Such is his character, the all-black outfits and the way that he is portrayed in the increasingly soap opera-like world of modern football, some might like to imagine Diego Simeone preparing for a match in the same way that an arch-villain plots a heist.
Down a deep, dark corridor at Atletico Madrid’s Ciudad Deportiva training complex—for it has to be deep and dark—the Argentinian turns over a page in his diary and notes that his team’s next fixture takes them to Barcelona’s Camp Nou on Wednesday night.
Simeone closes the book, stares into the middle distance and narrows his eyes. This time its personal, he thinks. But then again, it always is.
To Simeone, Barcelona represent the world that he is trying to conquer.
For years now, the Catalans have come to signify all that is pure and good in the eyes of the majority of the football-watching public. The way that they play the game is seen as the way to play the game, with the methods, mindsets and, yes, [Lionel] Messi all available in coaching manuals for students of the game to pore over.
But as Simeone has so successfully demonstrated in recent years, there is more than one way to be successful in football, with his way of playing not as celebrated, but undoubtedly effective given the resources he has at his disposal.
To the Atletico Madrid manager, the right way of playing football is the winning way, with determination, professionalism and a healthy dose of cynicism, all traits of a team that will fight and battle until their final breath. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
Yet given Simeone’s arch-villain nature—that infamous “Cholismo” that Atleti fans glory in and others, usually opponents, shake their heads at—then you won’t find many of his methods in books. That is perhaps why he’s recently had to bring out his own.
But football should be grateful for personalities such as him. They make the game a diverse spectrum and go against what can sometimes be seen as a “Disneyfied” version of the sport at the very top of it, where the same faces rule and success just seems to follow them.
Barcelona are surely the greatest example of this.
The Catalans remain one of the all-time great clubs and deserve their place in the annals of football history, but the notion that they cannot be challenged, or even better, beaten, is one that Simeone has tackled head-on and will continue to.
And that challenge usually comes in the face of what should be insurmountable odds.
The Catalans—backed up by their famed La Masia factory and the capability to attract the world’s best players—have won six of the last eight LaLiga titles on offer, but Atletico claimed one of those other two and went close to another last season.
In addition, Simeone has taken his team to two Champions League finals in the last three years, which is 50 per cent more than Barca. But Barca won one, which is 100 per cent more than Atletico.
And indeed, there Barcelona are at every turn, like the big boss in a difficult level of Simeone’s video game. They had to be beaten en route to both of those Champions League finals, and the chances are that whoever wants to get to the final this season will either have to beat them on the way there or in the Cardiff showpiece itself.
Of course, there is also Real Madrid. And where Atletico are concerned, there is always Real Madrid.
The other club from the capital will continue to be a roadblock for Simeone’s ambitions—with those aforementioned Champions League finals still fresh in the memory—but with no especially effusive praise ringing in their ears over the way they play the game, you get the feeling that it is the reverence afforded to Barca that rankles with Simeone the most.
And there seems to be a little more to it than that.
In last season’s Champions League quarter-final first leg, when goalscorer Fernando Torres was sent off before Luis Suarez struck twice to seal victory for Barca, Simeone hinted that, given football’s obsession with the Barcelona way, the authorities can and had been swayed somewhat.
Speaking after the 2-1 defeat—which would eventually be overturned with a thrilling 2-0 second-leg victory—Simeone said, according to The Independent:
“I can’t say what I want … I need to think about what I’m saying so I don’t say anything I shouldn’t.”
Suarez could have been sent off himself before scoring the winner, but with the manager gagging himself, it was left to Filipe Luis—a player about as packed full of the Cholismo ways as it is possible to be—to say what he was really thinking, via the aforementioned piece from The Independent:
“They protect Barca. There is a worry that they’re going to get knocked out. I don’t know what [a Barcelona player] has to do to get sent off."
It could almost have been Simeone talking, with Luis used as a pretty convincing ventriloquist’s dummy, but the notion that these matches have always been more about the physical battle than a mental one for his players has never gone away.
In the last league meeting between the pair at the Camp Nou, both Luis and Diego Godin had been sent off by the 65th minute, with Barca failing to score against first Atletico’s 10 men and then their nine, despite their 2-1 victory. “In a game you can win or lose, but I always prefer to lose this way,” said a proud Simeone afterwards, as reported by the BBC.
And that, again, sums up Simeone’s ways and the contrast with Barcelona’s—be it Pep Guardiola’s Barca or what is now Luis Enrique’s.
This is the ultimate battle of style versus substance, of a club which prides themselves on the way they play the game against a manager for whom it’s all about how much you feel it.
Simeone’s ways are more exhausting and almost definitely can't last forever, with interesting news coming last week—via ESPN's Dermot Corrigan—that he’s had his contract at the club shortened by request so that it’ll run out in 2018.
What happens there remains to be seen, but what happens now is a trip to the Camp Nou on Wednesday night for a fixture that even Suarez—surely the most Cholistic Barca player—claims is “so annoying” (via @br_uk), even if the combative Uruguayan must respect his fellow South American's approach.
Many people within football do, but the fact is that it is an approach that’ll never get him the universal acclaim that Barca’s does. There won’t be children educated in his ways or books written about how he honed a style that eventually took over the world.
Right now there is only the Camp Nou, Wednesday night, three points and a chance to get one over on a team that Simeone must enjoy beating above all others.
Then the page will turn, and it’ll be on to the next one.