Written by Rhys W. Richards – follow at @RhysWRichards on Twitter.
As the final whistle blew in Estadio Wanda Metropolitano, Manchester City’s players sank to their knees on the Madrid turf. Their relief was palpable having endured an attritional 180 minutes in Atletico Madrid’s torture chamber. Atletico’s players by contrast, circled the referee, belligerently continuing the melee that began with Felipe’s red card on 88 minutes.
Seemingly oblivious to this were Atletico’s fans who bounced in the stands, belting out a deafening rendition of the club’s hymn with equal parts gusto and defiance. If you’d tuned in at that moment, you’d be forgiven for thinking that those fans were celebrating reaching the semi-finals.
Herein lies one of the paradoxes at the core of Atletico de Madrid: the glory in failure, the pride in defeat and the revelry in their self-fulfilling underdog status. The identity predates many of the fans and the entire playing staff. It stems from the 1974 European Cup final loss, in a replay against Bayern Munich. The defeat saw the club labelled ‘El Pupas’ – the cursed ones. The supposed curse meant that the cup with the big ears would evade Atleti for eternity.
Rather than wallow in this misfortune, the club has embraced it. Atletico’s commander in chief Diego Pablo Simeone, or ‘El Cholo’ to fans and friends, is the man tasked with steering the ship and in part, perpetuating this image.
Cholo himself is a paradoxical character. A natural born street fighter, not from the slums but from the middle-class barrio of Palermo in Buenos Aires. Simeone was the man who inherited Diego Maradona’s number 10 shirt in the colours of La Albiceleste but Cholo was anything but the archetypal Argentinean number 10, despite his tongue in cheek protestations that his creativity was equal to his industry.
Simeone has commodified the underdog identity, the stalls along Paseo de los Melancolicos en route to Atleti’s old ground sell scarves depicting his face alongside the slogan ‘Nunca dejes de creer (Don’t stop believing)’. Cholo’s motto is steeped in his Argentine upbringing, to always view himself as the underdog. Osvaldo Ardiles echoes this mindset in his autobiography where he speaks about the Argentine mentality where it’s believed that the whole world is against them and is jealous of them. Upon his transfer to Tottenham Hotspur in 1978 Ardiles realised that the rest of the world cared little about Argentina. Ardiles of course played during Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship, and although Simeone perhaps doesn’t believe this himself, he certainly understands the power of the underdog identity.
There is undoubtedly a chasm between how Atletico Madrid view themselves and how the world sees them. To Atleticos, they are the outlaws, anti-hero misfits whose motive is to topple the elites and disrupt the hegemony of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
To everyone outside the El Clasico duopoly, Atletico de Madrid are the establishment. They are a capital city club, with an uber-modern 68,000-seater stadium and access to riches that the majority of their opponents can only dream of.
Atletico de Madrid currently straddle a crossroads with a foot in the future and a foot in the past. The new stadium brought a rebrand of the badge, in line with the modern minimalist style which was wholly unpopular with their fanbase. There was also the farce of aligning themselves with Europe’s elite clubs in becoming founding members of the now aborted European Super League.
Atleti face forwards but are bound by the fatalism of their fanbase, the hardcore of which have dug a trench attempting to protect themselves from the world of modern football.
This season has seen people question the shelf-life of Cholo’s version of Atleti. For how long can the club maintain this underdog mentality and is the identity prohibitive to progress? Simeone is without question the club’s most successful coach and as beloved as the great Luis Aragones but does the club need a fundamental change in order to free itself of the shackles of its fatalist identity?
It’s easy to forget considering their poor domestic season that Atletico Madrid were widely expected to retain their La Liga title this season. The traditional hierarchy of Spanish football had been shaken by Barcelona’s much publicised financial troubles, that saw Lionel Messi depart and the struggles of an ageing Real Madrid team, minus their own club icon in Zinedine Zidane. Atleti should have kicked on from last year’s triumph, but ‘should’ doesn’t exist in Cholo’s vocabulary, there is no sense of entitlement – instead an emphasis on hard work and responsibility.
Atletico are weaker this season, notably in defence where injuries, form and a lack of quality are evident. Cholo has always built a team in his mould, with warriors such as Diego Godin and Junfran embodying his values on the field. In contrast, current defenders Hermoso and Felipe posess the physicality and aggression valued by their coach, but their misadventures on the pitch have been a liability.
Felipe’s red card in the second leg against Manchester City, his third this season, shifted the momentum towards the Mancunians at a time when Atletico were in the ascendency. A needless swipe at Phil Foden, born out of pure frustration. The action sparked a brawl, which saw Savic fortunate to escape a red card for needlessly engaging in a wrestling match with substitute Jack Grealish. The battle and subsequent peace-keeping mission from the beleaguered referee disrupted Atleti’s flow and allowed the English side to manage the remaining, disjointed minutes.
After the match Simeone was challenged about the behaviour of his players and if a line had been crossed, he pleaded ignorance, retorting with ‘in which occasion’. Simeone’s public response may have been seemingly inarticulate, however he was visibly furious with Savic, and is pragmatic enough to realise that the behaviour was detrimental to his team.
Much of the British media indulges in a spot of gaslighting when it comes to Atletico, or ‘Athletico’ as they are often stubbornly referred to on these isles. The ‘scenes nobody wants to see’ trope was reeled out tirelessly in the aftermath of the melee, despite Simeone and Atleti’s popularity with many as an anti-hero. But, on this occasion, it was streetwise City who managed the emotion of the game, with Foden rolling back onto the pitch the catalyst for the brawl. British pundits, and even Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp, have been perplexed as to why a team with as much quality as Atletico engage in the dark arts of football as much as they do. This can be interpreted as a thinly veiled criticism or simply a misunderstanding about the values of the club and expectations of their fans.
So where next for Atletico, can they continue to do the same thing and expect different results? It would be an incredible risk to part ways with a coach as successful as Simeone, who has steered the club from dysfunction to disrupting the domestic dominance of Real and Barcelona. To dismiss someone as influential as Simeone would require a systemic change in the culture of the club, a culture that is adored and maintained by the fans.
Finally, do the fans want things to change? The answer is a resounding no. The age of Simeone has been the best time to be a fan of Atletico de Madrid. At the beginning of the decade, the club were suffering in the Spanish second tier, but since the return of their prodigal hero, trophies have become commonplace – even if the big one has yet eluded them. To the club, the fans and the city, El Cholo is more than a manager.