Sunday 18 February 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Diego Simeone, a mad genius fit for the big screen

Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone. Photo: Reuters
Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone. Photo: Reuters

Eamonn Sweeney

Eamon Dunphy is on record as saying that Diego Simeone "looks like a Mexican pimp". It is of course always wise to heed the voice of experience but personally I find the Argentinian to be more like the protagonists of the great Werner Herzog movies, Fitzcarraldo or Cobra Verde or Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

Those men were crazed visionaries, stopping at nothing as they dragged boats over mountains, overthrew fearsome kings and sought the legendary land of El Dorado. The seeming impossibility of their quest doesn't scare them, it inspires them and the streak of madness within them is their most powerful weapon and the cause of their downfall.

The great Herzog characters were played by the great German actor Klaus Kinski who was something of a crazed visionary and one of the fascinations of watching the movies is wondering how much of the madness on show is faked and how much is genuine.

That's also one of the fascinations in watching Simeone at work. England's three biggest clubs have been changing their managers regularly of late yet the Atletico boss's name rarely came up in connection with the vacancies. Perhaps while the clubs know that there is method to Simeone's madness, they suspect that there's also madness to it.

Looking at Simeone on Wednesday night clouting a member of the Atletico backroom staff who'd been guilty of failing to delay the ball being put back into play, the thought occurred that someday the reign of this extraordinary manager may end in tears. Herzog made a documentary about Kinski, entitled My Best Fiend, and that would also make a decent title for a movie about Simeone. Because while the man may have a touch of the fiend about him, he is also probably the best manager in Europe.

Simeone's achievement two seasons ago in guiding Atletico past Barca and Real to win La Liga before coming within seconds of adding the Champions League seemed to be underestimated at the time, a rare occurrence in a sport where the most quotidian feats are hyped to the rafters. It almost appeared that Atletico's victory was dismissed as a result of La Liga having 'one of those seasons', as Barca and Real took their eye off the ball and let the scruffy outsiders ghost in at the back post.

It also seemed to make no difference to the customary dismissal of the best league in Europe as a two-horse race; 2013-14 was apparently just a freakish blip. Yet here we are, two seasons later, with Simeone and Atletico doing the same kind of thing again. Condescending to them won't be quite as easy this time.

Not only are they back in the Champions League final but they are level on points with Barcelona on top of La Liga with two games left. It looks pretty certain the Catalans will prevail on goal difference but all season Atletico have dogged the steps of a Barcelona team who must have expected to be out of sight after they played some of the best football ever seen in Europe for the first three quarters of the campaign. Yet Atletico, like the trackers in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, just kept coming. That's what they do. They keep on keeping on.

In doing so they unnerve the opposition. Barcelona's season almost came crashing down around them after they lost their Champions League crown in two intense quarter-final legs against Atletico. Bayern Munich's progress had been almost equally imperious, just two losses in the Bundesliga, until they came up against Simeone's men in the semi-final. Neither of the two sides, who looked head and shoulders above everyone else in Europe all season, had an answer to Atletico.

Should Atletico close the deal in the final it may well rank as the greatest European campaign of them all, a hat-trick of wins over perhaps the three most powerful clubs in the world at a time when money power is supposed to have taken the oligarchy far out of reach of the plebs.

We've got to know the lynchpins, the guys who exemplify the team's spirit. Diego Godin unbeatable in the centre of defence, Filipe Luis making intervention after intervention on the left, Juanfran tirelessly ploughing a furrow on the right, Gabi anchoring things in midfield.

These are not glamour players. If, a couple of years ago, a big Premier League club had announced the signing of Atletico's key men there'd probably have been protests by fans that the owners weren't handing the manager a big enough 'War Chest'.

Godin might look like the best defender in the world when he's at the heart of the Atletico defence but up to recently, his looked an unspectacular career. He cost Atletico just €8m when he arrived from Villareal six years ago, just another decent South American defender in a league full of them. The scarcely less impressive Luis couldn't even make the squad for the defensively-challenged Brazilians at the last World Cup and couldn't oust Cesar Azpilicueta from the left-back slot during his brief sojourn at Chelsea.

Juanfran has 16 Spanish caps but has rarely been a regular for the national team. At club level he couldn't make it at Real Madrid and arrived at the Vicente Calderon Stadium via Osasuna. Gabi has not a single Spanish cap and cost Atletico €3m from struggling Zaragoza. But they are different men under Simeone.

Atletico did spend big by their standards, €30m, to secure Antoine Griezmann from Real Sociedad but the French striker is still hardly anyone's idea of a Galactico and is partnered up front by Fernando Torres, a player dismissed as unfit for purpose by the continent's elite clubs. Contrast that with Barcelona's MSN frontline and Real's collection of outstanding individuals which no Fantasy Football League in the world would allow you to select together.

Chances are Griezmann will end up joining a bigger club. That's what happened to his predecessors. Since 2010 Sergio Aguero, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Milan Mandzukic have left for bigger clubs. Atletico may not be Leicester but financially they operate on a significantly lower level than the sides they've knocked out in recent weeks.

In an era when money is supposed to answer all ills, Atletico's achievement seems profoundly illogical. So it's not surprising that it's sometimes portrayed as being not quite fair. The truth is that the wins over Barcelona and Bayern were richly deserved. Against the former, Atletico had to play over half of the away leg with just 10 men after a questionable sending off, against the latter they scored one of the individual goals of the year through Saul Niguez in the first leg and contrived a counter-attacking goal par excellence through Griezmann in the second. They perhaps should have led by more after the first leg and then had to cope with the concession of a soft early goal against a rampant Bayern in the return.

They prevailed. If there is a degree of cynicism to their play, that hardly makes them very different from their rivals. Champions League football, for all its beauties, has a hard core of gamesmanship in its heart. Atletico may be rugged but they don't possess a deep-dyed villain of the Luis Suarez or Pepe ilk. They have no interest in sitting back and allowing Barcelona and Real to weave the pretty patterns which delight the purists. Do that and you end with Messi and Suarez playing one-twos from the penalty spot while the world laughs along with them.

Simeone's extreme animation, his tendency to be a bit quick with his hands and his ability to judge perfectly what is required on big European occasions can bring Brian Clough to mind. But Clough was more of an idealist in football terms. The more apposite comparison is with Don Revie and his Leeds United team.

Perhaps that's why Dunphy was so passionate in Atletico's defence when the team's bona fides were questioned by Liam Brady. Dunphy, after all, is intensely loyal to John Giles and historically acute enough to realise that the criticisms of Atletico are exactly the same as those aimed at the team his friend once played for. Dunphy may have said more stupid things about football than any other Irishman but he's also said more intelligent things and on balance the latter far exceed the former. Above all, he's pooh-poohed the idea that football is an innocent game and that a team can deserve to win by virtue of the spirit in which they play the game. The reality is that all top-flight sport is intensely ruthless and pragmatic. Atletico revealed this inconvenient truth as they broke the hearts of Bayern and Barca.

Now the quest is almost over. Get over this last mountain and Diego will be leading his conquistadors into El Dorado.

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