El Cholo’s Last Stand


MADRID — Diego Simeone loved the way the sunlight hit the stands at the Vicente Calderón. First as an Atlético Madrid player, and then as its manager, he relished home games in the stadium in late afternoon, when he could look up from the field and see the red and white seats glinting in the waning glow.

That was when he felt the stadium’s energy on the touchline, when the sun shone and the banners fluttered and the songs drifted down from on high. Simeone spent a considerable portion of his professional life in that stadium, but he was never inoculated against its power. “The Calderón has an ability to affect you,” he said.

Simeone knew, when he agreed to take charge of Atlético a few days after Christmas in 2011, that he would have to harness that power. He understood, he felt, what the club’s fans wanted, what sort of team would be in line with Atlético’s history, its identity, what style of play would win the backing of the Calderón.

His team, he told The Coaches’ Voice a few years later, would have to be built on a strong defense, a deadly counterattack and an unyielding work ethic. Simeone, the player known as El Cholo, was creating his own philosophy: Cholísmo. “The only thing that is not negotiable is effort,” he told his players in their first meeting. Most of all, he said, Atlético had to be a thorn in the side of the superpowers.

He and his team have delivered on that promise. By almost any metric, Simeone’s tenure as Atlético’s manager has been an unqualified, spectacular success. The trophies are, of course, the most obvious proof. Under Simeone, Atlético has lifted the Europa League and the European Super Cup twice, in 2012 and 2018. He won the Copa del Rey, against Real Madrid, in 2013, and led the club to the Champions League final in 2014 and 2016.

Most important, of course, he led Atlético to the Spanish title in 2014 — sealed on enemy territory in Barcelona, too. It was the club’s first championship for almost two decades, and the first time in 10 years that a team other than Barcelona or Real Madrid had won the Spanish crown.

It is a remarkable haul for a team that was, until recently, known for its ability to fall at the last, for its perpetual disappointment. Atlético has long been known, by fans and foes alike, as El Pupas: the Jinxed. The nickname does not come up so much, these days.

The Outsider Inside

There are other measures, beyond trophies, of what Simeone has achieved. His longevity, for one: He is, by some distance, the longest-serving manager at any major club in Europe, and at a club that until he arrived had been allergic to stability. Before Simeone, Atlético had employed 12 coaches in a decade.

Even more telling, perhaps, is the sea change in Atlético’s fortunes off the field. His success has effectively wiped out the club’s soaring debts, and attracted the kind of deep-pocketed foreign sponsors — China’s Wanda group, Azerbaijan’s tourism board, an Israeli billionaire — that helped pay for a new stadium, for higher salaries, for new players. Last summer, Atlético spent $142 million on a single player — João Felix — and a further $100 million on strengthening the squad.

Atlético, in other words, is no longer the poor relation: It has paid more for a player than Real Madrid, and it reportedly pays its coach more than any team in the world.

On Tuesday, when Atlético hosts Liverpool in the last 16 of the Champions League, it will not be at Simeone’s beloved Calderón. The club left its longtime home in 2017 for the Wanda Metropolitano, a state-of-the-art but slightly soulless bowl on Madrid’s northern fringes, one grand enough to be the stage on which Liverpool won last season’s Champions League final.

Atlético is close to opening an equally lavish training base, too, one that — according to Simeone — “lives up to what the club deserves.” At last, in his eyes, the “growth of the club is parallel to that of the team.” Simeone still regards Atlético as “socially, morally and emotionally the people’s team,” but even he acknowledges its image, and its status, have changed.

In 2012, as his team prepared to face Chelsea in the European Super Cup, Simeone declared that the English club’s vast financial superiority was irrelevant. “Heart can cancel out budget,” he declared then.

For years, that was how Atlético competed, how it ensured its cherished place as European soccer’s great irritant. Now it does not need to. That is the extent of what Simeone has achieved: He has helped the eternal outsider crash through the doors of the palace. Atlético is now part of Europe’s elite. The question most are asking, now, is where that leaves the coach who took it there.

The Result Is God

Simeone wanted more energy. Not, in that precise moment, from his team — toiling at home to Bayer Leverkusen in a Champions League group game in October — but from the fans. Midway through the second half, with the game goalless, he paused in his characteristic prowling around the technical area to turn to the crowd with his fist raised, demanding more noise, more power.

In response, a portion of the fans whistled him. Simeone knows that soccer is fickle: Before his first game as Atlético coach, he told his players that the crowd that now stood in raptures before him had “at one point insulted” him as a player. “Soccer is like that,” he said.

