Long before he was introduced to hair gel, Diego Pablo Simeone was conducting an orchestra in Argentina. He was only 10 years old at the time, still in school and tasked with organizing children much older than him. But Bruno Amasino, the school’s music teacher and a “genius at playing the piano” (Simeone’s words), disregarded his age. His leadership was far more important.
Amasino clearly had a good eye. Thirty-four years later, the Atlético Madrid head coach is still leading, his restless patrol of Atleti’s technical area reminiscent of a highly-tuned jungle cat. Covered in black from head to toe and with that trademark gel swooping his hair back, he now appears to be auditioning for a part in a South American version of Goodfellas. On the contrary, Simeone’s too busy cementing his place as one of the elite coaches in world soccer.
Back in Argentina, it wasn’t just his childhood music teacher who spotted Simeone’s innate leadership skills. As a teenager, the future Argentine international was always handed his teams’ captaincy, even when playing in squads bulging with much older players. Players who eventually shared field with him as a professional spotted the obvious: Simeone was destined for management.
The legendary Luis Aragonés, Simeone’s coach at Atlético who also ushered in Spain’s recent era of success, had forecast such a future. “He had a sixth sense to know what to say to his teammates at any time,” the Atleti icon once explained, “how to motivate them when they needed it and how to maintain the proper attitude in every situation.”
Simeone’s relationship with Atlético has always been a special one. When he arrived in 1994, the 24-year-old had already proven himself successful in Argentina, Italy, and previously in Spain with Sevilla. During his second year at the Calderón, however, he enjoyed his most prolific season, scoring 12 times in La Liga while leading Atleti to a league-cup double – the last league title Atlético would claim for 18 years.
By 1997, however, Simeone was back in Italy, winning a UEFA Cup with Inter before claiming the scudetto with Lazio. But perhaps because his identity and Atleti’s are so intrinsically similar, Simeone was destined to return to Atlético, be it as a player in 2003 (where he left a hero in 2005 to end his career at his beloved Racing) or in 2011, when he assumed his place on the sideline at the Calderón.
What has occurred since has defied the logic of modern day European soccer. Atleti’s rise may not hit David-vs-Goliath levels of remarkableness — Atlético is traditionally one of Spain’s biggest clubs — but in a world where money talks, Simeone’s led a welcome change to the norm. And in a world where Spain’s big two talk more than the others, Simeone’s somehow managed sustained success.
Five trophies have already been won, including last season’s La Liga title. The only one missing is the Champions League, which Atleti were seconds away from claiming last season. Were it not for a Sergio Ramos header seconds before full-time in Lisbon, Simeone would already have brought every European honor possible to Atlético. Both of the supposedly untouchable juggernauts of Madrid and Barcelona have been swatted aside, and although Simeone still says the difference between Atlético and Madrid is “about 400 million (euros),” his impact on the sidelines has kept the two clubs almost level.
There’s a lot to respect about Atlético’s style of soccer. It might not fall under pretty in the dictionary, but it’s certainly effective. It’s not ugly, either.
“They play like Simeone played: tough, focused and tactically perfect,” Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti said. Current Granada boss Joaquín Caparrós was clearly shaken up after one meeting with Simeone’s side when he was in charge of Levante. “They are like a hammer that relentlessly bashes away,” he said.
At the heart of everything Atlético does is an almost single-minded focus on the team. Not Simeone. Not an individual. He has tirelessly insisted on an ‘us against the world’ mentality and continues to have no time for players unable to give their all for the squad.
“Effort is non-negotiable,” he preaches. “It is hard for me to interact with players who don’t give themselves completely. The weak don’t interest me.” Simeone’s quest for players of that ilk, he admitted in an interview with Gemma Herrero, even leads him to astrology. Herrero asked him which star signs he looks for. “The courageous ones,” he succinctly replied.
To this day, he still insists Atlético cannot realistically hope to compete with media darlings Madrid and Barça. His snub in favor of World Cup helmsman Joachim Löw in the managers’ category at the recent Ballon d’Or ceremony only underscores that thesis.
His team remains built on the basics, a theory that being strong, working for each other and defending well will produce results. That doesn’t mean there is no substance. Last season, he was indebted to Diego Costa and David Villa for goals, while this season the likes of Koke and Antoine Griezmann contribute with flair and attacking intent. Having worked with and learnt from the likes of Aragonés, Bielsa and Carlos Bilardo, Simone is clearly more of a tactician than some might appreciate.
Prior to his return to Madrid, however, that acumen produced mixed results. Simeone had six managerial stints in five years with five different clubs, not all of which worked out. Racing was far from satisfied with him when he left in 2011, despite leading them to a second place finish. Fans moaned that the team was too defensive, that there was a lack of adventure, that matches weren’t put beyond reasonable doubt.
Titles were won in Argentina, though, with Estudiantes in 2006 and River Plate in 2008. But things soon went sour at River, and when the club was bottom of the table the following season, Simeone walked away. “I’ll always get out before they throw me out,” he recently said, when asked about fulfilling his current contract with the Rojiblanco.
The statement prompts the inevitable question: How far can Mr. Motivator, undeniably one of Europe’s finest managers, go? There’s certainly a ceiling at Atlético, and some feel he may call it a day after this season. Like Pep Guardiola, Simeone lives soccer to an exhausting extent and has been known to interrupt trips to the movies when he can’t get his mind off work. Some have suggested a sabbatical.
His next destination will need to be chosen carefully. His methods, despite their success, may prove unpopular with clubs who have fans that demand more than just three points. “It’s not just about winning at Barcelona,” Cesc Fàbregas has said,” but about how you win.” Given his red and white blood, the Bernabéu bench can also be ruled out.
Links with Italy are strong, and if you care to indulge in a few soccer stereotypes, Simeone’s style of intensity and endeavor, defending and team work would be well-suited to Serie A. A bigger question is a possible move to England. How would some of the Premier League’s egos cope when faced with his methods? Would his motivational skills translate into English? He is learning the language, though, and his managerial style is not entirely dissimilar to José Mourinho, who had little trouble adapting to the league.
But whatever happens from here forward, Simeone will always have Atlético. He’ll forever be the man that managed to break Spain’s duopoly and brought the title back to the Calderón. Even after he moves on, he can always count on hearing “Ole, ole, ole, Cholo Simeone” sung in his spiritual home.
Photo credits, from top-to-bottom: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images; Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images