5 Players Whose Careers Went Backwards After Leaving Atletico Madrid
Signing for Atletico Madrid in the modern age is something like a confirmation that a player is at the top of his game, or that he has the potential to do so.
It's a move that carries weight, should be a career highlight and offers the possibility of winning trophies—though, it hasn't always been that way at the club, of course. Even so, a history as rich as Atletico's has produced plenty of great players who then go on to achieve further greatness elsewhere.
Sometimes, though, after leaving the Vicente Calderon, that's it for a player's dreams of hitting the top.
A downward spiral of form, fitness and happiness at further clubs can leave players wishing for the surroundings of Los Rojiblancos and their fervent fans—and with Jackson Martinez having given up La Liga for the Chinese Super League this week after just six months at the club, a few might be wondering if he'll end up the latest addition to that list of players.
Here we take a look at five such individuals who saw their best days wearing the red and white of Atleti and were never quite the same player again afterwards.
5. Hugo Leal
A precociously talented Portuguese playmaker joined Atletico Madrid from Benfica back in 1999 and, already capped at senior international level at age 18, he seemed an exciting prospect indeed for the club to rebuild around.
Leal was talented in possession, could split defences and dribble with comfort and gave fans hope at times—but Atleti were on a downward spiral themselves at the time, and he was relegated in his first season with the club. Still learning his trade, he remained with the team in La Segunda for a year and impressed even though they weren't promoted—but then, after two seasons at the Calderon, he was off.
Paris Saint-Germain was Leal's destination, but before the season was out, so was his luck. A bad knee injury saw him miss the entirety of the rest of that first campaign and the under-21 international tournament he had been tipped to star in, and he never recovered.
Leal's contract was eventually ended early, and he moved back to Portugal to FC Porto—but he lasted just six months there. He gradually fell down the league, playing for the likes of Belenenses, Vitoria Setubal and Estoril before retiring, having never added to his solitary cap for Portugal.
4. Florent Sinama-Pongolle
Florent Sinama-Pongolle had made his name as a top striking prospect with Le Havre in France, before moving to Liverpool and then to Spain. Joining Atletico Madrid at age 24, having netted 22 goals in La Liga in the two years beforehand, he was a good fit for the club and offered depth to a talented attack.
Things started well: Sinama-Pongolle netted four in his first five games as a striker and played out much of his debut season on the wing once Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan returned to fitness, with his pace and skill on the ball offering the team a threat in attack—and he even won a first senior cap for France at that time. Halfway through his second season, however, he moved on looking for more game time.
And that was the beginning of the end.
In the six years since that move to Sporting CP, he has played fewer than 80 league games, for seven different clubs in seven different countries. FC Rostov in Russia, MLS side Chicago Fire and Swiss outfit Lausanne-Sport have all been on his brief accommodation lists, and the one-time U-17 Golden Ball winner is currently with Dundee United in Scotland, where he has not played since mid-December.
3. Diego Forlan
Diego Forlan is one of South America's more storied modern-day attackers and has played for some of Europe's biggest teams, including Manchester United, Inter Milan and, of course, Atletico Madrid. There's no doubting that his best time came with Los Rojiblancos; Forlan hit just shy of 100 goals in slightly fewer than 200 matches for the club, winning the Europa League in 2010.
Having earlier failed to shine in England, Forlan was a huge success in Spain at Villarreal and then Atletico, where he spent four seasons, scoring 23, 35 and 28 in his first three campaigns.
2011 saw the Uruguayan depart for Inter Milan in Serie A and, although his age has to be acknowledged as a factor, Forlan has never been the same influential attacker at club level since then. He managed only two goals for the Italians, left for Internacional in Brazil in 2012 and only managed five league goals in each of his two seasons there.
Now aged 36 and playing back home in Uruguay at Penarol, Forlan remains an icon at international level, where he briefly held the goalscoring record for his club, but Atletico was his peak at club level.
2. Jose Mari
Age and injury might have accounted for one or two of those on our list before now, but Jose Mari's failure to make it big is inexplicable.
Born and raised in Seville, Jose Mari moved to Atletico Madrid from Sevilla when they were relegated in 1997, aged 19 and already with a big reputation. He played out two seasons with Atleti and netted enough goals in a struggling side to impress teams from afar, with AC Milan moving for the forward in January 2000, just a few months before Atletico were relegated and when Jose Mari himself represented Spain at the Olympics, winning silver.
A big-money move and a long contract didn't pan out in the slightest; Jose Mari had been on the fringes of the Spain national team at the time and did make a few appearances, but he scored just five times in Serie A in two years in Italy, was loaned back to Atletico Madrid in 2002 and even then couldn't hold down a spot at his old club.
In 2003, he was back in La Liga and played for Villarreal for four seasons. He never recaptured anything like his old form, especially in front of goal—he scored only 15 for the Yellow Submarine in well over 100 games—and eventually sunk down the league ladder with the likes of Gimnastic and Xerez.
1. Radamel Falcao
Jose Mari's fall from grace was a huge disappointment, but it pales into insignificance with the rapid decline and huge sums squandered by teams in trying to get the best out of Radamel Falcao since he left Atletico.
The Colombian striker was monstrous with FC Porto and even better with Atleti, hammering in an astonishing 70 goals in 91 games in just two seasons, as the club really began to be a force under Diego Simeone. Falcao won the Europa League and the Copa del Rey with Atletico, scoring a brace in the final of the former, and was widely regarded as one of the world's top No. 9s at the time.
He departed the Calderon in 2013, signing for Ligue 1 side AS Monaco for around €60 million and, despite a stuttering start for the French team in adjusting to their playing style, he still netted enough penalties and one-off strikes to have seven goals in seven games.
However, after that run, he only managed two more in the next 10—and then he ruptured his ACL. Since then, he has never come close to looking like fully recovered. Falcao missed the 2014 FIFA World Cup with the injury, moved on loan to Manchester United the following season and has been at Chelsea this term, but with neither club has he looked anything approaching dangerous, fit or consistent.
Five goals in 35 league games has been his return in England, almost always used off the bench as he fails to impact in the slightest on either side. His huge wages make him an expensive and disappointing acquisition for both, and it now looks as though 29-year-old Falcao will never again look even remotely close to the all-conquering battering ram who delighted and impressed onlookers at Atletico Madrid.