Origins of El Cholo: Remembering Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid Playing Career

Mark Jones@@Mark_Jones86Featured ColumnistOctober 27, 2016

Diego Simeone was already an Atletico legend before he became manager.
Diego Simeone was already an Atletico legend before he became manager.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

These days, Diego Simeone is known for his passionate, sometimes threatening, demeanour in the dugout as he stalks whichever La Liga or Champions League touchline he happens to be on.

There are few managers at the elite level of the world game who feel a game quite like the Atletico Madrid boss, and his bond with a club he’ll have managed for five years in December is unquestionable.

Because like Luis Enrique at Barcelona and Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid—the two clubs that represent the two greatest rivals to Simeone’s Atletico and that happen to be the two biggest clubs in the world—the Argentinian has a bond with the club that began in his playing days.

It was way back in 1994 when Simeone first joined Atletico, ending a two-year stint at Sevilla, where he had played with compatriot Diego Maradona in his first season.

Simeone joined Atletico in 1994.
Simeone joined Atletico in 1994.PAUL WHITE/Associated Press/Associated Press

Indeed, back then, Atletico represented the enemy to the early-20s Simeone, who helped his Sevilla side to seventh- and sixth-placed finishes in 1992/93 and 1993/94 respectively, just missing out on European football to Atleti in his first season in Andalusia but finishing above them in his second.

The move north that summer wouldn’t have been made without any reservations, either.

The mid 1990s were a strange time for Atletico, and in that season before Simeone joined, they had finished way down in 12th place in La Liga, 21 points behind the champions Barcelona in what was the penultimate season of the two-points-for-a-win system. Had it been three, it would have been a huge 33 points.

Simeone was joining a club in a constant state of flux.

By the end of his first season, nine different men had managed the club—including interim bosses—in the previous two-and-a-half years, including four in that season alone.

But not one of the Colombian Francisco Maturana, Simeone’s fellow Argentinians Jorge D’Alessandro and Alfio Basile or Spain’s Carlos Sanchez Aguiar was able to consistently coax performances out of the squad.

In a fairly harrowing season for Atletico, they finished the 1994/95 campaign just one point above the relegation playoff places, only securing their top-flight status with a draw on the final day of the season.

Atletico struggled in the 1994/95 season.
Atletico struggled in the 1994/95 season.Paul White/Associated Press/Associated Press

Some of the lowlights included defeats to the likes of Tenerife, Real Oviedo, Racing Santander and Compostela. They also conceded four goals in losses to both Barcelona and Real Madrid, making this Atletico team about as far away from Simeone’s solid vintage of today as it was possible to be.

Back then, the combative midfielder had been a regular in the side at the Vicente Calderon, but it was a team that struggled for an identity, with the constant stream of managers arriving with differing and often confusing ideas.

Simeone wasn’t playing at his best, and he would have been forgiven for wondering just what he’d got himself in for when he left the relative comfort of Sevilla.

Something needed to change, and then suddenly it did with the appointment of the former Real Madrid coach Radomir Antic in the summer of 1995. What followed was quite remarkable.

Atletico celebrate their shock title win in 1996.
Atletico celebrate their shock title win in 1996.PAUL WHITE/Associated Press/Associated Press

Because—against all the odds, and perhaps setting a template for Simeone’s managerial career—Atleti shocked the division.

In the first season of the three-points-for-a-win system, they immediately clicked into gear, putting four goals past both Real Sociedad and Racing Santander in their first two matches of the season, shooting to the top of the league and staying there. Their first defeat didn’t arrive until mid-November, typically at archrivals Real Madrid.

Antic had made several impressive signings, none more so than the Bulgarian forward Lyuboslav Penev from Valencia, who scored 16 goals in La Liga and 22 in all competitions as Atletico incredibly did the league-and-cup double.

Atletico celebrate their Copa del Rey triumph, with Simeone far left.
Atletico celebrate their Copa del Rey triumph, with Simeone far left.CESAR RANGEL/Associated Press/Associated Press

And just behind him in the scoring stakes was none other than Simeone.

Never a prolific marksman, the Argentinian enjoyed easily his best-ever season in front of goal—scoring 12 times as he played in all but one of the league matches.

December brought crucial wins over their two main title rivals—a 3-1 success at home to Barcelona and a 1-0 win at Valencia, which would prove to be vital come the final reckoning.

That kicked off a period of eight wins from 10 games either side of the new year. Simeone was key to all that, with his driving presence in midfield and ability to pop up in goalscoring positions frequently lighting up his team’s performances.

The sight of the midfielder running away in joyous celebration, having just got on the end of another Atletico move, was common throughout the campaign. Antic relied on the Argentinian to often be the link player between midfield and attack, playing him further forward than he had done at any other period of his career.

The results earlier in the campaign proved to be crucial, as Atletico—perhaps distracted by their Copa del Rey run—started to stumble a little in the closing months of the season, going on a run of just one win in five league games, which allowed their rivals back into the race.

In mid-April, though, they secured cup success by beating Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona—a team featuring the likes of Pep Guardiola, Luis Figo and Gheorghe Hagi—1-0 after extra time in the Zaragoza final, securing Atletico’s ninth cup success in their history.

Better was to come, though, as Antic’s side kept their noses in front in the title race right up until the final day of the season, when Albacete visited the Vicente Calderon. Win, and Atleti would be champions. And win they did.

Yet again, it was Simeone who was crucial to that victory, with the midfielder heading home the opening goal in a 2-0 success that sparked wild celebrations as the team became Spanish champions for the first time in 19 years. In the stands, controversial president Jesus Gil enthusiastically celebrated, with this double success seen very much as a reward for his efforts.

Simeone was lauded as a hero too, and he stayed for one more season at Atletico—scoring four goals in all competitions as his side reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League, as well as playing consistently in a team that reached fifth place in La Liga.

Back then, though, it was Italy where all the successful players wanted to be, and Simeone ended a three-year playing relationship with Atleti when he moved to Inter Milan in 1997.

After spells there and at Lazio, he returned to Madrid for a couple of years in 2003, although the highs of 1995/96 weren’t to be repeated.

Atletico fans would have to wait until Simeone came back as manager to relive those, with his side's 2013/14 title win surely an even greater achievement given the financial power of the teams he was up against.

Arguments over which success was the better probably go on in the bars and restaurants of Madrid all the time.

One thing everyone can agree on, though, is that Simeone is an Atletico legend.

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