When Atletico Madrid lost the 1973-74 European Cup final because of a 120th-minute equaliser from 40 yards out, Los Colchoneros became known as El Pupas, which translates to “the jinxed one.” Atleti was on the brink of defeating Bayern Munich until Hans-Georg Schwarzenback scored a freak goal, forcing a replay that the Bavarian club won emphatically.
The curse of El Pupas struck again in the 2013-14 Champions League final. Atleti was seconds away from defeating its eternal rival, Real Madrid, when Sergio Ramos of all people produced a 93rd-minute equaliser, paving the way for extra time where Los Blancos finally ended their long, obsessive wait for La Decima.
On Saturday, having already avoided European glory in a replay and in extra time, Atleti found yet another way to rip out the hearts of its supporters: penalty kicks.
For the second time in three years, the soul of Madrid, Spain was at stake in a Champions League final, as Atleti, the poorer club from the south of the city, took the pitch alongside Real Madrid, the richer club from the north. And, with a penalty shootout needed to determine a victor, the curse of El Pupas crashed into San Siro with authority, as Juanfran hit the post.
It can be easy, particularly for Atleti’s younger supporters, to forget what Los Colchoneros have been through over the years. The club regularly competes with Real Madrid and Barcelona in La Liga, appeared in two of the last three Champions League finals, and won the 2012-13 Copa del Rey. For the overwhelming majority of Spanish teams, that would be more than enough.
Unfortunately for Atleti, Juanfran’s penalty kick was a stark reminder of how Los Colchoneros have long been synonymous with finding the silliest ways to avoid victory. The club was relegated in the second division of Spanish football in 2000 and, as Ashifa Kassam of the Guardian wrote two years ago, a television commercial in 2006 captured the sentiment of the club’s knack for losing, depicting a father failing to come up with an answer after his son asks: “Why do we support Atleti?”
It feels criminal to associate Atleti with losing in any shape or form, particularly given Diego Simeone’s revolution at the Vicente Calderon. The Argentinian manager has turned Los Colchoneros into one of football’s most unbeatable clubs and one that boasts what many regard as the most collective unit out there.
Football is cruel, though. One missed penalty kick means all that will be talked about in northern Madrid is the curse of El Pupas.
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