When, in December 2011, Diego Simeone told his son that he was going to be manager of Atletico Madrid, the 9-year-old replied, “And take on Messi and Ronaldo?” It seemed a ridiculous challenge, yet Simeone not merely accepted it, but succeeded–his son was simultaneously delighted and upset; the more successful his father was, the less time he spent back home with his family in Argentina.
What Simeone has done is without precedent in the modern age of stratified financial elites. Winning the league in 2014 with the third horse in a two-horse race was remarkable enough but, after last season’s more ordinary third-placed finish, to lift the club again into the position of being Barcelona’s main challenger is something extraordinary. But Saturday’s game at the Camp Nou has an end-of-an-era feel.
If Barça wins that, it will lead the league by three points with a game in hand. With 16 games still to play that wouldn’t be a decisive lead, but it would be significant. And whatever happens, it feels as though this will be Simeone’s final season in Madrid.
This is Atletico’s chance to put pressure on Barca, to perhaps take a three-point lead–and, if it can win by two, take the head-to-head advantage.
Miss it, and the suspicion will be that this golden period in Atletico’s history is coming to an end. Nobody can seriously doubt that Simeone is the main reason for the unexpected over-performance.
When he took the job, Simeone was answering an emotional call. He had spent three seasons at Atletico in the 1990s, helping the club to the league and cup double in 1995-96, and had returned for a further two years in 2005. However confident he may have been in his own ability as a manager, he can’t realistically have expected to have done what he wound up doing.
Quite apart from Atlético’s oft-demonstrated capacity for self-destructive farce, there was a simple financial issue. The Deloitte list of the world’s richest clubs released in 2011 showed Atlético’s annual revenue at $153 million, way behind Barcelona ($488 million) and Real Madrid ($537 million).
The summer before Simeone arrived, Sergio Aguero and David De Gea were sold, weakening a squad that had finished seventh. When he took over, it was 11th, just four points above the relegation zone. That season, he led them to success in the Europa League. The following season, Atletico finished third. In 2013-14, the Rojiblancos won La Liga for the first time since 1996 and were within a minute of beating Real Madrid in the Champions League final.
Former Argentina defender Roberto Perfumo described Simeone as “a born coach” and few who experienced his leadership as a player could be surprised that he has had such success. He admits he finds it a struggle to switch off. “I go to the cinema on a Tuesday and a Thursday,” he told El Grafico, “but if the film is boring the actors disappear and you see players: how do I stitch this together, how can I double up on that flank?”
For all the success Simeone has had at Atletico, it’s the Estudiantes side he led to the Argentinian aperture title in 2006 that he still sees as “the team that captured best what I think of football, with which I felt most identified: practicality, commitment, collective effort, talent, simplicity.” He gets his team to feel a sense of collective identity and he gets it to fight.
Perhaps most impressively, he has been able to do that even after losing players such as Diego Costa and Arda Turan, who were not merely gifted but seemed emblematic of his side. Atletico is still far less wealthy than Barcelona and Real Madrid–the recent Deloitte report shows its income for 2014-15 at $203.9 million, while Madrid’s was $629.4 million and Barcelona’s $611.7 million. He himself is part of that sense of collective identity.
Eventually, though, there comes a time to move on. Simeone is one of four managers reported to have been shortlisted for the Chelsea job, and, even if he doesn’t end up at Stamford Bridge, the indications are that it will not be long before he moves on. Fighting constantly against the tide is exhausting and the economic reality of football in Spain means that Atletico will always be a level below Madrid and Barcelona.
Saturday’s game, perhaps, represents for Simeone one last swing at the league title.