Just before Atlético Madrid’s team bus arrives at the stadium for a match, the driver always puts on the same song: “Thunderstruck”, by the Australian hard-rock band AC/DC. The players blare out the lyrics: “Thunder, thunder, thunder, thunder/ I was caught/ In the middle of a railroad track.
The words sum up Atlético’s self-image. Thunderous passion, or so Atléti’s fans say, allows this unglamorous neighbourhood club to compete with the world’s best. Founded in 1903, Atlético play in the Calderón stadium by the Manzanares river just outside central Madrid — the scruffier end of a scruffy city. When the fans gather near the Calderón before kick-off, it could be an English crowd circa 1990: beer-drinking on the streets, exploding fireworks and illegally parked cars. Even the VIP entrance is in a motorway tunnel. Atlético define themselves through contrast with impossibly glamorous Real Madrid, and this urban ugliness contributes to what marketing executives would call the club’s brand, or what Atléti fans call its “soul”.
Indeed, in the past 5 years under the leadership of manager Diego Simeone, Atleti have reached the Champions League final twice (on both occasions losing to city rival Real), won La Liga breaking the Real-Barca axis of ten year unbroken success, the Copa Del Rey, the Europa League and the Super Cup. Atlético are on a quest to tap the world’s resources while remaining unmistakably Atlético. A poor mans club with rich man ambitions.
The one man most responsible for this success has been Diego Simeone, also knows as ‘El Cholo’. In his club career that started in 1987, Simeone played for Vélez Sarsfield, Pisa, Sevilla, Atlético Madrid, Internazionale, Lazio and Racing and was capped over 100 times for Argentina, representing the country at the 1994, 1998 and 2002 World Cups. As a manager, he has coached Racing, Estudiantes, River Plate, San Lorenzo and Catania. His record was good but not stellar and Atletico took a risk on hiring him in 2011, a risk that has paid off spectacularly.
“Simeone is the stone around which this project is constructed,” club captain Diego Godín said. “He has strengthened this group of players. He has made the players and fans believe, not just with words but with acts.”
Many of those acts involve Simeone’s sideline histrionics, which are notably piqued and pugnacious. Simeone cuts a swarthy figure in the bench area, typically wearing outfits that are entirely black and slicking back his flowing hair. With his square jaw and sharp glare, Simeone is imposing when he confronts a referee or stamps his foot or takes off running in celebration after an important goal, something like a young Jose Mourinho but with a swagger that is more aggressive than elegant.
Half an hour before each match, when his players are out warming up, El Cholo sits alone in the quiet of the dressing room and phones home. He usually makes three calls, one to each of his children in Argentina. The calls are brief, barely a couple of minutes each, and are part of Simeone's ritual: the calm before the storm, a moment's tranquillity and isolation. "For four or five minutes I'm a normal person," he says. And then he hangs up and goes back to being Diego Simeone, Atletico manager.
This Diego Simeone is an irresistible force, a tidal wave that either carries you along or flattens you: determined, energetic, convincing and supremely competitive, he is the manager who has built a team in his own image, at least in part because he was built in theirs. "Atlético Madrid play like Simeone played: tough, focused and tactically perfect," the Real Madrid coach, Carlo Ancelotti, says. The Levante manager, Joaquín Caparrós, admiringly describes Atlético as a "hammer that relentlessly bashes away”.
His assistant Oscar Ortega says: "As a player he was already a coach, someone who brought people together, a constant provoker of meetings when there was something he didn't like. He always wanted to transmit the powerful competitiveness he had. He was harder as a player than a coach, incredible with his team-mates. He was demanding and had to win, no discussions. He's still demanding but he's more contemplative, more flexible, more of a compañero, more pedagogical.”
Yet Simeone jokes with his squad that there is no escape from him: it is hard to live away from his family but that means he really can be Atlético's manager 24 hours a day. Well, 23 hours, 55 minutes. He has literally nothing better to do, he smiles, but he can also think of nothing better to do either. "I love football and I love my profession," he told the paper AS. Staff say you only have to watch him channel hop: the second a patch of green pops up, he becomes transfixed. He admits that when he does seek refuge in the cinema, footballers appear on the screen.
Players attest to the intensity. In Simeone's words, "effort is non-negotiable". He admits: "It's hard for me to interact with players who don't give themselves completely. The weak don't interest me."
In the restaurant opposite the training ground, where the squad often eat, they could see it in his first week. The Simeone effect. Everything had changed; even the identity of Atlético Madrid. They used to call them El Pupas, the jinxed one, but not any more; El Cholo has vanquished El Pupas. What makes Simeone’s achievements most staggering is that Atlético’s annual revenue is £142m, according to Deloitte – not much more than Newcastle or Everton, and less than half that of Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City. The gap to Real Madrid and Barcelona, who make nearly three times as much, is even more stark.
Simeone said he would be faithful to the club's identity: competitive, counterattacking, rooted in humility. Aware of their limitations but not frightened of them. He said he would rather attack once and win 1-0 than attack 15 times and not score: "If I see mud, I throw myself into it. Work is everything. Good players don't improve teams; players who want to win improve teams."
The fatalism was blown away and the Pupas with it but the idea of representing the city's working class remained. He was reinvigorating a lost identity. Simeone talked of commitment, spirit, solidarity, unity and competition. Over and over he repeated "game by game". It was a cliché that rang true, one that he turned into a philosophy: Cholismo, a way of life as propagated by El Cholo. This year, the Spanish dictionary considered including it. "Game by game is the life of the man on the street, day by day," Simeone says. "We see ourselves reflected in society, in people who have to fight to keep going. As soon as we stop fighting we have no chance. People identify with us, we're a source of hope to them. With the resources we have, we've been able to compete with bigger opponents.”