How Atletico Madrid's Diego Simeone became king of LaLiga

There can be only one table. Just one, in the shape of a square, and it must be big enough to accommodate all 24 players who have made the trip. Please put six chairs on each side, so everyone can see everyone else, and no place is better than another. If you can't construct a table big enough or you don't have a banquet room to fit it, we will find a different hotel.

The instructions were clear, passed down from Diego Pablo Simeone, the Atletico de Madrid manager, to Tomas Renones, the club legend who handles all aspects of first-team life, and then to the catering director at the Courtyard by Marriott in Wolfsburg, Germany. It was only a preseason friendly that Atletico were playing against VfL Wolfsburg, a nothing game for which half of the first-team squad had stayed in Spain, but that didn't matter.

Since taking over Atletico a decade ago, Simeone, 51, has left nothing to chance. For every game, from friendlies to the Champions League finals that the club has reached twice during his tenure, he proceeds in identical fashion. He sits in the same seat on the left side of the front row of the team bus, nobody beside him. He prefers those rides to be as short as possible, so he asks his travel department to find him not the most comfortable hotel in the area, like the Ritz-Carlton where nearly all the top teams that visit Wolfsburg stay, but a perfectly acceptable option nearer the stadium. He likes to spend the hour before a game alone with his thoughts, so his staff works in advance to secure a private space apart from the visiting changing room.

"Nothing is casualidad," Simeone says, using the Spanish word for happenstance. "It is causalidad." Purposeful.

The table? When Simeone arrived at Atletico, players grouped themselves in cliques. He understood that the challenge he faced -- competing in a league against Barcelona and Real Madrid -- demanded absolute unity. It was the only way that Atletico, who had managed to win LaLiga only once in more than 30 years, could compensate for the inevitable gap in talent. The table forced everyone to integrate.

"At the square table, if you don't feel like talking to me, I raise my head and I have to look at you," Simeone says. "It is an obligation that they look at each other. That they sit together. That they be together."

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By 2013-14, his third full season as Atletico's manager, Simeone had forged a gritty team that ceded possession for the majority of each game, yet often found a way to win. It rode cohesiveness, emotion, fitness and the occasional miraculous goal to a title -- Atletico's first since 1996.

"We used the counterattack," Koke, Atletico's captain, says now. "We defended, sometimes high and sometimes low. We dominated without the ball." That became known as Atletico's style -- and Simeone's -- but Simeone insists that what shows itself on the field is only the visible manifestation of a deeper understanding.

"Our essence is not the style of the game, but the way we live the game," he says. "When someone new comes into our locker room, it can be hard for him to adapt. He does only when he understands that when you are playing here, you aren't just playing with your talent. The difference is not talent. It is our personality, our security, our conviction. Our commitment." As if to prove his point, an almost entirely different Atletico team -- one that played in a different shape with a modified system -- rose up and did it again last season. Only that absolute commitment to the cause was unchanged.

"The most important thing at Atletico is that nobody here thinks he's better than any other player," Luis Suarez said to ESPN earlier this month. He'd just arrived at Atleti's training facility, a week earlier than required. Discarded by Barcelona before last season, the Uruguayan striker played a critical role -- perhaps the critical role -- in Atletico's successful pursuit of another title. "Every single player here has confidence in every other player," Suarez added. "And that," he said, using Simeone's nickname, "is Cholo."

Clearly, Atletico's teams have their stars. During Simeone's tenure, he has relied on Diego Costa, Thibaut Courtois and Antoine Griezmann, among others. Then he moved them on to football's most important clubs in order to finance their successors. The 2021-22 team includes Suarez, one of the sport's top goalkeepers in Jan Oblak, and the extraordinarily gifted Joao Felix.

Still, during a decade when Barcelona was epitomized by Lionel Messi and Real Madrid by Cristiano Ronaldo, two of the most recognizable people on Earth, Atletico's face has been its manager. That, too, isn't happenstance. In the end, Simeone's approach has proven more impactful than any of the players charged with implementing it.

