Atlético are pushing their more famous—and much richer—rivals in La Liga.
by Pete Jenson
Back in 2003, a story circulated that Quentin Tarantino’s producers were interested in making a Hollywood movie about football. It wasn’t long before the media had exaggerated the tale, reporting that Tarantino himself would direct the film.
The dialogue wrote itself: “You know what they call a zero-zero in England? A nil-nil. And you know what they call a shutout? A clean sheet.” Who didn’t want it to be true? But it wasn’t. Tarantino’s producers instead made the film Goal, about a South American youngster who made it big with Real Madrid. Tarantino had nothing to do with it.
Watching Diego “El Cholo” Simeone, dressed all in black on the touchline this season, directing his Atlético Madrid band of brothers as they marched up La Liga brought Tarantino to mind again. If he were to make a feature film about football, he wouldn’t base it on Real Madrid. It would be about Atlético.
The “Inglourious Basterds” of Spanish football are now the third team in what was once a two-team league. They are the stone in the big two’s shoe, the grit in La Liga’s oyster. Their gross debt is estimated at $755 million, and their TV revenue is about $137 million a year less than Real Madrid and Barcelona earn, but Atlético punch far above their financial weight. They owe Spanish tax authorities more than $137 million, so they must pay the state 50% of any transfer revenue until the debt is cleared. Yet they thrive, not just at home but in Europe too.
They were the first team to confirm themselves as Champions League group winners, and they were the squad no team wanted to be paired against when the draw for the last 16 was made in December. “It’s good for our spirit, knowing that no one wanted to draw us,” says David Villa, who looked washed up at Barcelona but has been reborn in Madrid. They are heavy favorites to win their Round of 16 match against AC Milan.
The team plays in dilapidated Vicente Calderón Stadium, by far the noisiest ground in Spain when it shakes to the sound of 55,000 voices. Supporters adore Simeone, the former Atlético Madrid captain who has been the catalyst for the team’s transformation from underdog to top dog. Atlético had not beaten Real Madrid in 14 years until they broke the spell last season in the Spanish Cup final, a match played in Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.
Atlético officials are still burned by Madrid’s attempt at gamesmanship. “They didn’t want us to train on the pitch the day before because they said we would ruin it,” says Simeone. “They wanted first option on everything. Would they administer the tickets, pick the ball boys? Did they want to pick my team for me?”
Later, a writer for the Argentine magazine El Gráfico asked Simeone what he said before extra time to push his players over the line. The manager said he reminded the players that in the last five minutes of the 90, they had forced three corners, giving him great hope for the 30 minutes of extra time. “For the first time, I sensed that [Real] were scared,” he told the magazine. “That is what I told the players, and I kept repeating it over and over. I must have told them about 10 times that we are better than them, until you have a situation where the hairs stand up on the back of everyone’s neck.”
Simeone’s great advantage is that when he says such things to his players, none of them question his right to tell them to believe. He’s done it all before. As a player for Atlético Madrid, Simeone was the driving force in midfield when they won the 1995–96 League and Cup.
He performed the same role for Argentina, winning more caps than Diego Maradona. His name is also written forever in English football folklore because, at the 1998 World Cup Final in France, he fouled David Beckham and then went down when Beckham retaliated, getting Beckham sent off. That was Simeone: brutally devious.
Back in Spain, Simeone the coach has been charm personified. He smiles through press conferences and is restrained on the touchline. Last season he even remonstrated with a referee not to send off a rival coach (then Valencia manager Mauricio Pellegrino) who had been ordered to the stands for dissent.
Alongside him in the dugout, assistant manager Germán Burgos growls on his behalf. “I’m not Tito. I’ll rip your head off!” he screamed at Real Madrid manager José Mourinho during a 2013 Madrid derby, still peeved that Mourinho had poked Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova in the eye during a brawl the year before.
A former goalkeeper, Burgos played 38 games alongside Simeone for Argentina. He survived an operation to remove a tumor and sports a 35-stitch scar. He fronts a rock group called the GARB and has cut four records. He played for the Atlético Madrid team that won promotion back to the top flight in 2002 and starred in the club’s publicity campaign the following season, emerging symbolically from a manhole: The team was back from the underworld, and he was the face of its return. His nickname is Mono (monkey), though Simeone respectfully calls him Germán.
Another member of the team-behind-the-team is fitness coach Oscar Ortega, who is responsible for the intensity of Atlético Madrid’s football. He yells “Solidarity and commitment” as he takes the players through prematch warm-ups. When new arrival David Villa cheated by putting his foot over the line at the online casino start of a training-ground sprint, he called, “We can see you have come from Barcelona!” He was nicknamed El Profe (the professor) after one of his assistants was hired away by a rival team.
