MADRID -- Diego Simeone always knew this day would come and, at the rate that they go through coaches, it was always likely to be soon. He could pretty much choose his moment and, after years of flirting, he has chosen now: on Tuesday afternoon, 2012 opened with the Argentine formally presented as the new coach of Atlético de Madrid. All is well with the world once more. You'd think so, anyway. The talk was of ilusión but deep down, beneath the smiles, the lingering fear is that this could be just another illusion.
Some fans refused to let themselves believe but others gathered to welcome "El Cholo," a former Atlético captain, the emotional and spiritual heartbeat of the team that won the league and cup double in 1996 -- the club's last title before a 14-year trophy drought that was finally ended with the Europa League success in 2010. As one headline put it, Atlético will now be "aggressive and offensive." Aggressive? Offensive? They could have been talking about Simeone himself. A team built in its coach's image, then.
That is the way they want it: a hard man to sort Atlético out; someone who knows what the club is about. A man with bark and bite, famous for his endeavor, his aggression -- the image of the hole left in Julen Guerrero's thigh by Simeone's studs is hard to forget -- and his spirit. A man who cared -- and that is the cliché to which supporters and clubs so often turn at times of trouble. A couple of training sessions, a presentation, a few words, and some are convinced. "The team," said Simeone, "is more important than any individual."
"The Cholo effect brings ilusión [hope]," cheered AS' resident rabid atlético Manuel Esteban, better known as "Manolete" to all. "It is years since I saw a coach talk to his players so much: he corrects them as he goes, talking to them individually and as a group, he wins the fans over by showing them his work. His philosophy is one that rojiblancos like: they have to go into challenges, be aggressive, play on the counter and honor the shirt that they wear." Marca noted approvingly that "the word Simeone used most during the presentation was "team."
Actually, it was "obviously." And some things are obvious -- or should be.
Not least the fact that we have been here before. Soccer is by nature cyclical; each new season, each new player, each new coach, brings new hope. But everyone's lost count of the times that Atlético has presented the new coach as the man who would sort things out. They have lost count of the number of times -- and, in truth, this goes for most clubs, most media and most players' public pronouncements -- that the new coach's arrival has been met with the typical remarks.
Remarks like: "now, this is how you work," or "he's building a better relationship with the players," or "the time for cruising has passed," and the old favorite: "we're working harder and longer than ever before." If that really was true, if there really was a tangible, quantifiable increase with every new coach, teams would be closing in on 24-hour training sessions by now.
Simeone is the 49th managerial appointment that Atlético Madrid has made since the Gil family illegally gained control of the club in 1987. Since 1996, when the late Jesús Gil's son Miguel-Ángel Gil Marín took over as CEO, it has averaged 14 new players a season. Keeping on top of Atlético requires a ream of A4, a bag of pens, and an abacus.
Even when things have gone well, they have gone badly. Atlético won the Europa league in 2010 yet its first trophy in 14 years was forgotten in 14 minutes. Within a year, the coach had gone. So had Diego Forlán, Sergio Aguero and David de Gea. Now, 18 months later, Manolete noted: "Atlético have been plunged into the greatest of depressions." Simeone too has had a pretty checkered career. This is his seventh club. He only started coaching in 2006. Atlético has been talking about him and he has been talking about them since well before that.
His arrival is designed to snap Atlético out of that depression. He was a populist choice made by owners under pressure; they were playing to the crowd. Cholo unites like few others could -- perhaps only Luis Aragonés would have had such an impact. Much of what he said was populist too. Sensible, logical and understandable, yet mostly vacuous, standard fare: the club is what matters, we will give our all, etc. and so on. no wonder the word he most used was "obviously."
Obviously. Simeone bites. But so does reality. By the new coach's own admission, he turned up and "within two hours" was confronted by winger José Antonio Reyes telling him that he wanted to leave. That is likely to be a good thing, but his first news conference and already Simeone was having to put out fires.
It is unlikely to be the last. Atlético is in crisis and in debt. Coaches' authority is always undermined. The squad is unbalanced and the club's sporting director, Jose Luis Caminero, might as well be the invisible man. Besides, his relationship with Simeone has not always been harmonious and insiders talk of personal resentment. Atletico's best players are not even wholly owned by the club any more -- this summer, it turned to an investment fund to help them sign. In doing so, it lost control.
Actually, it lost control years ago. It lost control over everything except the club itself: the two men that have presided over Atletico's sad demise -- president Enrique Cerezo and Gil Marín - are still there. They are adept at bringing in new men only to confront the same old failings.
Simeone's arrival might be fantastic news for Atlético, he might make them win and his work might prove perfect. he could be exactly what they need. After all, there can be no doubt that with the players Atlético has, it should have achieved more. Simeone might. He knows Atlético. He might resolve some of the team's problems. But he cannot resolve them all: it wasn't down in the dugout that Atlético most needed a change but up in the directors' box. Coaches have been culpable too but when it comes to blame they have not been alone. When it comes to virtually everything else, they have.
The good news is that Simeone knows that too.