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A complete history of the Madrid derby

From origins to nicknames to famous turncoats, everything you could want to know about the Madrid derby is here.

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Real Madrid v Atletico de Madrid - 2019 International Champions Cup Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images

Sunday night’s derby between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid will be the 165th league meeting between the two sides since the foundation of LaLiga in 1929. Overall, there have been over 200 matches between the pair, stretching all the way back to 1905.

It’s a rivalry that, in its day, overshadowed El Clasico and provided both clubs with thrills, heartaches, nicknames and more than a handful of club legends who started out for the opposite side. Having suffered a lull from the mid-1990s to 2013, El Derbi Madridelino has returned to its former glory as one of Europe’s premier fixtures thanks to the efforts of Diego Simeone. In tribute to the fixture’s continued revival, here is the story of the Madrid derby so far.


The origins of the Madrid derby and Atletico Madrid itself go back to a Copa del Rey final in the Spanish capital. The victors, Athletic Bilbao, were greatly unimpressed by the treatment of their fans in the Spanish capital and set-up Athletic Club de Madrid as a homesick club for the Basques of Madrid. Around the same time, Real Madrid (then Madrid CF) were establishing themselves as the sole football club in Madrid absorbing their smaller rivals as they went. Thanks to its relation to one of Spanish football’s superpowers, Madrid CF couldn’t merge with Athletic Club de Madrid like it had to preceding rivals, providing the Whites with their first real challenge for power in the city.

The early iteration of Atleti was very Basque, however, the team began to form their own identity when several dissident members of Madrid CF joined in 1905, helping to write the club’s charter the same year. In February, the two sides met for the first time. The game finished 1-1, a familiar scoreline to modern fans. Following that first meeting, Real dominated the early exchanges and the headlines as a result, however, that didn’t stop a heated rivalry evolving. In 1916, the two sides met in the Madrid regional championship final. The match was called off at 3-1 to Real when the fans started brawling in the stands.

Picture taken in the mid ‘30s of Spanish goalkeepe
Ricardo Zamora
Photo credit should read STAFF/AFP/Getty Images

They would compete three more regional finals before the foundation of LaLiga in 1929, Atletico winning two of them. The first league derby was in February 1929, Los Blancos triumphing 2-1 as they reeled in the honours during the pre-war years, winning their first two league titles and a Spanish cup while Atleti battled with relegation.

Post Civil War

The tables would turn following the civil war. Both teams suffered hugely due to the war. Real Madrid’s Charmatin was in ruins while Atleti lost eight starters to the fighting.

Football had been suspended in the capital following the 1936 Copa del Rey final and returned in October 1939. Atletico Madrid had been relegated before the war, but thanks to the toll the fighting took on Real Oviedo’s home ground, they were given a place in the first division for the new season. They also started that campaign with a different name after merging with Francisco Gonzalez’s air force team due to debt. The air force had approached Real about a possible merger but the club refused as they didn’t want to change name or club badge.

Atletico Madrid post Civil War squad
Atletico Madrid website

The newly christened Atletico Aviación de Madrid had the pick of the best players from the military, facilities and access to military vehicles. Although their new found resources helped, winning the first two post war titles under Ricardo Zamora was considered a surprise. Atleti would eventually drop the “Aviación” prefix and became Atletico Madrid in 1947.

Real floundered in the 1940s not helped by a strategic denial to ground share by Atleti while the Chamartin was being rebuilt. Even with the arrival Santiago Bernabeu in 1948, Los Blancos remained well behind their city rivals as they closed the decade with another two league titles and their biggest win over Real to date, a 5-0 hammering during the 1947-48 season.

Bigger than El Clasico

As any Madridista knows, Real Madrid’s fortunes took a remarkable turn with the arrival of Alfedo Di Stefano. The Argentine made Real a trophy winning machine and a more than a worthy challenge for their city rivals. From Di Stefano’s landing in Madrid in 1956 to the end of the 1970s, the Madrid derby enjoyed a golden age as one of Spain and Europe’s premier fixtures, similar to the prestige El Clasico has recently enjoyed.

