Down a hill, turn right and keep walking for a hundred metres or so and then turn left onto the bridge. It’s a walk I have taken many times in the past. As you walk over the bridge, there’s a river on the left, but that is soon forgotten as you look to your right because there, standing tall and magnificently, is the Vicente Calderon. Sadly, on May 6, I made that walk for the final time to bid adieu to an old friend that has given me so many great memories.
On one September morning in 2003, I had just arrived and was being driven through the streets of Madrid when I first set eyes on what my father-in-law called, ‘Madrid’s Buckingham Palace’. That morning, after a night of no sleep and trying to adjust to heat I was not accustomed to, the last thing I was expecting was to be surprised by was a football stadium, but as we drove by it I was taken aback by the fact that, bang in a residential area, was a 55,000-seater ground that appeared to naturally belong there.
Some may argue that had I seen the Santiago Bernabeu first, I would have felt the same for it, but I doubt that for the simple reason that the Calderon was among homes and even had a road running through it. Where in the world would you see that? What wasn’t there to love about it? I admit I love the underdog and so there was an attraction to Atletico, and a few days after arriving in Madrid I was in the ground to watch Rafa Benitez’s Valencia hammer an Atleti side that featured Diego Simeone and Fernando Torres. They say love at first sight doesn’t exist, but it really does.
For as long as I can remember, I have been an Arsenal fan, I still am and luckily because of having family in London, I have been to see them a few times, but anyone who has been to Highbury or nowadays the Emirates Stadium will tell you that as great as the grounds are and as beautifully as the game is played, there was one thing missing: atmosphere. That night in the Madrid heat, as Los Che took apart the hosts in the second half, I saw something tremendous. As the third goal hit the back of the net, the Calderon stood up, and instead of leaving or shouting at the players, the fans sang their hearts out about how much they loved the club. They applauded the team and they danced. After that, there was no going back for me!
A year later I moved to Madrid, and with a heavy heart after saying goodbye to family at 5am in the morning, I saw the Vicente Calderon again. There seemed to be something about the place, and the fact that I lived about 300 metres from it for two years meant it was one of the first things I would see each morning. Even if I couldn’t get tickets, I could still hear the Calderon from my room. The Calderon had become a part of my life, in ways no-one could ever have imagined.
I have made so many friends because of Atletico and lost a few too! At the start, a great friend and myself used to go to every game, paying ridiculous prices for tickets at the gate because we tried, without luck, to get season tickets. Then, thanks to a chance meeting and me pushing my luck, we were put on a list. I remember the day the club phoned me to tell me that I was to get a season ticket and we ran from the Madrid city centre to sort everything out, even though the club told us there was no hurry. That night, I slept with the season ticket by my night table, happy that at least for one year, a seat at the Calderon was mine.
As it turned out, that seat would be occupied for five years before I gave up my ticket because I had been given a Press pass by the club for a blog I ran about Atleti in English. For years, I went to the Calderon as a fan and later as a member of the Press. At the start, the games were brutal. Anybody that doesn’t remember or know about the likes of Fabiano Eller or Mariano Pernia are lucky. Or are they?
Those were the days when you went to the games because, despite the terrible squad, you still loved the team and you stood by them, and that is one thing Atletico fans do best: loyalty. When Atleti were relegated, the Calderon sold more season tickets for Segunda Division than it had for the top flight. When the chips are down, Los Colchoneros always come out fighting and when they danced, so too did the Calderon, quite literally on occasions, which was a cause of slight concern.
The Calderon means so much to so many. Like with almost every club in Spain, it was one of the few places of democracy during the dictatorship as sports clubs at the time were fan-owned and so the Presidents were sworn in by the members. It is a place that has also had its bad times – and some very ugly times, but this article isn’t about those.
The more and more I went, the more I came to see that the ground was falling into disrepair and had been neglected for years. The club’s board argued it was cheaper to build a new ground than to do it up, but can the board be believed? Fans protested and there is an ongoing court case about what will be built when they knock down the ground, but no matter what they put up, while it might bring joy to many in the future, the Calderon did the same and more and for millions across the world.
The talk of Atleti leaving the riverside started a decade ago. Many had hoped it would never come to pass, but alas the day is approaching when the lights will be turned off for the last time. The new ground will be 14km from where the Calderon stands, but it might as well be thousands. Around the Calderon there are bars and restaurants, around the new ground there is nothing. Transport to and from the ground is going to be chaotic and should there be late Sunday games, it is hard to see the club filling seats, but that is a problem for the future.
As I left the Calderon, down the staircases where years ago some painters had forgotten to put away the paint cans and fans had gotten hold of them and chucked the paint all over the stairs, I started to think of all the things that had come to pass since I saw the ground for the first time. Moving to a new country and learning a language, starting my own business, getting married, starting a family, going grey and all with this and more was played out with the Calderon in the background. When there were tough times, the ground by the river offered a temporary escape, a type of refuge where problems were put on hold. The Calderon has played such a huge part in my life and sure there are others that can say the same about other grounds, but this is my story and the end has come and so I will repeat what I said as I crossed the bridge on the way home after visiting the ground I had come to love for the last time: So long, old friend, and thank you.