The road leading to the Wanda Metropolitano from Coslada Central train station is decorated with plaques. Each one is dedicated to any player who has made 100 or more appearances for Atletico Madrid, from Fernando Torres to Diego Simeone, Kiko to Luis Aragones. It was inevitable that their current hero Antoine Griezmann would have his say on Atletico’s big day. The French forward scored the only goal in a 1-0 victory over Malaga in the first match participated at the Wanda – Atletico’s new residency.
Unless a club’s ground is fraught with disappointing memories, moving to a new stadium usually ends up proving a traumatic affair – at least initially. Memories forged in the old home fade and fresh surroundings take time to match up to the predecessor.
Despite the improved facilities and near 50 percent increase in seats, the Emirates stadium has never truly felt like home for Arsenal. That is largely due to years of regression under Arsene Wenger, but the early years in North London are mostly recalled for the players who departed the club to pay for the stadium rather than any trophies won because of it.
West Ham suffered similar teething problems in the Olympic Stadium over the last twelve months after leaving the ground formerly known as Upton Park. The move to plusher confines was supposed to parachute the Hammers to another level, but the first season at their new home was mostly newsworthy for the frequent outbreaks of crowd trouble, the inconvenience of the location and the distance of the stands from the pitch.
A regular point you hear is of the time it takes for a stadium to ‘find its voice’. Irish supporters of a certain vintage make reference to noise generated at Lansdowne Road which made it such an intimidating place for visiting teams during the 1980s and 1990s. The atmosphere at the modernised and redeveloped Lansdowne/Aviva Stadium paled in comparison to the old ground, but in the ultimately successful qualifying campaign for Euro 2016, Lansdowne regained its roar.
The atmosphere at a ground is normally a bi-product of the football played and results earned by the team on the pitch, so it’s little wonder Irish fans weren’t enthralled by the regressive, soulless style produced under Giovanni Trapattoni or that Arsenal supporters are growing ever more frustrated with years of stagnation under Wenger.
Juventus offer the template for stadium transitions. After years in the wilderness following the Calciopoli scandal, the Bianconeri stormed to the Scudetto in 2012 under Antonio Conte. They’ve proceeded to reestablish themselves as perennial European contenders and have won the last six Serie A titles. Juve supporters’ intense loathing for their previous home – the Stadio Delle Alpi – played a large part in the expedited adaptation process. Finally able to reap the benefits – both financial and emotional – of a full stadium every week, Juve have a distinct advantage over their rivals, none of whom own their own stadium.
From a purely economic standpoint, a club’s stadium provides a critical revenue stream. The Emirates might not have retained Highbury’s atmosphere, but the increased corporate sections, bars and restaurants ensure they can compete with almost any club in Europe financially – even if they haven’t quite managed to translate that into the success craved.
Twelve years after it was first proposed, Atletico embarked on the latest chapter in their history as the Wanda Metropolitano opened on Saturday. The 68,000 capacity arena was originally built for the World Athletic Championships in 1997, but lay dormant for over a decade. Atletico eventually took ownership from the city council and made plans to leave their traditional home.
Although they enjoyed much success at the Calderon throughout 51 years there, it was decrepit and dishevelled, crumbling at the seams. There was a sense that as well as being their biggest strength it was also preventing them from progressing.
Throughout the late 1990s up until Diego Simeone returned to the club as a manager, there was a fatalism which defined them. Going back further than that, Atletico have always been the poorer relation of their Galactico neighbours. Steeped in misery for much of the 21st century, Simeone rejuvenated the club and they began to revel in their underdog status. Still, the elusive European Cup has yet to arrive and they’ve watched enviously as Real stack them up, usually at their expense.
Even though Simeone has chipped away at the metaphorical glass ceiling and positioned Atletico as one of the top five or six teams on the continent, there was always a limit to how much could be achieved in a relic such as the Calderon. The Argentine coach is frequently mentioned in the conversation for jobs at Europe’s elite clubs under the premise that Atletico couldn’t match his ambitions. The Wanda doesn’t immediately solve that issue, but it does take the first tentative steps towards keeping pace with the powerhouses in Barcelona, Madrid, Munich and the Premier League. La Liga’s grossly disproportionate television deal still counts against them, but there is hope of that changing in the future.
The club have backed up their ambitious move to a new home by keeping all of their important players and tying many of them down to lengthy contracts. And – most importantly – Simeone has agreed an extension until 2020. Given that they were slapped with a transfer ban preventing them from signing players until January, it was essential they did so. It will take Atletico’s board seven or eight years (based on rough early financial reports) to pay off the €170 million stadium redevelopment debt, but it is a necessary step to ensure a prosperous future.
It’s difficult not to come away impressed from the Wanda. The stands are steep and sizeable, the exterior is filled with luminous panels similar to the ones found at the Allianz Arena. As Atletico’s chief executive put it, it’s “pretty” on the outside and on the inside “it’s the business.”
The board hope to host the 2019 Champions League final and some Atleti supporters have already self-depreciatingly joked about losing to Real once more, this time in their own place. The fact that they can even dream of another European Cup showpiece and also host it gives an indication of why this move is more than symbolic.