While most people attach a star or an angel on top of their Christmas tree, Diego Simeone places a football on his.
It’s a tradition he honours with his father ‘to show gratitude each year for everything football has allowed us to achieve and to ask that we can continue living off it’.
When he places the football atop his tree this Christmas, Simeone can reflect on 10 years as coach of Atletico Madrid. And even though he takes his holiday break with his side in a rut following four successive league defeats – their worst run in his decade-long tenure – if anyone should be showing gratitude it is the Rojiblanco fans.
Put simply, Simeone has transformed the club and rebuilt it in his image.
Diego Simeone is celebrating 10 years as Atletico Madrid coach, having transformed the club
Simeone’s side pipped Real Madrid and Barcelona to win the LaLiga title last season
In the days before Simeone’s arrival, Atletico were hovering above the relegation zone and smarting from a humiliating Copa del Rey exit to third division Albacete, which proved to be the final straw for then coach Gregorio Manzano. They had the occasional moments of joy before then such as the 2010 UEFA Cup triumph but ultimately the best they could hope for was an occasional top-four finish.
Barcelona and Real Madrid were practically in a different league, while Villarreal, Sevilla and Valencia would regularly finish above them. On the rare occasion Atleti did reach the Champions League, such as in 2008-09 and 2009-10, their stay was usually brief, making the last 16 and exiting the group stage respectively.
Off the pitch, the club were in disarray too, with tax debts of over €200million (£170m) and still in their rusty, crumbling – albeit charming – Vicente Calderon stadium.
Fast forward a decade and Atletico are one of Europe’s biggest clubs, regulars not just in getting into the Champions League but contenders too, reaching the knockout stages in eight of the last nine seasons and the final in 2014 and 2016. The one time they did not get out of their group, they went on to win the Europa League.
They are current LaLiga champions, having interrupted the long-running duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona last season and in 2014, lifting eight trophies in total since Simeone took charge 10 years ago today, on December 23, 2011.
These successes all belong to Simeone, who has become as synonymous with Atletico as Sir Alex Ferguson was with Manchester United or Arsene Wenger with Arsenal. While players have come and gone, the sight of the black-suited Argentine patrolling the sidelines, barking at referees and whipping the home crowd into a frenzy, has remained constant.
Atletico’s success under Simeone helped them afford the move to the Wanda Metropolitano
Simeone spends a lot of his time on the touchline whipping up the Atletico fans into a frenzy
The background has changed though, with Atletico settling into their impressive, 67,000-seater Wanda Metropolitano stadium. True, the club wanted to move to their new home long before Simeone arrived as coach, but it was only due to the financial stability his reign brought that they were able to afford the sadium, which they moved into in 2017.
The 51-year-old, nicknamed ‘El Cholo, has also trademarked a playing style, his side still known for being a horrible team to face, one that digs their heels in and keeps on fighting until the end. Their strategy has in fact evolved in the last couple of seasons and become more expansive, but their way of playing is still defined as ‘Cholismo’.
Simeone has even become the symbol of age-old football clichés. Coaches and players have long talked of the need to take each game as it comes, yet somehow, more than anyone else, Simeone has become associated with the phrase ‘partido a partido,’ game by game.
Similarly, ‘Never stop believing,’ has become Atleti’s adopted motto, even though many other clubs pride themselves on never giving in.
Another sign of Simeone’s impact is that Atletico are a club with huge support and now among Europe’s elite – demonstrated by the fact they were invited to join the European Super League – yet the idea of them being ‘el equipo del pueblo’, the team of the people, persists.
Simeone was a hugely popular player for Atletico and had two spells at the club as a midfielder
Simeone celebrating with Atletico icon Fernando Torres, who he would go on to coach
Simeone, who repeatedly talks of the need for humility and the world being against Atletico, is the reason for this.
Take their recent, thrilling 3-1 win at Porto to progress to the last 16 of the Champions League. Atletico began the final game bottom of Group B after a terrible campaign in which they had only won once. They were outplayed by Porto in the first half and the start of the second but Antoine Griezmann bundled them ahead and what followed was a vintage display of ‘Cholismo’.
Yannick Carrasco elbowed a rival in the face, was sent off, and an almighty scrap ensued. Matheus Cunha then played his part when he was struck by Wendell, falling to the ground, leading to his opponent being dismissed. Sime Vrsaljko, who had been playing out of position, then took a huge blow to the face but kept playing. He was later diagnosed with a fractured skull.
