“Stand out of my light.” So goes the punchline in Plutarch’s retelling of the one and only meeting between Alexander the Great and Diogenes of Sinope, the Cynic philosopher, the latter of whom had only the preceding request for the Macedonian king. To take the tale at face value, there couldn’t have been too many duos less alike in ancient Greece around 336 BCE. As powerful as almost any human being ever, Alexander is infamous for having wept at the notion that he had no worlds left to conquer. Diogenes sought out poverty, thriving in destitution and sleeping in a ceramic jar.
As cavernous as the gap between Diogenes and Alexander was, so, too, is that between the teams meeting in Saturday’s UEFA Champions League Final. With a cursory glance, one may suspect that the teams share few similarities. Part of that, of course, comes with comparing any team to Real Madrid in the European Cup; having won ten of them, more than any other club, gives you an air of esteem and pomp without parallel. Their opponents in this case, however, are achingly familiar with flying close to the sun as their wings start to melt. Like Alexander after meeting Diogenes, Real may leave San Siro stunningly impressed with the exploits of Atlético Madrid.
It seems like millennia have passed in the two years since these neighbors last met in the Champions League Final; the shape-shifting nature of European soccer tends to have that effect. Indeed, the cast of characters has changed ever so slightly since Real claimed La Décima in Lisbon. Diego Costa and David Villa have both departed Atlético, as have Iker Casillas and Ángel Di María from Real. Carlo Ancelotti saw his exit after last season, mere months after claiming the IFFHS 2014 Award as The World’s Best Club Coach. Too much is never enough for Real Madrid.
Ever the oppressed and never the oppressor, even in their title-winning 2013-’14 season, Atlético Madrid seems to have a new vendetta every season. “A chip” is nowhere near sufficient to describe the ceaselessly accumulating mountain on their shoulder. Their coach, the volatile but brilliant Diego Simeone, goes head-hunting with the intensity and scorn of a perpetually laid-off employee, and his teams generally follow suit. Indeed, it was Simeone who earned a red card for fighting Raphael Verane in that final.
That Atlético has as many La Liga titles, ten, as Real has Champions League titles plays into the dichotomy between the two neighboring clubs, one comfortable in an almost grotesque excess of riches while the other finds truth in a kind of starvation. Atlético goes to lengths to position itself as the lesser of the clubs, the relentless underdog who cannot disappoint its supporters because the standard is eternally set so low°.
All of which, of course, makes defeating Real Madrid of the utmost importance. As Colin McGowan wrote at RealGM.com, “Atléticos insist upon ownership of the capital city because it’s the only real estate they could ever hope to hold.”¹ The seeming institutional disbelief that Atleti and its supporters hold is tempered by the fact that, on occasion, they do manage to actually win. Even then, they attribute their own success to the shortcomings of their rivals rather than anything they actually did, as if winning a league title or Spanish cup requires blindly falling backwards through a trap door onto a bed of clouds.
Where Real is fortunate to have been insanely successful for essentially its entire existence, giving it a financial advantage nearly unparalleled in world soccer, Atleti has benefitted from the development of young stars such as Antoine Griezmann and, in the case of Fernando Torres, a return to world-class form after some time as a prodigal son. Madrid native Koke has also been a faithful hound, deflecting the interest of Barcelona and Chelsea on his way to becoming one of Spain’s best midfielders, the rare player capable of potentially replacing the irreplaceable Xavi and Andrés Iniesta in the nation’s side.
Being so close to that first European Cup trophy in 2014² surely weighs heavily on the minds of the players who were there, but, as per Koke himself, they maintain that winning is the priority, no matter the opponent. It would be foolish to believe, however, that a continental triumph over their incessant aggressors wouldn’t be that much sweeter. Atleti managed a draw and a victory against Real in La Liga this season, the latter capping off a third-straight victory at the previously impenetrable fortress that is the Santiago Bernabéu.
Despite themselves, Atleti are the slight favorites in Saturday’s match. Whether their immovable defense can withstand the unstoppable Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo’s assaults on goal will be key, as will the zippy passing of their midfielders and the play of Torres in what he has already deemed “the game of [his] life.” Atleti certainly have the willpower and talent to keep up with Real, if only they just believe in themselves to win as wholeheartedly as they seem to accept their fate as the lesser.
Diogenes was only ever as lowly as he deemed himself to be; the fact that we’re talking about him now, on a sports blog in the 2016, should signify something about what he couldn’t see in himself. After meeting the lowly philosopher, Alexander is reputed to have said, “If I were not Alexander the Great, I would like to be Diogenes.” With some luck, and a display of the founts of skill they undoubtedly possess, Atleti could cause Real to leave Milan on Saturday with a similar feeling.
° None of which is to say that Atlético is without advantages itself; in 2015, Deloitte estimated that the club was the fifteenth-most valuable in the world. Who was #1? Real, of course.
¹ His entire piece is a fascinating look at the relationship between the two clubs from Atleti’s perspective and very well worth the read, if only for the uncannily accurate positioning of Real as “a battleship hosting a yacht party.”