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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Simeone on Atlético, World Cup, battling Barca, Real Madrid


Twelve years is a long time to be in charge at any club, let alone one with the demands of Atlético Madrid: the big club cursed to forever compete with two superclubs in LaLiga, Real Madrid and Barcelona, in a relentless battle against the odds every season.

That’s the challenge Diego Simeone has faced since he took over as Atlético manager in December 2011. Since then, he has transformed the club, and its place in Spanish football. He has given LaLiga a “Big Three,” as the club became a genuine rival to the Real/Barça duopoly, won two league titles, built a new stadium, and are regulars in the latter stages of the Champions League.

In the process, Simeone has transformed the Madrid derby. When he arrived, it wasn’t a rivalry at all; Atlético had gone over a decade without beating Real Madrid. Now, it’s one of European football’s most consistently high-quality and evenly-matched derbies. Simeone’s derby record as coach reads: P42, W12, D12, L18.

It’s a more-than-respectable win ratio that includes some famous victories — think of the 2013 Copa del Rey final, played and won at the Santiago Bernabeu — and some agonising defeats, notably the 2014 and 2016 Champions League finals.

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This season’s record is just as hit-and-miss. Atlético beat Real Madrid 3-1 in LaLiga in September, lost a thrilling Spanish Supercopa semifinal 5-3 after extra time last month, and then, two weeks ago, won 4-2 in a Copa del Rey round-of-16 tie. On Sunday, Simeone will lead Atlético Madrid to the Bernabeu for the rivalry’s latest chapter, this time back in LaLiga.

Ahead of the game, ESPN’s Martin Ainstein spoke to Simeone for an episode of the series “The Bicycle Diaries.” They met in an Argentine restaurant, just across the road from Atlético’s training ground, to discuss the Madrid derby, why Simeone isn’t ready to coach Argentina and why he’s still just as hungry for success, after all these years.

(Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and content.)


ESPN: What’s been the hardest part of staying in the same role for 12 years? What’s the biggest challenge?

Diego Simeone: Myself. Keeping that energy, not letting time get the best of me and just concentrating on today, like I have been doing since the day I arrived. That part that comes with long periods of time. I don’t doubt it’s the same way for others: I think [Liverpool boss] Jurgen Klopp explained it very well the other day.

I understand it, obviously: it’s a continuous struggle, every day. Repeat over and over and over, then start again. Changing the makeup of a team, in a transition of young players and ones who performed, and you have to let them go. Because the years go by for me and those who are at my side. I understand that energy is that breaking point for it all.

ESPN: What wears you out the most?

The biggest thing is the responsibility, I think. Sometimes after matches, I don’t know if I’m happy because we won, or happy because we’re done with the responsibility that comes with winning, because we’ve done all there is to do. We left the bar high, as they say, and obviously that expectation is set by what we accomplish.

Clearly, there’s no margin, and there’s a responsibility that comes with that. That responsibility falls mainly on me, with the support of all my staff. But that place is always there in situations after games. My wife asked me: “When are you the happiest?” And I was left speechless until I answered “when I go to sleep. Why? Because no one is talking to me.”

ESPN: It shuts you off.

Simeone: Because I shut off and I have a moment of peace. With everything: the silence, the day, the night, the day ahead. It’s hard to find that isolated happiness that you have with goals or with winning, but I don’t think that happiness exists naturally.

ESPN: I haven’t seen it. You see us waiting [after matches] and I’ve never seen a manager sprint out of there the way you do after matches. You come in with so much energy — if everything goes well, that is.

Simeone: But that’s what it is, right? The game is over, that one you win even if you don’t play well, but have to win all the same. There’s no doubt it is important, more than the process and the game, than everything we talk about and all the opinions, than what the fan needs. And of course, when you win there’s — phew! — a joy …

ESPN: A relief.

Simeone: More than joy, relief, that’s a better word for it. That burst is what I was telling you about, go home, be there at night with my daughters and enjoy a bit of family time.

ESPN: Speaking of the things that wear you down, the lack of motivation and energy. [Barcelona boss] Xavi also felt that pressure that comes with the job, of everything that goes down. I’ll be honest with you, you seem stronger, meaning with the passage of time you look more composed, mature. You’re stepping into places that you didn’t before. What’s behind that?

Simeone: Well, I think the process is the same, as you put so well. These 12½ years, it’s…

ESPN: I mean you. You’re stronger.

Simeone: Right now I feel calm, at peace with what I do and giving it all I have. That gives me balance, and you need that balance to go into that rough area when sometimes you enter and need to know how to get out. It’s easy to go in, but when you go into the turbulence, it’s hard to get out. You need to find the ways available through intelligence, balance, peace; you need to find them and return to that cycle of good things.