Porto had home advantage but Atletico fed off the noise, killing the game with two superb goals on the counter from Angel Correa and Rodrigo de Paul. ‘This match and this group stage campaign sums up just what Atleti is all about,’ said Griezmann. Mario Hermoso echoed the message, saying ‘We’re Atletico Madrid, we do things the hard way and it tastes much better like this.’
Goalkeeper Jan Oblak, one of the team’s elder statesmen, added: ‘I’m sure many people didn’t believe in us but it’s in matches like these where we show the type of team we really are.’
The Spanish media also feed the narrative. ‘Believe. Fight. Suffer. Resist. Win. Qualify. That’s Atleti for you,’ beamed the front cover of newspaper Marca. Fellow Madrid daily AS simply read: ‘Never stop believing.’
It was the type of performance Atletico have become known for under Simeone: facing huge difficulties, digging their heels in, scrapping for their lives, producing moments of real quality and enjoying a huge slice of luck.
Antoine Griezmann said a Champions League win at Porto summed up what Atletico are about
Atletico scrapped as only they know how and wildly celebrated reaching the knockout stage
Take their 2015-16 semi-final triumph over Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, when they faced 33 shots, had only 27 per cent possession and Thomas Muller missed a penalty – as did Fernando Torres for Atletico – and they escaped with a 2-1 defeat to go through on away goals.
And who could forget their win at Anfield days before the coronavirus shutdown, when Liverpool had 34 shots, 71 per cent possession and hit the woodwork twice but it was Atletico who made it through, showing ruthless efficiency in front of goal in extra-time.
For all the talk of riding their luck that night, Atletico’s triumph owed a lot to a Simeone masterstroke. The coach had seen when no-one else did that in Marcos Llorente, the shy defensive midfielder of whom he has said ‘never in his life imagined being a forward’, had all the makings of being a world class attacker.
Llorente’s two goals in extra-time won the tie and the player enjoyed the night so much he named his dog Anfield. A year later he would play a huge role in winning the LaLiga title, scoring 12 goals and contributing 11 assists. That tally was only bettered by Luis Suarez, another transfer masterstroke from Atletico.
While Barcelona had written off the man who had scored 198 goals for them as being too old, Simeone sensed there was life in the old dog yet and signed him for next to nothing after Barcelona forgot to include Atletico on a list of clubs the striker was not allowed to join.
Barca clearly didn’t see Atletico as a threat but, driven by a sense of vengeance, the Uruguayan notched 21 goals. And when the goals were drying up for Suarez at the crucial stage of the title race, when Atletico had seen their 10-point advantage trimmed to two, Simeone knew how to motivate his main man.
Simeone showed coaching vision to turn defensive midfielder Marcos Llorente into a forward
Llorente scored twice in Atletico’s epic extra-time win away to Liverpool in 2020
‘We’re entering the Suarez zone,’ he said with two games to go. Suarez duly delivered, scoring a last-minute winner to beat Osasuna in their penultimate game and also the decisive strike on the final day at Real Valladolid.
As ever, Atletico did things the tough way, falling behind in both matches but holding their nerve, capturing the title in an empty stadium but celebrating it with hundreds of fans who had made the journey to Valladolid to watch the game on their phones in the stadium’s car park.
Yet for all the highs and epic wins from the jaws of defeat, the Simeone era has witnessed its fair share of crushing losses.
Imagine being minutes away from your first ever Champions League triumph and beating your fierce local rivals in doing so, stopping them from winning their craved ‘Decima’, the tenth European Cup, only for the dream to be wrecked by Sergio Ramos’ 93rd minute equaliser, the team then inevitably capitulating in extra-time to lose 4-1.
Simeone could not control his temper that night, storming onto the pitch to confront Raphael Varane.
And then imagine history repeating itself two years later, Atletico knocking out Barcelona and Bayern to reach the final only to face Real again. They played better this time but conceded a goal, again scored by Ramos, that referee Mark Clattenburg later admitted was offside.
Griezmann then missed a penalty and although Carrasco equalised to force extra-time, again Atletico ran out of energy when it mattered, players falling injured and Real winning the penalty shootout.
That was the night Simeone almost stopped believing. When asked if he might consider stepping away after a second cruel defeat, he said: ‘I have a lot to think about. Losing two finals is a failure. I could not deliver the fans what they wanted.’
Sergio Ramos broke Atletico’s hearts with his equaliser in the 2014 Champions League final
Simeone lost his rag in the 2014 final and ran on to the pitch to confront Raphael Varane
More heartache followed for Atletico as Real won the 2016 final too, helped by this offside goal
Simeone thought long and hard about his future, even reducing his contract from 2020 to 2018. He had held discussions with Chelsea months before Antonio Conte took over and had been taking English lessons.