"Cholo is beyond a manager," says the mayor of Madrid, Jose Luis Martinez-Almeida, who makes no secret of his affection for his city's second team. "He has transformed our club from unstable to one that can compete with any in the world. That's why we value him so much."

To Simeone, the task is just beginning. "To maintain means to go decades like this, doing what we are doing," he says. That includes continuing to parlay competitive success into economic growth, because one is unsustainable without the other. "And that growth is not just based on money," Simeone stresses. "It is based on winning."

Following the team meal in Wolfsburg, Simeone gathered the players for a brief talk. Then they walked through the front door toward the team bus. A small group of fans had gathered, hotel employees and others who'd been strolling by. It was an orderly scene. As the players passed, some names were spoken aloud, as if someone were narrating a movie. There's Oblak. Hey, isn't that Thomas Lemar, who won the World Cup with France? Ah, Saul -- Saul Niguez. That's him!

Then Simeone burst through the doors, walking with intent. "It's Cholo! It's Cholo Simeone!" a woman shouted in Spanish. "There he is, Simeone!" another swooned in German. Simeone signed an autograph. He posed for someone's selfie, flashing an electric smile. (When he chooses, he can be as charismatic as anyone in football.) Then, with the click of the phone, his face snapped back into a line. He boarded the bus and went back to work.

The Wanda Metropolitano, Atletico's dramatic, four-year-old stadium, seems to billow over the flatlands northeast of the city. Inside it, the club constructed a museum. It happened during the past year when fans were barred from attending games because of COVID-19, so few have had the opportunity to visit it. When they do, they'll find multimedia exhibits, such as a theater that replicates the bedroom of a small boy. Across a series of screens, an emotional video chronicles the handing down, one generation to the next, of the tradition of support for this unique club. The boy, it becomes clear, is the Atletico icon -- and former Liverpool and Chelsea striker -- Fernando Torres.

What the fans won't see at the new museum are the trappings of many actual accomplishments, at least not from the modern era. For a club with such a broad and passionate following, its trophy case is noticeably bare. Its glory days were the 1960s and 1970s, but even that meant just four league titles over two decades, along with five Spanish Cups. Since then, Atletico have won LaLiga three times: 1996, when Simeone starred for the team in midfield, then 2014 and last season with him as manager. The reason for the lack of hardware, of course, is the presence of two teams that, by most measures, are the biggest in the world.

"It's the principal problem that I have," says Miguel Angel Gil, the owner. "Atletico can invest in our team less than half of what Real Madrid and Barcelona do in theirs -- and, by the way, less than half of eight others in Europe."

Gil was talking with full knowledge of the recent economic crisis that has hit both clubs, necessitating the departure of Lionel Messi from Barcelona and putting Real Madrid more than a billion dollars in debt. How each of them proceed from here is uncertain, but their ability to generate revenue -- $832 million for Real Madrid in the pandemic-affected 2019-20 season; more than $1 billion for Barcelona, according to published reports -- gives them at least the capability for a swift recovery.

That same season, Atletico brought in $403 million, which ranked just 13th in Europe. Yet their UEFA coefficient, as high as second under Simeone, is sixth. And in each of the past 20 seasons until the last one, when COVID-19 mandated games without spectators, they turned a profit.

Gil's father, a larger-than-life entrepreneur named Jesus Gil y Gil, was elected president of the club in 1987. Gil y Gil served as mayor of the seacoast resort city of Marbella, then served time in prison after accusations of money laundering and embezzlement. Eventually he was barred from holding public office and, in 2003, he was stripped of his affiliation with Atletico. By then, the club had been demoted to Spain's second division, an embarrassment from which many of its supporters still haven't recovered.

With help from investors, control of the club landed with his son. One of Miguel Angel's first assertive acts was to dismantle the surprising 2010 team that had won the Europa League under Quique Sanchez Flores. That team had two dominant players, Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero. Both were feuding with Sanchez Flores and with each other. Rather than choose sides, Gil fired the manager and got rid of both players (Forlan went to Inter Milan, Aguero to Man City).

