Atlético Madrid and Barcelona are set to play the biggest league game in the history of the world today. Most of the cast in this production are well known—Barça are still Barça, though by all accounts their manager is not long for this city; we've touched on Atléti's players before—but the total badassery of the Madrid boss goes underappreciated. Let's fix that.
So who is he?
The man in black is none other than Diego Simeone, a legendary player for Argentina and Atlético Madrid, who is quickly threatening to overshadow his illustrious playing career with an even more impressive managerial one.
"Legendary," eh? First it's "the biggest game ever," now the coach is "the greatest player ever"...
See now, the biggest league game in world history bit was a joke. (Though the match still might be the biggest single game ever in La Liga.)
But Simeone is definitely a legendary player. That's not the same as being a great player, though he was really good. For Argentina, the defensive midfielder won a couple Copa Américas (the South American equivalent to the European Championships), played in three World Cups from 1994 to 2002, and retired with Argentina's all-time cap record (he's since been passed by two others).
On the club level, el Cholo (a nickname he received as a young player because his tenacity reminded a coach of another player with that sobriquet) spent his career alternating between Italian and Spanish sides. On his travels he won levery trophy imaginable, but none were as memorable as the Copa del Rey and La Liga double he pulled off with Atléti. Though he hopped around a good bit, he spent the longest part of his career with Atlético.
But more than the club trophies, Simeone is considered a legend because of the way he played the game. For both club and country, Simeone was always the spiritual leader for his teams—basically the Argentine Gennaro Gattuso. His intensity on the pitch set the tone for his teammates, who couldn't be caught giving less than their all under his watch. He was the enforcer who'd pester opposing flair players with little shoves and borderline tackles, to hopefully get them off—or out of—their game. Like Gattuso—or any beloved tough guy on a team, like the Patriots' Logan Mankins—Simeone was adored by teammates and fans alike for his commitment to winning.
(In a fawning Argentine newspaper article from the run up to the 2002 World Cup, Simeone lays out his philosophy thusly: "Life is to win things. Without stepping on anyone, but with the goal of winning." Another anecdote from that article recounts how the normally short-of-words Simeone grabbed the mic during his wedding reception after an early exit in the 1994 World Cup and told his wife "I apologize to you because I couldn't give you the World Cup title, which is what I wanted to give you," and then started crying. So yeah, he's kinda crazy about winning.)
Hold up, let's go back a minute. Why is he the man in black?
Oh yeah. Like Carlo Ancelotti, Pep Guardiola, and a few other managers, part of Simeone's schtick is his look. Which is all black everything, all the time. See for yourself:
Slick backed hair, black shoes, black pants, black shirt, black jacket. That's the uniform. He will maybe—maybe—occasionally get caught in a white shirt, but that's like, a huge exception.
Unlike Carlo Ancelotti, who most resembles a lost member of SPECTRE, Simeone looks like he just came off set playing Gian Maria Volonté's brother in a spaghetti Western and only took off the cowboy boots and pistol holster. The barking madman who would bite through his own tongue to win just so happens to look like a classic Western baddie. What's not to love?
He sounds like a cool dude, but is he actually a good manager?
That's the whole point of this thing. Simeone spent his last season as a player back in Argentina with Racing. After the season he was made manager. Starting the following year, he flitted from one Argentine Primera División club to another Argentine Primera División club, winning titles and jumping ship at a staggering rate. (The Primera División is not one for managerial stability.)
After about five years of that, Cholo was finally hired by a European team. Catania made him a midseason replacement charged with keeping them in Serie A, which he succeeded. That summer, he returned to Argentina with Racing, but was later called again by Europe, this time to be a midseason replacement for Atlético.
Simeone's appointment immediately paid dividends. Along with bringing the club up in the table, he navigated the team to a Europa League title. That might not sound like much seeing where the club finds itself today, but for an Atlético team that hadn't won the league since Simeone's 1995-96 team did it, it augured well for bigger and better things in his future.
In his first full season, he led them to their highest league position in years, when they finished a comfortable third in the two-team competition that is La Liga. And this year, he's trying to destroy the top-two hegemony entirely by winning the league.
