There was a change of pre-match routine for Atletico Madrid players on Saturday. Coach Diego Simeone had asked Paralympic skier Irene Villa to address his footballers and just hours before they went out to defend their place on top of the Spanish league she effectively delivered the team talk.
‘It’s been a long time since I have been so moved by anything,’ said defender Filipe Luis. Atletico went 1-0 down to Athletic Bilbao but came back to win 2-1 to keep their place at the top of the league.
Simeone knew his players had been listening to him all season and wanted a different voice delivering what was effectively the same message: ‘Winning is very close to losing and the harder you fight the better chance you have.’ He is also fond of reminding his players of the world beyond the bubble in which it is easy for a millionaire player to exist.
Atletico Madrid’s coach came back to the club he captained as a player two years ago. Everyone expected his gritty determination to turn them into a team no-one liked to face and everyone struggled to beat; no-one expected the imaginative, all-encompassing, cutting-edge management style that has also sent them into the season’s home strait with the chance of winning trophies.
Last year they beat Real Madrid to win the Spanish Cup, this year they could beat Barcelona to win the League or even the Champions League.
A league winner in Argentina with Estudiantes and River Plate Simeone has already won the Europa League and the European Super Cup at Atletico as well as the Copa del Rey. He played against tonight’s opponent in the dug-out Gerardo Martino, in a career that saw him win more caps than Diego Maradona and get David Beckham sent off in St. Etienne in 1998.
As a coach he is multi-layered. Strip away the black-suited seriousness of the touchline and you’ll get to the paternal guardian of his players who says he deliberately gives them pep-talks before they retire to their rooms to sleep in hotel meet-ups before big games, because, he says: ‘Just like children, they listen best just before bedtime.’
Asked if he watched the Super Clasico between River Plate and Boca Juniors on Sunday he said he couldn’t because he had to attend ‘the professor’s birthday celebrations’.
The professor in question is Oscar Ortega one of two of Simeone’s loyal lieutenants. He is the club’s fitness coach, hugely respected in the Spanish game and largely responsible for producing a group of players capable of consistent levels of intensity that are simply too much for most rivals.
If there are contrasts within Simeone’s own character there also different shades to his Atletico ‘boot-room’. Mono Burgos is his number two – a rotund, fiery former Atletico Madrid and Argentine goalkeeper who played alongside Simeone and contrasts his icy calm.
Burgos, whose real name – used only by Simeone – is ‘Germán’, was given a three match ban earlier in the season for going at Madrid-derby referee Carlos Ferreiro with such force it took the best efforts of most of the Atletico bench to hold him back.
He also famously went for Jose Mourinho telling him: ‘I’m not Tito Vilanova, I’ll rip your head off’ in one clash making reference to the then Real Madrid manager’s finger-poking incident with the former Barcelona coach.
Simeone’s technical area discipline mean it is unlikely a touchline ban will ever throw Burgos into the spotlight. The focus remains on the man in black. And he handles it impeccably.
Tuesday night’s trick question was: ‘Are you favourites against Barcelona?’ To which he replied: ‘If I say we are then you’ll accuse me of arrogance and if I say we are not, you’ll accuse me of playing on being the victim.’
The reality is they are victims. Their 120m turnover is around 400m less than Barcelona’s and their television revenue is around 90m a season less. Midfielder Tiago called them the ‘Robin Hood of Spanish football’ on Tuesday. Money is evidently not everything and there are things such as solidarity that cannot be bought.
Another of Simeone’s trademark preferences is for his team to sit-down to eat at one huge table before matches and not in cliques of four or five scattered across the hotel dining hall on different tables.
They eat together, they work for each other, and from their 21-year-old on-loan multilingual goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to their bruising Brazilian born striker Diego Costa they don’t have an over-developed ego among them.
No wonder Barcelona coach Tata Martino warned his players on Monday: ‘If we don’t match them for intensity we will be going out.’