If this is Simeone’s last Madrid derby, he’ll be remembered for reviving it

Once again into battle? Saturday night will be the 39th time that Diego Simeone has led Atlético Madrid in the derby against Real Madrid – the 40th if you factor in the day they scored seven goals in a friendly in New York. Athletics not least because when it comes to these two, there is no such thing as friendship.

This may also be the last and final step. Exactly one month ago at the Santiago Bernabeu, when Simeone’s team was defeated and eliminated from the Spanish Cup, Atlético’s season actually ended ahead of schedule. After that, he said he would get to June, then sit down with the club and see “what suits everyone”.

It may not be goodbye yet, but it feels like it’s as close as it gets. Closer than in the last decade, the idea of ​​Simeone leaving was publicly entertained and welcomed. Doubts about his future, disputes about the direction he and the club have taken, surface from time to time. The end was declared shortly before, but did not come; reports even claimed that it was done and he left. Decommissioned, he won the league title, his second. When he came to win one was unthinkable. But looking back at those 11 – eleven! — years, probably, there was only one moment when it seemed quite plausible that the next season would start without him, and that was different.

This moment was in Milan. Atlético just lost to Real Madrid in the 2016 Champions League final, falling on penalties. Simeone has been a coach for 4.5 years: since Atlético took over the club in crisis, he has won the Europa League, Copa del Rey, La Liga and the Spanish Super Cup. They have reached the Champions League final twice. They were a wild, inexplicable success. This is a club that has won just one trophy in the 16 years before he joined.

The defeat, however, deeply hurt. Simeone was broken, devastated. He said he didn’t know what to do, what he needed to think about. He left with his wife, leaving behind silence and horror. The thought that he might give up was terrible; in the end, he decided he would. “I felt that I did not have the strength to continue to lead the team,” he later admitted. He said at the time that he needed a period of “mourning” first. At that time, people begged him to stay, fearing that everything would collapse if he left. The sporting director and the club’s general manager flew to Buenos Aires to convince him to stay.

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It’s hard to shake off the feeling that they wouldn’t do it now; instead, if he chose to leave, they would be pleased. Of course, they would never say it—certainly not publicly—but it would save them from having to make a difficult decision and, just as importantly, take responsibility for it. Nobody wants to be the one to end it, even if they think it might be best to end it; it is the inertia generated by the status he has earned. It was not worth thinking about the fact that he would leave then; now it is. Now they can’t help it. Even those who are his protectors, who would emotionally hold him forever, have moments where they wonder.

Maybe things are better? Can they play differently? Can she leave now before it’s too late to avoid a more awkward ending leading to a breakup rather than a goodbye? Maybe waiting will further divide them all, and the fall will become faster, further and more painful? The club has outgrown the person who made them grow in the first place? Did he create the conditions that changed everything by sacrificing his own success? They have evolved; Is he? Maybe someone else is better now? Maybe, in short, it’s time?

It was a long time ago. Simeone has been a coach since January 2012. Managers don’t stay that long; in fact, they never did, and certainly never will. He managed 611 games. He has been in charge for over ten years; ten years before he came to power, 11 people held this position. This weekend he will face his eighth Real Madrid coach: Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Rafa Benitez, Zinedine Zidane, Julen Lopetegui, Santi Solari, Zidane again, Ancelotti again.

Ancelotti faced him 13 times in just two years in the first round, including the first ever European Cup final between two teams from the same city, with around 70,000 fans heading to Lisbon. No other game was played anymore. When he returned from spells in charge of Bayern Munich, Napoli and Everton, Simeone was still waiting for him there.

“What Simeone did at Atlético – build something important, make the club one of the best in Europe, fight every year, win titles and do it flawlessly – that’s what all coaches want,” Ancelotti said. . “To be at the club for a long time, to leave your mark on it, your signature: this is the dream of all coaches.”

He left his mark on them, sometimes literally. Derby revived, although not fully mastered. It’s hard to do justice to where Atlético were back then, even if there are glimpses of it from time to time, even if the success could even make the failure even more brutal.

