It is not easy to capture the essence of a football club in 20 seconds, but few have come closer than Atlético de Madrid, known to its fans simply as Atleti.

Some years ago, when the club was going though another of its habitual dry spells, it produced a short television spot. It shows a father and son driving back home in depressed silence, presumably after their team has lost yet another match. After a while, the boy asks: “Papa, why are we with Atleti?” The father looks straight ahead, without replying, his face a picture of sadness mingled with guilt. He knows, and the viewer knows, that by passing on his love for Atleti he has condemned his son to a life of frustration and disappointment.

The spot encapsulates perfectly the strange masochism that lies at the heart of Madrid’s other football club. Supporters of Real Madrid, the most successful football team in history, revel in their victories and triumphs. Supporters of Atleti, in contrast, thrive on tragedy and defeat. As one supporter told me over a coffee last week, “suffering is at the root of what it means to be a fan of Atleti”.

This season is different. With just one more match left to play in La Liga, Atlético is at the cusp of an improbable triumph, a prospect that has sent its fans into a state of feverish excitement. If Atleti wins or draws in Barcelona on Saturday, the club will win the Spanish league for the first time in 18 years, shattering the near-insuperable dominance of the country’s two football giants, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.

A week later, Atlético travel to Lisbon for the highlight of Europe’s club football calendar, the final of the Champions League, where they meet their despised city rivals. Atleti is tantalisingly close to winning an unprecedented double, making it the most successful season since the club was founded 111 years ago.

In modern football, such feats of Goliath-slaying have become disappointingly rare. Globalisation has created a winner-takes-all dynamic in which teams with the most money buy the best players, who produce success on the field, which produces more money, and so on. In Spain, the gulf between the rich and the not so rich is especially pronounced, and has been further deepened by the recent debt crisis and recession: Atlético’s revenues are just a quarter of Real Madrid’s and Barcelona’s. Forced to cut expenses and reduce debt, the club sold its best player (to Monaco, of all places) at the end of last season.

Banx cartoon

But it is not just money that sets apart Real and Atleti. One plays in pristine white, enjoys royal patronage and holds its matches at the Bernabéu, an imposing stadium in an upscale part of the Spanish capital surrounded by corporate headquarters and leafy residential neighbourhoods.

Atleti’s matches, in contrast, are played to raucous crowds at the Calderón, an ageing concrete bowl with few amenities, in working-class south Madrid. Fittingly, the street that surrounds the stadium is called the Paseo de los Melancólicos. Even that name, however, is not poignant enough for some fans, who refer to the lane as the “Paseo de los Elefantes”, apparently because it is often filled with supporters shaking their heads like sad pachyderms.

Fans agree that the recent absence of such sorrowful processions has everything to do with Diego Simeone, the team’s coach, known to supporters (and everyone else) simply as “El Cholo”. The name is slang for a native South American, and reflects a broader love for nicknames and eccentricity that runs through the entire club. It is a tendency that reaches something of an apotheosis in Germán Burgos, Mr Simeone’s assistant coach. Fabled for his unkempt appearance as a player, his spell fronting a rock band and his wild-eyed outbursts on the touchline today, he is known as “El Mono Burgos”, the Monkey Burgos.

Plain-speaking and slightly oddball (he is a big believer in the predictive qualities of star signs), Mr Simeone has built a team of journeymen and big club rejects into a highly disciplined unit. They have let in fewer goals than any other club in Spain, and attack on the counter with devastating efficiency. All that separates them from history is two matches. Will it happen?

In recent days, El Cholo has radiated calmness. The team, he says, will approach the end of the season with “humility”. Perhaps he knows that, whatever else happens, his achievement is already monumental: that dreaded filial question – “Por qué somos del Atleti?” – has never been easier to answer.

tobias.buck@ft.com

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