Many fans and players from this era, to this day, acknowledge the Madrid derby as Real’s biggest game (Florentino Perez being one of them) . Ferenc Puskas described Atleti as “our great rivals” in 1959 while Paco Gento said Atleti were “the most difficult side they had to play.” Looking at the history books its easy to see where this perception of the derby comes from.

Ferenc Puskas
Puskas called Atletico Madrid “great rivals” after the 1959 European semi-finals
Photo by Robert Stiggins/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Between 1951-56, Atleti were league runner-ups four times. In 1959, the Madrid rivals faced each other in the European Cup semi-finals, Atleti won the first leg at home 1-0 and lost 2-1 in the Bernabeu resulting in a replay which Real won, prompting Puskas’s aforementioned quote. In 1960, both Madrid teams met in a Copa del Rey final for the first time. Atletico Madrid managed to upset the odds by winning their first Copa del Rey, triumphing 3-1 in the final and denying Madrid a European treble. The Mattress makers would deny Real a first double the following year, retaining the Copa with a 3-2 victory in the second successive derby final.

The 1960s were firmly Real Madrid’s as they won eight league titles in 10 years, however, it was Atletico Madrid who snatched the other two, notably ending Real’s five in a row in 1966.

Vikings and Indians

Eight league titles were shared between the two during the 1970s (six for Real, two for Atleti) as well as a another Copa del Rey final in 1980. This one was played in the Vicente Calderon, but Madrid couldn’t spoil the party like Atleti had done in the past, the home side winning the cup on penalties.

Soccer player Paul Beitner
Paul Breitner was among the Nordic signings that earned Real Madrid their Viking nickname

Perhaps the lasting legacy of the 1970s will be nicknames. Real Madrid were originally nicknamed Los Vikingos (The Vikings) by the British press in the 1950s, but Atleti fans popularised the nickname in the 1970s using it in reference to the number of tall, blonde Nordic players that populated Madrid’s team squad during the decade. In response, Madridistas began referring to their rivals as Los Indios (The Indians) due to several rumoured reasons. The first being because Atleti’s squad was largely made up of South Americans at the time, they camped on a river (the Vicente Calderón is next to the river Manzanares), they follow white men and their chief was a crazy horse (referring to Jesus Gil).


The 1980s provides a chance to discuss players who have crossed the derby divide. Two of Real Madrid’s Quinta del Buitre squad had, or nearly had, played for Atletico Madrid. Hugo Sanchez who won a Pichichi and a Copa del Rey with Los Rojiblancos before moving to Madrid in 1985. Emilio Butragueño came close to playing in red and white stripes and had his Real Madrid socio father to thank for not switching to the Calderon, as he secured his son one last trial to play for the club.

Luis Aragones was one of Atletico Madrid’s best managers.
Photo by Paul Marriott/EMPICS via Getty Images

There are many other famous examples including Raul, whose family were die hard Atletico supporters before Jesus Gil shut down the club’s youth academy, forcing Raul to switch to white. That same youth academy produced another famous seven for Madrid, Juanito, however he never debuted for Los Rojiblancos and always had his eyes set on playing for Real. Examples of Real Madrid personalities crossing the divide are far less common but no less successful. José Villalonga, who won two European Cups at Real Madrid also led Atleti to that famous Copa del Rey win in 1960 while Luis Aragones probably remains the most notorious Real product to make his name with Atleti, winning 12 trophies as a player and manager after leaving the Bernabeu in 1960.

A derby revived

The 1990s and 2000s were a dark time for the Madrid derby. Following their 1992 Copa del Rey win over Real and their double in 1995, Atletico Madrid collapsed into a pit of administrative havoc and were relegated at the dawn of the new millennium. Alongside the relegation, a 23-match unbeaten streak in the derby for Real Madrid, though enjoyable for Blancos fans, effectively killed the rivalry up until recently.

Thanks to Diego Simeone’s influence across town, the Madrid derby has returned to the heights it once enjoyed in the 1960s. Given how much history this rivalry has provided both club’s, it still surprises me that the Madrid derby is such a lowkey fixture. Perhaps the 1990s and 2000s did more damage than we thought or perhaps El Clasico has become such a notorious rivalry that for Real Madrid that it has robbed from their other grudge matches.

Regardless, it is nice to have such a historic fixture back at its very best and both sides will be hoping for more history on Sunday.

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