Atletico had always seen themselves as the team of the people, as opposed to Real, the purple-and-white bastion of Spanish royalty that played uptown, and if anyone personified that ethic, it was Simeone. Born and raised in Argentina, he'd anchored the staunch Atletico sides of 1994 to 1997 with his unyielding commitment to the cause. After playing in Italy, he returned in 2003 for two more seasons. Once he finished playing, Simeone managed four Argentine clubs with mixed results. He spent six months trying to keep overmatched Catania in Serie A, then returned to Argentina again to assume command of Racing in June 2011.

Atletico took a risk hiring Simeone. If Gil didn't understand that already, it became clear that fall when he started calling his previous employers. Simeone had guided Argentina's mighty River Plate to a title in 2007, then stumbled to a last-place finish and the club's almost unthinkable relegation the following season.

"The president of River spoke of him very badly," Gil says. "In Italy, they spoke of him the same way. A disaster." Everyone warned Gil to stay away. Still, Gil couldn't stop recalling the dedication Simeone had displayed as Atletico's captain, and his stubborn refusal to accept anything less from his teammates.

"He was already a manager then," says Renones. Known simply as "Tomas" while a player, Renones was 35 and in his last season with Atletico when Simeone willed the team to that 1996 title. "Cholo was a manager on the field," he says. "He directed. He mandated. He had the same demand that he has now. You win. You win. And then you win again. You play well and win, that's good. You play badly and win? That's good, too."

Like Gil, Simeone understood that the beautiful part of the beautiful game was a luxury this club couldn't afford. He was willing to have his teams play defensive football, which is almost a necessity when you're invariably outmanned by your rivals. He seemed to thrive on the devotion that Atleti require from their players, but also their fans. "In terms of marketing," Gil says, "he is our best possible messenger."

Simeone acknowledges that he didn't have the experience to manage a club with the size and ambition of Atletico, "but Miguel Angel knew me better than the others," he says. "And he saw something in me that the others didn't see."

When Simeone assumed control of the club during the Christmas break of 2011, Atletico were 10th in LaLiga and had crashed out of the Copa del Rey. Over the 3,500-odd days that followed, a span in which Real Madrid have changed managers eight times, he won 317 games, drew 121 and lost 89. Two of those losses were the 2014 and 2016 Champions League finals -- both of them, agonisingly, to Real Madrid.

It is not without irony that the reputation of a manager obsessed with winning was enhanced more by two losses than anything more he has accomplished. Competing in the final twice in three years raised Atletico's profile. It also attracted the interest of players who previously never would have considered it. "Now, the good ones want to come here," Simeone says. "The ones who might have only chosen Real Madrid or Barcelona and not Atletico, now they also want to come to Atletico."

Which players? At no point did Simeone give sporting director Andrea Berta a name. All he asked for was a star or two who would make the same commitment he demanded from everyone else. "Diego said to me, 'Andrea, if we can get a little more money, we can get players of an even higher quality,'" Berta says. "He knows that it's easier to win with better players.

"However," Berta adds, waving a finger, "it is also more complicated."

It's 6:30 on a warm August evening. The Madrid sun is still high in the sky. Simeone's players are doing what Simeone's players do on August afternoons -- and will continue to do all season. Atletico's fitness coach Oscar Ortega -- called "Profe," for "Professor" -- has laid out a line of BOSU balls on the turf. One after another, his charges approach, then alternate between one foot and two as they hop and jump on the half-globes to the finish.

It's an exercise that demands body control and agility and, after the fifth or sixth repetition, sheer will. Here comes Angel Correa, new signing Rodrigo de Paul, Suarez and the standout defender Jose Gimenez, hopping and panting and occasionally stumbling. "One, two," Profe says calmly as they pass him. "One, two." Profe knows this is merely the beginning. So do the players. Berta puts it succinctly: "Run, run, and then run more," he says. "Because we're not Barcelona."

Inside football, these workouts have become legendary. They mimic the physical exertion necessary for a style of play that forces even strikers to track back and defend. Watching carefully, noticing everything, Simeone decides who can take it.

