Can Atletico thrive in a stadium called Wanda?

Date published: Wednesday 20th September 2017 12:00

A bold new era for Atlético Madrid began on Saturday, as they finally raised the curtain on their new stadium after bidding farewell to the Estadio Vicente Calderón at the end of last season.

The move to the majestic new 68,000-seater Wanda Metropolitano is intended to be a demonstration of a club on the rise, and a statement that Atlético are here to stay at the top table of Spanish and European football.

In reality, though, the move presents a whole new set of challenges which they will need to overcome if they are to maintain or surpass their current status.

Firstly, and most obviously, there are significant financial challenges. The stadium reportedly cost them north of €300m, and although some of the funding has come from the sale of the Calderón, they have still had to borrow heavily to complete the work.

As Arsenal found out when they moved to the Emirates, and as Tottenham are finding out now, upsizing your home is accompanied by a prolonged period of belt-tightening.

This means that holding onto their key players, and turning a profit on expendable squad members, is now imperative.

At first glance, it seemed they had scored a major coup in persuading Antoine Griezmann to extend his contract in the summer. However, the suspicion is that the new deal was merely a mutually convenient agreement to prevent the Frenchman leaving while the club was subject to a transfer ban, and that they will let him leave at the end of the season.

Tellingly, Griezmann’s new deal did not increase his release clause, so anyone could theoretically snap him up for €100m, which is an absolute bargain for a player of his quality in the current climate.

It looks more and more likely that Diego Costa will return to Atleti in January, once the club’s transfer ban and the player’s lengthy Brazilian holiday come to an end. The €60m fee may seem excessive when Atlético need to keep a lid on their spending, but Costa will still only be 29, and will surely score a shedload of goals when he’s back in his happy place. Selling Griezmann for €100m and signing Costa for €60m will most likely turn out to be a good piece of business.

Even if Griezmann doesn’t stick around, at least Koke and Saúl Ñíguez look like they are in it for the long haul, as they both signed new terms this summer for seven and nine (nine!) years respectively.

But the most important contract extension by far was that of manager Diego Simeone, who has now signed on until 2020. His deal had been due to expire at the end of the current season, and he was heavily linked with a move to Inter Milan. In this period of transition it was absolutely essential that Atlético kept El Cholo’s steady hand at the tiller.

This is a club made entirely in Simeone’s own image, and is renowned for defensive solidity and fighting spirit. If a new manager was to come in and change this doctrine, it could have had disastrous consequences at a time when Champions League qualification is absolutely essential from a financial point of view.

But aside from the monetary impact of the move, there are also challenges to the very identity of the club. Moving from the Calderón, a bowl-like stadium in the city centre famous for its electric atmosphere, to a modern stadium ten miles away on the outskirts of the city, has put a physical barrier between the club and its heartlands.

There has not been a great deal of fan resistance to the move – in fact they have sold nearly 50,000 season tickets – but it may take a while before the notoriously boisterous colchoneros are able to recreate their famous atmosphere in the new ground and make it feel like home (just ask West Ham fans).

The club have taken great care to make it feel like home as much as they possibly can, by decorating the concourse walls with pictures of the heroes of yesteryear and lighting up the roof in red and white. The name of the stadium itself is a nod to Atleti’s history, as Metropolitano was the name of their ground before they moved to the Calderón. This is a good start, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and it will take years, perhaps decades, for the fans to fully adjust.

Before Saturday’s match, a ceremonial kick-off took place (as is tradition in some important games in Spain). It involved three players – club legend José Eulogio Gárate, who passed the ball to current star Fernando Torres, who in turn passed to an up-and-coming youth team player. This was the old Atlético passing the baton on to the new – a club paying tribute to its proud history while holding high hopes for a bright future.

Now all the ceremony and fanfare has passed, attention turns to their performances on the pitch. They have made a decent start to life at the Wanda Metropolitano, with Griezmann bagging the only goal in an unremarkable 1-0 win against Málaga. But the need to keep their fans happy and maintain their Champions League status means they will have no time to bed in – they have to make their new home a fortress without delay.

Dan Bridges

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