But beating Real Madrid in the Champions League final tomorrow night may finally put that moniker to rest.
Atletico were on the brink of winning the European Cup in their first appearance in the final in 1974, leading Bayern Munich 1-0 in extra time after Luis Aragones curled home in the 114th-minute at Heysel Stadium.
The Spaniards were clinging on until Bayern defender Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck stepped up to smash home a powerful right-footed equaliser from outside the area in the 120th-minute.
Without penalties to decide the winner, a replay was scheduled just two days later in Brussels. But having experienced the trophy slipping from their grasp in such fashion proved too much for Atletico, and they lost 4-0 to a team featuring Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Mueller.
Following the defeat, president Vicente Calderon termed Atletico “the jinxed ones” or “pupas”.
“We practically had the trophy in our hands,” said Atletico goalkeeper Miguel Reina, father of Spain international Pepe, reminiscing of what could have been before Schwarzenbeck’s low shot beat him.
The loss seems to have had a long-lasting effect on the club.
“Atletico’s history may have been different with that title, which was the first for Bayern,” said former striker Jose Eulogio Garate, who played in that final 40 years ago.
Atletico’s history is filled with success and clouded by unnecessary turmoil and disorder.
Such is Atletico’s knack for dramatics that the team hymn includes the phrase: “What a way to suffer.”
One of the most famous advertising campaigns in Spain featured a young child looking up at his father to ask “Daddy, why do we support Atleti?” The father looks off in thought before the phrase “It’s hard to explain” takes over the screen.
During their run to the Spanish league title this season, Atletico did the near unthinkable – they did not stumble or implode as might have been expected.
Instead, coach Diego Simeone’s team showed the verve of champions and a knack for coming through when it counted to secure a fourth major trophy since 2009/10 – following two Europa League wins and a Copa del Rey triumph.
“The club is growing. We’re pushing forward, building a stronger team, getting better – despite the economic differences in this league,” said Simeone, who has also relied on one of the top qualities of the 1974 team – strength on the counter attack.
Atletico won the Intercontinental Cup in season 1974-75 after Bayern spurned an invite, and they have an impressive trophy haul overall – ten Spanish league titles, ten Copa del Reys, one European Cup-Winners’ Cup, two Europa Leagues and two European Super Cups.
“It’s been seven or eight years now that ‘pupas’ doesn’t follow us anymore,” Atletico president Enrique Cerezo said after the club secured their first league title since 1996 last Saturday. “When Calderon labelled the team that, it certainly was at that time. Maybe now they should call us ‘the good luck ones’.”
That could be difficult as Atletico almost seem to embrace the nickname at times, like when they celebrated the 40th anniversary of their lone European Cup final defeat last week.
“Atletico does represent something different, something special,” said Spanish coach Javier Irureta, who played against Bayern. “Usually they only organise homages for champions, not for the losers.
“But the club is like that.”