MADRID — Outside City Hall late Saturday night, a man is on his knees, hands over his face, head pointed toward the sky as if in prayer. The screaming fans running past barely notice. They’ve got enough to think about. Real Madrid has won the championship in one of the most unexpected and anticipated contests ever between this city’s greatest rivals.
The party, which began hours earlier, shows no sign of stopping. “My family, my family,” the man on his knees repeats. “Congratulations, my family.”
Hours earlier, the battle lines were drawn. On every street and in every bar near the Plaza Mayor, the solid white of powerhouse Real Madrid can be seen alongside the striped uniforms of their scrappy, underdog neighbors Atlético Madrid.
In downtown Madrid, the whites drown out the stripes. Atlético’s core is concentrated in the more blue-collar neighborhoods of southwest Madrid. Their fans know this is a rare opportunity. Real Madrid has won 10 United European Football Association championships and has a 220 million euros, or almost $300 million, payroll. Atlético’s never won and keeps its payroll under 75 million euros, or just over $100 million.
This is just the team’s second trip to the finals.
“This is our year,” says Xavi, 25, standing in the swirling crowd of red and white outside Atlético’s stadium, Estadio Vincente Calderón. “Real has enough, they don’t need anymore.”
Outside the stadiums, fireworks pop, horns blow, kids bash thunder sticks.
Though the game itself took place in neighboring Portugal, supporters don’t need to make the pilgrimage. The teams’ respective stadiums are packed, with the more than 130,000 total seats taken up by fans to watch on massive screens installed at midfield.
They smoke cigarettes, drink beer from plastic cups and sangria hidden inside paper bags.
Even if Real Madrid has won so many times before, the geographic rivalry has captured the attention of the team’s fans. Only five times in the 59-year history of the European Championship have the finalists been from the same country. This is the first time the opponents have been from the same city.
“Winning this would be the biggest thing,” said Real Madrid fan Alex Gutierrez.
Up to this Saturday, the UEFA final has rightly been billed as a battle for bragging rights between the two Madrid clubs. It will settle with finality the “Derbi Madrileño,” the name given to the matches involving the “Indians” of Atlético and the “Vikings” of Real.
Police have cordoned off major thoroughfares in Madrid to maintain order, but nobody anticipates violence. There’s friendly taunting, but the match actually appears to have brought the city together. Strangers passing each other high five, chant, and occasionally break into impromptu dances.
“It’s a very good feeling to have both teams from Madrid play,” said Alfonso Fernandez, 17, a Real Madrid fan.
At kickoff, just before 9, the streets empty as fans gather around televisions at bars or inside the stadiums. At an outdoor restaurant in the Plaza Mayor, fans of both sides watch the game on a flat-screen TV, jeering each other when the opportunity presents itself.
Inside Real’s stadium, the crowd roars early in the match when star defender Sergio Ramos bumps Raul Garcia, an Atlético player who was just penalized for a sliding tackle.
And the fans don’t quiet down even as Atlético holds onto a surprising 1-0 lead. Their passion is rewarded in the 94th minute of the match — just before time expires — when Real Madrid’s Ramos scores a heartbreaker, heading the ball into the net and sending the game into overtime.
For Atlético and its fans, so resigned to second-class status — their team song is “What a Way to Suffer” — the moment arrives almost according to script. The Ramos goal is greeted first by silence, then by a half-hearted chant of “Atlético, Atlético.”
In overtime, it only gets worse. Three goals for Real Madrid, the final from the team’s most despised or adored player, Cristiano Ronaldo, seals what everybody expected. Real Madrid has beat Atlético again.
Rivalry aside, the victory meant a lot to Real Madrid, which hasn’t won a championship since 2002. In the Plaza de Cibeles, Real’s fans dance and shout to the strains of music pumped out by a DJ. Chants of “Champions, champions” carry through the streets as thousands upon thousands of fans stream into the plaza to join in on the party.
Eugiano Maloto, the fan on his knees, doesn’t rise for 10 minutes. “I’m just feeling the moment,” he said, his hands still over his eyes. Then he kissed the ground.