But he stayed on and two years later led Atletico to win the Europa League, knocking out Arsenal in the semi-finals. That was another trademark Atletico display in Europe, Simeone and Vrsaljko getting sent off at the Emirates Stadium but Griezmann grabbing a late equaliser. Diego Costa, who has always enjoyed slaying the Gunners, scored the only goal in the second leg.
But more heartache was just around the corner. Atletico beat Juventus 2-0 in the first leg of a Champions League last 16 tie, with Metropolitano faithful gleefully mocking Cristiano Ronaldo. But they contrived to lose the second leg in Turin 3-0, Ronaldo getting a hat-trick.
The following year witnessed another big European disappointment, as after knocking out holders Liverpool in the Anfield epic, they went on to lose their quarter-final tie to unfancied RB Leipzig.
As happens every time Atletico lose a big game, certain sections of the Spanish media are always circling, desperate to declare his time is up.
‘Absolute failure, the cycle of the best paid coach in the world is over,’ said Josep Pedrerol, the presenter of Spain’s sensationalist chat show El Chiringuito, after the defeat to Leipzig.
After the loss to AC Milan, which left Atletico on the brink of elimination, Jota Jordi, also on El Chiringuito, yelled: ‘I would sack Simeone today.’
Simeone has also been accused of not being able to get the best out of certain big-money signings. The clearest example is Joao Felix, who Atletico forked out a club record £106m to sign from Benfica in 2019. The Portugal forward stands out for being one of the true flair players in the squad but, despite his price tag and considerable talent, is often ignored by Simeone.
Simeone pulled off a real coup by bringing Luis Suarez to the club last year from Barcelona
But he has been criticised for failing to get the best out of the likes of record signing Joao Felix
Mario Mandzukic is another big-money signing who failed to gel with Simeone at Atletico
Felix has only started five LaLiga games this season, and despite an exceptional performance in the 2-0 win over Barcelona in October, he is often benched for the biggest games, such as the crunch match at Porto and the recent trips to Real Madrid and Sevilla.
The Portuguese is far from the only big-name player who has been unable to dovetail with Simeone. Mario Mandzukic and Jackson Martinez both arrived for big transfer fees but neither lasted more than a season with Simeone, with the Colombian netting only two goals after a £29m move from Porto, where he was prolific.
Raul Jimenez also had an unhappy stay with Atletico before thriving with Wolves.
Indeed, it says a lot about Simeone’s taste in footballers that he has made a habit of bringing players back to the club long after they have left.
He made Atletico sign Diego Costa three years after he had left for Chelsea, spending £59m on a player who by then was way past his best. This summer, he insisted the club got Griezmann back on loan from Barcelona, which did not exactly speak volumes of his faith in Felix.
There is even talk of him trying to bring back Diego Godin, who turns 36 in February and whose career has been on a downhill trajectory since leaving Atletico in 2019.
Simeone’s £28million-per-year salary also exposes him to criticism and routinely gets scrutinised after a big defeat. It’s easy to see why.
Does a man who has won two league titles in a decade and never won football’s biggest prize really deserve to earn more than Klopp, Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti or Antonio Conte?
Criticism has particularly intensified in the last week, with Atletico practically surrendering the title in December after defeats to Mallorca, Real Madrid, Sevilla and, most surprisingly, Granada.
Simeone is the highest paid coach in the world and his £28m per year salary is often criticised
But no-one can doubt his impact at Atletico, where he is idolised by fans and players alike
But a few setbacks cannot blight a spectacular decade, and Simeone’s standing cannot be measured in results alone. His legacy is his impact on the club itself.
The mayor of Madrid, Atletico-supporting Jose Luis Martinez Almeida, summed up Simeone’s impact after last season’s title win.
‘Winning trophies is not necessarily difficult, the hardest thing is to change the course of history of a football club’, he said.
Former player Guilherme Siqueira also puts it well: ‘He is idolised for what he has done for Atletico. He has enormous influence inside the club and not just for the results he has achieved. There have been some doubts this season but they would be advised to stick with him due to the link he has forged.’
Or ask Atletico president Enrique Cerezo, who was almost hounded out for his management of the club before Simeone’s arrival.
‘I would like to praise him for these 10 years, for this decade of huge triumphs on the pitch and big achievements on an institutional and financial level,’ he said.
‘Congratulations Cholo, you can stay here for as many years as you like.’
Simeone got David Beckham sent off when England met Argentina at the 1998 World Cup
But he is also a doting father, pictured here with footballer sons Giovanni, Giuliano and Gianluca (L to R), second wife Carla Pereyra plus young daughters Francesca and Valentina