It was a Madrid derby at the Vicente Calderon and once again Real Madrid took an early lead. We always tried to prevent it, but they always took the lead. An Atletico teammate was tackling aggressively; he really wanted to win and was smashing into their forwards, Guti and Raul.
In their place I would have been very angry or started to fight, but they kept their cool until Raul went down to a heavy tackle. He lay on the floor, one of Madrid’s legendary players. I watched as he looked up, and, very slowly, said to my teammate: “Are you going to kick me all day or are you going to try and play some football?”
Brilliant. No anger, no arrogance, just class.
The latest Madrid derby, one of the greatest games in football, takes place tomorrow at the Calderon. Such is the passion of the Atletico support, it is more like a South American derby than a European one.
The stadium is mostly uncovered, but the fans are loud and they show it in their biggest game, against Real Madrid. When you arrive at the stadium on the team bus, it takes 20 minutes to get through the crowds instead of the usual minute as the police pushed crowds back.
Atletico fans were always so desperate for us to win; it was like a religion to them. I wanted to reward them for their passion and loyalty. But sadly, I played in teams which were outplayed by Madrid.
Teams which drew and teams which were very unlucky, but despite our top players, we couldn’t beat them. That has altered under Diego Simeone, but the mentality began to change in our day.
Everyone said Atletico had the players to be a good team, but not a great one. We had Sergio Aguero, David de Gea, Simao and Jose Antonio Reyes but we had to be 100 per cent perfect to win. If we were only 99 per cent, we’d lose.
There was too much negativity in the psyche of the supporters and that fed into the players. We’d get a good away win and then the fans were convinced that we’d lose an easy home game a few days later because that’s what Atletico did.
And that’s what happened; we did lose because some players believed the fatalism, were used to failure. I tried to be positive, tried to help change the mentality and we won trophies.
We didn’t care about the “pupas” thing – the Spanish term used to explain that Atletico were destined to lose – or what the journalists said. Our generation in 2010 broke the mystique and the club became more stable.
Atletico always had to sell good players, but they started to find replacements of equal ability. In 2011, for example, Falcao replaced me, Thibaut Courtois replaced David de Gea.
But the Atletico I played for couldn’t win against Madrid. My first league game for Atletico after signing in 2007 was a Madrid derby. We lost 2-1, their winner coming in the 80th minute. It seemed to set a trend, but I loved going to the Bernabeu as an Atletico player. Our team bus was hurried by police into a back entrance, we didn’t want to hang around where we were not popular, but I like away grounds where nobody likes you.
In 2009, I scored in the Bernabeu and we went ahead. Kun Aguero set me up and I shot past Iker Casillas. The silence was beautiful, 80,000 people all hated me at that moment. I looked up to the top of the stand to see a few hundred Atleti fans going crazy.
To score is always special, to score in the Bernabeu for Atletico is incredible. We played well, then they had one chance and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scored. He was offside. You needed to play at three times your normal level to beat Real Madrid. And then hope for the best.
There was a huge rivalry between the fans and Atletico fans always let us know how they felt. They’d even turn up to the training ground if they weren’t happy, another South American trait.
I respected their right to talk to us, but I also explained that we always wanted to win but couldn’t win every game.
The rival players actually got on well. I’d played with David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy at Manchester United and knew them, but the fan rivalry was different.
I’m happy that Atletico supporters are now seeing their team beat Madrid regularly and it’s amazing what they’ve done under Simeone. The team I played for didn’t come close to being considered title contenders, but now they are champions.
They did what many thought impossible and broke the Barcelona-Madrid dominance. Every Atletico fan I’ve met – and I meet them all over the world – has been happy to tell me about their new team when I’ve met them. I just wish I could have savoured beating Madrid in an Atletico shirt.
Follow us at our new home on Twitter @NatSportUAE