People have raved about Leicester City’s title-winning exploits this season and rightly so. Perhaps, as a result, what Atletico Madrid have achieved has languished in obscurity somewhat, but then with Atletico this is a common occurrence.
When Diego Simeone arrived to manage a team he had played for and recognised as a footballing home of sorts in December 2009, he inherited not just the stewardship of a football club, but the hurt and oppression of its people also. In Barcelona their success gives their football culture a substance, whereas Atletico have always been in the shadow of their illustrious neighbours in Real Madrid.
There have been brief periods in which they’ve escaped this, but tragedies such as the last-minute goal conceded to Bayern Munich in the 1974 European Cup final left a club feeling that they would always be bridesmaids.
What became of paramount importance to Simeone was the change of mindset among the players but also around the club. The Vincente Calderon is now a modern day cauldron of emotion. The sulphurous atmosphere has aided the regeneration of a once broken club. It has become like a bunker for Simeone and his players.
His antics on the sideline only serve to whip up the feelings of injustice that club patrons are renowned for espousing. Simeone’s Atletico now represent everything I believe a football club should be. They embody a unity of purpose, structure and loyalty that Simeone encourages by playing on the persecution complex that the fans suffer from. He reminds me of a modern day William Wallace waging war in the face of illustrious regimes with unlimited resources at their disposal.
Their league title in 2013 was one of the most remarkable triumphs in footballing history in that they had rebuilt the club from the loss of stars such as Sergio Aguero, Diego Forlan, David Villa and Fernando Torres. Led by an attacking trio of Diego Costa, Radamel Falcao and Mario Suarez supported by the structure put in place by Simeone it made them more eye-catching than this current side, but built on the similar theme of a solid back four and goalkeeper.
Soon enough, these players were lured away by financially stronger opponents, but again Simeone has regenerated his team with the emergence of Antoine Griezmann and the return of the aforementioned Torres, which has been one of the most engaging subplots of a season riddled with them.
Before his move to Liverpool, Torres routinely launched Atletico to heights which otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. He was the darling of the Atleti faithful, even captaining the side at a young age. His blinding pace and composure in front of goal would have struck fear into any defender in Europe.
The player we see now is a few yards slower and less clinical, he’s changed his game to become more of a foil for Griezmann than the out-and-out frontman he once was as well as playing a crucial role in their defensive set-up. There are still doubts about his ability to be effective for ninety minutes in Atletico’s demanding system, but how a group of long suffering supporters would delight in their prodigal son returning to earn them the biggest prize of all.
What makes Atletico all the more engaging is the way they suffocate teams and break at speed. They rely on their tenacity and resillience to win these top-class encounters, They are like a street brawler fighting in the MGM grand in Las Vegas.
Will they win against Real Madrid? Possibly. But what they have achieved in competing for so long under the financial constraints imposed on them means that they are a lesson to every person who believes in this game as being a great leveller, where social status, money and history mean nothing.
A footballing equivalent to the Oakland A’s in baseball, who punched above their weight using sabermetrics and science rather than the culture imposed by Simeone. Billy Beane, the former general manager of the Oakland A’s, believed that men like himself had no room for idealism such as this and that at the end of the season there is only one thing that matters. Results.
Simeone should take heed from his belief that, “If you lose the last game of the season, nobody gives a shit”.
Luke O’Connor, Pundit Arena
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