Fans who have never seen their team play, a manager holding virtual coaching sessions and a squad in lockdown across the globe – it has been an unusual start to life for one of the world’s newest football clubs.
Atletico Ottawa, a franchise of Spanish side Atletico Madrid, were revealed in February as the latest addition to the Canadian Premier League.
But they are yet to play a game, with the eight-team competition – due to begin its second season on 11 April – put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite the unprecedented circumstances, the only professional club in the Canadian capital has a supporter group eager to don Atletico colours, a former Spain striker Mista as manager and a set of players trying to keep sharp through online sessions.
It began with dinner after the Champions League final in Madrid last summer and a friendship struck between Canadian Premier League commissioner David Clanachan and Atletico Madrid chief executive Miguel Angel Gil Marin.
Within nine months the Spanish club had announced a franchise in North America.
“Ottawa wasn’t initially part of the equation,” Clanachan told BBC Sport. “I said ‘you’re in the capital of Spain, you might as well be in the capital of Canada as well’. From there it steamrolled.”
It was a huge coup for the league, off the back of its inaugural season, to attract one of the world’s biggest clubs but also for Ottawa after the city’s most high-profile club – Ottawa Fury, who played in the American second-tier USL Championship – folded last year.
It proved a perfect fit for Atletico Madrid, who had planned to add to a portfolio that already included clubs in Mexico and India.
“It’s a stamp of approval if you have a club like that, that believes in what you’re doing and the innovative way you approach the game,” said Clanachan, who hopes to expand the league to at least 14 teams by the time Canada co-hosts the 2026 World Cup.
Ultras, podcasts and homemade tifos… but no football
For fans in Ottawa, Atletico’s interest came as a shock.
“We went from the heartbreak of losing a team to having one of the biggest clubs in the world investing,” said filmmaker Aaron Hooper.
“It was super exciting. Honestly, we thought it was a practical joke – how do they know of our beautiful city? It caught a lot of us off guard.”
A hardcore group of fans has existed in Ottawa for about a decade as clubs playing further down the North American pyramid have come and gone, but Hooper hopes Atletico’s arrival, and participation in the Canadian top flight, unlocks a much wider audience.
“They’re bringing a level of awareness,” he said. “The casual fans have been electric. A lot of youths want to go to games. Some people didn’t know a team existed prior to this.
“I don’t see why the goal can’t be to sell out our 24,000-seat stadium.
“The league is here – we have something to support. This is history. We’ll be talking to our grandkids about this.”
Supporters began to rally with fan groups, including the Bytown Boys and Capital Ultras, meeting in pubs and planning away days.
Now in lockdown, the focus has switched to podcasts, quizzes, painting tifos and encouraging fans to work on their terrace chants.
“The supporter culture here is pretty tight knit,” said Hooper. “We tried to get organised and prepared for this – we want to put a best foot forward with this fresh new start.”
Ice hockey team Ottawa Senators, who play in the NHL, are the highest profile sports team in the city but Ottawa could soon witness a new Atletico flavour.
“I hope Atletico will push fan culture to another level and we’ll see a presence around the city,” said Hooper.
“People have been blown away so far and we’re buzzing to see this finally start.”
The Atletico project
It has been some job for Atletico Ottawa chief executive Fernando Lopez, who was tasked with assembling a roster, appointing backroom staff and getting the club up and running. He would still like to sign six or seven players once restrictions are lifted.
Lopez is living in a house in Ottawa with Mista and other coaching staff, having cut short the team’s pre-season training camp to catch one of the last flights back to Canada.
Mista, the former Atletico Madrid and Valencia forward, had only thee days to work with his players in Spain before they had to rush back because the border was closing.
The 41-year-old was introduced to a squad that was compiled through Atletico’s extensive scouting network and an initiative set up by the league, in partnership with analytics company 21st Club, that helps create a worldwide database of young players.
“We believe there is talent and we will be able to work with them once we resume practice,” Mista said.
They may have spent only a few days together, but chief executive Lopez expects the squad to all have one thing in common – the Atletico DNA.
“It’s important to bring players who know the club, represent our values of hard work, courage,” he said. “In most cases we are building teams with the same profile.
“Players have different abilities, skills, behaviours, but we always ask the same of them: commitment, hard work, effort, run, pressure.
“If you see all the Atletico teams, the coaches are different, they all have their own style, but they share all the same philosophy of Atletico Madrid – courage, sacrifice, commitment to the team, work as one.”
‘They really want to raise Canadian football’
So is Mista a Diego Simeone in the making?
“We have 100-plus years of philosophy to bring from Atletico Madrid,” Mista said. “We believe these values will be identifiable in the players.
“Our team will be characterised by defensive excellence and tactical discipline – building a solid base at the foundation of the team, aggressive pressure on the rival, trying to recover balls and control the game as much as possible, impose our philosophy and generate goal locations, keep the ball, have the ball.”
At the moment, Mista is having to follow his players’ progress online – their running stats are tracked by fitness coaches on Strava with strength and conditioning sessions carried out on Zoom. Players are spread across Canada, with others having returned home to Jamaica and Ghana.
Two of those players, Vashon Neufville and Malyk Hamilton, both spent their youth careers at West Ham and are now enjoying being part of the “Atletico family”.
“To have Atletico behind you is a good feeling,” said 20-year-old Neufville, a former England youth international who is living in Ottawa with Mexican team-mate Francisco Acuna.
“Everyone is really nice here. They treat you like their family and you’re all as one. Me being young, coming so far away from home, they look after me and talk to me all the time.”
Hamilton, who moved to England aged 11 to join West Ham, played in the inaugural Canadian Premier League season last year for Cavalry FC in his home province of Alberta, but has been sold on the Atletico Ottawa project.
“If you hear the way they speak about the league and their aspirations for the club, you can tell they really want to raise Canadian football and help it grow as a brand,” he said.
“It will definitely draw more eyes to the league and the fact they’re willing to invest shows what we have going here.”