Real Madrid vs Athletico Madrid is one of 90min’s 50 Greatest Derbies in the World.
Whenever Real Madrid forge a rivalry with another club, politics are usually at the heart of it. While El Clásico with Barcelona is fuelled by the fires of Catalonia vs. the State, and has been used as a political tool ever since the Spanish Civil War, their rivalry with Atletico is seen as a more friendly affair by fans outside of Spain. But that couldn’t be any further from the truth.
El Clásico is widely seen as Real’s biggest rivalry, but El Derbi Madrileño was founded on similarly turbulent grounds. It began in the early 20th century, when Real Madrid – at the time called Madrid FC – were intent on being the only club in the capital. To achieve this, they were absorbing all the other clubs in mergers or buying all the best players until they were forced to dissolve, using their huge financial backing to fund their mission.
However, Athletic Club Madrid, who were founded in 1903, were not to be bought. Funded themselves by Basque outfit Athletic Club Bilbao, they became the last stand against the establishment in Madrid. By the time Los Blancos gained the Real prefix from the King in 1920, many of the working class fans had defected to Atleti due to their hatred of the regime. Thus the rivalry was born.
Historically speaking, the Madrid derby has garnered its reputation as more of a friendly affair due, in part, to the lack of widely reported violence over the years. This was as well as the gulf of class between the two teams since the 1980s playing into the narrative that Real have been the more successful of the sides, both in terms of silverware and general stats head to head.
Of the 225 El Derbi Madrileño’s played in all competitions, Real have won 111, while Atleti have only managed 56 wins; two fewer than the amount of draw’s between the sides. Most recently, Real have triumphed over their city rivals in the Champions League final twice in three years, a competition Los Rojiblancos have never won. while Real have won it a cool 13 times.
Ironically, it was the Champions League, or rather European Cup, that played a huge part in setting the tone of the rivalry for the modern day. The competition allowed for the narrative to be rewritten, and in history, it’s always the victor who writes the narrative.
When Real Madrid won the first European Cup in 1956, back home it was Atletico who were the favoured club of General Franco, the country’s fascist dictator. However, when Alfredo Di Stefano spearheaded Los Blancos to five straight European Cups, Franco jumped on the club, proclaiming them to be indicative of everything good about his Spain, and Real rose to supremacy.
Supremacy it really was. Between the 1956 European Cup triumph and Atletico’s relegation in 1999/00, the Vicente Calderon only saw five La Liga titles head their way, while 23 were won by the club at Santiago Bernabeu. It was during this time that the rivalry adopted new themes.
The class divisions between the clubs became more apparent, as well as racial tensions rising. Santiago Bernabeu himself declared that he would not sign black players to play for the club, whereas Atletico had no such policy, leading to Real fans calling them “Indians” as an insult when Atleti enjoyed a revival of fortunes during the 70s.
It should be noted that Atletico are not innocent of racism either. Their far right wing Frente Ultra’s group are one of the most notorious in Spain, and have been involved in altercations such as calling Real Madrid left back Marcelo a “monkey” during a Copa del Rey fixture in 2015.
After a number of years out in the cold following Los Rojiblanco’s decline in the late 90s, the fixture has reascended to the top of the Spanish game. Since Diego Simeone took charge in 2011 and pushed Atleti back into the La Liga top three and the Champions League latter stages, El Derbi Madrileño has seen a global interest accrue.
Abroad it is still seen as the establishment side of expensively assembled galacticos against a working class team of underdogs, and represents the exact tone that it had in the Spanish capital over 100 years ago upon its inception. Meanwhile in Spain, the actual working class team is being seen more and more as Rayo Vallecano, as Atletico Madrid gain more recognition outside the city limits.
While El Clásico may always take pride of place in the Spanish footballing calendar, the Madrid derby is just as important culturally, historically and politically, with the two sets of fanatical supporters making sure that it ranks amongst the greatest derbies in the world.