At the end of the Champions League Final, Diego Simeone was asked what he was going
to do next. The way it had unfolded was cruel, with Sergio Ramos’ late, late header denying Atletico Madrid their first-ever European Cup, and against their greatest rivals too.
“I’ll watch the World Cup and then begin to prepare the defence of theleague title we have just won,” he replied.
The response was a pointed one, a message for internal and external consumption. Yes, a European Cup Final loss hurt, and all the more so against their greatest rivals Real Madrid, but no one should forget what Atletico had achieved. And while they had been defeated, this would not sink them.
For years, Atletico had been known as “el pupas”, the jinxed one, after they lost the 1974 European Cup Final to a freak 40-yard equaliser from Bayern Munich in the last minute. But if people thought the club’s bad luck had returned, Simeone thought otherwise.
When the new season started, Atletico beat Real to win the Spanish Super Cup. And then they beat them again in the league. The club that once collapsed at the slightest opportunity, crushed by the inevitability of it all, would no longer surrender. Just like Simeone himself.
Few coaches can have had an impact on a club quite like he has, changing the entire identity of Atletico. They are a team created in his image: an irresistible force, supremely competitive.
When Simeone took over two days before Christmas 2011, they were 10th in La Liga, had been knocked out of the Cup by third-tier Albacete and were in crisis. They had employed 16 coaches since 1996 and, as club captain Gabi put it, they were “mentally sunk”.
Simeone pulled them out of the water, reviving them. By the end of the season, Atletico were fifth, narrowly missing out on a Champions League place. They lost just five of their 22 league games and won the Europa League. Then they beat Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup, qualified for the Champions League and won the Spanish Cup.
It was not just any old Spanish Cup: they won it at the Santiago Bernabeu against Real – a side they had not beaten for 25 games over a period of 14 years.
In 2011, a banner at the Bernabeu read: “Wanted: a worthy rival for a decent derby. Apply here.” From no wins in 25 to two wins in two trips to the Bernabeu, Atletico have now won three of the last four games there. No Atletico boss had ever won three times at Real, let alone in four years.
Victory in the league was, as it turned out, a step towards the title. On the final day of the season, they travelled to Barcelona and won 1-0 in a head-to-head clash for the title.
It was a monumental achievement for a club whose budget is a fifth the size of Madrid and Barcelona’s. In two and a half years, a team that was “sunk” had won the Europa League, the European Super Cup, the Spanish Cup, the Spanish league, the Spanish Super Cup.
Yes, they lost in the Champions League Final but, as Simeone insisted, it would be a mistake to forget what they had achieved and an even bigger mistake to expect them to accept their fate. That’s not the way they are. Not any more. Not with Simeone.
By Sid Lowe