Ken Early: Atlético Madrid stand tall in pain of defeat

As in Lisbon two years ago hard work not enough as Real’s quality shines through

Atlético Madrid coach Diego Simeone collects his runners-up medal at the San Siro stadium in Milan. Photograph: Images

Atlético Madrid coach Diego Simeone collects his runners-up medal at the San Siro stadium in Milan. Photograph: Images

 

Forty minutes after watching his team lose the Champions League final on penalties, Diego Simeone sat in the press conference room, determined to fulfil all the proper rituals of taking defeat like a man.

“I think that the team that wins is always the best team,” he said. “What is clear to me is that nobody remembers the losers. Losing two finals is a failure.”

Maybe when you live the game as intensely as Simeone, you have to believe that the best team always wins. You have to believe that it all makes some kind of sense in the end.

But really, why would the best team always win? Accidents happen.

Defeat on penalties is usually an opportunity to use words like “lottery”, but instead Simeone talked about destiny: it just wasn’t meant to be. He’s one of the great tough-guys and cynics in football, but he has a fatalistic streak, and a sentimental one.

In Lisbon in 2014 Simeone had engaged in some flinty talk about how individual stars were just names, and then went ahead and named Diego Costa in the starting line-up, even though his hamstring was in ribbons. Costa had done so much to get Atlético Madrid to the final that Simeone felt he couldn’t leave him out of what they both knew would be his last game for the club. In the end, Costa lasted just seven minutes, and that early substitution would cost Atlético as exhaustion took its toll in extra time.

This time the beneficiary of Simeone’s soft-heartedness was Fernando Torres, Atlético’s prodigal son, with whom Simeone had played more than a decade ago during his second and Torres’s first stint at the club. The day before the final, Torres had described it as “the game of my life, without doubt” – a big statement from a man who has won the finals of the World Cup, European Championships and Champions League.

Unfortunately for Torres, he couldn’t give a performance befitting the occasion. Perhaps only sentimentality could have persuaded Simeone to leave him on the field after a first half in which he not only failed to have an attempt on goal, but failed to complete a single pass to a team-mate.

Then again, given how central emotional energy is to the way Simeone’s teams play the game, maybe it makes sense that he’s a sentimentalist. An icy rationalist could not drag this sort of effort out of his players.

Second Captains

A few minutes later, Zinedine Zidane was sitting in the same seat telling us that Real Madrid had won the final thanks to hard work.

“I really believe in hard work,” he said. “We have quality, but work is possibly more important than quality.”

Gareth Bale’s struggle with cramp throughout extra time illustrated how much Real had suffered, but Atlético ran 12km more than they did on the night. Nobody on the field had worked harder than Gabi, Atlético’s heroic captain. But hard work wasn’t enough. As in Lisbon two years ago, quality made the difference.

Secret of his success

Zidane was asked if his quiet demeanour on the sideline was part of the secret of his success. When you win, people want to give you credit for everything.

The truth was Zidane had got lucky. He had made his last substitution just before Atlético’s equaliser. He had been saved by the exhaustion that eventually overtook Atlético, and the nerveless penalty taking of his stable of world-class stars.

Will he still be the coach of Real this time next year? During the week there had been rumours that Florentino Pérez had already tired of Zidane, and was thinking about replacing him with the Sevilla coach, Unai Emery. That plan will have to be put on hold, but maybe not for long.

That’s the nature of life at Real. Stars come and go. There will be more stars and more Champions Leagues. They all blur into one after a while.

Real have established such a position of dominance that Barcelona are the only team they can get really excited about beating. Every other team they expect to beat, and when you always expect to win, victory loses some of its savour. In this case, the satisfaction for Real’s fans largely lay in the fact that they had once again prevented Atlético from winning it.

The Real players cavorted happily in front of their fans: Pepe with a selfie stick, James Rodríguez wrapped in the Colombian flag though he hadn’t kicked a ball, Ronaldo, the golden god, with everyone else invited to worship at his feet.

At the other end of the field a different sort of scene was unfolding. Juanfran, whose missed penalty had allowed Ronaldo to win it for Real, Juanfran the loneliest man in the world, walked away from his team-mates and moved towards the huge slope behind the goal where the Atlético fans were still massed.

He stopped just inside the penalty area with his head bowed and stretched out his hands in supplication. Every one of the Atlético fans stood and applauded. His team-mates saw what was happening and came over and hugged him as the tears streamed down his face.

Endless repetition

In this moment you thought of all those slogans about football bringing people together, the empty phrases worn out and made lifeless by their endless repetition in corporate Fifa speak, and you suddenly remembered what they meant.

Here was a guy who had given everything and failed. He felt as though his life’s work had just crumbled into nothingness, and taken all his team-mates’ work down with it. He felt like the accidental traitor who has betrayed the whole world.

But instead of blaming him, all his people gathered around and said: Don’t worry. We’ve still got each other. It’s going to be okay.

Simeone talked about nobody remembering the losers. But in the tender heart that beats somewhere beneath that macho exterior, he would have understood that this, much more than all the chest-beating and victory dances at the far end . . . this is what it’s all about.

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