Simeone is Atlético’s secret weapon

It’s early, but the landscape in elite European football already looks fundamentally different  this decade. From some angles, it’s downright unrecognisable. None of its darlings has been spared. 

If we had to pinpoint one moment that signalled the shift, it would have been Liverpool’s lifting of the Champions League, a win that smashed the five-year Spanish hold on the trophy. Those protagonists, Barcelona and Real Madrid, look nothing like the masterclass outfits that had indiscriminately terrorised the neighbourhood before that point.

Bayern Munich, by contrast, have superbly banished their flings with mediocrity. Paris Saint-Germain wish they could do the same but are still struggling to carve out a unique (winning) persona from their amalgam of riches (last week’s spanking of Barça notwithstanding). Juventus have flitted in and out.

None of this is profound — football, like life, is ever-shifting. But it does serve to weigh up the gravitas of one man: Diego Simeone. 

It’s been almost 10 years since he joined Atlético Madrid. In that time, everything and nothing has changed. Atléti is a bona fide competitor now, disrupting the duopoly that gripped La Liga and regularly making runs at European glory. Yet, as the faces in those pursuits inevitably change, he has retained an identity throughout, one that has formed the common denominator of his successful teams.

The identity is mainly governed by the same principles that drove Simeone as a player. “El Cholo” was, to quote Mail & Guardian columnist Paddy Harper, “a mad, totally committed player, often over the top and sometimes a cynical bastard, but always for real”.

He demands much of the same from those he mentors. Diego Costa, Koke and Tiago Mendes have thrived under him because they have embraced the grind. Demonstrated a willingness to wield the game’s unglamorous side and exert their influence through pure hard work. The ethos is easier to embrace thanks to its consistency over the years.

Simeone has stayed loyal to Atléti and, in return, Atléti has remained loyal to him.

It has long turned into cliché for the media to lament mega-rich owners’ unwillingness to give time to their managers. But, in Simeone, we have rare, unequivocal proof of what can be achieved when a stalwart is allowed to plan the future on his own proclivities.

This season, a decade after taking the gig and seven years after the historic La Liga win, the Argentine is threatening to subvert the El Clásico rivalry once more — sitting cosy atop the league. To further push home the milestone, he also has a date with Chelsea in the Champions League last 16 next month. Atléti succumbed to a 1-0 first-leg defeat this week, but the ever-stoic Simeone remains confident it can be turned around in the return fixture. It is in his role as underdog, after all, in which he feels most comfortable.

“We are in a difficult moment, it is the reality,” he said. “More based on the results than what happened on the field. We have to occupy ourselves, work and improve. At the moment, the game is difficult. They have an advantage, but I trust my team.” 

In truth, that is the competition Simeone will be targeting to add the final layer of polish to his legacy. 

Twice now, he has been denied in the final. Both occasions were to hated city rivals Real, possibly the best team on the planet during the 2010s. It’s easy to forget that at the genesis of the Cristiano Ronaldo-headed, ridiculous four-in-five-years European championship run was a stubborn Atléti that was seconds from sending history on a completely different course (for the forgetful: Sergio Ramos equalised in the 93rd minute).

This might just be the moment to correct those stumbles. In Simeone and Atlético Madrid, we have perhaps the only mainstay of recent years that we still recognise; the only outfit that has refused to budge from their gutsy approach. That might just prove to be a secret weapon when much of the competition is undergoing identity crises of varying degrees.

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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