ESPN: What’s the next goal? You’ve accomplished a lot at Atléti, and some speak of you as being like the Sir Alex Ferguson of Atléti. Ferguson was at United for 26 years. Impossible.

Simeone: I think it’s impossible, for sure. The next step, and I don’t think it’s far away, it’s close. I think about this new two-year rebuild. The second one to see if we still have the energy to carry on to the third one, and I think it’s a good idea to be on the same page with the club and me and my energy.

What excites me are the new kids — like Pablo Barrios, Arthur Vermeeren, Samuel Lino, Rodrigo Riquelme — who are starting to emerge on the team; [I’m excited by] what’s left in Antoine Griezmann‘s tank and Koke, so they can join us in this process, what Jan Oblak has left. You imagine who’s going to stick around for these plans and who’s going to be with me; obviously [we will] rebuild what needs to be rebuilt, because guys reach a certain age and decline, they have certain needs. It happens to everyone.

I remember what I got from Diego Godín and Miranda, what Gabi was able to contribute, and Saul. That cycle reaches its end and starts all over again. You have to sustain it within the locker room so that they can be a part of it with you, because if not that becomes impossible.

ESPN: But not 26 years?

Simeone: Well, let’s get it on the record. Not right now, but you never know.

play

2:03

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ESPN: You’re very much associated with Argentina‘s kit [as a player]. And it’s understood that at some point, you’ll be the national manager. It’s probably not the right time to mention it, but is it something you’ve thought about? Is there a certain time when you’d say “it’s my turn?”

Simeone: No, not really. I don’t feel it’s a situation with a set moment. I am aware that it can be a wonderful opportunity when the time comes that I’m ready to manage a national team.

ESPN: You’re not ready yet right now?

Simeone: Absolutely not. I like my routine. I like to compete. The other day I was talking to a colleague who was visiting, and he told me about his process of being with a national team for a long time. About training again, how difficult that is, because when you get away from the daily routine — be it day or months — working with national teams in a totally different way than what you’re used to in the day-to-day.

I like [club football] — helping someone improve, fighting with them, having discussions about changes of opinion, accommodating the “misfits” to where they can best help the team and help them out as well. I like that. Honestly, I feel happy doing that. Of course, it can clearly wear on you.

ESPN: Speaking of the national team, I’d like your opinion on what [manager] Lionel Scaloni did [to win the 2022 World Cup with Argentina]. I listened to him say that when he took over, he won the team over by having everyone participate. “We’re doing this, what do you think of it? We’re doing such and such in this match. Will it work?”

Simeone: That method had a lot of virtue.

He had a good relationship with Lionel Messi and that always touches on what you’re doing. Very good. Then Scaloni found a lot of young players who contributed a ton. Players like Marcos Acuña, Cristian Romero, Nicolás Otamendi, Nahuel Molina, Lautaro MartínezJulián Álvarez from Man City.

And then managing those key moments in the best possible way, because some say he was lucky because a player got injured and someone else took his place. He made an important change in the Mexico match — putting Alexis Mac Allister in midfield — that gave him an important result, and it carried over to the next game.

Against Poland? If I’m not mistaken, to continue that moment with Alvarez and Mac Allister, there were decisive changes in maintaining that process within the national team, beyond what has been in place during Copa America with that title, and that provided that space for the players who listened to him to get stronger.

The truth is, I’m an admirer of people who manage the difficult situations better, and Scaloni did so with his arrival, which wasn’t easy — to say nothing of the World Cup final! [Argentina won on penalties after a 3-3 tie with France that went to extra time.]

ESPN: Did Messi surprise you? I’m talking about the level he reached because he won at that moment, being Leo. He had fewer tools to show what he was about.

Simeone: Not in football terms. We experienced it and suffered through it during these 9-10 years. Yes, there’s what you see from the outside, because you always have opinions as an outsider, but you’re not dealing with the day-to-day. But yes, [the 2022 World Cup] revealed his character, his place within the group as a captain. We all needed to listen to him, because through him we felt it, but couldn’t express it. And when he succeeded in bringing out that personality and that man, everyone was able to relate to him better. Not just because of the player he is and will be, but because of the person who expressed what we needed to hear.

ESPN: Did the World Cup stir something in your [Atlético Madrid] players? Because when everyone returned it’s been that way for Atléti since LaLiga resumed. Rodrigo De Paul and Molina are different players.

Simeone: Molina also started off on the wrong foot and got better with the World Cup. It made him stronger. He’s one of the best wing-backs in the world now, without a doubt.

ESPN: What did the World Cup change in you? You lived through it, and it changes your life.

Simeone: Being champion of the world changes your life. You’re never the same again because as long as you live, you’ll have that. I always tell them: nobody can take that away. What they achieved, it gives you a strength and confidence to know what you’ve got. Now, you have to show that daily and keep winning because life doesn’t just stay a memory. But for all Argentineans, it’s unforgettable.

