On Tuesday, one of the great artists of defensive, shithousing soccer decided to call an end to one of the most remarkable runs of European success in recent memory. Diego Godín, the Goliath in defense and scorer of many a clutch goal, will leave Atlético Madrid at the end of the current season, reportedly to join Serie A’s Inter on a free transfer.
Ever one to wear his emotions on his red-and-white sleeve, Godín broke down in tears during the press conference announcing his departure from the club he came to symbolize over the last decade:
Perhaps more than his own emotion during the announcement, the thing that best captures Godín’s status at the Spanish capital’s second club came from his teammates and ball-grabbing coach Diego Simeone, who were similarly bleary-eyed in the audience:
Atleti have been Spain’s, and often the world’s, best defense for the majority of the past decade, and Godín has been the foundational bedrock upon which it all has rested. Simeone was the architect, but Godín was the genius when went out there and actually made it work. During his time in Madrid, Godín has captained Atlético to one title in La Liga, a Copa del Rey trophy, two Europa League victories, and two Champions League finals, both lost in agonizing fashion to Real Madrid. Though his defensive contributions to those titles are what Godín mainly provided, he also scored more than his fair share of huge goals, including the one that gave Atlético that La Liga title in a de facto final against Barcelona—
—and also the goal that was only seconds away from securing Atleti what would’ve been their biggest ever win during that first Champions League final against Real:
Alongside all that silverware, Godín has overseen a complete overhaul of how Atlético are perceived around the world and how the team sees itself.
This season, Godín, like Atlético as a whole, has looked more vulnerable in defense than ever before in his tenure with the Colchoneros. Of course, that’s still only meant the team has conceded just 26 goals in La Liga, en route to what will probably be a second-place finish in the league. The cracks in the facade are inarguably there, shown most memorably when old foe Cristiano Ronaldo split them open for a hat trick in a heartbreaking Champions League game in which Atlético’s defense failed them spectacularly. But still, even a declining Atleti and Godín remain plenty good.
For all the trophies and goals (he’s scored 27 of them in total for Atleti), what Godín will be remembered for, and why he is the most important player in this recent, unparalleled run of success, is his, naturally, his skill as a defender. While Ramos stans will argue he was the best center back of the era, Godín is likely the best pure defender to play in Europe in the 2010s.
Never the fastest and only measuring 6-foot-1, the forever-40-looking Uruguayan combined tenacity with a preternatural understanding of Simeone’s system to always be in exactly the right place at the right time. It didn’t matter who the coach paired with him, either; whether that was the Brazilian beanpole João Miranda or his callow fellow Uruguayan José María Giménez, Godín turned his center back partners into stars.
The pairing that has most mattered at Atlético was the one between Godín on the pitch and Simeone on the sideline. Simeone provided Godín the deep and compact team structure that masked Godín’s relative athletic and passing shortcomings. Godín, in turn, gave Simeone an impermeable rock in the center that could win every header, smash every loose ball into the stands, and guard the often besieged Atleti penalty area with the calm assurance of someone perfectly content in the most dangerous attacking situations. Simeone’s playing philosophy is built around teaching his teams how to suffer and how to endure. Godín never had to be taught this, because to him suffering was always what he did best.
In the process, Godín became beloved by Atleti fans. So often relegated to little-brother status by their much larger inner-city rivals and the giants in Catalonia, the predominantly working class Atlético fan base saw in Godín a symbol of themselves at their best. He was constantly seething, prone to emotional outbursts and focused moments of hard-nosed defending excellence in equal measure. He was fearless against his supposed betters at Real and Barça, and that fearlessness has been key to making Atleti true equals on the pitch to those two clubs. In an era of modern defenders, who are increasingly valued more for what they can do with the ball than what they can do when the other team has it, Godín was one of the last of a dying breed of old school center backs defined by their command of their own penalty areas. He was never the flashiest, never the main attraction, never one to ping a 40-yard pass over the top of the opposing defense and onto the foot of a teammate on the wing, but he was always the guy fans wanted protecting the most precious resource in soccer.
Diego Godín, as much as any other figure at the club, has made Atlético Madrid what they have been during this, their greatest period. The team has struggled in recent times trying to adapt the style that brought it so much success into something new that can better keep up with the ever-evolving game. Godín’s presence in the side always meant Atleti could fall back on its tried-and-true strategy, delaying the transformation that must come some day soon by relying on what came before.
Now that Godín will soon be gone, and because there isn’t a player in the world who can perfectly recreate all the things he brought to Atleti, that evolution must come now. Godín has marked an era, and his departure brings that era to a close. But what an era it’s been.