as, unlike his padre, he prefers to take the emotion out of the decision making process.
The post-civil war years under General Franco loom large in the life of any Spanish football club and Atletico were no exception. At the end of the Guerra Civil in 1939, Atletico were a club without a ground and almost without a team. Fortunately, as McTear explains, several of the club’s directors were close to the Generalissimo and he allowed them to merge with the Air Force football team to form Atletico Aviacion and win the first post-war title. This temporary arrangement allowed the club to re-establish themselves in the capital with their support again. Several other teams complained about the relationship the club appeared to have with El Caudillo and his cronies. It was later revealed that Jesus Gil had used club funds to purchase five large printed photographs of Francisco Franco, which is not surprising as the author reveals that El Jefe personally intervened to give Gil a pardon after he had served only twenty-seven months of a five-year jail sentence in 1971.
Although most Atletico fans despise their rivals Real, McTear’s meticulous research shows that Real allowed them to use their ground after the Civil War to commence their League campaign and in 1992 the assistance of the Real president, Mendoza, enabled Jesus Gil to secure a guarantee from a major Spanish bank, Banesto, to avoid bankruptcy. Mendoza was wise enough to realise that it was more economically advantageous for Real to have a city rival than not.
McTear has unearthed many other aspects of the club’s history that would not be common knowledge. Atletico owe their whole existence to a group of Basque students in Madrid who created their own team to rival Real as a subsidiary of Athletic Club Bilbao, which is why the clubs share the same kit, red and white stripes. In another twist, a local Basque business man in 1909 had been tasked with buying a set of Blackburn Rovers kits for the clubs but he forgot to do this until he had returned to Southampton to board the boat home and ended up buying their kit instead! Given Atletico’s historical links to the Basque Country, it is strange that such anti-Basque feeling is endemic amongst certain elements of the Atletico support today although McTear does stress that this is a small minority of the Frente Atletico.
So, what has made Atletico successful again? McTear carefully expounds how a combination of expert player recruitment, inspired managerial appointments and the significant increase in funding brought about by regular Champions League qualifications has enabled Atletico to re-establish themselves as a member of Spanish football’s elite. A degree of prescient forward planning has allowed the club, long before Manchester United and Real, to capture a significant share of support in Asia which attracted China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, into buying a 20% stake in Atletico which has certainly stabilised the financial arm of the club.
There are many fascinating stories about some of the key players of recent times such as Costa, Griezmann, Saul and Garcia as well as an insight into the mentality of the manager Diego Simeone. I never realised that Costa was named after Diego Maradona, a brave choice for a Brazilian father and the story of how Griezmann was spotted by Atletico after all the major French clubs rejected him is an inspiration for any academy cast-off.
The author also presents a compelling case for the jinx or El Pupas which allegedly still curses the team. Many Atletico fans are convinced that they are jinxed and have compelling evidence for their beliefs as the author carefully elucidates. In Brussels in 1974, Atletico were leading Bayern Munich in the European Cup Final with only eleven seconds remaining when the Germans equalised and went on to win the replay. Forty years later in Lisbon, Atletico led Real in the final of the same competition when their opponents equalised 2 minutes and 28 seconds into stoppage time and proceeded to win in extra time. If I was a hincha fuerte of Atletico, I would certainly believe in the jinx.
Some minor quibbles, the structure of the book is heavily weighted around key dates in the club’s history, therefore it is a tad disconcerting when in Chapter One they win La Liga on Sunday 17 May 2014 and then play in the Champions League final on Sunday 14 May. I think that should be Sunday 24 May! The constant use of dates also makes the lack of an index doubly frustrating.
McTear does appear to have a strong attachment to the concept of the underdog and makes his point clear in his introduction: “Rarely, though can an underdog hold their own against two Goliaths and yet that is what Atletico did in the 2013/14 season”.
However, as a young twenty-year-old student living in Madrid in 1975, I went to watch Atletico play Independiente from Argentina in the Intercontinental Cup Final in front of a crowd of nearly 70,000 in the Vicente Calderon Stadium and witnessed the home team win two-nil on the evening and two – one overall on aggregate. This meant that Atletico were officially the best team in the world. Atletico may have been many things over the years, but they could never be described as an underdog. Eibar – yes, Atletico – never!
To enjoy this book, you have to banish the concept of the underdog and read it more as the story of a club who have returned from the dead zone of the Segunda Division, almost going out of existence in the process and have become a major force in Spanish Football, despite the hegemony of Barca and Real. Certainly, in terms of marketing La Liga to the foreign television viewer having a third serious challenger helps the revenue streams.
This is a well written book produced by an author who has undertaken methodical and meticulous research to provide the reader with an in-depth insight into all things Atletico. It is a triumph of investigation and storytelling giving the background to the club and its recent resurgence. Although, this is an easy book to dip in and out of, I found that once you pick it up it is almost impossible to put down. The Atletico story needed telling, Euan Mc Tear has provided us with an insight into what it means to be a fan of the Rojiblancos.