Atletico Mineiro's long and winding road to the Club World Cup

Posted by James Young

Atletico Mineiro celebrate their triumphGettyImagesAtletico Mineiro celebrate their Copa Libertadores triumph.

The man in the black and white striped football shirt at Rio de Janeiro airport is insistent. "Atletico Mineiro? Clube Atletico Mineiro?" he shouts, glaring at the young Italian couple in front of him.

"Mineiro? Sorry," says the boy, "I don't know them."

The man is undaunted. "Galo?" he asks ("rooster" -- the club's nickname). The Italians shake their heads sadly. Suddenly, inspiration strikes.

"Ronaldinho?" the man cries.

"Ah yes! Ronaldinho! Ronaldinho! Yes!" say the Italians, grinning with relief.

Another group of fans wander past on their way to check-in. "Galo!" they shout, spying the man's shirt.

"Galo!" shouts the man.

The Italian couple look bemused.

Many hours later, the same devotee is slumped groggily on the back seat of the transfer bus at Rome airport. It is very early in the morning and decidedly nippy.

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The soft, hoarse singing comes from the front of the bus. "E para Marrocos que eu vou, O Mundial eu vou vencer" (roughly translated as "we're going to Morocco to win the Club World Cup").

The man's eyes light up. Groggy no more, he jumps to his feet and sings along, and soon there are 20 or so fans doing the same.

The Italians on the bus roll their eyes.

Such uncommon scenes have been repeated in cities across Europe, from Lisbon to London, over the last few days -- anywhere where there are connecting flights to Marrakesh to be had. Atletico Mineiro are playing in the Club World Cup for the first time in the club's history, and it is safe to say the club's fans are excited at the prospect. There were 5,000 at the airport in Belo Horizonte to see the team off last week, and although official figures are hard to come by, there are rumours that around 15,000 Atleticanos have travelled to Morocco for the tournament, so often unloved by its European contestants.

A lack of affection for the competition is hardly a problem in South America, however, where enormous Mundial de Clubes pilgrimages are not unusual -- there were said to be 20,000 or more Corinthians fans in Japan last December to see their team defeat Chelsea. The Club World Cup is arguably the high point of the region's football calendar, not just because of the prize of being, officially speaking at least, "the Best (Club) Team in the World", but also because of the chance to view the European big boys.

A faint whiff of resentment continues to run subconsciously through the South American psyche at the perceived wrongs done to the continent by European powers, from the ills of colonialism to, in more recent decades, the snaffling of the region's best footballers. In this sense, the Club World Cup is seen as a chance to stick a friendly two fingers up at richer, more powerful foes.

Ronaldinho wrote his name into the record books again with another career title.
GettyImagesRonaldinho could be the key man for Atletico Mineiro.

Atletico have more reason than most to feel chippy. Before last July's Libertadores triumph against Olimpia of Paraguay, the team from Belo Horizonte went more than 40 years without winning a major trophy, even plummeting into Serie B in 2005. Not even relegation, however, represented the club's recent nadir. That came two years ago, when, in the final game of the 2011 Brasileirao season, knowing a derby win over city rivals Cruzeiro could condemn their hated city rivals to the drop, Atletico managed to lose the classico 6-1. The scars of that day took a long time to heal.

The recovery process was given a fillip in 2012 when Atletico took a punt on a seemingly disillusioned Ronaldinho, out of sorts and out of contract after an unhappy spell at Flamengo. Since then, R10, reborn and reinvented as a sublime central midfielder schemer, has never looked back.

His signing was a key step in a process that has seen Atletico seek to transform itself from beloved but ultimately doomed local heroes in the style of a Manchester City (prior to that club's even more dramatic reinvention) or Newcastle United into, Galo fans hope, consistent major players on a national and continental scale.

The buccaneering Libertadores campaign, when Atletico produced a heady cocktail of last minute heroics and stirring fight backs to lift the trophy was, until now, the culmination of the club's rebirth. Throughout the campaign Galo looked sickly on the road but robust, even fated, in front of their rowdy fans at the Independencia stadium.

With all due respect to Monterrey, then, perhaps it is fitting that Wednesday night's opponents will be reigning Moroccan champions Raja Casablanca, who surprisingly eliminated the Mexican side in the previous round. The duelling banjos contest between the hordes of Raja fans and the visiting Brazilian legions is sure to produce an ear-bursting din.

"It's a perfect match," said one fan, Daniel de Souza, in an upscale Marrakesh bar, where the DJ cheerfully interrupted the cheesy Euro trance with bursts of the Atletico club anthem to the delight of the raucous Brazilians who had taken over the dance floor. "The Raja Casablanca fans are as crazy as the Galo supporters."

Atletico, however, will need to be careful not to "pisar na bola" ("step on the ball") against the Moroccans, who have looked defensively fragile but fast and dangerous on the counter attack, particularly when captain Mohsine Moutaouali is in possession. It is, ironically enough, a description that could easily be applied to Galo under their attack-minded coach Cuca, who may be off to China to manage Shandong Luneng after the tournament.

If the opinion among the Atletico fans in Marrakesh on Tuesday night was that the team should have enough firepower to overcome Raja Casablanca, there was some debate over who the potential match winner might be. Some suggested Fernandinho, the vibrant winger who has made the black and white striped half of Belo Horizonte forget about the departed Bernard more quickly than could have been hoped, while others mentioned mercurial prodigal son Diego Tardelli, scorer of 73 goals in his first spell at the club between 2009 and 2011.

For most of the Galo fans wandering among the snack bars and snake charmers of a chilly Djemaa el-Fna square in Marrakesh on Tuesday night, however, it is Old Snake Hips himself, Ronaldinho, who represents the club's best chance of overcoming not just Raja Casablanca but also a formidable Bayern Munich side, keen to see its global brand emerge from the allegedly more sensuous shadows cast by two certain Spanish giants, that is unlikely to lack motivation in Saturday's final.

Whatever happens, the Atletico supporters are making the most of their eye-wateringly expensive away day. "I never imagined watching Galo in the Club World Cup," said Daniel. "Until this year even winning the league title would have been enough. But after the Libertadores, everything changed."

Belo Horizonte journalist Fred Melo Paiva went further. "No one deserves this more than these fans," he said in the same bar, watching a group of Atleticanos draping the club flag over the shoulders of some perplexed looking locals. "No one has suffered like Galo."

He, and the thousands of other Atletico fans who have swamped Marrakesh this week, are hoping that for now at least, the suffering is at an end.


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