On 16th May 2018, Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid’s sweeping sojourn in the Europa League was embellished with a third title in eight years after a routine 3-0 victory over Marseille. Delighted in the high echelons of Lyon’s Groupama Stadium, the Argentine had led his well-oiled machine to familiar territory: another European final, a fifth in nine years.
He was serving a touchline ban after making his feelings about Šime Vrsaljko’s red card for a second bookable offence against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium very clear. As a result, his trusted assistant, Germán Burgos, was left in charge. However, there was a time when success was much harder to come by for him.
His senior career as a player started in 1987; he played for Vélez Sarsfield, Pisa, Sevilla, Atlético, Inter Milan, Lazio and Racing Club. He won a domestic double in 1996 with Atlético, the UEFA Cup with Inter in 1998 and another league and cup double, with Lazio, two years later. He was capped 106 times by Argentina and appeared at the 1994, 1998 and 2002 editions of the World Cup.
Sometimes, he was known to loosely interpret the rules of the game. At the quarter-final stage of the 1998 World Cup in France against England, he admitted that he goaded David Beckham into kicking him before dramatising his injury, earning the Manchester United star a red card. Still, he became Argentina’s most-capped player ahead of Diego Maradona, but his total has since been surpassed by Roberto Ayala, Javier Zanetti, Javier Mascherano and Lionel Messi.
It is clear that he is a born winner and few things, if any, will stand in his way as he strives for success. So, like many captains at the highest level, he entered the world of coaching.
He played his last senior match as a player for Racing against Estudiantes La Plata on 17th February 2006; staying true to fashion, he earned a yellow card in the 80th minute. He replaced Alberto Fanesi to become La Academia’s manager two days later and guided the club to a decent finish in the Clausara stage – the second half of the season that followed the Apertura, whose winner claimed the Argentinian Primera División title – after a difficult start before being replaced by Reinaldo Merlo the following May.
He was not unemployed for long: he became Estudiantes’ manager a few weeks later, and led El León to their first league title in 23 years with a final-day Clausara victory against Boca Juniors on 13th December 2006. During the season, Simeone was voted the best manager in Argentina in a poll ran by Olé, one of the country’s leading daily newspapers. His stock was rising, and it was not long before he was courted by Europe’s elite as a serious contender for a top job at one of football’s heavyweights.
He left the Estadio Jorge Luis Hirischi, where Juan Sebastián Verón now sits as president, after a relatively poor Apertura campaign the following season. Still, he had by no means done a bad job; he left at the end of a nine-game unbeaten run. He was labelled as a “born manager” by Roberto Perfumo, a Racing legend who captained Argentina, and left with his head held high.
On 15th December 2007, he was unveiled as the new manager of River Plate, succeeding Daniel Passarella. After an early elimination from the Copa Libertadores following a defeat to San Lorenzo, he guided La Banda to first place in the 2008 Clausura with a victory against Club Olimpo at the Estadio Monumental. He had brought success by using a 3-3-1-3 formation that is unrecogniseable compared to the systems he has in place at Atlético now, but it got the best out of Ariel Ortega, who was afforded a role that allowed him to roam free and pick the ball up in pockets of space between the opposition’s defence and midfield lines. Being able to call on Alexis Sánchez and Radamel Falcao, who were youngsters without any kind of recognition outside of South America, certainly helped.
The following November, though, less than 12 months into his three-year deal, Simeone resigned with immediate effect after a defeat to C.D. Guadalajara in the 2008 edition of the Copa Sudamerica and a winless run of 11 games in the league that saw the club rooted to the bottom of the table. Argentina’s bizarre average points system meant that the club was not relegated, but it was still a catastrophic campaign by any measure for one of South America’s biggest clubs. He was not wholly to blame, though: the club was in economic dismay and many argue that the 2008 title was a magnificent achievement, not the start of an unprecedented nosedive that ultimately led to relegation in 2011.
His managerial ability was clear, evidenced by his tangible success, and his renowned intelligence, leadership qualities and competitiveness from his time as a player at the highest level helped him forge a good start as a coach, but he was in danger of becoming known for jumping ship too quickly. Still, he had done enough to be offered the job as manager at San Lorenzo and he joined on April 15th 2009 to replace Miguel Ángel Russo, after the club had been eliminated at the group stage of the Copa Libertadores.
It was then that he began to truly appreciate how much football is decided by the finest of margins; he devised diet plans, health and fitness programmes and curfews for his players. This was at a time when the Apertura champions at the time, Boca, met for barbecues and parties every week hosted by Juan Román Riquelme in Casa Amarilla. El Matadores followed up a decent seventh-placed Apertura finish by finishing 15th in the Clausara – they had won the 2008 Apertura against the odds following an incomparable 2007-08 campaign, but Simeone managed expectations well.
By April the following year, expectations had risen though and Simeone walked away again, confused and bewildered by the club’s lofty ambitions. It took until 2013 for any kind of silverware to return to the Estadio Pedro Bidegain after the abolishment of the Apertura and Clausara system, which vindicated his reasoning for leaving.