...and you still haven't told me if he's good or not.
We're getting there. As I was saying, at Atlético Simeone's tactical ideology really came into form. Like so many Argentine and South American managers, Cholo's teams play a lot like his former national team coach Marcelo Bielsa's. Simeone is all about pressure. Pressing high, pressing early, and pressing incessantly. When they win the ball back, the attack extremely directly.
The squad Atlético have assembled this year perfectly realizes Simeone's tactics. The central midfield pairing of Gabi and Tiago are near mirrors of their manager's ball-winning mindset. In Koke, Atléti have developed a versatile weapon who attacks and defends with the equal intensity and adeptness. And Simeone has turned what had been considered a flair player into a tough but still technically dope baller in Arda Turan. I mean, just look at what was a baby-faced touchline prancer—
—and is now a fierce, bearded warrior:
Just being near Cholo is enough to put hairs on your chin.
But more than the tactics, Simeone has given his side a certain approach to the game that has served them so well during his reign. Simeone's Atléti never back down, they never quit, and they give their all from minute 1 to minute 90+, and from match 1 to match 38+. More than imbuing his tactics on his team, his very essence permeates the entire club.
Damn, sounds kind of intense. Is he always this focused?
Most of the time, yes. But not always. Earlier this year he was filmed playing keepy-uppy with one of his three sons on Atlético's pitch:
Another time, he was surprised in a press conference by a video of his sons—who live back home in Argentina—wishing him and the team luck for the rest of the season:
He even takes time out to thank his players' mothers. You know, for giving them such big balls:
You can also follow him on Twitter: @Simeone.
OK, I'm convinced. I'm officially #TeamCholo. So what do I have to look forward to?
You've picked the perfect time to hop aboard the bandwagon! Today is the aforementioned biggest sporting event in the history of right now. Against Barcelona, Atlético Madrid will go head to head at Barça's Camp Nou for their first league title since Simeone's 1996 campaign as a player. A win or a draw and they are champions. A loss and Barcelona will celebrate their second consecutive La Liga title.
But the fun doesn't stop there. The following Saturday there is a match for an even bigger prize: The Champions League final against archrivals Real Madrid. In Lisbon, the blanco and rojiblanco sides of Madrid will fight for club soccer's most prestigious trophy. The size and importance of each remaining two fixtures in Spanish soccer's history is debatable, but what isn't is that these are the two biggest weeks in Atlético Madrid history.
What are my boy's chances?
In the league they have to be the favorites. Barça and Atléti have already played each other 5 times this season, four ending in a draw, and one Atlético win. Atlético are incredibly stingy defensively and only need to avoid defeat, so their fans have to be cautiously optimistic about their chances, even if it is away from home. On top of that, Barcelona are wrapping up their worst season in forever, are playing for a lame duck manager whose offseason departure has been an open secret since about January, and have suffered from motivation problems dating back to halfway through Pep Guardiola's final season.
The Champions League match will be trickier. They did draw Real once and beat them once in the league this year, but they also got smashed by them in the Copa del Rey. Bale has been hurting in recent weeks (though he's reportedly back in action), Ronaldo has also missed time for a leg injury that he looks ready to risk this weekend in hopes of beating Luis Suárez for the mostly irrelevant European Golden Boot award (they are currently tied), so we'll have to wait and see how the medical situation shapes up when we're closer. For Atléti's part, star striker Diego Costa has also been out with an injury, though he's trying to make today's match.
Luckily for Atlético fans, I have seen the future, and it is a bright one. Yes, you guys will get beat up pretty bad against Barcelona, when Messi's four goals will earn him the Pichichi, the European Golden Boot, and the La Liga title in a 5-0 win, but you will get to celebrate a 3-0 victory over a humiliated Real. It's a win-win for me as a Barcelona fan, a huge if not perfect win for Atlético, and a big fuck you to Real. I think we all can agree, this is the best outcome.
So good job, Cholo. You've earned fans the world over with an incredibly fun team on a miracle run, and will almost certainly be rewarded with some kind of silverware for your troubles. Just don't beat or tie Barcelona, dude. You can at least do me that favor.