Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid tackle Liverpool in battle of opposites

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Jonathan Wilson  –  The Guardian

Recent transfer activity suggests that the La Liga side may be moving towards a more expansive approach to the game

Diego Simeone has guided Atlético Madrid to two Champions League finals. Photograph: STRINGER/Reuters

E lite football is more attacking now than at any time since the coming of systematisation in the mid-60s. Between 1994‑95 – when the Champions League first incorporated quarter-finals after the group stage – and 2007-08, there were only two seasons in which an average of more than three goals per game was scored in the knockout stages. Since then there has been only one season when that average has not been higher than 3.0, and in each of the past three it has been higher than 3.5.

As José Mourinho’s star has waned, there has been only one real exception to that trend: Atlético Madrid, who face Liverpool in the Champions League on Tuesday. Twice Champions League finalists in the last decade, the La Liga club play a form of football that has come to be known, after their manager, Diego “Cholo” Simeone, as cholismo, a word coined by the journalist Mario Torrejón in 2012 to contrast their muscular pragmatism with the “tiki‑taka” of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.

Guardiola, it should be said, hates the term “tiki-taka”, which was coined in the 1980s by Javier Clemente to deride, as the then Athletic Bilbao manager saw it, the pointless tippy-tappy passing of their great rivals from the Camp Nou. Usage has fallen as recognition has grown both of how physically demanding Guardiola’s football is and of how pragmatic the application of a possession-based style can be, particularly as practised by Spain under Vicente del Bosque. But eight years ago the distinction seemed stark: on the one hand the artistry of tiki-taka and on the other the struggle of cholismo.

Simeone, who took charge of Atlético in 2011, has always stressed the need for the individual to place himself at the service of the collective and, in the turbulent years following the 2008 global economic crash, that resonated. As Rayco Gonzalez, a semiotician at the University of Burgos, notes in the next issue of the Blizzard: “Political enemies, television broadcasters, actors and other iconic figures were progressively declaring themselves as cholistas. Against a backdrop of economic and political crisis, cholismo expressed a new spirit of the times.”

So widespread was the use of the term that in 2013 the dictionary Fundación del Español Urgente shortlisted cholismo as its word of the year. Yet, however relevant those values may have seemed in Spain in the early part of the decade, cholismo has its roots in the Argentina of the 1940s.

Simeone was given the nickname Cholo by one of his early youth coaches at Vélez Sarsfield, Victorio Spinetto, who was reminded of the former Boca Juniors defender Carmelo “Cholo” Simeone. Spinetto was in his late 70s by then but, as manager of Vélez between 1942 and 1956, had been a pioneer of what became known as anti-fútbol.

At the time that meant simply a style of play based on hard work and organisation as opposed to the flamboyance of la nuestra, the dominant style of the era. But a humiliating 6-1 defeat by Czechoslovakia at the 1958 World Cup brought a revolution in Argentinian football. A decade later, as Osvaldo Zubeldía’s Estudiantes won three Copas Libertadores in a row, anti-fútbol was about winning by any means necessary.

A key midfielder in that side was Carlos Bilardo, who has not merely never denied taking pins on to the pitch to stab opponents but seemed to admit it in a 2011 advertising campaign. Bilardo won the World Cup as manager of Argentina in 1986 and later coached Simeone at Sevilla, where he had such a lasting influence over him that Simeone refers to Bilardo as his “footballing father”. Bilardo, of course, stands on the opposite side of Argentinian football’s Manichean divide from their other World Cup-winning coach, César Luis Menotti, the manager of the Barcelona team Clemente was deriding with the term tiki-taka.

Simeone’s football is nowhere near as extreme as Zubeldía’s but it shares certain core elements: the focus on effort and discipline, laced through with a cynicism so intrinsic that Simeone praised Real Madrid’s Federico Valverde after he was sent off for a professional foul against Atlético in this season’s Spanish Super Cup final.

But Simeone is operating in a different world. Estudiantes in 1967 became the first team other than the five grandes (River Plate, Boca Juniors, Racing, Independiente and San Lorenzo) to win the Argentinian title since the coming of professionalism in 1931. They were outsiders, just as Spinetto’s Vélez had been. And it’s easy to see why Atlético, with their profound sense of themselves as underdogs, the blue‑collar battlers of Madrid, should have proved receptive to cholismo.

Atlético, though, are a strange kind of underdog, the 13th richest club in the world by revenue. The US investor Steven G Mandis, in his 2016 book The Real Madrid Way, was critical of Atlético for not adopting a more expansive, galáctico-driven model that might allow them to grow even further, an accusation that seemed to ignore the nature of the club. But that raises the increasingly common question in modern football of just who a club belongs to: the fans or the shareholders?

Recent transfer activity – selling the ageing stalwarts Gabi, Diego Godín and Juanfran and replacing them with ostensibly more glamorous figures such as João Felix and Thomas Lemar – suggests an attempt, driven at least in part by the agent Jorge Mendes, to move the club away from the fibra – toughness, streetwisdom – Spinetto always prized towards something more immediately attractive. Even before the raft of injuries that has beset their forward line, transition to the new style was proving difficult.

And so it is that Simeone approaches this week’s tie against a Liverpool team whose high-tempo pressing style has come to define the modern age finding his methods being seriously questioned for the first time. Perhaps Mandis is right and clubs do now need to play in a certain way to attract more fans – which is to say, extend their customer base. But what a bleak thought that is, that identity should have to be sacrificed on the commercial altar and that economics should drive sides towards a homogenised approach dictated as much by the market as by footballing concerns.

 

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