THE BLOG
05/07/2014 12:21 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2014

Madrid Is the Current Capital of the Soccer World: But It Is a Most Divided One

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Co-authored by Jennifer Herstein

The sports world will witness a unique event on Saturday, May 24 when Real Madrid will be confronting Atlético de Madrid in Lisbon to decide the 2014 European club champion, arguably the most pedigreed and coveted title in the world of club soccer and the sport's annual equivalent of the Super Bowl. While teams from the same country have opposed each other four times in the 58-year history of this competition -- Spain included, when in 2000 Real Madrid defeated FC Valencia -- never before have teams from the same city contested this massive game.

Yet, despite the geographic proximity that these two clubs share with only the Manzanares River dividing them with Real's home ground to its north and Atlético's to its south; the soccer-related gap between these two clubs could not be greater. Real is soccer royalty playing for its tenth European title having been victorious in nine of the eleven finals that the club contested. In contrast, Atlético is a soccer upstart that only appeared in one European championship final in the 1970s which it lost. Thus, for Atlético winning its until-recently unthinkable "Primera" has equal weight to Real's finally attaining its long-coveted "Decima". Additionally, in every other imaginable soccer metric well beyond European championship -- Spanish league championships, cup victories, pedigree of players -- Real surpasses Atlético by many dimensions.

But it is in the off-the-field areas that the differences are greater still. On virtually all measures -- cultural, social, symbolic, historical -- the gap between these two clubs could not be greater. Real's regal existence reaches well beyond its singularly impressive feats on the top level of European soccer. It is embodied in the club's name as well as in the royal crown that graces its shield.

A look inside the museums of the two Madrid clubs vividly illustrates the differences in how the two teams present and contextualize their histories and traditions. From the moment visitors begin Real Madrid's stadium and museum tour, they are invited to step into a trophy room designated on their pamphlet as "the Best Club in the World Room." Even without looking at the room itself, it is telling of the club's regal and prideful stature that it would place such a title on its official material. Indeed, the room itself is nothing short of spectacular. It is a long, relatively narrow space that seems to stretch on forever -- highlighting the sheer number of trophies in the cabinets. Subsequent rooms underscore the achievements of Real Madrid's basketball team and its legendary players from Alfredo di Stéfano to Raúl and Cristiano Ronaldo, with emphasis always on those accomplishments that are unparalleled by other teams or players. Yet all these sections of the museum are mere anterooms to the largest, brightest, and most prominent room where Real Madrid's nine Champions League trophies are displayed. Written on the wall near the trophies is a paragraph beginning "The European Cup would be meaningless without Real Madrid." The message here is clear. Not only does the club wish to portray itself as successful, but as so integral to the history of football that the sport itself would be lacking if it were not for the club's existence and achievements. Overall, the museum has a singular focus: that there is no better team on earth than Real Madrid. This also coincides with Forbes magazine's recent assessment of Real's being the most valued sports entity in the world having surpassed long-time leader Manchester United, as well as the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys.

Atlético de Madrid's museum also contains the teams' trophies and highlights videos of great moments in club history. Yet the tone of the tour is strikingly different. Among the rooms at Atleti's museum are the "art-leti" zone, celebrating singers, artists, and celebrities who are supporters of the club; sound booths where fans can learn their team's chants; and areas where fans can watch old club advertisements. Most unique to the Altético de Madrid experience, however, is the "production zone," which focuses on the "hard work and heart" of the city's people. Here visitors can experience an old Madrid shoe shop or view rooms of Atleti's former stadium. The production zone invokes the toils of the working class, and clearly identifies the club with people of this social background. From the emphasis on fan participation to the clubs' emphasis on the working class, Atlético de Madrid, in direct contrast to the regal and noble Real Madrid, portrays itself as the team of the people.

While these museums are carefully designed to provide a particular image of each club, the fans behave in ways that are remarkably similar to these depictions. Atlético's small and intimate venue, the Vicente Calderón, is filled with the echoes of adoring fans full of pride, boisterousness, and "colorful" language. Real Madrid's fans, on the other hand, live up to the team's regal name. The fans are subdued in the venerable Estadio Santiago Bernabeu and murmur grumbles of disapproval when the team fails to live up to its expectations as champions. Their official club song is met not with the boisterous singing of Atleti's fans, but its operatic strains command a quiet gravitas where shouting would reduce the noble club's authenticity and quality.

Jennifer Herstein was just graduated with honors from the University of Michigan's Department of Political Science where she wrote a thesis on the clashing worlds of Real Madrid and Atletico de Madrid under the guidance of Andrei S. Markovits whose latest book is 'SPORTISTA: Female Fandom in the United States' (Temple University Press, 2012) co-authored with Emily Albertson.