I was first introduced to Club Atlético de Madrid while speeding along the winding, uneven and narrow streets of Madrid's La Latina district, perched precariously upon the back of a small motorcycle belonging to a maniacal Spaniard.
He was a family friend, an entrepreneur and a self-proclaimed aristocrat whose father was friends with Salvadore Dali. He used to race motorcycles semi-professionally throughout Europe, and after endless waves of cañas y tapas at a trendy establishment outside of Plaza Mayor one evening in late February 2008, he decided, without consultation, to deliver me in person to the beautiful Estadio Vicente Calderón, where the second most famous soccer club in Madrid teetered on the precipice of an historic evening.
Hair on fire, illuminating the night, we flew down Calle Toledo through heavy traffic. I held on to my friend for dear life, panicked, too young to die, I thought. I wore a borrowed helmet far too big for my own head and my left eye was black, blue, and nearly swollen shut from a chance basketball court encounter with the elbow of a friend from school just days prior (which only further enhanced the terrifying experience, as seeing out of just one eye wasn't great for my sense of balance). Swerving on to Paseo Pontes towards the stadium, my daredevil friend -- some 20 years my elder -- slalomed dangerously in and out of traffic, erratically jumping on to cobblestone side streets to avoid bottlenecks. As local fans in jerseys and scarves began pouring out of restaurants and bars and into the streets, the bright stadium lights emanating from the Calderón began rising ever-higher in the distance.
Without warning, we turned left at Mach 3 on to Paseo de los Melancólicos, the road running directly alongside the 54,000-person capacity theater. The Calderón stood hovering over us like a waking giant as we flew past a large group of frightened Madrilenians and then through a small roadblock, where a confused police officer stood, gesticulating wildly to no avail for us to stop or slow down.
Finally, we came to an unceremonious rest at a small entrance outside the stadium, where an aggressive looking security guard stood glaring in front of an open door cordoned off with velvet rope. A quick slap of the hand and Mad Max was gone, flying off into the Spanish night on his motorcycle of death as I fumbled around for my cell phone. Another friend of mine, a recent graduate with a flair for languages, had just started a marketing internship with Atlético and had invited me all the way across the pond to see Los Rojiblancos -- as they are affectionately known -- square off against English Premier League minnows Bolton in the second leg of a UEFA Cup tie.
Standing outside of the fever-pitched stadium; anxiety weighed down the air. The type only known to fans who are more accustomed to disappointment than success. In relative darkness, with the lights of the stadium tucked behind the Caderón's façade, a soft sea of footsteps and nervous chatter from deep within the concrete giant seemed to seep out of the stadium's cracks, spilling out on to the streets and parking lots below. A whisper, perhaps, foreshadowing the madness soon to come.
Having found my friend and now properly credentialed, I made my way past the rugged security guard, in to the entrance for players/selected staff and up a winding staircase adorned with imagery. At the top of the staircase hung a life-sized photo of Francisco Torres, a local hero nicknamed "El Niño" who had left Atlético -- his childhood club -- the previous summer in a $30+ million deal with Liverpool.
Past El Niño and through the entrance at the top of the stairs, we made our way in to the Director's Box, a regal, well-lighted place rife with designer suits and decorative cuisine. A place where my matted helmet hair and black eye felt especially unbecoming. Peering out over the perfectly manicured pitch, I made my way through the Court where, in the center of the room, sat a king.
It was Diego Armando Maradona. Arguably the greatest athlete in the history of the world's most popular sport, the football legend was mere feet away, sitting supreme at a two-top table next to his future son-in-law, wearing a black sweater, sipping on a nondescript beverage and picking at a plate of tapas. He was neither the fit-as-you-like world beater of the 1986 World Cup, nor the obese man I had seen photographs of only a few years prior. He was instead a normal-looking fellow in his late 40s with a bright smile, jet black hair and an approachable demeanor. Despite owing Italian tax authorities over $50 million dollars at the time, he was wearing a diamond encrusted Rolex watch -- it might as well have been the size of Luxembourg.
Realizing my incredulity, and possibly embarrassed, my friend quickly ushered me to the table, casually introducing me in Spanish.
The future son-in-law, Sergio Aguero, a prolific soccer player in his own right, who had been banned from the evening's match after being sent off for spitting at an opposing player during the first leg of the two-match series just a week prior, reached out to shake my hand and smiled cordially without saying anything. Maradona then reached out as well, in a friendly, but cautious manner, staring suspiciously, I was certain, at my swollen eye.
With a smile, he spoke.
(I should mention that I speak almost no Spanish. So naturally, standing there, shaking the hand of god, I was lost.)
"Who are you rooting for?" said someone nearby, politely translating.
Relieved, I responded, "Atlético." Although in truth, I didn't care who won.
I was just happy to be there.