A baking hot afternoon in the Spanish capital, and the Plaza Mayor is a rhapsody in blue: the royal blue of Leicester City’s travelling support, and the dull dark blue of the Spanish police. Somebody smashes a bottle, and everybody cheers. A chant of “Ten German Bombers” goes up. A black street seller appears and is serenaded with chants of “Ahmed Musa”.
A few hours later, with Leicester 1-0 down against Atletico Madrid, Jamie Vardy is chasing the ball into the right channel. Filipe Luis eases his body craftily in between Vardy and the ball, and shepherds it out for a goal kick. Vardy is convinced it was a corner. He runs towards the Swedish assistant referee, screaming in outrage, arms thrashing and flailing as if trying to fend off a swarm of bees. Luis simply jogs away with the imperturbable placidity of a man who knows he got the last touch.
Two snapshots of Leicester’s adventure in Madrid: both, in their own way, telling. Of course, they obscure as much as they reveal. The Leicester fans singing “Spanish b------s, Gibraltar is ours”, or robbing a train bar, were but a tiny fraction of the peaceful thousands who came to watch a football game and maybe sample a little tapas.
It is tempting, then, to see all this something of a sideshow, part of the furniture of English football travel. As we saw during Euro 2016 in France, and at numerous international tournaments previously, there is a certain strand of English football tourist that sees these trips as a sort grotesque rite of passage, a gap year for morons.
But in a sense, the comparison is not as trite as it seems. Just as the blue-clad hordes descending on Madrid see themselves as somehow our representatives abroad, some corner of a foreign square that will be forever England, Leicester have somehow taken on the mantle of our club: the last Premier League team standing in the Champions League, and even after the pummelling they took here, still standing, still proud.
Leicester are perhaps the Premier League’s most English club. Even their Danish goalkeeper has a Manc accent. They may have a Japanese striker, an Algerian winger and a Thai owner, but this is a team that in its culture and footballing principles crystallises the way this nation likes to imagine itself: loud and passionate, confrontational and concussive, fast and furious and four-four-f---ing-two.
This is a club whose leading striker’s tonic of choice is Skittles and vodka, and where a title-winning manager was essentially deposed for taking away the players’ chicken burgers and potato wedges, as revealed by a still-traumatised Danny Simpson in a newspaper interview at the weekend. All this feeds into the Leicester legend: the cheeky underdogs (albeit wealthy underdogs; the 20th richest club in the world, according to the latest Deloitte Money League), upsetting the established elites with their tired orthodoxies, disdainful complacency and fancy foodstuffs.
This season, the show has gone on the road. In a way, Leicester are English football’s stag party. If they were a fan, they would be a guy standing shirtless in a continental square singing about how Gibraltar is ours. And so, strangely, this game felt like act two of what had occurred in the Plaza Mayor earlier in the day: English industry against Spanish obduracy.
How the Calderon crowd howled at the ferocity of some of Leicester’s early challenges. How elusive Antoine Griezmann was in those opening minutes, playing as a roaming trequartista in the Spanish parlance, or “in the hole” as we put it. Atletico are often described as an “English-style club”, as if this country invented the shoulder charge. It is a comparison that only works to a point. To their burly physicality they add an unmistakeable continental nous. They dive beautifully. They get their blocks in. Here, they were to Leicester what Leicester are to everyone else: physical, unapologetic and irritating as hell.
They may not have the individual talent of Real Madrid. They may not have the born swagger of Barcelona. They will not pummel you for six or seven like Bayern Munich. But there is perhaps no team in world football today that are better at managing a game, feeling and thinking their way through it, probing your system for weaknesses, discovering the thing you want to do the least and making you do it, over and over again.
This is how Atletico kill you. After throwing everything at their opponents in the first quarter, Atletico wound down a couple of gears in the second. Leicester were able to knock it around a bit, swing a few crosses in, get their fans going, feel good about themselves. All of a sudden, an attack broke down, and Griezmann was teleporting up the left wing. A brush of shoulders, a tumble, a dodgy penalty, a 1-0 lead.
And yet, the blue wall did not fall. In the face of Atletico’s repeated baton charges, Leicester stood firm. So while continental brain trumped English brawn on the night, it is easy to see how Leicester might have been weirdly emboldened by this result.
They endured. They withstood. And they have come too far to let a single goal and a dodgy foreign ref kill their buzz. Uncomplicated, uncompromising and unashamedly English, this is a team who are still just about capable of leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.