Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid: Defying The Laws of Modern Football
When Diego Simeone led his Atlético Madrid team unto the pitch of the Estadio Da Luz in Lisbon last night, he knew they were on the cusp of something completely unimaginable some 12 months ago. Not since Jose Mourinho led his team of plucky underdogs to lift the 'Old Big Ears' trophy as any little-spending minnow come so close to European glory. A list of winners since 2005 makes for compelling evidence: Liverpool, Barcelona, AC Milan, Manchester United, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Barcelona, Chelsea and Bayern Munich. A list made up surely of Europe's crème de la crème clubs. With TV revenues shared based mostly on pedigree, there's a lot to be shared between the clubs in the upper echelon of Europe. Not so much for the vast majority of have-nots and nearly-men who make up a vast majority of the lower rungs of power.
Football, like many other things in life, is unfair.
Hard work, dedication, brotherhood and a sense of togetherness are the solid foundations on which the Rojiblancos are built. Not that they are lacking talent wise - far from it - but in a world where football is run by wealthy oligarchs and free-spending sugar daddies, Atléti simply have no right to be competing for their first European title. It defies all common logic that a team with a wage bill less than half of Championship Playoffs finalists QPR and receives only a quarter of the Spanish TV revenues raked in by Barcelona and Real Madrid have come this far in just 29 months since Simeone took over.
On December 22, 2011 Atlético were in a mess. Having just lost 3-1 on aggregate to the Andres Iniesta-owned third division club Albacete Balompié, Gregorio Manzano was relieved of his coaching duties. The following day saw Simeone appointed and the club were in for the ride of their lives. "El Cholo" as he was nicknamed as a 14-year old at Vèlez Sársfield by his then youth coach Victorio Spinetto, wasn't a stranger to the club. After all he had two spells with the club. First in 1994-1997 (he was a prominent member of the League and Copa del Rey double-winning team of 1996) and later in 2003-2005 as his illustrious career was meandering towards a conclusion.
Football, like many other things in life, is unfair.
What followed has been a change of Atlético's fortunes which has relied heavily on Simeone's tactical ingenuity and ability to keep a relatively small group of players fit and firing on all cylinders. If you were worldly and cynical, you'd be forgiven for assuming this was an elaborate scheme of pure wizardry.
In 2012 alone, just 5 months after taking over, Atléti won the Europa League defeating Athletic Bilbao 3-0 in what was an all-Spanish final. Three months later, Simeone's side brushed Chelsea aside 4-1 in the UEFA Super Cup which fans of the London club will surely remember as the "Radamel Falcao Show," with the prolific Colombian putting 3 past them. It was at this point that a section of Europe's glitterati started paying attention to the less famous Madrid team. What followed next was a curtain-raiser. An appetizer to the main dish, if you will. Atlético beat Mourinho's expensively assembled team 2-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu to lift the 2013 Copa del Rey crown. It was their first derby win since 1999. They also finished third behind the usual suspects. It was their highest finish since 1996. Poetry was set in motion.
Known as a tough tackling defensive midfielder during his playing career, Simeone's Atlético Madrid team is built in his own image. Never one to give up, always fighting on despite obvious limitations. This season's achievements has provided a rude awakening for the Big Two in Spain, while the rest of Europe have had no choice but to sit back and notice the revolution. They play a high pressing game that is reminiscent of Borussia Dortmund's surge to last year's Final. In a year where hours have been spent debating on Chelsea's uber-defensive approach, Atlético have shown that it is not impossible to be watertight at the back while also providing attacking flair. There is no such thing as an Atlético clearance, every ball out marks the beginning of a meaningful attack. No one individual is bigger than the collective and a message of togetherness is Simeone's major talking point.
Atléti played against Barcelona 6 times this season and not once did they lose. Won 1 and drew 5. The win came when it mattered most in the second leg of their Champions' League quarterfinal clash. Atlético totally outplayed their opponents and could have been out of sight during a mesmerizing opening 20 minutes blitz. Not once did Lionel Messi put one past Thibaut Coutois in the Atlético goal. On Saturday, Atlético won their first Spanish title since 1996 and in the process becoming the first team not named Barcelona or Real Madrid in a decade to lift the trophy since Rafael Benitez's Valencia. The victory did not come without a fight, with Atlético losing Diego Costa and Arda Turan within the first 25 minutes due to injury. When Alexis Sanchez scored that belter of a goal, it seemed the universe was working against them. Diego Godin rose highest to head in a much deserved equalizer early in the second half and Atlético held on for the victory.
"This shows that there is more than one way to win," Simeone said. After the final whistle went, the Camp Nou gave his team a standing ovation on which a clearly elated Simeone said, "It's one of the loveliest things that you can experience in football. The applause rounded off the season wonderfully. We made history today. At half-time, I told them that we had played well.
"Despite the injuries, which were no minor issue, and the fact that we had been forced to make two changes after 25 minutes, I told them that they were fine. I was convinced. The second half was extraordinary.
"It is a strange sensation [when the final whistle goes]," Simeone continued. "I thought about my people. I thought about those people close to me who could be here and those who could not. I thought about Jesús [Gil, Atlético's late owner] and about Luis Aragones [who died on 1 February], who were with us from up there. I am sure Luis would have been in the area defending with us."
Not one to take all the credit for himself unlike the man who he has gotten the better of in recent times, he spoke of his back room staff and players in glowing terms: "I want to share this moment with my people. They might not appear on the television but they work every bit as much, or more, and I want to tell you how much I admire them. And the players too. I am proud of the group that we have built.
"It felt like the bigger the challenge the better. This has been a wonderful season. We won in Bilbao, we won in Seville, we drew here, we won at the Bernabéu. When opponents congratulate you and tell you that you deserve it, it makes it even more special.
"We have gone game by game, and that [phrase] is historic now. Madrid is red and white. I am sure that with every passing day there are more Atlético fans around the world."
Atlético were not presented with the league title trophy because Ángel María Villar, the president of the Spanish Football Federation, was unable to attend the match at the Camp Nou.
"That doesn't matter," Simeone said, smiling. "They can't take it off us."
This will always be remembered as the year Simeone and his band of Atlético Madrid players put the fight to the top guns of European football. They have defied the laws of the modern game. When people said it was impossible to gatecrash a party filled with the big boys, Simeone told them otherwise.