Atlético Madrid are set for another run at a LaLiga title in 2018-19, especially after adding quality players like Thomas Lemar to a talented front-line and capturing the UEFA Super Cup. The club dates back to 1903, when they were founded as Athletic Club de Madrid. But like much of Spain in the 1930s and 1940s, the country’s civil war would change life in a significant way.
The Spanish Civil War began in 1936 and lasted just under three years, eventually seeing victory for General Francisco Franco and the Nationalist movement. A military dictator that utilised a system of oppression and violence, Franco’s policies affected almost every aspect of the country’s culture. Football was no exception, especially in terms of his own image for how Spain should be viewed by the rest of the world.
The war brought a halt to LaLiga for three seasons, eventually returning for the 1939-40 campaign. In 1936, before the league’s hiatus, Los Colchoneros were relegated from the top flight after a disastrous showing. They were saved only by the misfortune of another, in this case being Real Oviedo. Due to significant damage inflicted on their home stadium during the war, Oviedo were forced to withdraw and Madrid were able to take their place. But before a play-off with CA Osasuna to confirm that spot, the club went through a change of identity.
They merged with Aviación Nacional, a side based in Zaragoza and founded by members of the Spanish Air Force. The two were brought together by elements of circumstance and tragedy, specifically for Nacional. A team promised a shot at the top flight by the FA only to lose eight players in the Civil War, to describe this as a difficult period does not truly do it proper justice. However, along came a new plan and a new name was formed – Athletic Aviación de Madrid.
Despite what many would assume as an impossible task of bringing two clubs together as one quickly, Athletic Aviación were immensely competitive right from the start. The 1939-40 season brought the club’s first trophy, as the squad finished atop LaLiga, just one point ahead of Sevilla. The following term would see them retain their title, and they were a consistent presence in the hunt for silverware. Much of that is credited to the work of their manager Ricardo Zamora, and his own story is nothing short of legendary.
Born in Catalonia, he joined RCD Espanyol as a teenager in 1916, bringing immediate success on the pitch thanks to his talents at the goalkeeper position. Disagreements with management led to an early exit in 1919, when he joined local rival FC Barcelona. Alongside the likes of Sagibarba and Josep Samitier, Zamora would enjoy a triumphant run that included three Campionat de Catalunya titles (a Catalan league prior to the formation of LaLiga) and two Copa del Rey trophies. Remarkably, he would eventually return to play for Espanyol in 1922.
As with many players from the early 20th century, there is a glorious mixture of fact and fantasy attached to their lives. Football lore creates a type of mythical figure, and Zamora would fit into that category. Quite fond of the drink and a heavy smoker, he was not afraid to go his own way. As it tends to do, that outlook and philosophy can get a young man into trouble. During the 1920 Summer Olympics with Spain, he was sent off during a match against Italy for punching an opposing player. That same year, he was arrested for attempting to smuggle cigars. Two years later, when he made his way back to Espanyol from Barcelona, tax issues initially kept him out of action for his new side.
His reputation was almost one of complete contradiction. Although he played for the Catalan national team several times throughout his career, he was believed to be against the idea of independence.
Zamora found himself to be the focus of Nationalist propaganda throughout the Civil War, and it is during those years that his life takes the most drastic (and dramatic) of turns.
Reported to have been killed during the war, he was eventually imprisoned by the Republican army. However, he would be released, and return to football. This time it would be in France, with OGC Nice and with old friend Josep Samittier. It was at Nice where Zamora would receive a true introduction to the role of manager. Never one to back down, he would not stay away from Spain for very long.
He took over at Athletic Aviación following the end of the war and was able to guide them to the top of LaLiga. Another change was on the horizon for Los Colchoneros, this time again involving the name of the club. After the Nationalist victory in the Civil War, General Franco set out to eliminate aspects of the culture that were non-Spanish, and language was a major part of that mission. This applied to a variety of different dialects, and football saw an effect also.
Athletic Aviación became Atlético Aviación de Madrid, and some of that particular change continues on today. A similar modification was made for Athletic Club, but they would revert back to their original name in the 1970s following the end of the Franco regime. Madrid did not change that element but would instead focus on their military association.
In 1947, the Air Force connection was gone, and Club Atlético de Madrid would last as their moniker for decades to come into the present day. The prior year saw Zamora exit as manager, eventually going on to coach Celta Vigo, CD Málaga, Espanyol and the Spanish national team. However, that loss did not keep Atlético from finding more success. The attacking excellence of Larbi Benbarek and Adrián Escudero delivered the goals for new boss Helenio Herrera, providing another pair of back-to-back LaLiga titles in 1949-50 and 1950-51.
The 1950s started in the best possible way for the club. But things were unravelling quickly, and the seeds were planted just a few years earlier. Eternal rival Real Madrid have long been linked with General Franco, but it was not always necessarily that way. The regime preferred Atlético, especially when connected so closely to the military. When Los Rojiblancos distanced themselves from that element, their relationship with the regime was very different.
General Franco wanted to portray Spain as a dominant force, and sport allowed him to find that with Real Madrid in the 1950s. The introduction of the European Cup in 1955 brought with it a dominant streak for Los Blancos, as Alfredo Di Stéfano led Real to an amazing five consecutive titles in the competition. With a slick image and an unstoppable record in Europe, they became the ideal side for Franco’s Spain. As the years went on, Atlético would find it tough to keep up with their city neighbours, as well as Barcelona.
One LaLiga crown and two Copa del Rey titles would arrive in the comparatively lean 1960s, as well as their first true run at the European Cup. If not for Gerd Müller, Franz Beckenbauer and a supremely talented Bayern Munich side, Atlético could have been champions of Europe in May of 1974. Spain after the death of General Franco was never the same, and Los Colchoneros entered a brave new world.
Talent is once again abundant for the club and manager Diego Simeone. Antoine Griezmann, Diego Godin and Koke lead the way, and expectations are high for the 2018-19 season. Real may have thwarted them in two previous European finals, but perhaps their UEFA Super Cup win is a sign that times are changing in the capital. Their magnificent new stadium is the scene, and Atlético have their sights set on silverware.
Atlético Madrid are a side with tremendous history and passionate supporters. They have established themselves as one of the elite clubs in Spain. Their name has seen some unique changes and, ironically, that was a period that ultimately brought their first taste of success.