After two soul-destroying defeats in 1974 and 2014, Diego Simeone-led Atletico Madrid missed out on their best opportunity to win the Champions League against not so formidable Real Madrid in Saturday's European final
One of the roads that leads to Atletico Madrid's Vicente Calderon Stadium is named Paseo de Los Melancolicos – Walk of the Melancholy. After Saturday defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League final, fans could be forgiven if they renamed it Paseo de Los Malditos, Walk of the Cursed.
Atletico Madrid's Fernando Torres (right) consoles teammate Juanfran after the Champions League final against Real Madrid in Milan on Saturday. Pic/Getty Images
Mighty Juventus of Turin have tasted Champions League/European Cup final defeat on six occasions. Benfica have been second-best five times. But both those clubs can also point to two trophy triumphs. Atletico, whose loss on penalties was their third in the summit clash, have no such consolation.
Every final has a loser. For Atletico, it's the manner of the defeats, dating back to May 1974, that have been utterly soul-destroying. In '74, they were up against a legendary Bayern Munich side that would go on to win the European Cup in three consecutive years. At the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, which would become notorious for a crowd tragedy a decade later, Atletico held Bayern goalless over 90 minutes.
With just six minutes left of extra time, Luis Aragones – who would later go on to coach Atletico and Spain, and win trophies with both – curled a free kick over the wall to give them the lead. If you look at the footage from the final, you can see thousands of red-and-white flags in the stands, waving frantically as the clock wound down.
With Atletico's hands practically on the trophy, Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck strode forward and found himself in space. A strike from 30 yards out arrowed into the bottom-right corner of the goal. Some Atletico players sunk to the turf in disbelief. In a time before penalty shootouts, the final went to a replay. Bayern won it 4-0.
Two years ago, Atletico led their cross-town rivals well into injury time. On Sergio Ramos's arm, you can find a tattoo that simply says: 92:48, the time on the clock when his powerful header gave Real Madrid parity and took the game into extra time. As in Belgium a generation earlier, Atletico's players had nothing left to give. Real scored thrice in extra time, winning the competition for the tenth time.
At the time, few imagined that Atletico would be back in such rarefied climes any time soon. This is a team built in its coach's image. Diego Simeone, who was part of the team that won the La Liga-Copa del Rey double in 1995-96, is now as adored as Aragones once was. In less than five years at the Calderon, El Cholo has won every trophy — except the Champions League.
This was their best opportunity. Despite the resurgence in the league under Zinedine Zidane, Real hadn't beaten a truly formidable side on their way to the Champions League final. Atletico had upset Barcelona in the quarter-finals, and Pep Guardiola's Bayern in the semis.
Ramos's goal – replays suggested he was offside when Gareth Bale nodded the ball on – left Atletico with a mountain to climb, but after showing surprisingly little of their usual dogs-of-war mentality in the first half, they were transformed in the second 45.
Yet, once again, they will look back at chances spurned. Antoine Griezmann's penalty, after Fernando Torres had been tripped, was thumped against the cross bar, and though the brilliant Yannick Carrasco equalised, Atletico couldn't do more with the dominance they enjoyed.
In extra time, with several Real players noticeably tiring, there was no great initiative to go for the winner. It proved costly. Jan Oblak has had a fantastic season in goal for Atletico, but saving penalties is not his forte.
When they beat PSV Eindhoven in a shootout in the last-16, Oblak didn't get his gloves to a single kick. It was no different on Saturday night, as he got nowhere close to the five Real attempts. In Brussels and Lisbon, it was a few seconds that denied them. In Milan, the width of a goalpost kept out Juanfran's penalty. In the stands, there were no recriminations, only tears and immense pride.
"Quite frankly I love my players," said Simeone afterwards. "It's obvious that they've given everything that they have, and they always give everything they have. I have to think things out on my part. That's what I'm doing now. What is clear to me is that nobody remembers the losers." A team of warriors, led by Gabi, deserved so much more.