ESPN: It all changed.

Simeone: This team changed too. It got better. I think we found more stability, and a game that to them felt more confident, with an identity. We shared in it because the results helped us. And Griezmann was able to play the minutes we needed him to play well.

ESPN: Now, a lot of players who were emotionally spent after the World Cup went through a decline — in particular the French players. Griezmann, you know well: he had a brutal regression that goes beyond his minutes.

Simeone: He has a goal, and I think that was it. When he was back with Atlético, he returned the affection that people had for him. The situation when he left — he wanted to go, but he also didn’t want to — so he left with that doubt that made him realize this is where he belonged. That gesture toward the fans, knowing he couldn’t play [more than] 30 minutes and show that he was back? That transferred over and made us believe as a team, made us better. Hopefully, we can keep it up.

ESPN: What’s Antoine’s world ranking as of now?

Simeone: To me, he’s one of the best.

ESPN: No. 1? 2? 3?

Simeone: It’s difficult to put a number to it because there’s a ton of extraordinary footballers. Erling Haaland, Kylian Mbappé … After that I don’t know many who are better than him today. But Griezmann’s there.

ESPN: You are the man who was able to solve the riddle: How to beat Madrid? You did it twice. I can imagine how you rip your hair out preparing for a match like that because of the [talent on both sides] that cancels out come kickoff. They force you to use bench players who change the game, Many of them.

Simeone: Yes, more and more. You take all of that other stuff into account for them. You don’t see it, but it’s there.

ESPN: And what is that?

Simeone: If you know, you know. The main thing is [Real Madrid] have an extraordinary manager who manages the group well, the players. It’s a team that almost always wins.

ESPN: Almost always.

Simeone: They’re very good.

play

1:47

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ESPN: Two times.

Simeone: To lose twice in 45. Hopefully, we can just lose twice. They have the resources, the tools, a strong president in Florentino Perez who manages things well, a club that is surely one of the best in the world, and by a lot. I admire the way the manage and the way they perform, demanding that Madrid’s top players compete.

Sergio Ramos leaves … Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Iker Casillas … the club carries on. Why? Because the way they manage is exemplary.

As a team, since we started playing against them 12 years ago. It’s always difficult, since they are always among the best. Not just going back to Ronaldo, Benzema, Mesut Ozil, Angel de María, Gonzalo Higuaín, Xabi Alonso. Everything, to this most recent era. Now, they have Vinicius Jr. and Jude Bellingham. They have kicked off another youth infusion: they put it together and build it, never thinking of anything but winning. And it’s not easy to always win, but they do it.

When you face a rival like that, you have that mindset that if you lose an inch, the battle is lost. Why? You saw it in the last Supercopa match where we were the best team for 90 minutes. They are capable of changing an entire game and we couldn’t figure that out because it meant shortening the play, or keeping it from progressing. We didn’t do it once, twice, and so they got to 3-3. Deserved and well managed. They make it so that when you face them, your concentration needs to be at 100% and when we succeed, we know we can compete. And they know that we know we can do it.

It strengthens us.

ESPN: I’m not sure if you noticed, but that wasn’t the same Bellingham you see in other matches against Atlético. How do you stop him?

Simeone: We were lucky. He’s an extraordinary player, and we were lucky. He hasn’t been able to solve some of those situations against us in the best way. But he has something that’s difficult to spot, and that’s his second-line approach from a midfielder who’s a forward. That’s difficult because when we attack, we always tell the defenders the same thing. Ball, player. There are times where you lose the vision, or you see the ball and lose the movement.

If you look at the movement and ignore the ball, then it’s difficult to defend in those situations. Beyond that, he generates movement that makes you lose track of the player; it’s no coincidence that he appears and approaches well from the second line. He handles that well. He’s a big playmaker. He’s on a club where he has everything he needs to improve, and I like him a lot.

ESPN: We’re approaching midseason and people keep saying “well, Girona is bound to fall.” But they don’t. How far will they go in LaLiga’s title race?

Simeone: As far as their focus takes them. The truth is they are in a position where they have in front of them three or four matches that will could reveal where they end up. They have a smart manager who is doing a great job. He was already working well, and they gave him better players. When a manager has better players, he turns into a better manager because naturally things are better. He has young players too, and that helps you stay humble and keep that desire to keep on battling for the league.

But these four matches will be telling. Until now, they’ve maintained their pace. Their number of goals against has gone down. It was too high for a champion, and if that goes down, and they improve or maintain their success on the attack … It’s clear that it would be wonderful for Spanish football that after us, there is another team that can challenge Barcelona and Real Madrid.

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