Despite the team’s success, Simeone is not ready to relax. “Every day I tell the players that to sit back and rest on what we have achieved would be the biggest mistake,” he says. He admits he would love to be Atlético Madrid’s version of Alex Ferguson, and he knows the secret to Sir Alex’s success during 26 years at Manchester United was keeping the players hungry. Retaining the Europa League and winning the Spanish Cup and the European Super Cup are above and beyond anything that has been achieved at Atlético in nearly 20 years. Still, Simeone demands more.
At the start of the current season, some doubted the team would continue its run. How would Atlético replace Radamel Falcao(sold to Monaco) and his 91 goals in 70 games? Step forward, Diego Costa. Before an injury ruled him out in the middle of November, Costa had scored 13 goals in the first 13 weeks of the league season. In the Champions League, he scored twice in his first game back following a four-game suspension for a head butt in a game the previous season. Costa starts most games looking like he fought somebody in the tunnel on his way to the pitch. He famously swapped elbow jabs, rabbit punches, and insults with Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos in a game two seasons ago, yet the two embraced at the final whistle. Like an unshaven man in a smart suit, there is dignity to his depravity.
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque liked Costa and was aware he possessed a Spanish passport and could play for Spain, even though he was born in Brazil. Del Bosque met with Costa last October and persuaded him to play for La Roja. Costa will make his debut for Spain in February against Italy—at Vicente Calderón, no less. He will not be the only Atlético Madrid player in the Spain lineup. Others include the striker Villa; fullback Juanfran, who failed to make it as a winger at Real Madrid, and midfielder Jorge Resurrección Merodio, known as Koke.
The 22-year-old Koke is the future of Atlético. He was so shy when he was called up in 2009 for his first game that he stood on the team bus and waited until then captain Antonio López boarded so he could ask him where to sit. He is now one of the leaders of the side. Turkish international Arda Turan, Brazilian international Filipe Luís, Uruguayan international Diego Godin, and Belgian international Thibaut Courtois—the on-loan Chelsea goalkeeper who doesn’t want to go back—are also gaining global reputations for their parts on the team.
“When talent is combined with aggression and intensity, then potential is reached,” says Simeone. “I like football that is concrete, not teams that have never-ending possession with people asking, ‘When is this attack going to end?’ Only two teams have the ability to play that way: Barcelona and Spain. The rest end up doing themselves more harm than good with their possession.”
Simeone’s coaching techniques are detailed in the book El Efecto Simeone, by Santi García Bustamante. The coach says it’s important to choose when to speak with players. “The best time to talk to your children is at night, before they go to bed. That is when they are relaxed and likely to listen and absorb. I like to treat the players as if they were my children.”
The coach visits players in their hotel rooms when they are relaxing before lights-out, and he gives them pep talks they will remember when they go out onto the pitch the following day. He also insists that players sit for meals at one huge table to discourage cliques that can form when players gather in small groups. He encourages players to think of themselves as one tribe, one family.
Simeone’s own family is football-mad. On Spanish radio he recently described a phone conversation with his father when he was coaching at River Plate in Argentina. He called his dad to discuss his team selection, saying that he was taking a huge gamble by not playing big center forward Sebastián Abreu and picking the smaller Radamel Falcao in front of the diminutive trio of Diego Buonanotte, Ariel Ortega, and Alexis Sánchez. His dad said he loved the team. But when River Plate lost to archrival Boca Juniors, his father called him to say, “What kind of team selection was that? Why didn’t you play the big center forward?” Simeone says his dad remains his biggest critic.
The family feel of Atlético Madrid may tempt a former favorite son, Fernando Torres, to return. As a young fan watching Simeone play, he would jump up and down to the tune of the beautifully monotonous song “Cholo, Cholo, Cholo, Cholo Simeone.” He idolized Simeone, who was given the nickname Cholo by an Argentine teammate, a nod to the former Boca player Carmelo “Cholo” Simeone. Torres’s deeply rooted feelings could influence his decision over whether to return to the Spanish capital. Atlético Madrid fans would love to see him back in red and white stripes.
At the end of the season, the team may need to rebuild. There could be bids for Costa, whose buyout clause is reportedly set at $33 million; Courtois is expected back at Chelsea when his loan spell ends; and Atlético will have to balance the books with whatever business they carry out in the transfer market.
There’s also the question of where Atlético will play. Their drafty stadium on the banks of the narrow Manzanares River was due to be vacated in two years. But funding for new grounds in the suburbs may have been cut when Spain failed to land the 2020 Olympics. Would it be bad to stay in the center of a city that still emanates the rough edge that characterizes the team? The last time Atlético won the league, in 1996, then owner Jesús Gil rode through the streets on an elephant to celebrate.
Another Tarantino line springs to mind. In Pulp Fiction, the Wolf says, “Just because you are a character doesn’t mean you have character.” This is a club that has always had characters. Now under Simeone, Atlético also have character. They had too much for Real Madrid in last season’s Spanish Cup final, and no one expects that to be their last famous scalp.
A feature article from our 2nd issue. Download a preview of Issue 02 here.