He was out of work for nearly a year before he moved to Sicily to join Serie A outfit Calcio Catania, only hours after Marco Giampaolo had vacated the manager’s position. A run of just one win in seven Serie A games between November 2010 and Simeone’s arrival the following January meant that relegation was a serious concern at the Stadio Angelo Massimino with the club in 16th position, but he swiftly instigated a change in fortunes.
He did not get off to the best of starts, failing to win in his first four games in charge, but the signing of Francesco Lodi from Frosinone for just €680,000 led to a quick change in fortunes. He scored two stunning, late free-kicks to complete a dramatic 3-2 win against Lecce that preceded an impressive run of form for relative minnows amongst a raft of star quality. Important wins against Genoa, Sampdoria and Palermo, who were soundly beaten 4-0, followed in a spell that included disappointing, albeit expected, defeats against Napoli and Fiorentina.
On 23rd April 2011 came Catania’s best performance under the Argentine. At the Stadio Olimpico di Turin, an Alessandro del Piero brace fired Juventus 2-0 ahead in the first half before Alejandro Gómez and another late Lodi free-kick secured a vital point as the Old Lady chased UEFA Champions League qualification in vain.
After wins against Cagliari and Brescia saw the club rise to 14th place a few weeks later, a home win against Roma, who like Juventus were challenging for a Champions League place, adorned a fine end to the campaign. After Simone Lorne headed home Francesco Totti’s cross, Gonzalo Bergessio, assisted by Lodi, and Gomez scored late on to secure yet more points from a losing position. A final-day 3-1 defeat to Inter did little to dampen the mood at the Sicily outfit, as thirteenth place was secured with 46 points, ten more than Sampdoria in the final relegation place.
Simeone left for pastures new on 1st June, 2011, and was replaced by Vincenzo Montella. He had left a post after a short spell once again, but he had done the job asked of him; the club currently sits in Serie C, despite an excellent 2011-12 season in the top flight.
Later that month, he returned to Racing for a second spell as manager. By now, the Primera was split between the Torneo Inicial and Toreno Final, which ran similarly to the Apertura and Clausura, and his first game finished 1-1 against Club Atlético Tigre. Nevertheless, he oversaw an impressive campaign that saw Racing finish in second place, staying unbeaten until their 16th fixture, against Club Atlético Belgrano. He had set them up to be hard to beat – they conceded seven goals in 19 Inicial matches, keeping 14 clean sheets in a counter-attacking, pragmatic style – which meant that he caught the eye of Atlético.
Without Simeone, Racing endured a torrid Final campaign, winning just two of their opening ten matches under the management of Alfio Basile. A final-day 2-1 loss against Vélez Sarsfield condemned his side to 17th place. In the absence of Simeone, the same squad – apart from a few minor tweaks – was nowhere near as solid in defence or as ruthless on the counter-attack.
On 23rd December 2011, after the conclusion of the Inicial phase, Simeone was unveiled as the new coach of Atletico after a nightmare start to the season at the Estadio Vicente Calderón under Quique Sánchez Flores. The former Watford manager had won the UEFA Europa League and UEFA Super Cup during his short stay in the Spanish capital, but a 2-0 defeat to Real Betis had left Falcao and co. languishing in ninth place in La Liga. A Copa del Rey defeat to third-tier Albacete was the final straw, with Simeone drafted in a day after his dismissal.
True to fashion, he came in and instigated a sharp turn in form. His first match in charge was a 0-0 draw against Manuel Pellegrini’s high-flying Málaga, and he did not experience a defeat until Barcelona left the capital with a 2-1 victory thanks to a late Messi free-kick nearly two months later.
At the end of the campaign, a run of six games without a defeat, including a 2-1 win against Pellegrini’s fourth-placed Boquerones, earned Los Rojiblancos fifth spot. A 3-0 victory versus Athletic Club in the Europa League final set the precedent for glorious years for the club under the Argentine that have yielded another Europa League crown, two Super Cups, a Supercopa de España, a Copa del Rey and, most impressively, the 2013-14 La Liga title. There’s also a new 67,000-seater stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano, all of which has been achieved in over seven years in charge.
Perfumo was right; Simeone was born to be a manager. He was an excellent player that enjoyed success on the biggest stage, but he has enjoyed longevity as a coach that is largely unrivalled in Europe’s elite leagues whilst turning Atlético from an unfancied outfit into genuine challengers alongside Barcelona and Real Madrid. His ethos has always been clear: he desires a will to win, courage, organisation and teamwork. He has enjoyed a pathway of success – he was appointed as manager at Racing at a relatively young age, a testament to his ability, and he has been a success in Argentina, Italy and Spain. Will he end up moving on again? Probably. But a measure of his success at Atlético, despite the array of talent that he has presided over, is that he is the protagonist; the one that has kept the club challenging the heavyweights when others have fallen.
BY RYAN PLANT
ARTWORK BY VARDHAN CHULANI