Rather than ecstatic, the long walk of Simeone was melancholic. In the press conference, he would later admit (and not for the first time) that every time he wins a trophy, there is some sort of liberation, but mixed with more sadness than joy. “Sadness because it means that after giving all, after all the sacrifices we’ve made, tomorrow we will have to start over, start from zero, to keep convincing the players that there is only one way to make it, and that is giving everything every day”.
In the press conference, Burgos interrupted him, with his classic joking style: “Better speak for yourself, I’m happy”.
Simeone supervises a training session with his assistant coach and former team-mate, Germán Burgos. (Getty Images)
Spoiler: Diego Simeone barely uses first-person singular. It is another way to show what team-spirit means to him. In his answers there is no “I”, but “we”, a way to acknowledge his backroom staff.
The Europa League was the sixth trophy since he took over in 2011, with the side closer to relegation zone than to Champions League, and when Atlético de Madrid were hardly seen as sleeping giants. But Simeone took over and his side flourished: two Europa Leagues, one Copa del Rey, one Spanish Super Cup, one La Liga, one UEFA Super Cup, two Champions League finals.
At Stade de Lyon, the game plan had worked till the last detail. Atlético were waiting for Marseille’s mistake. And when it happened, Gabi and Griezmann were ready to seize the chance. The game appeared to be over even before half-time. “It is exactly what we had been practising”, admitted the Argentinian manager, whose passion is to go through every possible detail. “When I see this team in action, you can tell that it is a Diego Simeone’s team,” Luis Figo told AIPS a day before the final. “Many teams can identify themselves with the personality of the manager, but in this case, the resemblances are evident. They have the same willpower and strength of Simeone as a player”.
That ball-boy battle
The long melancholic walk. "Every time we win, there is a feeling of sadness," he said. (Getty Images)
When he is speaking about football, Simeone has no limits, no short answers. Five years and I day before this night in Lyon, on May 17, 2013, Atlético de Madrid reached the Copa del Rey final, against bitter rivals Real Madrid. The problem was that the stadium that had already been chosen to host the final was no other than Santiago Bernabéu. And Atlético de Madrid had not been able to beat Real Madrid in 11 years (5 ties, 16 defeats). Then this happened, as told by Simeone himself:
“The Bernabéu was chosen in advance, right. But then we asked the board members: ‘Who will handle the tickets?’ ‘Real Madrid, they have more experience in Copa del Rey’ they told us. ‘Which bench will we take?,’ was our next question. ‘The away bench.’ ‘And which dressing room are we going to use?,’ we then asked. ‘The away dressing room, it is logical that Real Madrid use their own,’ was the answer. ‘Okay… And who brings the ball boys?’. And we were told that Real Madrid would. ‘Really? Why don’t we just give them the Cup without playing?’. They wanted to control everything, they didn’t want us to practice on the pitch the day before. So it is not a neutral anymore, see my point? In the end, we manage to make six ball boys from each team.
Simeone told me this anecdote as a personal victory, a trophy that no-one will ever recognise. Atlético de Madrid won that final 2-1, but his victory was to start fighting, and at least get something, before kick-off.
The competitive mind of Simeone has no limits. When suggested that he is a product shaped by Carlos Bilardo (the Argentinian manager notable for going through the tiniest detail before games) he denies: “I come from football,” he says. And in football, just as in the wild, there is no place for good manners. You either fight to eat or are eaten. That is Simeone’s philosophy. “That night at Bernabéu, for the first time we sensed fear in the opposition. And we told our players that it was possible, that we had to believe”. Since then, his record against Real Madrid is 8-9-9, which defines the concept of “pestering” that Simeone uses.
The shocking and early Champions League exit might have been, in a way, his biggest reward of the season. After finishing two seasons without trophies, despite playing his second Champions League final in three years, Simeone needed to feel the taste of victory again.
Shake it, shake it
“Come on, come on, come on, we have to keep shaking it, something will fall down. And you know what happens? Something will fall down and we must be there. That’s why I say that this is not just a Europa League trophy, this is much more. It is the continuation of a process, the verification that what we are proposing, is not a fantasy, but reality. A second-place in the Liga, that is very important for us, a Europa League trophy, and then, the certainty that we have to start over and keep pestering," Simeone passionately explained during the press conference. His next sight is the European Super Cup in Tallinn, where his side will face Real Madrid or Liverpool.
Convincing Oblak and Griezmann to stay will not be easy, but at the same time, it will mark the opportunity for reshaping. “The only secret to keep on top is internal competition. When internal competition is lost, our chances are lost. But a team that has internal competition will always be alive”. Diego Simeone will not be chosen manager of the season. Personal accolades have been elusive in his impressive career as manager. But in Simeone’s mind, that’s some extra fuel to keep pestering.
Lyon, May 21, 2018 - Diego Simeone walks slowly on the pitch, his right hand in his pocket. He has already respectfully saluted the Marseille players and now it is time to greet the winners. His winners. But he is taking too long to arrive, as if he does not really want to make it. The first player he finds is Diego Godín. Then there is Germán Burgos, his assistant coach who had the mission to be on the bench while he was serving his suspension. The hug between them is immense.