First of all, my sincerest congratulations are in order. The way you sauntered into Atlético Madrid, a team stumbling in mid-table obscurity, at the end of 2011 and engineered an almost-complete turnaround is worthy of the highest praise. Nobody could have predicted that, just six months later, you would be lifting European silverware with the club, saving a season that looked set for disaster.
Even fewer would have foreseen the incredible scenes of the weekend of May 17, when you were thrown up by your charges on the Camp Nou pitch after masterminding one of the most unlikely triumphs of recent football history. Atlético theoretically have no right to compete against the behemoths of Real Madrid and Barcelona, who have the financial muscle to buy and sell the Colchoneros several times over and still purchase Gareth Bale with the spare change left over.
But that did not matter to you Cholo. It was not always pretty how you broke the Liga monopoly. But that also is irrelevant. A team forced to sell their best player on a bi-annual basis, first Sergio Agüero and then Radamel Falcao, cannot afford to always play champagne football. The weekend’s victory, and maybe a Champions League triumph too (although let us not tempt fate too much) is a win for the little guy, at least in football jargon – you know, those institutions whose wealth is measured in tens rather than hundreds of millions. The middle-class accountant rather than the plucky pauper, but still an admirable achievement to take down Spain’s Scrooge McDucks and do so with style.
But I digress. This letter is not aimed merely at congratulating you, Cholo. It is a heart-felt apology. From one fan of Racing Club de Avellaneda to another, as you have declared on countless occasions. We were privileged enough to watch your impeccably-dressed figure scream and cajole from the sidelines, and we were stupid and blind enough to let you leave your native Argentina without even a fight.
You came to your boyhood idols to make history, and you left with your ears ringing to boos and insults generally targeting your mother. That is a burden that this Racing fan at least cannot bear to carry around anymore.
It was your last stop in Argentina before becoming the darling of football hacks everywhere. You waltzed into Avellaneda in June 2011 to replace the divisive Miguel Ángel Russo, starting a second spell on the bench after beginning your coaching career with us back in 2006. We had high hopes, Cholo.
Do not get me wrong, we were aware you might not stick around for a Ferguson-esque reign. You are an emotional soul, hot-headed and liable to walk away if things are not to your liking. River Plate experienced that side of you in a roller-coaster 2008; champions in June, bottom in December, and you were off to try your luck elsewhere. But surely in Racing, the club of your idols, the club that watched you pull the curtain down on an illustrious career; surely we would appreciate the value of nurturing you after so much turmoil.
Early signs were promising. A defence that previously gave all the confidence and security of a chocolate fireguard suddenly looked almost impregnable. The signing of inspirational Sebastián Saja in goal helped, but that was not the difference. Whipped into shape by your screams and passions, the men at the back suddenly started thinking as a unit. It is a scene that we in La Academia have sadly seldom witnessed in our venerable club, and it was most welcome.
That season, just eight goals trickled into the Racing net. Eight goals!! It was the stuff that dreams were made of. We did not drop out of the top five all season, we should have been happy. But perhaps it is the curse of a team that was once great, even at the best of times we were never satisfied.
The muttering began. The team was too defensive, we said. Too many games followed the same pattern: an early goal scored by a side full of confidence and talent, and then the Cholo trademark. All 11 men would be called back to defend, and little attempt would be made to extend the advantage and put the match beyond all reasonable doubt. This left us in the hands of the football Gods. Some encounters were won in that form; but others were thrown away by late equalisers, and the fans bouncing jubilantly in the terraces were reduced to sighs and wondering what could have been.
But I do not blame you, Cholo. It is your nature. If your side takes the lead, what sense does it make to keep trying to extend the difference? It worked for Atlético this year, certainly, where La Liga was secured thanks to 12 wins secured with a one-goal margin. Perhaps with a stronger defence, Racing could have emulated the Colchoneros in taking the title. We shall never know.
As it was, the 2011 Apertura was not a glorious campaign. But it was far from a disaster. Racing would finish second that year; a distant second, sure, 12 points shy of champions Boca, but second all the same. And yet as the season progressed, we could not hide our unjustified rage.
I was in the terrace directly behind the substitutes’ bench one spring evening, to watch Racing go down 3-2 to Belgrano in a thrilling encounter. And I saw the ingrate fans, who barely even deserve that name, climb up on the perimeter fencing, suspending themselves like acrobats to better hurl abuse in your direction. I heard a stadium full of Racing fanatics, who just three years previously suffered through the indignity of fighting a play-off in order to preserve first-division status, chant with gusto “Simeone, hijo de puta”. And, to my infinite regret, I joined in on certain occasions, when the lack of attacking football began to frustrate and enrage.
Who knows whether our actions, our ingratitude, pushed you out of the door that same December, after just six months in charge. Perhaps you had it all planned out; the insults, the disrespect, all merely a justification so you could join Atlético with a clear conscience. It does not matter really. As so often, Racing made the wrong move after you left, bringing back the dinosaur Alfio Basile for a disastrous Clausura campaign.
We still could not learn. Another young, hungry coach would enter, Luis Zubeldía, leading us to the best performances seen in El Cilindro since you left us, Cholo. But with three straight losses we were all too ready to kick him out, throw 12 months of work down the drain due to the demand for instant results. This blindness condemns us to mediocrity. In 2013/14, no team was worse than Racing in Argentina’s top flight. Nobody. We have hit rock-bottom, and we have only ourselves to blame.
That is why at least one Racing fan wants to make amends. It brings me great joy to see someone who has carried the blanquiceleste across Europe and the world, a true ambassador for the club, hit the heights of the game. It pains me to see what could have been in Avellaneda. Maybe with one year, or two in the club, you could have overcome the institutional corruption and inertia which afflicts us from the boardroom downwards, installing stability and coherence into a team that desperately needs it. Or perhaps the old political cliché, warped slightly for my own purposes, is true: you get the coaches you deserve in football.
Win or lose on Saturday Cholo, you have already won my respect and admiration. One hundred times over. There is nothing else to say really, except go get ‘em: I will be watching from Buenos Aires, hopeful of another great triumph Made in Racing.
Gracias por tanto Cholo, y perdón por tan poco.
Thank you, Cholo, for so much. And forgive us, for so little.
By Daniel Edwards
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona