Sieg Heil, Refugees Welcome: A Night Spent Partying With Real Madrid's Fans
All photos by Luka Falbo-Ellis


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Sieg Heil, Refugees Welcome: A Night Spent Partying With Real Madrid's Fans

The scene as Real Madrid won the Champions League was surreal: neo-Nazi ultras celebrating beneath pro-refugee banners, in a mismatched milieu of Madridistas from all backgrounds.
May 30, 2016, 2:02pm

In contrast to other rivalries, where only the fans persist with the philosophical and cultural differences that once attracted differing kinds of people to the two clubs, Real Madrid and Atletico contest a derby where only the clubs retain and embody the supposed spirit of the divide – that of the wealthy, establishment club and the tough, working-class scrappers. There's next to no socio-economic difference in the two fanbases (and you're far more likely to see the city's ethnic minorities in Real tops) but for the teams themselves, things are a little bit different.

There's a lot to hate about Real, but seeing Manchester City sign Fernando, Fabian Delph, James Milner and Gael Clichy, it's hard not to respect a team that really flaunts its wealth and takes the same approach to real-life football – on which the careers, hopes and dreams of millions and unfathomable amounts of wealth are at stake – as your wee cousin on Football Manager. In contrast, Atletico have managed to cobble together a dirty, defensive and disciplined unit of solid players and have bruised their way to a league title and two Champions League finals. The contrast is almost entirely on the pitch, and for one night the two will clash to see who gets to rule Europe – and if Atletico can finally claim the biggest prize of all.

The game is in Milan, but the Bernabeu has attracted a massive crowd for the event. The stadium screening is treated exactly like a real game of football, rather than one being watched on a few TVs in the centre of the pitch. There is a fervent crowd, lighting, and commentators, and Real have done their best to pretend the match is actually happening there, even showing the pre-match shitshow of Alicia Keys singing about an altogether different city.

Outside, ultras who look like they have their own personal and perhaps legal reasons not to be in the stadium loiter around the bar to watch the game, letting off fireworks and flares. As the third penalty-taker steps up, there's a moment which sums up the old stereotypes of Madrid fans; one young girl kneels on the floor crying in a very public, very Catholic prayer ritual, while a group of men begin a more rousing chorus by furiously Sieg-Heiling Gareth Bale, one older fan taking point duty to take a swing at us for trying to film it.

A handful of Nazis aside, most of Madrid's fans are still in the stadium. The next penalty is Juanfran for Atletico, and the early roar from the Bernabeu doesn't come – not because he's scored, but because the big screens have frozen during his run-up. He duly clatters it off the bar and the streets go mental, followed shortly by the stadium as they witness his dejection. Cristiano Ronaldo steps up, puts his penalty away, and the flares go into overdrive, the delirium even causing the ultras to forgo their celebration of the Third Reich. The fans begin to pour out into the streets, and the big march to the victory celebrations in the Plaza de Cibeles begins.

There's an immediate reminder that this is a bit of a weird derby when one lad in an Atletico strip casually meanders through the chaos. This isn't Istanbul or Glasgow, and they do things a bit differently here, reacting with either frothy, camp mocking or mild indifference. Formerly so one-sided, it's a derby which has taken on a new prominence. The Barca-Real duopoly of old began to feel a bit like the EU Referendum, with one side of obvious dickheads against another side who, while in theory better, mostly seemed like dickheads as well. Atletico offered a new face in town, but still haven't quite managed to shake off their status as the Spurs/Hibs of Spain, choking again when it mattered. There's no potential for a rammy – the massed Atletico fans at various locations throughout the city mostly slip meekly off to their homes and concede the capital for the evening.

For the most part, the authorities have taken a step back. In a weird tiki-taka approach to policing, instead of waiting for the eventual trouble, they decide to go for eliminating the problem at source by sweeping the streets for Madrid's ubiquitous Heineken salesmen, cutting off the root of the problem – the supply of alcohol. A few enterprising people take the risk of setting up stalls on the route but, for the most part, everybody is casually shepherded down the 30-minute walk into an alcohol-free zone established in the plaza.

A bizarre sight awaits there. Everybody's gathering, wild-eyed with joy, but nobody's drinking, because the police haven't permitted anyone in with more than a solitary can. A hastily-erected stage sees a jobbing DJ get the easiest gig of his life, playing some club classics before Bon Jovi's "I Don't Want To Live Forever" really gets the juices flowing. It's ludicrous. Giles Tremlett wrote in Ghosts of Spain that the defining Spanish characteristic is to do things in huge, collectivist swarms. A lot of people like to do that, though – what's particularly Spanish is this, a bizarre mix of spontaneous, delirious celebration and state-sponsored, organised fun.

Well, semi-organised. A DJ dropping some bangers was the first priority, but much further down the list was the requisite planning for 100,000 people gathered in the centre of the city to find somewhere to piss. The bars are closed, and there are no toilets. The usual process of all Madrid's public festivals follows, whereby people gradually start to care less, at first looking for something to piss behind, and then against, and then abandoning all notions of privacy altogether. It's too much for a group of middle-aged, middle-class English women nearby, suffering from Madrid Syndrome. One of them is in tears and looking on the verge of a nervous breakdown, repeating: "I just fucking hate the centre of town!"

Above all of this, on the Palacio de Cibeles, hangs a giant "Refugees Welcome" banner, hung by fuck knows who. The unofficial party is taking place not far away, on the other side of the half-heartedly participating gay district, but Cibeles is, for all its faults, for everyone. In most other countries, Real Madrid would obtain and flaunt a "No-one likes us, we don't care" attitude, but the benefits of sheer commercialism have, perhaps, seen them genuinely become the people's club more than Atletico. Wealth has finally won out on the final frontier.

Welcome refugees or salute Adolf Hitler – whatever your tastes, Real Madrid has finally become the ultimate club for all. The fact they're now even further ahead in terms of being the most successful club of all time on the European stage is surely just a coincidence.