You should never go back, or so they say. Atletico Madrid fans are very grateful that those at the club do not believe in that philosophy. On the December 21, 2011, it looked like things were taking a turn for the worst as the club were knocked out of the Copa del Rey by third division Albacate. The only way was down, or so it seemed.
But, a few days later Atleti fans thought that all their Christmases had come at once. What has happened since has been nothing short of a miracle, the stuff of Hollywood movies. The club appointed Diego ‘Cholo’ Simeone as Coach and it has been described as a masterstroke. But still it was a gamble from both sides, one that has paid off but could have very much gone the other way.
Before Cholo, there was Gregorio Manzano. With the tax man clamping down and key players sold to keep the wolves from the door, Atletico announced that they would be embarking on a new path, one where youth players would be the centre of the club.
But then, a few months later they signed Radamel Falcao, Diego Ribas and Arda Turan. All were signed in August, meaning that Manzano didn’t have the pre-season to bed them in. With Europa League qualifiers also on the agenda, the Coach had to throw them in at the deep end and paid the price.
The football was good, easy on the eye, but the results weren’t. The club hadn’t won away and apart from the Europa League, everything else was going up in flames. The writing was on the wall for Manzano. Defeat against Albacate was the final straw. The supporters had been voicing their disapproval for a while and they had also been very vocal in who they wanted at the helm.
Club legend Cholo was in employment in his homeland but during each game at Vicente Calderon, his ears were burning. Eventually the dream became a reality but for Simeone it was a huge leap into the unknown.
The Argentine had been working as a Coach since 2006 but this would be the first time that he took over at a club where he had hero status as a player. Atletico were about to appoint their 50th Coach since the Gil family arrived at the club. That’s nearly 50 in less than 25 years. Some left, more were fired and while Cholo may have won silverware in Argentina and was looking like a promising star in the management world, others who had more experience had come and failed.
He did have something that no one had and that was the support from the stands. From day one, the fans were with him and he used that. But, if results were to go badly, Cholo knew that they would turn on him too and he knew he had his work cut out.
The first thing he knew he had to do was take total control at a club where the two main shareholders ruled with an iron grip. He was inheriting a club that were in the bottom half of the table and had defensive problems over a decade old. Off the pitch, there was no money, and it was rumoured that both major shareholders hated each other so much that they had offices at each end of the ground so as not to see each other.
What both men did have in common though was that they were the target of hate and disgust from fans in equal measures. For years chants against them could be heard in the ground but they didn’t seem to care. But with Cholo, things were different. After ignoring the opinions of supporters for so long, they did a U-turn. They appointed the man the fans wanted.
It was a clear win-win situation for them. If Cholo failed, they had evidence the fans really didn’t have a clue. If he was a success, they could hitch their ride to the bandwagon. Yet, there was still the problem of control. It wasn’t easy but they handed the keys of kingdom to Simeone, knowing that by doing so, all the pressure and responsibility was now on the Coach and no matter what, they could always deny liability.
Now the Argentine was on the edge of a knife. Succeed and he would go down as a legend. Failure would mean a reputation tarnished, possibly forever. Cholo brought in two of his trusted lieutenants. Oscar ‘El Profe’ Ortega had worked at the club before and had followed Simeone to Argentina and also Italy. As his right hand man, Cholo appointed German ‘Mono’ Burgos, an ex-goalkeeper at the Calderon.
As a player, Burgos looked more like a rock star – in fact he had a band – with a carefree attitude. As a Coach he is a stickler for detail and has been seen at training sessions and matches with piles of dossiers and was one of the first coaches to use Google Glass. With his backroom staff in place, Cholo had to now convince his new players to listen to him. It may look like an easy task, but looks could be deceiving.
Under Manzano, players were allowed to basically do what they wanted. They were pictured in casinos and at training if Manzano felt that someone was play-acting, instead of speaking directly to them, he got a senior player to do so. This resulted in a lack of respect for the Coach. Players looked unfit and lazy but after a month under Cholo, they were back in shape. The rules were clear from the off. It’s my way or the highway but Cholo needed the board to back him.
La Liga is a place where players can have direct contact with a President and players who are not happy at being used out of position or being dropped have been known to get Coaches the sack. When Kun Aguero left, the board were blamed and so they knew that they would be in the firing line should any other key players leave again. Yet, they also knew they had to stand by the Coach.
It would be true to say that there were players who were using Atletico as a stepping-stone and Simeone’s new strategy could have ruffled a few feathers and put noses out of joint. But, the opposite happened and with his strict regime, Cholo imposed himself and instantly won the respect of all of those under him.
It is said that it is remarkable how much the squad is willing to work for the Coach but it should also be pointed out that others tried something similar to Cholo in the past and the only result was their contract being cut short. That just makes the job Cholo has done all the more impressive.
Since the appointment of Simeone, the chants against the owners have gone. Cups and a League have been won. A defence that was so leaky many believed it could never be fixed has won the prize for best defence in the League, twice.
More importantly, a legend has died. The legend of Los Pupas – the feeling Atletico was cursed – hung around the club like a dark storm cloud but in just a matter of months under Cholo the cloud lifted to reveal a beautiful sunny sky and there is no sign of the weather changing soon.
As Barcelona and Real Madrid seem constantly involved in some scandal or negative news story, it is ironic that Atletico have become one of La Liga’s most stable clubs. It could have been so different.