After soundly beating Huesca on Tuesday, Atletico Madrid now prepares for this weekend’s El Derbi Madrileño at the Santiago Bernabeu this weekend. Given Real Madrid’s 3-0 loss to Sevilla on Wednesday, the difference in the table between city rivals is now two points and Atleti looks to take advantage of the sudden momentum that has shifted their way. More importantly, it presents another opportunity to claim bragging rights during a season in which the tide could turn in the Spanish capital.
For Jorge Resurrecion Merodio, known simply as Koke, there is no bigger game.
“It’s a historic derby and it has always been regarded as the biggest rivalry,” Koke told SI.com this week. “It’s a game that encourages you to compete and win more than any other, so the motivation and intensity is totally different.”
Koke knows all too well the significance of this game and what it means for Atletico Madrid fans, because he is an Atleti fan himself. Since entering its academy as an 8-year-old, the player has never known another club, and at 26, his resume is incredibly impressive. After more than 300 appearances (including with Atleti’s B team) he has won seven trophies, including La Liga's title in 2013-2014, two Europa League titles and the latest achievement, UEFA’s Super Cup, which was an entertaining 4-2 victory against Real Madrid back in August. Thanks to a decisive run and finish inside the box, he scored the fourth goal, in extra time, sealing the victory for Diego Simeone’s men. He also started in the 2014 and 2016 Champions League final defeats to Real Madrid, each heartbreaking in its own way.
He stresses, however, that this weekend will be a completely different animal.
“A final and a league fixture are different," Koke said. "The desire is the same, of course, but when you face them at the Bernabeu at the beginning of the season, it’s different.”
When Koke speaks of Atletico Madrid, the raw emotion is evident, and there have even been moments in the past when it has been difficult for him to contain his feelings. Last year, for example, when he renewed his contract, the club wanted to do something different with a special video tribute featuring interviews with his parents, old coaches and teammates as they expressed how much the club means to the player, and vice versa.
By the end of the video, Koke broke down in tears.
“Atleti is the club of my life and it’s an honor to be part of its future,” he said as he unsuccessfully tried to hold back the emotion.
Sporting director and Atleti icon José Luis Pérez Caminero has called him not only a valuable member of the team but someone who exemplifies what it means to play for the club.
“He is an example to all the kids who play at the academy. A player who is loved and respected in the dressing room and will make history at the club,” Caminero said.
In 2014, months before Vicente del Bosque selected him for Spain's 23-man World Cup squad, Xavi called him an “extraordinary” player and his eventual successor.
“He has everything: talent, physical ability, he is a footballer of the present and the future,” said the former Barcelona star.
Much of Koke’s style is owed to Simeone, who began to mentor him in the 2011-2012 season, but it wasn’t until the following campaign when Koke began to show his skills as a smart, elite passer, and despite his young age, he established himself as a key ingredient of the team’s success. Koke’s vision as an architect in the midfield has always been present, but Simeone made him more clinical and aggressive in his decision-making.
“From a soccer perspective, Simeone is like a father to me,” Koke said. “He gave me so much confidence, and every game that I play I owe a lot to him and try to show it him on the field.”
When asked how long he thinks the Argentinian manager will stay with the club, he believes that Simeone, who is frequently linked to other jobs, is not yet finished where he is.
“In the end, it's results that determine the fate of a manager," Koke said. "The boss has a great plan and vision for the club and how it can keep growing, and I think he wants to be here because his great vision is still unfinished.”
Koke also says his manager, who has been mentioned as a candidate to take over the national team in his native Argentina, might think he’s still a few years away for the role.
“I think he might think he’s still too young to manage Argentina, but in the end it’s his decision,” Koke said.
A major obstacle for Atletico over the years has been keeping up with the likes of big-spending financial titans Barcelona and Real Madrid.
During Koke's time with the club, though, Atletico Madrid has evolved in this regard considerably. For years, it churned out talent–Sergio Aguero, Fernando Torres, Diego Forlan are among the more prominent names–before selling it off, only to reload in hopes of remaining competitive. It relied on the steel instilled by Simeone and the defensive and tactical precision coupled with timely, clinical scoring but had to be more efficient with its spending in order to keep up with the Spanish duopoly.
Yannick Carrasco and Nico Gaitan’s exit to the Chinese Super League, for example, needed to happen in order to balance the books after the club spent close to €100 million on Diego Costa and Vitolo in 2017. Reports earlier this year showed the club’s debt had grown from approximately €200 million to €541 million in the last few years, mainly due to the expenditure of its new stadium and wages of star players.
Atleti continued splashing the cash this past summer, though, and boasts a more multi-pronged attack than it ever has in recent years. It managed to lure France international Thomas Lemar from Monaco for a reported €65 million during a busy period of spending that also saw the club land Nikola Kalinic and Gelson Martins, while also re-signing World Cup champion Antoine Griezmann.
“With everything that he has achieved this year, for me, he deserves to be a major contender for Balon d’Or,” says Koke of his teammate. “And obviously it would be great for an Atletico Madrid [player] to win it.”
Adding and retaining talent is one component to success, but Koke believes the competitive mentality of the club and its ability to change its ways without losing its essence is another source from which it can draw upon to achieve the results it desires both in La Liga and Europe.
“In the end, it’s about winning, bit by bit, which ultimately gives stability," Koke said. "Performing well in tournaments such as the Champions League helps. And with this mentality, good players therefore want to come here to compete. I just think we know how to reinvent ourselves.”
As for the other element to Koke's career, his current role with the national team is somewhat fragile. After missing one of the penalties against Russia in the round of 16 in Moscow, he failed to make the cut in Luis Enrique’s squad during last month’s friendlies.
After the roster selection was announced, the Spanish head coach refused to give any reasons for his omission but did say there would be opportunities in the future.
“Missing the penalty was clearly a low point, but the great thing about this team is that I’m surrounded by great, supportive colleagues and coaches,” Koke said.
Still in his prime years, Koke should be a long way from being finished with La Roja, for whom he's already taken part in two World Cups and a European Championship, but for now, all eyes are on Saturday and three points at the Bernabeu.
“The most important thing when you’re playing Real Madrid is to stay together as team,” Koke said. “They have very fast, dangerous players who can score very easily, so it’s all about being patient and careful when they come forward. We just have to wait for our moment.”
With Real Madrid, as it adjusts to a new manager and life without Cristiano Ronaldo, and Barcelona showing vulnerabilities recently, it seems that the moment for Koke’s Atletico Madrid is right now.