It may seem strange to measure Simeone’s longevity by Real Madrid, but much of what his club is or was has been measured by Real Madrid. Atlético Madrid were a team defined in part by what they weren’t: a team on the other side of town. They liked to think that they were everything that the Real Wasn’t, a narrative that they built. They claimed it meant “real”: real fans making the right noise. Which meant, well, successfully. They, on the other hand, were pupae, “damned”. It was like they accepted defeat, built a personality on it. It wasn’t just that they didn’t win titles; the thing is, they couldn’t win the derby.

It is now known, but it is worth repeating, because knowing is one thing, but truly digesting it is quite another, fully aware of the full scale of their suffering. When Simeone took over, Atlético had last beaten Real Madrid in 1999 and they were relegated that year. Since they returned to the top division, they didn’t win a single game against their rivals.

They weren’t really rivals, not in any meaningful way. Every time Atlético thought they were close, every time they thought they had a chance, they lost it in an increasingly tragicomic way. Or they would be so terrible that you would wonder why they even bother to show up. They didn’t have the slightest chance of winning.

Until one night they did. The streak eventually ended on Simeon after 14 years and 25 games.

In the final of the Spanish Cup.

In extra time.

At the Santiago Bernabeu.

Despite the fact that they have already won the Europa League, that’s it. It was the one, at least in part due to the opponents, due to the breaking of this spell. There could not be a better way to announce the coming, to show how real it was, the opening of a new era. How big they got. What Simeone did, how he revolutionized the club. And he had it too: it’s hard to imagine a coach who would have had an impact anywhere like him. He also adopted this identity and played on it: the rebels are fighting with the authorities, only he also had a team that won. His path: a tooth and a bloody nail.

This was followed by a league title – perhaps the most worthy in the history of Spanish football, at that time not as far from the case of Leicester City as it seems since then – and a second Europa League. Two European Cup finals. They won another championship title: a completely new team was created for this, a colossal achievement.

And there were memorable derbies. In one image, fans lined up at the Vicente Calderón stadium scoreboard take pictures after Atlético beat Real Madrid 4-0. It was part of a seven-game streak in which they were undefeated by their city rivals. They also won the European Super Cup and won the Copa del Rey when even Fernando Torres, the biggest victim of those dark days, the kid who talked every Monday morning about going to school in his Atlético tracksuit, got annoyed and then lived it . as the player also returned and finally scored and defeated his rivals.

But when it came to Europe, the breakthrough somehow never happened, as if it were something else, a reminder of the old order that cannot be overthrown. Even if they now believed that it could be, even if they saw that they could compete and win. And, of course, it was hope that killed them. It’s curious to think that these two European finals lost to Real Madrid weigh more than the leagues won. How it happened is part of the explanation: Leading 1-0 to the equalizing goal after 92 minutes and 38 seconds before losing in extra time in 2014, followed by a penalty in 2016, they denied them. Two European Cups denied in the amount of what, 70 seconds?

(Three, actually: a last-minute goal cost them in 1974 when beans Name started.)

It doesn’t get expelled easily. Nothing ever makes up for it, not when it goes against their. Not when vengeance and redemption were repeatedly denied, this crushing inevitability was always present. Real Madrid knocked Atlético out of Europe for four years in a row; two finals, a semi-final, a quarter-final.

It hurt Atlético that they were complicit in Real Madrid’s rise, ending up helping their rivals by getting Barcelona and Bayern out of their way. The most recent European night at Calderon ended in a storm, Atlético fans singing in the rain knowing it was all over, holding on to fight, loyalty and defeat as before. In fact, they won but were eliminated; Real Madrid will again become the champion of Europe. Somehow it summed them up.

After that defeat in Milan in 2016, Simeone did not leave, despite the pain, the deep sense of loss, the need to mourn, but something has changed. Or maybe it’s over. Despite the fact that he had many, many years to go and win huge titles.

Juanfran, who missed the decisive penalty and hit the post, promised to return to the final. But as long as they win the league, they won’t come back. The Champions League moment is gone. Real Madrid have reasserted themselves. Since then, Atlético have played 18 derbies. They have…


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