The Atlético Madrid fans at the Metropolitano didn’t watch the match that took them to within touching distance of the league title, but they lived it. Still not allowed in but determined not to be left out, if they couldn’t see their players on Wednesday night their players could hear them, song drifting in through the open southeastern corner of the stadium. Supporters gathered in Car Park B beneath the biggest flagpole in Spain, the 338 square metres of red and white that normally fly from it taken down because of the wind on this night of all nights, while on the other side the players clung on to the lead that carried them close, so close, to becoming champions.
Diego Simeone called the suffering “unnecessary” – but, at the end of his 500th first-team game for the club he joined at eight, Koke said: “We’re Atléti and if we didn’t suffer it wouldn’t be us.” This 2-1 win against Real Sociedad leaves them top with two matches left, and the captain said: “We heard the fans from out there and we needed them, especially for that extra effort in the final minutes.” And he was right.
For once, the team that had watched a 90th-minute Lionel Messi free-kick fly just past their top corner, a 92nd-minute Fidel Chaves penalty hit their post, and an 87th-minute Iñigo Martínez header fly into their net in the past three games, who have spent almost an entire season on top but also on edge, seemed set to win comfortably. The fifth-placed Real Sociedad were supposed to be Atlético’s hardest remaining game but this time there were no doubts. Within 10 minutes they had racked up five shots, two of them clear chances. After 16, they led. And after 27, it was two. It could have been three, four, more, and the chants carried into the stadium. When they began to serenade Simeone, you could almost sense him wondering whether to wave. It was done.
Except that with Atlético it never really is, with this season it never really is either. Jan Oblak had already made a couple of saves and then with seven minutes to go a corner slipped through and from the edge of the six-yard box Igor Zubeldia scored, a single goal between them now, back on that cliff edge. Sitting in the stands Luis Suárez, who had just been removed, threw down his boots, noise echoing around. First right, then left, then his shin pads. In front of him, Diego Simeone had a dark vision. “Levante came to mind, when we played fantastically but ended up losing,” he said afterwards. “That 2-0 becomes 2-1 and you get vertigo.”
Suddenly, they were scared, the tension tearing at their nerves, the enormity of it all. Simeone was on the pitch half the time, hopping about, literally crossing the line. In the stands, Atlético’s subs and staff were drawn ever closer to it, coming down the stairs and leaning over the barrier as if being dragged into the game, unable to resist, desperate to intervene. Looking down from above, it was easy to be drawn more to them than the actual game, a perfect picture of the pressure, every single action a threat. Outside, aware of what was at stake, fans who have seen defeat snatched from the jaws of victory too often to ever truly let go turned up the volume.
There were eight minutes left but they were going to be an eternity. To the left, the Real Sociedad coach Imanol Alguacil could sense it, rushing to get the ball back to his players quickly. They could sense it too, going for this. Mario Hermoso blocked a cross, and you could feel the nerves, the awareness that the smallest thing could now be the biggest. And so every moment is magnified. Portu shot. Martín Merquelanz stepped into the box, a foot near his, a penalty in waiting. Hermoso won the ball and then lost it again, a door into Atlético’s area suddenly open.
From outside, Atlético’s anthem belted out in defiance, trying to carry the players over the line, but that was soon replaced by something more basic. “Atleti, échale huevos!” came the command from the car park – put your balls into this. Which they already were: their balls and everything else. “It was emotional having them there,” Simeone said. “I understand the government, I understand everything, the needs there are, but football needs people. It belongs to the people.”
In the stands, they screamed and shifted and held their heads in their hands. On the touchline, Simeone seemed to pray. “It was Mario,” he admitted afterwards. “He was carrying the ball out and I was saying: ‘Please, please, get rid of it’, no pasa nada, don’t be embarrassed to kick it long if needs be.” The next time they did, and it came straight back again. Arms cutting at the air, demanding time over, fingers tapped at imaginary watches. They looked at the referee and wondered why his whistle wasn’t in his mouth yet.
And then, at last, it was. Arms shot up. Simeone turned and sprinted up the tunnel, fists clenched. Teammates embraced, some still too scared to smile. But they had done it. “The suffering of champions,” El País called it, and so did AS. Game by game, fright by fright, they were close to the finish line now.
From inside the makeshift dressing room built under the stands, Atlético scarves hanging from the walls, Suárez sent a video: “We’re right there, come on, one step more.” Still clinging to the lead they have held for five months, another agonising win put them four points ahead of Barcelona and five clear of Real Madrid, who have a game in hand. There are 10 days and two matches left, far away so close. “It’s going to be hard,” Simeone said, “tiredness is there, anxiety exists.” Standing on the touchline, Koke insisted: “It might not look like it but there’s still a world to go.” It was mid-May, almost midnight and the sky lit up, fireworks set off from Car Park B.