"It was very hard for me," says former Atletico midfielder Josuha Guilavogui. "He has one way to go, and either you are in or you are out." Now Wolfsburg's captain, Guilavogui arrived at Atletico in 2013 from St. Etienne. Early in those summer sessions, Simeone saw something he didn't like. Guilavogui started one match and played two minutes in another. "And it wasn't just me," Guilavogui says. "At the time, there were players on the team who were better than I was, who were already having big careers."

One of them was Jackson Martinez, the former FC Porto attacker. Nicolas Gaitan, who'd starred at Benfica, was another. The experiences of all three men had the same downward trajectory. Simeone watched them training, then wrote them off. Never mind that the club had spent liberally to bring them in, including $38.5 million for Martinez and $33 million for Gaitan.

"Talent is important," Berta says. "But without the right mentality to play for Diego, they can't succeed at Atletico."

Other players understand that Simeone can maximise their potential. Filipe Luis joined Atletico in 2010, prior to Simeone. After the championship in 2014, he signed with Chelsea. It meant more money and, he figured, an easier life. Within a few weeks, he realised he missed the rigour that Simeone imposed.

"Without him, I couldn't be the best left-back in the world," he says. "In his hands, I was. So I had to go back. Only he could extract all the football that I had in my body." Filipe Luis begged Chelsea to return him to Atletico. Chelsea did. He stayed and thrived until 2019.

Simeone appreciates that most bodies aren't meant to operate continuously at such a high level of intensity. He tells Berta that ideally they would renovate the roster every few years, just as armies rotate regiments in and out of combat. Exceptions, perhaps, are some of the players who arrive as teenagers, like Koke and Correa and Gimenez, and seem preternaturally suited for the regimen. In part, it is because they know no other way. Yet every new arrival is a potential flop.

"With some players, we lose 100% of our investment," Gil says. "Why? Because they don't adapt to this system. Every player must run, run and run. If they don't, they don't play. And when you have players with high talent, it's almost incompatible with run, run and run."

So when Atletico signed Felix in 2019 for a club record $140 million, eyebrows were raised. "He was very technical," says Martinez-Almeida, the mayor, "but I didn't think he was up to the physical standard." By various reckonings, this was the third-, fourth- or fifth-most expensive transfer in history at the time. It shattered Atletico's club record, the $80 million spent on Lemar, and all for an undeniably talented 19-year-old who couldn't possibly anticipate what would be required of him. But in Felix, Simeone saw the young Griezmann.

Griezmann, too, had arrived scrawny and immature -- "a weak boy," in Simeone's words. He had flair that seduces fans from the moment they first see him, but no concept of sublimating his skills to the team effort. But Griezmann learned. He eventually scored 133 goals for Atletico before Barcelona called.

Exactly the same is happening with Felix. After suffering through a disastrous first year, he played as well as anyone in LaLiga last season until an ankle injury slowed his progress. "I learned the relationship between suffering and the success of the team," Felix says. "When you suffer together, you learn to win together. We suffer in our training. We suffer because we all have to defend. It teaches us how to win."

Now, he says, if Simeone wants him to drop back to the midfield to mark a man, he'll do it. If Simeone wants him to stay forward and press the ball, he'll do that. "I do whatever he asks," he says. "I understand the philosophy."

Last summer, to some surprise, Atletico added Suarez, who will turn 35 in January. (It helped that he arrived on a free transfer, with Barcelona paying a significant portion of his wages.) Simeone insists that the first job of a forward is to be his first line of defence, and that didn't sound like Uruguay's all-time leading scorer. But nobody could question Suarez's competitiveness -- he has been caught three times biting opponents, after all.

"He knew I had motivation after Barcelona," Suarez says of Simeone. "He knew I wanted to demonstrate my quality to LaLiga. He told me exactly what I had to do, and he gave me the confidence that I could play my best here."

