The final whistle had blown at the Nou Camp in Barcelona and Atletico Madrid had just achieved the impossible – a singular feat that most believed was well beyond their reach at the start of the season. Proving their detractors wrong had become something of a habit for Los Rojiblancos over the course of the campaign, and the league triumph on the final day was no different. In a performance that typified the spirit they had shown throughout the season, Atleti overcame the loss of Diego Costa and Arda Turan, fighting back from a goal down and then keeping out Barcelona for a full forty-five minutes to win the point they needed to claim the title – breaking, in the process, the decade long duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona, by far the biggest clubs in the country.
As the players celebrated on the pitch amidst an ovation from a packed Camp Nou, a figure clad in black from head to toe could be seen sitting on the sidelines, away from all the revelry, taking a moment to let it all sink in. Diego Simeone – usually a ball of barely-contained energy and passion – sat quiet in that moment of reflection as he watched his charges breaking down in tears from the sheer disbelief and emotion that the incredible finish to the season brought with it. The Argentinian manager had masterminded Los Rojiblancos’ first title for close to two decades – a truly logic-defying accomplishment. Simeone and Atleti – who had hitherto been knocking politely on the door with a UEFA Europa League title and a Copa del Rey win – had now kicked that door in and made the football world sit up and take notice. La Liga was no more a two-horse race.
The 2014 FIFA Ballon d’Or ceremony in Zurich saw World Cup winning manager Joachim Löw pick up the Men’s Coach of the Year award for 2014 whilst Carlo Ancelotti’s La Decima triumph saw him pip Diego Simeone to second spot. Even though both Löw and Ancelotti were deserving recipients of their respective honours, Atletico Madrid and Simeone could be excused for feeling a little hard done by. To add to that, the farcical nature of the FIFA FIFPro World XI meant that not a single Atleti player made the line-up – a complete travesty of justice. Unjust, but perhaps unsurprising given that the eleven players – four defenders, three midfielders, three forwards and a goalkeeper – are voted in by over fifty thousand footballers, not all of whom, presumably, give the voting process a serious thought.
Despite Atletico Madrid arguably having a better season than their city rivals, it is clear that no one Los Rojiblancos player in particular stands out as a legitimate challenger for the Ballon d’Or. Indeed, it is difficult to pick a single best player from the Atleti team of last season. Diego Godin was an absolute rock in the centre of defence and scored crucial goals – including the goal that won the league for Atletico. Koke, the poster-boy for the club, played a key role largely from a left midfield position with a sizeable number of assists to his name. On-loan goalie Thibaut Courtois had an outstanding season in the league and was the standout keeper in the Champions League – his freakish performances at San Siro in particular, as well as at the Nou Camp and Stamford Bridge played a vital role in getting Atleti to the final.
Diego Costa, meanwhile, was in many ways the physical embodiment of Simeone’s philosophy – his tactical discipline, industry, raw aggression, unrelenting intensity and lethal finishing played a crucial role in the success the club had over the course of the season. It would be remiss to not recognize the contributions of the rest of the squad however – the likes of Arda Turan, Gabi, Juanfran, Miranda, Filipe Luis, Tiago, Raul Garcia, Adrian Lopez and David Villa amongst others all contributed to the spectacular season Atleti had. The Aristotelian cliché of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts holds true in Atletico’s case more than any other, and as the man who put this team together, Diego Simeone deserves immense credit.
The magnitude of Simeone’s achievement is perhaps best appreciated when considering the sheer improbability of a team other than Barcelona or Real Madrid winning La Liga. Atletico’s resources pale in comparison to the two giants of world football who had just added the likes of Neymar and Gareth Bale to their already world-class squads at the beginning of the season. Also, Los Rojiblancos did not have nearly the same squad depth as their more fancied rivals. It is a true testament to the man-management and motivational abilities of Simeone that Atleti were able to absorb the loss of key players with admirably little effect on the performance of the team as a whole. Although the World Cup is undoubtedly the bigger prize and Ancelotti’s Champions League win was a historic one, Simeone arguably had to overcome greater odds to win La Liga with Atleti, making his managerial accomplishment more impressive.
Germany were certainly not out-and-out favourites for the World Cup, but definitely were in the reckoning along with the likes of Brazil and Argentina. To Löw’s credit, Die Mannschaft were impressive as a team, and similar to Atleti in some ways, dealt admirably with injuries such that the performance of the selected XI on the pitch did not suffer greatly. It was the first time a European country had won a World Cup on South American soil – a historic achievement that deserves special recognition. However, when comparing the squads available to the national team managers at the start of the World Cup, Germany’s was right up there with the best. Indeed, it is why some tipped them to win the competition. In contrast, very few genuinely believed anybody other than Barcelona or Real Madrid would win La Liga. It would be absurd to suggest that that diminishes Germany’s accomplishment in any way, but it does emphasize the key difference in the title wins of the two managers.
What makes Simeone’s case stronger is that he also exceeded expectations on another important front – the Champions League – which he was a mere minute away from winning. Despite the loss in the final however, Atleti overcame the likes of Barcelona and Chelsea – the two strongest teams in the Champions League over the past decade – to earn a spot in the showpiece game against Real Madrid. El Cholo (Simeone’s nickname in Spain) famously said after beating Chelsea at Stamford Bridge: “I want to thank the mothers of these players, because they gave birth to them with balls this big!” Crude, perhaps, but right on the money.
Not flustered by failing to register a result at home, Atleti simply turned up at Stamford Bridge and beat a strong Chelsea side managed by one of the competition’s most successful coaches in Jose Mourinho. It was just one more gutsy win in Los Rojiblancos’ season. Simeone’s side didn’t necessarily have the flair or individual brilliance that other teams in Europe possessed, nor were they aesthetically pleasing all the time. Instead, Atleti overcame any individual shortcomings through sheer grit and determination to succeed. The players’ tangible desire to do well for the manager and the team and to make sacrifices for the collective gain meant that even their rough-and-tumble style had a beauty of its own.
Atleti have since lost the likes of Diego Costa, Filipe Luis and Thibaut Courtois to Chelsea, but have found able replacements in the form of Antoine Griezmann, Mario Mandzukic and Miguel Angel Moya amongst others. Unsurprisingly though, Barcelona and Real Madrid in particular have also strengthened, meaning the odds are even more against Simeone this time around and Los Rojiblancos face a real battle to retain their La Liga crown. El Cholo’s record suggests that he is something of a specialist at upsetting the odds however, so one could do a lot worse than put money on them at this stage.
And if there’s one thing you can bet Atleti will be ready for, it is battle.