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The Bloody, Beautiful Renaissance of the Madrid Derby

Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid will settle up in a Champions League quarterfinal match today. How did this once-dead rivalry come back to life?

The hatred flowed in one direction for a while. Antimadridista is a broad term, and it's not a group that includes only Atlético Madrid fans, but it says something about the club's character—its inferiority complex—that even one of its icons would admit that supporting Atleti is as much about rejecting Real Madrid as it is embracing the Spanish capital's snakebitten underdogs. This is Fernando Torres, talking about the team he grew up in:


"Kids might say: 'Why should we be Atlético fans when they always lose and Madrid fans are always so happy?' But Madrid fans aren't always happy. Being an Atlético fan makes you suffer, but it makes you stronger, too. Our fans are prisoners of a feeling; theirs are prisoners of results."

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That's an achingly romantic sentiment, but it's also the sound of the nail enthusiast rationalizing why he doesn't root for the hammer. From October of 1999 until Miranda's near-post header in the 2013 Copa del Rey final, Atleti couldn't beat Madrid. Each derby, expectation would build—a win has to come sometime—then the whistle would blow and the pain would arrive. Twenty-five matches: all draws or Madrid victories, a good number of them lopsided. If the rivalry didn't go altogether dormant, it mellowed like an aging dog. Madrid had always been miles better than Atleti in terms of accruing talent and titles, but such prolonged head-to-head futility was a novel indignity for the smaller club.

Four years into Atlético's Diego Simeone-helmed renaissance, it's Madrid's turn to hear about how they can't overcome their neighbors. This season, Atleti have beaten them in the Spanish Supercup, triumphed 2-1 at the Bernabéu, knocked Los Blancos out of the Copa del Rey, and then thrashed them 4-0 at the Calderón. It's been seven matches since Madrid ran away with the Champions League final in extra time. They haven't won any of them.


Tifo translation: "Every Derby night, your worst nightmare."

After an extended lull, there's blood in the rivalry again. Madrid derbies during Cholo's reign have been spirited and occasionally downright unpleasant. A typical match between the two sides involves a bunch of shouting matches and yellow cards, malicious tackles and dust-ups, referee lobbying and mother denigrating. In the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal alone, Mario Mandžukić got nailed in the nose by a Sergio Ramos elbow and was bleeding on and off for the next 10 minutes; Dani Carvajal got into a scuffle with Mandžukić that ended with the diminutive defender punching the Croat in the chest; and Ramos and Raúl García were made to shake hands by match official Milorad Mažić following a tussle for the ball, which led to Ramos mockingly cradling García's face and García telling the center back to go fuck himself.

This was all normal enough, but from amid the standard clattering and cussing, something strange emerged: a strained cordiality. As Mandžukić was screaming at the ref following Ramos's elbow, Luka Modrić came over and put his hand on his countryman's shoulder, trying to calm him. Ramos put in a nasty challenge on Koke in the first half, and when the midfielder looked annoyed, Ramos helped him up and apologized. After the match, García commingled in the penalty area with Ramos and Iker Casillas, making peace with the former and greeting the latter as a compatriot.

This is a relatively new phenomenon: Atleti and Madrid players scrapping, but being careful not to cross too many lines. It used to be, Madrid had a roster full of internationals and Atleti had one or two. These days, both squads are composed of many players who are regularly called up to big-time national teams—La Roja in particular. Each team has five Spanish internationals.

Madrid and Barcelona have had this problem forever: they beat the hell out of each other in La Liga and Europe, and then players who have been on opposite sides of some gruesome battles have to make nice and play with each other in European Championship qualifying or the World Cup. El Clásico discord reached a fever pitch during José Mourinho's tenure in Madrid circa 2011, when his strategy against Barça boiled down to handing Ramos and Xabi Alonso some nunchucks and a license to maim. Whatever animosity that approach bred—feelings were definitely hurt; those matches got entrails-spilling-on-the-floor ugly—was apparently squashed by Euro 2012, which Spain won with a team that was essentially Real Barcelona, but the dynamic produced by the fact that one national team squad was split into two rival factions during the club season was fascinating as Spaniard-on-Spaniard carnage played out on the pitch.

Madrid derbies are now similarly fraught. Atleti and Madrid head into the second leg of a 0-0 Champions League quarterfinal tie as vexed with each other as ever, but also on the same side in some respects. If that won't affect the match's intensity, it will lend a strangeness to the spitting and shoving. We might see more than a few Madrid players sympathetically picking their bereft foes up off the turf after the final whistle blows, or vice versa. In four short years, El Derbi has gone from anticompetitively drab to one of the finest rivalries in the world. Once again, the hatred flows in both directions. Respect and admiration do, too.