But motivation was only part of the issue. The open question was whether Suarez could work as hard as necessary on defence and have the energy to score goals. To accommodate him, Simeone gave Suarez extra vacation. He adapted the team's tactics to fit his formidable skills, restructuring the formation from its usual 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2. He made it clear that Suarez wasn't expected to run as much as the younger players such as Marcos Llorente. But Suarez had to run intelligently.

Led by Felix, Atletico raced to an early lead in the table. After 10 matches, they not only hadn't lost a game, they hadn't even trailed. Midway through the season, their lead was 10 points. Then Felix hurt his ankle and contracted COVID-19. Kieran Trippier was suspended for 10 games over gambling-related offences. Suarez's furious pace slackened. With eight games left, the advantage had narrowed to a single point over Real Madrid, and two over Barcelona.

That last month was when all that sweating and panting paid off. On the season's final day, Atletico traveled to Real Valladolid with the title in doubt. Quickly, they fell behind. But in the 67th minute, after Correa had equalised, Suarez made a run with the ball and scored the winner. When the game ended, he fell to the ground and cried. He had won cups and league titles at Barcelona, but this was different. Simeone looked on approvingly.

"I always say that, at Atletico, when you win, you enjoy it twice as much," he says now.

Why? Because nobody expects Atletico to win. The impetus lies with the giants. All Simeone's club can do is wait for an opening. Overcoming Real Madrid and Barcelona proved that the same counterattacking strategy Atletico employ over 90 minutes week after week also works as writ large. As the fortunes of clubs rise and fall, an opportunity may appear. Everything Simeone does, all that preparation, is for his players to be ready to seize it.

"Everywhere you turn, in LaLiga, the Copa del Rey, even the Champions League, the two of them are waiting," he says of Real Madrid and Barcelona. "But today, after nine years of work, they know that they can't mess up. Because it they do, we are here."

As he passes a decade as Atletico's manager, Simeone's situation seems ideal. It isn't just his $30 million annual salary (plus bonuses) -- as high as that of any manager in the world, and more than any other current LaLiga player. Because of his tenure and Gil's support, no manager is more powerful. "Other clubs lose five or six games and they change the manager," says Filipe Luis. "No problem, the players are protected. At Atletico, the manager is protected. The players adapt ... or they leave."

His achievements have been noticed, of course. Last season, Simeone was linked with both Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea. In 2014, he interviewed with Manchester United but ultimately rebuffed interest. At various times, he said that he'd like to manage both Internazionale and the Argentina national team. Yet for all the reasons that Simeone is such a good fit at Atletico, it's unclear how he would fare anywhere else. The most likely destination is in England, especially with Real Madrid and Barcelona off the table for emotional reasons.

"But if he went to manage in the Premier League, it wouldn't work," Gil says. "It isn't just a question of language; it's the characteristics of how he manages. It's the emotional way he proceeds. The demands he puts on players. You just couldn't do that there."

Earlier this year, Simeone signed a contract extension that should keep him in place until 2024, and the grind may get easier. Unlike the last time Atletico won, most of this team should stay together for a while. The 2014 title was perceived as a one-off, and used as a launching pad by players ready to claim a place with the top echelon of teams. Now Atletico are in that echelon, as illustrated by their inclusion (albeit at the last minute) in the abortive European Super League. "In 2014, everyone wanted to leave," Simeone says. "Now, no one does. Why? Because this is working well. We have stability. The club is strong. And we can win."

With Barcelona in disarray, frantically trying to shed players and payroll, and Real Madrid integrating yet another new manager and with an uncertain lineup, this season may provide another one of those openings. With that comes the chance for Atletico to repeat as champions for the first time in 70 years and establish themselves, at least for the moment, as not just one of the best teams in the world, but the best in Spain.

Simeone seems energized by the possibility. He remains as animated as ever, windmilling his arms on the touchline, ranging far beyond the technical area, screaming instructions. At one point against Wolfsburg, the young winger Rodrigo Riquelme spotted a teammate breaking into the clear. But Riquelme delayed delivering the ball and the moment passed. Simeone turned red. He flung his hands skyward, his face contorted into a grimace. He turned away from the field in disgust, his features a mask of frustration.

The game was 40 seconds old.