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Ken Early: Diego Simeone cult built on undying loyalty of hand-picked apostles

Atlético Madrid coach prefers the humble worker over the extravagant talent

Atlético Madrid coach Diego Simeone has brought club to second Champions League final in three seasons. Photograph: Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images

There’s a saying about the true measure of character being what you do when nobody’s watching. You can also tell a lot about a person by what they’re prepared to do when everybody’s watching.

On April 23rd, Atlético Madrid were playing at home to Malaga, needing to win to keep the pressure on Barcelona in the Spanish title chase. In first-half injury time, Malaga won the ball and broke forward on a quick counter-attack.

That was when Atlético’s coach, Diego Simeone, gave the signal to a ball-boy to throw an extra ball onto the field, in an apparent attempt to distract Malaga and disrupt their attack.

After the attack petered out, the referee came over and demanded to know who had thrown the ball. Simeone shrugged and played dumb. So the referee sent him off and as a result he was suspended for the last three league matches of the season.

The natural response in the moment was to laugh at what was probably the most brazen illegal intervention by a coach since José Mourinho sneaked onto the pitch during a Socceraid match at Old Trafford and hacked down the unsuspecting Olly Murs.

But even Mourinho understands that this sort of tactic should be reserved for unserious occasions. Simeone had just done it in a competitive match with the Spanish championship at stake.

You don’t have to think too long to realise the implications of such a stunt. If he’s prepared to cheat so blatantly in a full stadium and international TV audience, what might he do when nobody’s watching?

Few people know for sure what goes on behind the closed doors of Atlético’s training ground. All we can say is that there seems to be some kind of alchemy at work. Since Simeone was appointed coach just before Christmas in 2011, this club has been defying gravity.

Greatest night

On scarcely one-third of the budget available to Real Madrid and Barcelona, they have won the league, the cup, the Europa League, and the European Super Cup. Only the Champions League has eluded them, and tonight they can win that trophy for the first time, against their city rivals, on what would be the greatest night in the 113-year history of Atlético.

It’s a repeat of the 2014 Lisbon final, when they led all the way before Sergio Ramos’s 93rd-minute equaliser inspired Real Madrid to a 4-1 extra-time win. Simeone was sent off for running onto the pitch in a rage to confront Raphael Varane for celebrating Madrid’s fourth goal in a disrespectful way. It seemed they had lost the best chance they would ever have to be champions of Europe.

Nobody expected Atlético to be back, because there are two powerful forces that drag down any medium-sized club that seeks to rise above its station. First, the best players get lured away to richer clubs. Second, the players get tired of listening to the coach.

Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund is the classic case study. They lost Sahin, Kagawa, Götze and Lewandowski, and ultimately they lost belief in their leader. Players who had once been ready to run through walls for Klopp were now ready to run through walls to avoid another one of his pep-talks. His charismatic authority had evaporated, never to return, and he and the club were ultimately glad to see the back of each other.

Everyone assumed the same thing would happen to Atlético. Since the final in 2014 Diego Costa, Thibaut Courtois, Felipe Luis, Arda Turan, Miranda and Toby Alderweireld have all left (though Felipe Luis returned after a season at Chelsea).

And yet here they are, ready to go again, having knocked out Barcelona and Bayern Munich on their way to the final. And there is no sign of any weakening in Simeone’s grip on his players’ imagination. If anything, their belief in the coach seems even more fervent now than two years ago.

This is remarkable, because Simeone is one of the game’s great slavedrivers. His vigilant, collectivist style demands ceaseless, exhausting physical and mental effort from his team. You would expect the players to have grown tired by now of listening to him harp endlessly on the theme of their big balls in his rasping voice.

Discipline and loyalty

That they have not has a lot to do with the discipline and loyalty of a core of six players who have been there since Simeone’s first day in the job: Diego Godin, Juanfran, Felipe Luis (barring that season in London), Tiago, Koke and the captain, Gabi.

These are all serious, driven men. None of them would be regarded as extravagantly talented. They’re not flighty Eden Hazard types, the kind of guys who eventually start to wonder if all this running is really necessary.

They have different technical characteristics, but what they have in common is humility, a pride in self-sacrifice, and an inexhaustible appetite for hard work. They’re the heartbeat of this team, the true believers who guard Atlético’s identity and set the tone for everyone else.

Around that solid framework Simeone has deployed a rotating cast of talent. Maybe the flux of stars is part of the reason why his charismatic hold over the players never seems to wane. By the time any particularly talented player gets tired of chasing the ball like a dog, he’s been sold off and replaced by an eager new inductee to the cult of Atlético. As for the core group of loyalists, Simeone knows he need never doubt their commitment.

As that ball bouncing onto the pitch against Malaga showed, Simeone’s Atlético will go to any lengths to win. The bookmakers rate them as underdogs, but it’s hard to imagine them being thwarted a second time.