There are some traditions in sports that, while aesthetically pleasing, aren’t really enjoyed by the players all that much. The handshake line in the NHL playoffs comes to mind. While we enjoy what we think of as the ultimate act of sportsmanship, talk to a lot of players privately and they’d tell you they could do without it. If you’re the losing team and you’ve just put your body through the ringer for six or seven games — not to mention any previous rounds — and you’re exhausted and beat up and in pain and completely dejected, there’s really nothing wrong with wanting to get the hell out of there ASAP. Though strange that when NBA players do the same at the end of a playoff series, just in a more unstructured fashion, some media and fans use it as an excuse to bellow, “DAT JUST PROVES DEY DON’T CARE ABOUT WINNING AND WANT TO JUST CASH DERE CHECKS AND HANG OUT WIT DERE BUDDIES ARGH ARGH ARGH!” Wonder how that works.
Soccer’s guard of honor is another. For the uninitiated, when a team clinches the league title before the end of the season, it is customary (though not universal) that in the games left on the schedule their opponents will form a guard of honor before the match and applaud them as the champions walk out onto the field. It looks cool, it gives fans of the champions a warm feeling inside (Man City having to do so for Liverpool in 2020 was one of the highlights of Liverpool’s triumph, even if City went on to batter Liverpool that match 5-0 because the Reds were still half-drunk. And “half” is probably being kind). But it’s probably another instance where if you got the players’ true opinion of it, they’d rather do without it. Still, tradition and pomp and all that.
Well, Atlético Madrid aren’t putting on any airs when it comes to their match with now-champions and crosstown rival Real Madrid when the latter roll up to the Wando Metropolitano on Sunday. Not only does Atlético have no plans to form a guard of honor, they’re firebombing the whole idea:
“Some people want to convert what started as a show of respect for the champion into a public toll to be paid by their opponents with the goal of humiliation,” read an Atlético Madrid statement.
“Atlético Madrid will not, under any circumstances, participate in this attempt at mocking in which the genuine ideals of sport are utterly disregarded.” It also creates rivalry and conflict among fans.”
“We’ve been in a few such circumstances in recent years after winning various trophies, including two league crowns, and on some times, the other side paid honor to our champions, while on other occasions, there was none.”
The Atlético statement then goes on to wail that no one gave them a guard of honor when they won the title last season, which ignores the fact that they won it on the last day of the season and when the new season rolls around, well, no one gives a guard of honor because no one is champion yet.
But the spraying to all fields and the thumb in the eye of tradition and respect is at the very heart of what Atlético Madrid are now. They are the zig to the soccer world’s zag, and it’s what makes them pretty wonderful. While the game has moved on to a faster, more attacking style, Atlético revel in defending and stopping things up. As fans turn more and more against diving, Atlético’s players hit the turf merely to get a reaction from their opponents and media alike. No one bitches to a ref more in the hopes of getting a call later. Every bit of an Atlético match is more about making everyone relive high school than it is about soccer.
So of course they’re not going to give their biggest and most hated rivals a guard of honor. If there’s one team on Earth that isn’t going to conform to anyone’s idea of tradition, it’s Atlético. They’ll not do it simply because they were asked to. It would go against everything they stand for. Pissing on people’s cereal is their raison d’etre. If Real Madrid think about it, Atlético’s kicking and screaming about it and decrying the very suggestion is actually, probably a bigger mark of respect than the guard of honor would have been in the first place.
To label Atlético’s words and deeds immature or unsportsmanlike or petulant, while correct on the surface, is to miss the point. Someone has to stand out and call bullshit on all of this, whether it’s actually bullshit or not. Someone has to stay true to their colors and never give an inch to those they detest, which in Atlético’s case is basically the entire world. Atlético is neither above or below the customs of the rest of the sport. They’re just apart from it, living in their own underground world and spitting at any convention from the outside. Every arena needs a rebel. And we should love them for it.