Few football clubs have been quite as important to the storytelling of the beautiful game as Club Atlético de Madrid has been in Spain.
The 116-year-old club has always carried with it a certain gravitas and reputation for success, after all.
If the story of La Liga’s history is one of an epic, generational battle between neighbours Real Madrid and rivals FC Barcelona, than Atlético’s story is that of eternal foil.
There is no single club more potent against the two giants of world football than Atlético. No single club has been more of a thorn in their side. And, as demonstrated on 10 historic occasions over the years, no single club in Spain is more adept at disrupting the “natural” order than Los Rojiblancos when it comes to celebrating a title winner at season’s end.
It’s a massive legacy to live up to … and one that will now take an even wider, global scope all the way in Canada.
See, Club Atlético de Madrid investing in the Canadian Premier League as owners of team in Ottawaisn’t just an opportunity to celebrate expansion in the country (for the first time) – it’s a chance, really, to see the world game come knocking on the doors of one of the largest untapped markets anywhere.
In fact, Atlético in Ottawa ranks among the biggest expansion arrangements this continent has ever seen.
So, here’s the story of Los Colchoneros, Spanish formattress makers (we’ll get to that shortly); the humble origins of a club who points their origin all the way back to 1903.
Who is Club Atlético de Madrid?
Imagine, but for a moment, life in Spain a century ago.
You’re a strapping young footballer with a newborn on the way. You’ve penned a deal with Atléti, a club founded by students in the Spanish capital, originally a youth arm to another club known as Athletic Bilbao, and that first paycheque? Well, you’re furnishing your Madrileño lodging with only the finest mattress money can buy. Your child deserves only the best, after all. So, you head to the mattress maker, and your options are fairly robust, but they all have one thing in common.
Red and white stripes.
It was the fashion, at the time. It’s also where Atlético gets its historic nickname … and, red and white, or ‘Rojo y Blanco’, is a modern, simpler take on this aged tale.
There are … other takes on the origins of Atlético’s colloquial calling, of river banks and cowboys and natives and more; but the one common thread is, well, the common red-and-white threads of Atléti’s uniform. If you see ’em anywhere in the world, you’ll recognize it at Atlético’s right away, even moreso than the all-white of Real.
You’ll certainly recognize those stripes when looking through the history books. Ten La Liga titles, and 10 more 2nd-place finishes over the decades. A further 10 Copa del Rey crowns, though older fans will remember a further nine appearances in the final which didn’t end so fruitfully. All of this, capitulated by three UEFA Europa League titles, all of which came in the past decade, tell the story of the new Atléti, the only club to end the reign of Lionel Messi’s Barcelona or Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real with a La Liga title in 2014 courtesy of bulldog Diego Costa.
As Fulham, Bilbao, and Marseille learned, this new Atléti, spearheaded by Diego Simeone, is a world force. They’ve left their parent club Bilbao well in the dust, some 100 years later.
Nowadays, the first team plays their matches in the 68,000-seat Wanda Metropolitano, after vacating the 52-year-old Estadio Vicente Calderón in 2017. Led by Simeone, Atléti boasts stars on the pitch such as João Félix, Álvaro Morata, and Koke. Atlético’s women’s side are even more dominant, winning each of the past three Spanish league titles.
Owned by a triumvirate of Miguel Ángel Gil Marin, Enrique Cerezo, and Idan Ofer, Atléti is an institution in Spanish football. Their youth academy has produced such talents as Fernando Torres and David De Gea, earning a reputation for being one of the top hotbeds for development in Europe.
At time of writing, they’re fifth in La Liga, locked in a battle for position and Champions League qualification. They’ll take on Real this coming Saturday at the Bernabéu, a must-watch derby fixture on a world-class level. They’re also the fourth-ranked club in Europe according to UEFA’s club coefficient, with a Champions League tie against Liverpool coming up in February.
In short, yes they do. The club has a major stake in Mexican side Atlético San Luis, after purchasing a 50 per cent share in 2017. In somewhat similar circumstances to Ottawa, Atlético Madrid stepped in to bring club football back to San Luis after the local team moved away, and a deal to relocate Jaguares de Chiapas to the city fell through.
Atlético San Luis earned promotion to Liga MX, for this current season, their first in Mexico’s top flight. They finished 15th in the Apertura tournament, with the Clausura having begun earlier in January. Their squad has often been bolstered by players from Atléti’s reserve ranks in Spain, with two key members — Axel Werner and Nicolás Ibáñez, both from Argentina — currently on loan to the Mexican side.
Los Colchoneros also purchased a club in the Indian Super League for that competition’s inaugural season in 2014, founding Atlético de Kolkata (who won the league’s first championship). Canadian soccer fans may remember them from former men’s national team striker Iain Hume, who played there for two seasons. Kolkata became known as ATK in 2017 after separating from Atlético Madrid, but they nonetheless got their start from the Spanish giants.
A few years ago, Atléti also announced a partnership with several other clubs around the world, including the Chicago Fire of MLS, but the exact nature of the agreement isn’t quite clear.
Atlético also certainly isn’t the only European club with interests in North America, of course, with MLS side New York City FC owned by City Football Group of Manchester City fame, for instance.
What does this mean for Ottawa and the CPL?
Well, the most exciting answer is that there will be professional club soccer in the capital this year. After the Ottawa Fury ceased operations, unable to get sanctioning from U.S. Soccer and Concacaf, it seemed the city might not have a club anywhere for the 2020 season.
Thankfully, though, the CPL’s second season will have a brand new club in Ottawa. We don’t yet know much about the new club — their name, their crest, or who might join their squad and coaching staff — but we can rest easy knowing the league will now have an even eight teams.
This news is also evidence of the worldwide soccer community at large taking notice of the CPL, and helping foster its growth. More eyes from abroad may turn to Canada with a club of Atlético Madrid’s stature now involved. It’ll also be fascinating to see how Atlético helps the new Ottawa club fill out its roster, without much time to prepare for the 2020 season. While it’s unlikely that Diego Costa will be coming over, might a youth-level player or two find a loan fit in Canada?
Of course, there’s plenty of Canadian talent surrounding the city on the border of Ontario and Quebec, too, not to mention a few familiar faces from the Fury still without a club for 2020. Regardless, Atlético’s involvement in Ottawa is an exciting step that could combine the local soccer community with the international.
But, if there’s any one single takeaway from this new venture, it’s this – the world’s game has come to Canada, or, rather, Canada is being recognized as a soccer hub by the rest of the world. Financial investment into the growth of this sport, on this scale, by a club that can easily boast the sort of grandeur unlike most others? It’s a fantasy. It’s still surreal. And, come April, those red-and-white stripes will take on a Canadian tone, as the beautiful game grows in our own capital city.