They’re like some strange cousin whose parents, your aunt and uncle that you invite over for the holidays every year, are always trying to get you to compete with. But you’re tired of having to re-explain the rules of driveway basketball (“No, the crack running parallel to the carport is the 3-point line”) and he can never seem to understand that the left side of the backboard is loose and so much softer than the right side. You can wang the ball into it as hard as you want and it’ll drop in. Yet your aunt and uncle, bless their hearts, can’t wait to tell you how much better he is than last year, how he benched some unreasonable amount at the gym last week, or how he goes for 10 mile runs on Saturday mornings before anyone is awake. And once there was that time he dunked during Horse.
When you’re not there, he’s Yo Yo Ma, but when you are there, he’s a first grader with a tuning problem. He’s always better equipped than anyone: he has the latest, greatest shoes; the best shorts; and even the James Worthy headband–a Stradivarius if we’re sticking with the classical thing. But sometimes he forgets to dribble or doesn’t know how to read sheet music. There’s so much hype surrounding him that when he shows up and stumbles over his own feet, drops his bow, or can’t open the door properly, you can’t help but feel disappointed, even when you know from the moment you hear “Thanksgiving with your aunt and uncle” that it’s coming.
That is Atletico de Madrid. They may be coached by a master motivator; they may have spent generous amounts over the last few seasons; or they may have, in their infinite wisdom, finally gotten rid of some of the superfluous pieces of their lineup, but they’re stuck in a hamster wheel. But what can you say about them without sounding something like a recording of yourself the last time you brought them up? What was a clever-ish insult a couple of seasons ago when you first heard it–“Patetico? Ha!”–is now just part of their identity. I’m sure there are people out there who think that is the team’s actual name.
They’re only 1 point ahead of the supposed 4th team from the capital, Rayo Vallecano, a team that nearly beat Real Madrid this past weekend. It’s been something like 250 years since Atleti beat Real and even Getafe has done it more recently than that. When Team Burger King seems the less laughable of the teams in the discussion, there’s something going on. And that something is the burden of expectation.
Every off season, Enrique Cerezo and whoever the current manager is go on a little spending spree. They offload a Torres, a Kun, or a de Gea and then turn around and purchase a slew of failed projects. Rademel Falcao is looking like a wonderful purchase at the moment, having scored 14 league goals (though 5 have been penalties) and 17 in all competitions, but unless they end up in the Champions League, such expenditure hardly seems worth it. The trouble is that trying to build a team while requiring immediate success is always hard. Arda Turan was brought in to be a star and while he’s quietly playing well, he’s not blowing the competition out of the water. In the twisted world of Atletico de Madrid, that is failure.
Look at their most recent league finishes (in reverse chronological order): 7th, 9th, 4th, 4th, 7th, 10th, 11th, 7th, 12th. Before that, during that 2001-02 season, they were in Segunda. What looks like an aberration in this list are the two seasons in 4th, when Champions League was suddenly on the menu. That they’re expected to win week-in, week-out, that they’re expected to finish in a Champions League match is partly their own fault and partly the fault of those who go to the Calderon in droves (the team is 3rd in the league in attendance at 46,791). Sustained self-aggrandizement can lead to others viewing you just how you want, but if you don’t come through on your own goals and promises, you end up looking like hapless fools.
What is all of this doing on a Barcelona blog? If it’s not careful, Barça will go the way of Atleti, coming to expect tripletes and constant barrages of trophies. That is already happening to a large degree. It’s easy to get carried away, to think that we should win, that we deserve to win simply because we’ve got [insert your favorite player] and (had) UNICEF scrawled across our chest and we play so beautifully and we’re member-owned and etc etc. There are probably Atleti fans out there who would be ecstatic to end up in a Europa League spot and there are no doubt Barça fans cheering for us to make the Champions League. But they’re not the norm and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
The point is: don’t be that cousin or that aunt and uncle. Pay attention to the expectations and when they become absurd (“We didn’t get a manita? Lame!”) you should reevaluate where you stand on some things. If trophies are the be-all and end-all of sports for you, there’s nothing wrong with that, but you’ll find yourself with a new favorite team in just a couple of months. Winning is fun, don’t get me wrong, but look at Atleti: you win some, you lose some, and in the end you just hope you remember that the crack parallel to the carport is the 3-point line.