If you didn’t know of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona’s dominance of Spanish football, you could be excused for thinking that Club Atlético de Madrid’s record of 10 league titles & 10 wins in the Copa del Rey would put them at the top of the tree. Alas, it would seem that they are forever destined to live in the shadow of their powerful neighbours and the kings of Catalunya. However, Atléti’s story is in my opinion, far more interesting, with plenty of twists and turns along the way.
Now I’m sure you are aware that the Estadio Vicente Calderón was not Atlético’s first stadium, and I cover the early history of the club here. This particular chapter starts in the late 1950s when Atléti’s then home, the Estadio Metropolitano, was hemmed in on all sides by housing and other development. So Atléti purchased a large plot of land to the south west of central Madrid, next to a gas works and on the banks of the Rio Manzanarés. Work began in 1961 but was tortuously slow, and with the club suffering financially, they moved in with Real Madrid during the 1964-65 season. There was to be one final swansong for the Metropolitano when Atléti returned for one final season in 1965-66 and won the Primera title.
Finally, on 2 October 1966, the stadium was sort of ready and unofficially opened with a match against Valencia. It was initially called the Estadio del Manzanarés after the river that ran behind the main stand. I say the “main stand”, for back in 1966, this was an open bank of seats on the lower level, with a construction site behind it. Money was still tight and the upper tier of the main stand, which sits tight to the bank of the Manzanarés and over the six-lane M30 Madrid ring road, was not completed until 1970. At this point, the stadium was renamed Estadio Vicente Calderón after the President of the club who had overseen its development. Complete and with a spanking-new cantilevered roof, the 62,000 all-seat stadium (the first all-seater in Spain) was officially opened in the presence of Franco and a young King Juan Carlos on 23 May 1972, when Spain played a friendly against Uruguay.
The new stadium did not have to wait long for it to witness success for Atléti, as the league was won in 1969-70. This was one of Atléti’s greatest teams, for in an eight-year period they won three league titles, two Copa del Rey’s and if it wasn’t for the last minute strike, they would have won the 1974 European Cup. Two days later, Bayern won the replay 4-0. They did, however, win the Intercontinental Cup later that year (replacing Bayern who had declined the invitation) beating Argentina’s Independiente 4-1 over two legs. In January 1976, King Juan Carlos returned the Estadio Vicente Calderón with his wife Queen Sofia, in their first public appearance at a sporting event as reigning monarchs. A coincidence or a shrewd tactic that distanced the monarchy from any pro-Real Madrid allegiances?
The stadium was chosen to host three matches in the 1982 World Cup, but once again played second fiddle to Real Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. Strangely, all the matches were second-round affairs played over a six-day period, featuring France, Austria and Northern Ireland. The highest attendance of 37,000 did not exactly test the stadium’s capacity. The Calderón did get more respectable attendances when the Spanish National side ventured to the south west of Madrid. La Selección played at the stadium on eleven occasions, the first being that 1973 friendly against Uruguay and the last coming in March 2014, when Spain hosted Italy. They remained unbeaten, winning eight and drawing three of the encounters.
There followed a 30-year period from the late 1970s when pickings were on the slim side. Whilst the club has fared fairly well in the Copa del Rey with four further victories, it only added to its tally of league titles in 1995-96. Much of this period was under the stewardship of President Jesús Gil and the less said about him the better. After securing that fourth Copa del Rey in 1996 and therefore completing the double, the club fell into decline and then in June 2000, the unthinkable happened. After 63 seasons in La Primera, Atléti was relegated to La Segunda. Gil shrugged it off and said that the club would endure a year in hell before bouncing back, but after a dreadful start to the season, they were playing catch up and eventually lost out on the final promotion place to CD Tenerife due to an inferior head to head record. Atléti returned to La Primera in 2002, but it took the arrival of a former player as manager to kick-start a new era. Since Diego Simeone took over at the helm in 2011, Atléti has won the Europa League twice, UEFA Super Copa, Copa del Rey and after an 18-year hiatus, a coveted tenth league title in 2014. They also reached two Champions League Finals, only to lose to their eternal rivals, Real Madrid.
It seems strange that Atléti chose this location knowing that it would require quite some feat of engineering to overcome the twin obstacles of a motorway and the river right up close to the western side. Viewed from the air, however, you can see that the club solved the problem with style and panache. In part, the Estadio Vicente Calderón was typical of Spanish grounds of this period with two large tiers of uncovered seats that curve around the pitch. These three sides could easily pass as Sevilla’s Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, but then, rather abruptly, the tiers stopped, sliced like a wedding cake. There were no corner stands to the west of the ground, just that huge stand hanging over the motorway. It would not have been beyond the architects to have continued the tiers around the western side so that they linked seamlessly with the main stand. Had that happened, however, the stadium would have lost its unique appeal, and I think it was all the better for its truncated form.
Whilst architecturally it has always been a striking stadium, it was until the late 1980s very stark. The mood was lightened with the addition of bands of red and white seats on the upper tier and blue seats on the lower tier, reflecting the clubs colours and nickname, El Colchóneros or mattress makers. The top of the upper tier saw the addition of executive boxes in 2002, and the awkward gaps either side of the main stand were filled with two huge TV screens. The main stand also received a makeover with the rear encased in blue glass, although this was only visible at ground level from the tenements that line the other side of the Rio Manzanarés. The stadium had no floodlight pylons, aping the style of so many large super bowls with a ring of lights on gantries around the lip of the bowl. The alterations to the media area and changes to individual seats from benches reduced the capacity to 54,851, more than enough for Atlético’s average of 49,000.
The stadium’s days were numbered, however, as work started in 2011 on converting the Estadio de la Comunidad or La Peineta to a 67,500 seat stadium. The move was not popular with Atléti’s fan base given that its location is way across to the northeast of Madrid, well away from their heartland. Like the building of the Calderón, the construction of the new stadium was a protracted and tortuous affair, but time was finally called on the Vicente Calderón at the end of the 2016-17 season. Over the course of seven days, it hosted Atléti’s last competitive fixture (3-1 vs Athletic Club in La Liga 21/05/17), the final of the Copa del Rey (Barcelona vs Sevilla 5-0 27/05/17) & finally on 28 May 2017, a team of Atlético Madrid legends played a World XI in front of a full house. The club moved the new Estadio Wanda Metropolitano in September 2017, and whilst the Calderón hung around for another 18 months, demolition finally began in March 2019. And whilst another great stadium has been levelled, memories of the Vicente Calderón burn bright in the hearts of Atléti’s fans and beyond.