When a hero returns to the scene of former glories, it can often be questioned whether or not it’s a smart move. You see, the hero is remembered for any number of reasons to any number of people. But all those reasons combined, and all those peoples feelings combined, make him a hero. A hero in the eyes of those who cherished in him. And as time goes on, those who adored and loved remember him with additional fondness and favouritism. The memory lasts, and the hero has his place in the people’s hearts.
But, if the hero returns, and fails, then there is every chance that what he achieved in the first place will be dampened, always looked upon with distain. It will no longer be remembered for what it was and the fondness and adulation will erode to the point where only the failings will be pointed out and he may cease to be a memory. Just an afterthought.
This is the situation into which Diego Simeone, the former Argentina midfielder, now finds himself.
Infamous in the UK for ‘that’ moment in the 1998 World Cup which saw David Beckham red carded, the man known as ‘El Cholo‘ (a nickname given to him by his former youth coach who felt Simeone reminded him of for Boca Juniors player Carmelo Simeone (no relation)) has made a return to the Vicente Calderon, having lead Atletico Madrid to their last Primera Division title, as captain, in 1996.
On that occasion the player Simeone – who described his style as “holding a knife between his teeth” – hauled the side to a league and cup double. Now, Simeone the manager, looks to halt a decline that has seen a mere two trophies – the 2010 Uefa Europa League and that year’s Uefa Super Cup – land on the banks of the Manzanares in the intermittent 16 year period.
16 years has seen 16 coaching changes in an attempt to replicate what Raddy Antic – the Serbian manager who curiously once had a playing spell with Luton Town – did in winning the Spanish title. Those 16 changes have only seen Atletico fall further and further behind their great rivals, Real Madrid.
This season began with optimism – despite the departures of star strikers Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero – and renewed hope, thanks to the arrivals of the likes of Colombian striker Radamel Falcao, Turkish winger Arda Turan, Brazilian defender Miranda, and the talented playmaker Diego.
However, a poor start, with inconsistent results matched by inconsistent performances putting pressure on new manager Gregorio Manzano. He hadn’t been the supporters choice anyway. They’d wanted Luis Aragones, a club legend. Instead, they got a pragmatic man from Bailen, who’d had a spell at the club before and they hadn’t liked him then. They didn’t like him now either.
By December, they were booing whenever Manzano entered his technical area to give instructions to his players. They also booed when he didn’t. The relationship was untennable. Manzano had to go, and following Copa del Rey defeat to Albacete, with the club stranded in 10th in La Liga, Manzano was dismissed and Los Colchoneros needed yet another new manager.
Enter the returning hero.
Within six matches, everything has changed. Simeone has brought pride and harmony (as much as there can ever be at the Vicente Calderon) back to Atletico. His system has been put into place, a hard-working team ethic where there can be no passengers. Everyone working together. Everyone pulling in the same direction. Simeone arrived back in the Spanish capital and stated that he wanted to “see an aggressive, strong, combative and determined team.”
Six unbeaten matches, encompassing three wins and two draws, taking eleven points and bringing the club to within two points of the Champions League places, later, and that is exactly what he has. Atletico have scored eight goals since Simeone’s arrival. They’ve conceded none.
They drew at Malaga, followed that by beating Villarreal 3-0, before recording a 4-0 win at a Real Sociedad side unbeaten in seven games for their first away win of the season. A single-goal victory over Osasuna followed before another pair of 0-0 draw’s, at home to Valencia and away at Racing Santander; Their results are starting to resemble binary code: 0-0,3-0,0-4, 0-1,0-0,0-0.
Supporters at the Calderon may want free-flowing football and to see their side go toe-to-toe with their bitter rivals, but they’re realistic enough supporters who have been through their share of rollercoaster rides, to know that that is someway off. Real are off breaking their own records at the moment, and that’s not even a guarantee of success such is the phenomenon that is the Blaugrana of Barcelona. Spain’s big two are playing a different game to the rest of La Liga – they’re playing a different game to the rest of the planet.
As it is, the Atletico fans are happy to see Simeone’s side showing resistance and proving obdurate. On February 5th, Valencia – third in the table – were reduced to a single shot on target in 90 minutes. Simeone has given the side a backbone, a never-say-die attitude just as he did when he was a player. Couple that with the undoubted match-winning qualities of the likes of Falcao, Arda Turan, Diego and Adrian, and a top-four finish is not a mere pipe dream.
That’s not to say that it’ll last however. There have been many false-dawns at Atletico down the years. Simeone is something of an adopted son to the Atleti Ultras, who remember his fantastic performances when they last won the Spanish title, and whilst initially that may help him in any disputes with players or the board, if progress stops being made, it won’t save him. Football fans are the most fickle people around but Diego Simeone knows that. He’s been around the game long enough. And that makes his taking on of the Atletico challenge even more awe-inspiring.
Currently the man is held on a pedestal by the clubs supporters. He is a hero to them. He was the warrior who sweat blood for them and lead them to success. Now he must lead them again. If he’s successful, then it’ll lead to elation and God-like status will be preserved for him.
But if he fails…
If he fails it may tarnish all of his hard work that has gone before. It’s reason’s like this why the old addage says ‘Never go back.’ Failure could destroy his legacy and the heroic image that every Atletico fan who saw him emerge triumphant in 1996 carries with them may become tainted.
But one thing’s for sure. If he does fail, It won’t be through lack of effort. And it won’t be through lack of determination, application or hard work. He will give his all to Los Rojiblancos. He’s put his head on the chopping block at a time when Atleti are as far removed from Spain’s big-two as they have ever been. He’s taken the proverbial bull by the horns, and is set for a challenge, the immensity of which I don’t think he could have possibly considered before taking the job – Attempting to put Atleti in a position to merely compete with the two Primera Division behemoths.
And for that, Diego Simeone must always command respect, regardless of whether he becomes merely a footnote in the annuls of Atletico Madrid, or whether he can lead them, into a triumphant future, however unlikely that may be.