When in July 2014 Antoine Griezmann was sold to Atletico Madrid for £22.5 million he represented the second highest transfer in the history of Real Sociedad football club, just behind Asier Illaramendi’s ill-fated £24 million move to Real Madrid.
Following Atleti’s stunning 2-0 defeat of Barcelona that saw them progress to their second Champions league semi-final in three seasons it’s looking like it could end up being one of the bargains of all time. For starters, PSG is wiling to pay the 80 million euros of his buy out clause if he wants to go and Atletico to sell.
Unquestionably the leading light in San Sebastian any hopes he might have harboured for a similar slot in the Vicente Calderon pecking order were swiftly and unceremoniously kicked into grass longer than any you might find in the Pampas, the original home of the irresistible, prickly, combative Argentine force that is Diego Simeone.
Shortly after he arrived the French attacking midfielder was told in no uncertain terms two things. Firstly if he thought his status allowed him to produce less work, effort and running then any of his team mates then he was in for a rude awakening.
Secondly Simeone wasted no time in telling him that he needed more goals from him or his days at the club would be numbered.
Griezmann’s positive response to the inordinately high demands of Simeone and his coaching team means the Frenchman is now probably just a couple of games from establishing himself as one of the top five players in the world while his club are just potentially three matches away from lifting the Champions League.
With 29 goals – six of them in the Champions League – already scored this season he is attracting lustful glances from every one of the major players in world football
For now, however, there is unfinished business, not just in the Champions League but also with La Liga which is once again within touching distance following Barcelona’s recent poor form.
As a proud Frenchman, Griezmann will understand better than most the ‘Musketeerial’ notion of “all for one and one for all” but no one promotes it better and with more passion than Atletico Madrid’s ‘man in black’ a past master when propagating the ‘nobody likes us, we don’t care’ theory of football.
In a speech bordering on the Churchilian, he proclaimed after the game: “ What I’m left with is not just the fact that we have made it to the semi-finals, but what we saw today is much more important than that. I am talking about the values that nowadays our society sees less of.”
“We have won a tremendously hard game and that is wonderful. I am proud to be associated with such a fantastic group of young men who have responded so magnificently to what life has given them; respect, never giving up, perseverance in times of difficulty, picking themselves up when down, persistence and competitiveness.
“Before they went onto the pitch I told them, you have great qualities as people which if you transmit to your game will earn you your reward.”
As a player Simeone was a hero to the club’s passionate and long suffering fans. In your face all the time, a constant irritation, tireless, unswerving, unyielding, uncompromising and thoroughly committed, in fact much the same as he is as a manager
It was always somehow a matter of when, not if, he would return one day as coach. As he made an emotional farewell as a player he announced, “I know that sooner or later I’ll be manager of Atletico Madrid.”
But not even he could have imagined just how far the club had sunk when he took over the reins in 2011. Atletico were just four points above the relegation place when ‘El Cholo’ took charge and had just been eliminated from the Copa del Rey by third division Albacete.
A standing joke, there was even a popular TV advert that featured a young boy plaintively asking his father, “¿Por qué somos del Aleti?” (Why do we support Atletico? But it can also be translated as ‘why do we have to support Aleti?).
What followed was the biggest comeback since Lazarus rose from his death bed (well, kind of) and saw them finish his first season in fifth place in the table and with the Europa League in the trophy cabinet following a 3-0 win over Athletic Bilbao in the final in Bucharest.
In the words of journalist Ruben Aria: “Simeone took charge of a corpse and turned it into a champion.”
But just how did he do it?
Every press conference he ever does has an abundance of words like “humility” “sacrifice” “passion”. Add to these the word “obsession”.
Matias Almeyda, a former team mate, once said of him, “If football hadn’t been around when Diego Simeone was born, then there’s no doubt that he himself would have invented it. It runs through his veins.”
“Every barbecue we went to was like a team talk; we used to tell him to shut up, leave it, enough was enough. We just wanted to relax but he always managed to bring it back to the same thing, football.”
Enormously high expectations placed on players and everything based on defensive discipline, aggression, non-stop pressure and blisteringly fast counter-attacks are the cornerstones of which the Atletico Madrid success story has been built.
Godin’s reaction in the second half to getting caught out of position before challenging back like a man possessed and earning himself a booking in the process is indicative of the attitude of every single member of his side and also incidentally why on current form the Uruguayan central defender is arguably the best defender in the world.
Fernando Torres, banned from the second leg following his Camp Nou red card returned to the welcoming bosom of the Calderon branded by many as an expensive flop, yet now under the wing of Simeone he is once again playing with the enthusiasm of an 18-year-old and keener than ever to make all those that mocked him and decried his talents eat their words.
On Friday April 15th they will find out who they will be facing in the semi finals; semi finals perhaps as interesting for the variation in coaching styles as for the different types of players that will be contesting them.
Zinadine Zidane and Manuel Pellegrini at Real Madrid and Manchester City respectively ‘enjoy’ riches almost beyond measure and consequently prefer to be led by the talent they have at their disposal rather than impose definitive playing styles on their multi-talented players.
While this of course might seem the easier option of management it is worth remembering that the continual level of ego management required to keep any number of disparate but incredibly strong personalities sailing along on calm waters ensure that is in its own way just as difficult a task.
In a way Bayern Munich’s, Pep Guardiola’s brief is even harder because his raison d’etre is to impose on his charges the style and method that he has an unswerving belief in. The problem with that of course is that he has often found himself confronted by a winning team, with egos to match and an attitude that proclaims “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”
Simeone meanwhile has no doubt that he is the poor relation in many ways to any of the other three clubs in the competition. Rather than suffer with it however, he will turn it to his advantage undoubtedly spending much of his time between now and the first leg of the semi-final telling all his players just that; telling them that the ‘wagons are being circled’ and that they have to fight for their lives
Make no mistake about it; Atletico Madrid may not be the richest club left in the competition and they certainly don’t have the most famous, most glamorous players.
They may well be more ‘blue collar’ than they are ‘high society’ but, rest assured, every single one of the three sides left in the competition will be praying they can avoid them in the last four.