MADRID (AP) — For Spain's working class, caught in what feels like never-ending economic recession, Atletico Madrid's stunning season offers an uplifting example of beating the odds, with the Spanish title and Champions League final both within reach.
The club rooted in blue-collar Madrid is looking down on rich neighbor Real Madrid and defending champion Barcelona from atop the Spanish league standings for the first time in 18 years. It beat Valencia 1-0 on Sunday to take a six point lead on Real Madrid.
If Atletico can win two of its last three games, it will be champion for the first time since 1996. Spain was a more optimistic place the last time it lifted the league trophy, with an economy heading for boom times before the more recent bust and now record unemployment.
Part of Atletico's appeal is that it has achieved so much with a squad worth a fraction of Madrid and Barcelona's collections of more famous stars. Neutrals across the country are in Atletico's corner, hopeful that Diego Simeone's team can break the monotony of a duopoly that has strangled the Spanish league since Valencia won 10 years ago.
"This is Atletico Madrid and that's what we're about: work, work, work, heart. We never give up," Simeone said during the Champions League quarterfinal series triumph over Barcelona. "The people of Atletico Madrid are no doubt proud of how we have competed."
Atletico and "the people" are intertwined, with the club's Vicente Calderon Stadium built over an unattractive highway in the middle of the industrial but revitalizing Arguanzela neighborhood, south of the Spanish capital's world-renowned museums and tourist attractions.
"It's the working man's team," Atletico captain Gabi Fernandez said in a magazine interview. "We're changing the story through our commitment to giving people what they want: A team they can feel proud of, that win or lose they'll say, 'Damn, this is my Atletico.'"
Atletico was founded in 1903 by Basque students setting up a Madrid branch of the Athletic Bilbao club. Its standout qualities of passion, hard work and self-belief have over the years been canceled out by dramatic collapses, disorganization and disappointment.
Names such as Luis Aragones, Hugo Sanchez, Fernando Torres, Christian Vieri and Diego Forlan made their marks on the club. But so, too, did construction magnate Jesus Gil, the former president who was embroiled in embezzlement charges and jailed after one of his buildings collapsed, killing 58 people.
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