30 October 1999. Bill Clinton was in the White House, the Millennium was approaching, the best footballer in the world was Rivaldo, Leo Messi was just a-12-year old boy no-one had heard of and Atletico Madrid had just beaten Real Madrid 3-1 at the Santiago Bernabéu. The first 12 years of the 21st century have brought many changes, but one thing has remained a constant: Atletico are still unable to beat Real Madrid.
Atleticos’ woeful record in the Madrid derby has become a running joke in Spanish football. During last year’s derby at the Bernabeu, Real Madrid’s Ultras Sur displayed a banner reading “Wanted: a proper rival for a decent derby. Apply here.” A year earlier their message was “The derby – your worst nightmare”. Atleti are in on the joke too, with President Enrique Cerezo remarking a few years ago: “Every season we give Madrid nine points, the six we give to them and the three we take from Barcelona.”
There is even something comical about the last time Atleti beat their rivals, when Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Jose Mari provided the perfect answer to Fernado Morientes’s early goal – Atletico ended the season relegated, Real ended it as champions of Europe.
Atletico have had some joy in this fixture, however. The Bernabeu was the scene of one of Atleti’s most memorable triumphs in the derby, when in 1992 Paulo Futre and Bernd Schuster scored to beat Madrid 2-0 and lift the Copa del Rey in their rivals’ back yard.
Little more than two years later, Atleti were inflicted with one of the most painful moments in their history, as a 17-year-old Raul, who had to leave Atletico’s youth system as a teenager after president Jesus Gil dismantled it, announced himself to the world with a terrific goal and two assists in a 4-2 win for Los Blancos.
Madrid would avenge that Copa del Rey defeat by wrapping up the League title in 1997 by beating Atleti at the Bernabeu, and took a huge step towards the 2002-03 title with a 4-0 thumping at the Calderon in the penultimate game of the season.
But if there was ever a time when Atleti stood a real chance of finally beating Madrid, it is this season. For the first time in 13 years, Atleti go into the derby ahead of Madrid in the League table and look the more confident outfit both on and off the pitch.
Madrid have already dropped just one point fewer this season than they managed during the whole of 2011-12, and Coach Jose Mourinho has looked a forlorn and disinterested figure in most of his Press conferences. By contrast, Atletico have been a symbol of stability and consistency and with 11 wins in 13 games have recorded their strongest ever start to a League season.
Diego Simeone must take most of the credit for this transformation, especially since he has pulled it off with a similar squad to the one he inherited from Gregorio Manzano 11 months ago, when Atleti were just four points above the relegation zone.
The Argentine knows all about the mental block Atleti have against Real Madrid – in his three years as a midfielder in one of the best Atletico sides in recent memory, he was never on the winning side in a derby. But Simeone is not going to let history get in the way, as he declared in his pre-match Press conference:
“I don't get bogged down in statistics, all winning and losing runs must come to an end at some point. I don't dwell on the past, I just think about what's coming next.”
It would be in keeping with the history of the Madrid derby if Real storm to victory on Saturday, and it would hardly be surprising – even though they have had a less than perfect season, their squad still cost €465 to assemble. But one cannot help but feel this could be Atletico’s time. As a headline in Mundo Atletico put it: “It’s now or never”.
Simeone has already won three trophies with Atletico – the League and Copa del Rey as a player, the Europa League as Coach – but beating Madrid and ending the 13-year curse would top them all. He has already proved his knack for breaking with tradition – now is his chance to rid Atleti of the ghost that haunts them the most.