Atletico Madrid’s players ran through the stadium and out into the car park on May 22 to celebrate with fans they had not seen all season after their La Liga title was finally secured.
Three thousand supporters had gathered outside Jose Zorilla Stadium, cordoned off and surrounded by police.
They watched on their phones while Atletico fell behind to 19th-placed Real Valladolid, only to come back to claim a 2-1 win and the championship thanks to Luis Suarez’s 58th-minute winner.
Atletico’s goalkeeper Jan Oblak was hoisted onto shoulders and a scarf was draped round the neck of the 20-year-old Joao Felix.
Central defender Jose Gimenez formed a conga and long after the crowds had dispersed, left winger Yannick Carrasco returned to check on one fan who had been hurt and had to stay lying on the concrete.
Almost an hour earlier, the final whistle had blown to leave Atletico two points ahead of Real Madrid, whose last-gasp victory over Villarreal proved irrelevant
Some Atleti players piled onto each other and others fell to the ground with exhaustion and relief.
After being top since December and after almost throwing away a 10-point lead in February, the title was finally theirs.
Manager Diego Simeone said Atletico’s success was a triumph for strength in adversity and that, in a season when nothing was normal, his team had adapted better than the rest.
“It speaks of the club and the team being made of something different,” Simeone said.
Atletico again made it hard work against Valladolid, after a week earlier needing two goals in the last eight minutes, including another late winner from Luis Suarez, to beat Osasuna.
“Everyone tells you that suffering is part of Atletico’s identity,” Suarez said. “I didn’t think we’d suffer that much.”
And yet Atletico overcoming adversity has a wider context than these results.
This year is only the second in 17 that neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid have won the title, the other when Atletico last clinched the league in 2014.
It is the first time neither Madrid nor Barca have won either La Liga or the Champions League since 2004.
Simeone has never hidden from Atletico’s historic inferiority, instead revelling in it to cast his team as underdogs punching above their weight, without pressure and with the benefit only of hard work and belief.
More to come
Atletico spent €126 million ($154 million) on Felix in 2019 but since Simeone took over in 2011 their net spend on transfers has been around €50 million. Real Madrid’s amounts to more than €200 million and Barcelona’s close to €600 million.
Atletico’s revenue is half that of Real Madrid and Barca’s while their wage bill last season came in at €231 million, compared to Real Madrid’s €385 million and Barcelona’s €485 million.
When Simeone took over, Atletico were 10th. In the decade since, they have never finished outside the top three and after going 18 years without the title, they have now won it twice in seven.
And there could be more to come. Simeone linked his team’s success to unusual circumstances but celebrating does not have to be a one-off. Atletico should not have to wait another seven years for the next one.
Real Madrid and Barcelona could both start next season with new coaches and with a remit to overhaul squads seen as too old and too expensive.
At the same time glamorous signings are unlikely this summer as both clubs continue to suffer the dreadful financial consequences of the pandemic.
Atletico, meanwhile, have a settled team with a coach they can trust. They have adopted a more assertive style in La Liga, even if they were unable to find it in Europe.
They have elite players such as Jan Oblak, Jose Gimenez, Koke, Marcos Llorente and Suarez, who can all continue as the spine, even if it might be a risk to rely on the 34-year-old Suarez to deliver quite so dramatically again.
But with some astute additions, Atletico could next season ensure they are more than just an intervention when Barcelona and Real Madrid are below-par.
They can win it again, on their own terms, with the fans in the stands instead of the car park.