MADRID - Many expected a club from the Spanish capital to be playing in a European final this season. The big surprise is that the club is Atletico and not Real Madrid.
Real's multi-million-euro spending spree last summer was partly inspired by the chance to win a tenth European Cup in this year's Champions League final at their own Bernabeu stadium on May 22.
Instead, it is their scruffier, less-fashionable neighbours who are rounding off a European adventure that started in the Champions League and is ending with a trip to Hamburg to play Fulham in Europe's second-tier club competition on Wednesday.
Real fans may look down their noses but success-starved Atletico supporters are determined to milk the moment, camping outside their club's stadium overnight in near-freezing temperatures in the hope of getting a ticket.
Why, though, do thousands continue to support Atletico in the shabby 55,000-seat Vicente Calderon, underneath which runs the M-30 motorway, when they could be watching Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and company in the luxury of the heated Bernabeu?
"I don't know why really. There's no logical explanation," Miguel Angel, an unemployed 29-year-old, told Reuters as he queued for tickets.
"Only my father supported them in my family, everyone else supported Real. Obviously supporting Atletico is much more difficult, but with us it isn't all about titles.
"It's about the passion and the atmosphere at the games. With them (Real), it's all about money."
The Calderon's rowdier atmosphere, warmed by lusty songs and chanting, is in marked contrast to the Bernabeu's less boisterous and more refined ambiance.
If Miguel Angel fails to get a ticket, he even has a second chance at a final because Atletico are also playing in the King's Cup trophy match against Sevilla a week later.
Atletico's museum, in the bowels of the stadium, proudly displays the trophies from their nine league titles, nine King's Cups and the 1962 European Cup winners' Cup but recent successes are thin on the ground.
Maybe that is why this reporter was the only visitor apart from a Dutchman and his two sons on a recent day.
Atletico last won silverware in 1996 when they claimed a league and cup double, but relegation to the second division in 2000 for two years had a damaging effect on the prestige and psyche of the club.
Financial problems, 11 coaches since 2000 and a failure to beat their city rivals in 11 years have dented their claim to be Spain's third power behind Real and Barcelona.
Real fans delight in calling them "Patetico de Madrid".
Another term regularly used in the media is "el pupas" (the unfortunate ones) which came into being after they conceded a freak last-minute goal in extra time against Bayern Munich in the 1974 European Cup final. They were crushed in the replay.
Their fans are known as "los sufridores" (the sufferers) and the club helped to perpetuate this "victim" culture with an award-winning season-ticket campaign a few years ago where a child asked his father: "Daddy, why are we Atletico fans?"
The fact that Atletico now have some 48,000 season-ticket holders means it must have struck a chord.
"They're mad," says the owner of a cafe close to the stadium that is decorated with Atletico paraphernalia.
"One minute they're complaining and threatening to throw away their season tickets, but still they come back, and the next minute they're happy and very excited.
"The difference with Real is Atletico has extreme ups and downs. Real are more consistent."
Then he whispers so other customers cannot hear that he is actually a Real Madrid fan.
"Business is business," he says with a grin. "I hope Atletico's success continues. Two games a week is good for us."
Atletico's alarming inconsistency has been glaringly obvious this season. They are the only team to have beaten Barcelona in the league yet they also lost at home to bottom club Xerez.
They sacked coach Abel Resino in October after a poor start to the campaign and they have gradually turned things around under his replacement Quique Sanchez Flores.
Miguel Angel credited him with having engineered Atletico's unexpected end-of-season success.
"Quique has changed things," he said. "The team haven't been playing particularly well but he has been getting results, in the Cups at least.
"Most importantly he got players like (Jose Antonio) Reyes and (Luis) Perea playing well again, and (Diego) Forlan scoring goals. That has been the main difference."
When asked if he thought Atletico would win one or both cups, he shrugged.
"It's possible. With this team anything is possible."comments