Even so, that moment was striking. Simeone always knew, instinctively, what Atlético wanted. The club’s modern identity was entwined with his. Yet for the first time in almost a decade, discord was in the air.

As Simeone prepares for the visit of Liverpool, there is a fragile peace. This has been a testing season. Atlético sits fourth in La Liga, cut adrift from Real and Barcelona in the title race, and behind even Getafe, an unheralded team from one of Madrid’s satellite towns. It was eliminated from the Copa del Rey by a second-division side.

Its defensive parsimony remains: Only Real Madrid has conceded fewer goals this season. Simeone’s training sessions are still a reference point for teams across Europe. Last summer, seeking inspiration for how to improve its own defense, Bournemouth sent a delegation just to watch how he worked.

The problem is his team’s toothlessness. Atlético has scored only 25 goals in 24 games. Given the amount of money spent last summer, particularly on João Felix, to try to make the team more expansive, it is a paltry return.

Simeone is conscious of this. He tried to sign Edinson Cavani, the Uruguay striker, in January to give the team more cutting edge. He has met in recent weeks with Miguel Ángel Gil, Atlético’s chief executive, and the sporting director Andrea Berta to discuss how to improve the team’s attacking performance without compromising its resilience.

What Atlético — as a club, as a fan base — demands of its team has changed, mutated in some way along the road from the Calderón to the Metropolitano. As one associate of Simeone’s noted, there is an unavoidable incongruity in playing underdog soccer in an aristocrat’s home.

“In Cholísmo, the result is God,” the former Argentina forward Jorge Valdano — now a columnist for El País, and one of Spain’s most erudite soccer observers — wrote last year. That was always Simeone’s logic, and his defense: As long as his philosophy produced results, there could be no complaints.

This season, it is not working. Simeone has not been able to craft a more attacking team, and all of Atlético’s old virtues have not been enough. In the absence of God, Simeone’s congregation has started to doubt its faith.

Fear and Belief

In recent years, Simeone has lent his name to two books, in collaboration with the journalist Santi Garcia Bustamante. Both sit more comfortably on the lifestyle shelves than in the sports section.

In the second, longer edition — entitled simply “Creer,” or “Believe” — Simeone writes: “When the opposition team sense that there is fear, they take advantage without mercy.” For much of the last decade, that could have functioned as a summary of what made Atlético great.

Now, it encapsulates as well as anything the problem it is facing. Opponents no longer fear Atlético; instead, they detect an uncertainty, an anxiety, in Simeone’s team, one that bounces and echoes between the field and the stands.

Ordinarily, the visit of Liverpool — the reigning European and world champion, a side unbeaten in the Premier League and hailed last week by Lionel Scaloni, the Argentina coach, as the only “invincible” team in the world — would be a calvary for a team struggling for form.

For Atlético, curiously, it is almost a blessing. There is scarcely an opponent Simeone will relish facing more. For 180 minutes, his team can be itself again: gritty and resolute and uncompromising. It can reclaim its old identity, slip into a role it knows perfectly. Atlético is at its best when it is annoying the superpowers. Currently, there is no bigger superpower to annoy than Liverpool.

Far less certain is what comes after. Simeone retains his aura and the faith of most of his players, though those inside the club admit that perhaps the squad’s dynamics are suffering because so many of his most trusted lieutenants — the likes of Diego Godín and Gabi — have departed. His aura has not dissipated. As one player noted, Atlético is still the sort of club where nobody is ever late for a team meeting. A year ago, the manager extended his contract until 2022.

But there is a feeling that change is coming. Germán Burgos, Simeone’s longstanding assistant, is keen to start his own managerial career; it was telling that he did not sign a new contract when Simeone did.

The biggest question is what happens to Simeone. He might be able to go through his back catalog, to play the greatest hits, to pick a way past Liverpool. The greater challenge, though, is to find a way to update Cholísmo to reflect Atlético’s new circumstances, to develop a style that suits a team that is no longer always content to be the underdog and a club that demands entertainment with its efficacy.

Atlético’s identity is now fused with Simeone’s. It is hard to imagine one without the other. But Simeone, for one, has never believed in his own immutability. “I always leave before they kick me out,” he once said. “And I always believe they can kick me out tomorrow.” After almost nine years, that moment of reckoning may be coming. Liverpool might be his last hurrah. It might also be his last stand.


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