Before leaving for our trip to Spain, I was poking around looking at club football schedules to see if I could wrap a second match into our two weeks with a day trip outside of Madrid or Seville. Being the soccer fan neophyte that I am, it was only a couple weeks before our trip that I realized I should check the Champions League schedule as Madrid’s two teams and Sevilla FC were all in the competition. To my astonishment and excitement, on the second last night of our trip, Atletico Madrid was playing a Champions League match at home. Splurging for great seats, I tucked two tickets into our luggage for the trip across the pond.
To say I was excited heading to the match would be an understatement. We took the metro to the south west edge of the city and walked to the Estadio Vincente Calderón. The streets fanning out from the stadium were already filling with fans more than an hour before kickoff and every twenty feet or so there was a table selling merchandise in the red, white and pale blue of Atletico.
After entering the stadium, we started to make our way toward our seats. Coming out of the concourse on the second level, we emerged to the sight of the pitch in the late evening light. Beautiful.
I love wandering around stadiums prior to a match. In the upper deck of Estadio Vincente Calderón, you could see the last remnants of the sun in the sky as it set in the distance. From up here an hour before the kickoff it was stunning and serene. This stadium’s defining feature is the pattern of the colours of the seats to match the kits of Atletico – red and white stripes in the upper deck (for the shirts) and the light blue in the lower deck (for the shorts).
Back down to my seat, I pulled out my snack for the night. Having been to a Real Betis match in Seville about a week earlier, I came to learn that almost everyone brings sunflower seeds (and chorizo sandwiches, and sometimes wine) to games in Spain. I picked these up at a grocery store earlier in the day from a selection of more than 20 types. I’m not exaggerating to say that these were delicious and that I haven’t found anything close back home since.
Just before kickoff, the two teams lined up while the UEFA Champions League anthem played. FC Astana (from Kazakhstan) is in the yellow kits. They had traveled further to get to this game (7,200km) than I had traveled to get here for our vacation (4,800km). That’s a brutal road trip to play one soccer match.
In the supporters end, the Atletico Madrid fans were already singing and chanting well before kick-off with their team scarves held high.
As FC Astana stood over the ball awaiting the signal for the opening kick, I had to pinch myself at how great these seats were. Little did I know that this would be one of the few times in the first half Astana would actually possess the ball.
I’m really kidding about the possession by FC Astana, but after the first few minutes of the match, it was pretty clear that these teams on this night were in different classes. Atletico slowly gained confidence and by the ten minute mark, our heads were permanently directed to the Astana goal. After a number of missed opportunities, Saúl Ñíguez finally put one past the keeper with a nice back heel kick of a loose ball in the area at 23′. Atletico and their fans celebrate the 1-0 lead:
A short six minutes later, Martinez found himself back to the goal with a ball at his feet on a scramble play in the area. Turning and firing without looking, the shot deflected in off of an Astana defender to give Atletico a 2-0 lead. GOAL! The fans were very happy and sang “Goal, goal, goal, goal goal, goal…. goal” in celebration to the tune of “Seven Nation Army.”
Atletico took that 2-0 lead into the half, and after a couple of early chances by Astana, Madrid took total control of the play again. Although the match was far from a thing of beauty, we certainly were enjoying our view of it from the second row of the upper level.
The game turned into a rout in the second half as Atletico had their way for most of the half. The third goal for Atletico came off of a beautiful sprint though the middle by Gabi. He drifted a pass out to the right to Óliver Torres who chipped the ball over the rushing Astana keeper from about 15m out.
We came close to seeing history on the fourth goal by Atletico. In the 89th minute, Juanfran ran free down the right side and attempted a low cross towards second half substitute Fernando Torres who was looking for his 100th goal for Atletico. He had a tap in, but an Astana defender in attempting to break up the pass, put it beautifully into the corner of his own goal (you can see him sulking on one knee with the keeper looking on, hands on hips, in disbelief below) to give Atletico a 4-0 lead. This was the subdued celebration of that goal.
A rout through and through, but from our excellent seats, I had the up close opportunity to see one of the world’s best football teams work its magic. The footwork, passing and playmaking was unlike anything I have seen in my soccer travels to date. So even through it was the least competitive match I’ve been to, I left the stadium with 35,000 others happy that the “good guys” won.