The year may yet have reached its halfway point and the World Cup has still to kick-off, but Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone is already in good shape to be crowned FIFA’s Football Coach of the Year at its annual awards ceremony in Zurich next January.
Win or lose in Lisbon in Saturday night’s Champions League final, the Atletico Madrid manager has already exceeded expectations at the Vicente Calderon by guiding Los Colchoneros to world football’s biggest club final and to a first La Liga title in 18 years.
With due respect to players such as Diego Costa, Koke, Thibaut Courtois and Diego Godin to name but a few, the Argentine has done it without world football’s biggest names and he’s done it with a budget that’s relatively small when compared to Spain’s usual big two of Real Madrid, Saturday night’s opponents, and Barcelona, as well as European football’s big-spending clubs such as Manchester City and Paris St Germain.
Atleti’s annual budget is almost only a fifth of their more illustrious neighbours and the television revenue spread across La Liga teams in the 2013-14 season left the side from beside the Manzanares river with just €42 million compared to the €140 million each scooped up by Los Blancos and Barcelona. To put things into perspective Los Rojiblancos, who won the league, picked up €6 million less in television money than Valencia, who finished eighth and 41 points behind Atleti.
‘Cholo’ Simeone was already a hero with the Atleti faithful as a player thanks to winning the double with the club in 1996 - the last time they had won La Liga before this season. As all former players do when returning to their former clubs, Simeone put some of that on the line but his brave and gutsy decision, qualities he has instilled in his current team, has helped turn Atletico from also-rans into a team not only pushing world football’s biggest teams but beating them on a regular basis, too.
Without the star names Simeone has become the star man. He’s become the glue that holds this all-conquering Atleti side together. His talented squad of players have bought into his beliefs and they look at their manager as much more than just a top coach.
“I think for us and all the club he’s like a God.” said midfielder Tiago in Friday’s pre-match press conference. “He arrived at the club and changed everything. What he says comes true and we follow him. If he asks us to go and jump from the bridge we jump. I think he knows a lot of football and we, our group, follow him and we are very proud to have him as a coach.”
The former Chelsea man and Portugal international was only going to offer praise to a man who has led Atleti to Liga glory as a player and a manager and a man who was sitting next to him in front of the hundreds of gathered press at Benfica’s Estádio da Luz. The intensity of his praise was telling, and it’s an intensity that has been shared by his teammates throughout the campaign. Everybody has jumped on board the Argentine’s winning ship.
Simeone’s opposite number has jumped on board, too. Carlo Ancelotti is looking to win his third European Cup after previous successes with Italian giants AC Milan but he has spotted some star qualities with the former Inter player. “I think a coach is lucky when he has a good rapport with his players and strives to get the best out of them,” he said. “He’s done very well. There’s chemistry between him and his players, it’s very special and specific and that’s why they won the Spanish league, he’s doing an excellent job there.”
Atleti captain Gabi continued the praise. “We believe in him,” he said. “Beyond whether the people like the culture or not he’s helped us to win and as long as you win that’s fantastic. I’m here to win, we’re all here to win and he’s made us believe and he’s made us win so it’s the best thing that could happen.”
Simeone could become just the third non-European to win the European Cup should his side complete a remarkable season with victory in the Portuguese capital on Saturday night. The other two were both Argentinian and one was the former manager of Real Madrid. Luis Carniglia won Los Merengues’ third and fourth European titles in 1958 and 1959 before countryman Helenio Herrera, a former Atletico player, helped Inter Milan, Simeone’s former club, to back-to-back triumphs. The signs are there.
The 44-year-old’s success in turning Atletico around is unquestionable but while Simeone has a surefire belief in his methods he also has a humility in his success. When questioned about his managerial talents the praise is quickly deflected onto the group of players he feels blessed to have taken on board.
“This group has really empowered the coaching team that turned up here two years ago with eagerness to turn it around,” he said. “Words are never enough to thank people. I’ve already thanks them but the best thing a coach can have is the players to convey what they feel when they're playing and they've managed to accurately represent what me and coaching staff feel for this game which is passion, unity and that leaves them beyond the level of just an athlete.”
He continued: “I think we’ve grown and we’ve grown as a result of the players we've worked with. Players empower and enhance coaches and I’ve worked with players who’ve given me this opportunity to grow as a coach. I’ve been working with this team for three years and they've really managed to convert everything we feel about the game.”
Jupp Heynckes perhaps understandably won last year’s Ballon d’Or awards thanks to guiding his Bayern Munich side to an historic treble but Simeone didn’t even make the shortlist, with Manchester United’s retiring Sir Alex Ferguson and Borussia Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp completing the top three without Atleti’s boss even getting a look in. It will be hard to ignore him a year on however his side get on against Ancelotti’s side in Lisbon.
“This is a big occasion but I don’t feel as overwhelmed as some seem to think,” he added. “But iI certainly feel the weight of responsibility on my shoulders and iI hope to give them [the fans] the joy they’re hoping for.” Simeone needn’t worry. Defeat against their city rivals on such an occasion would not be nice, but it would not dampen what has been an historic season for Los Rojiblancos. To win would complete a season no Atleti fan could have dreamed of.