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How Saul Niguez Fought Back from Real Madrid Hardship to Become Atletico Legend

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportNovember 8, 2017

Atletico's Saul Niguez celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the Champions League round of 16 first leg soccer match between Bayer Leverkusen and Atletico Madrid in Leverkusen, Germany, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
Martin Meissner/Associated Press

Saul Niguez—or Saul, as he's knownhad already made his debut for Atletico Madrid when he was farmed out on loan for a season across the city to Rayo Vallecano. It was the summer of 2013. He was still only 18 years old.

During pre-season training, Rayo's squad was doing some running exercises one morning. In the afternoon, there was a friendly match organised. It gets damn hot in Madrid during the summer. The old bucks on the panel were just going through the motions, keen to keep something in the tank for later.

Saul, who knows no other way, was busting a gut. It didn't go down well. One of the senior guys on the team pulled him up and told him not to run too hard because they had a match in the afternoon. His logic didn't register with Saul, who turned to the veteran and said: "This afternoon if you have a problem with the ball, give it to me."

There are no half-measures with Saul. He always looks for a way forward. He's the type of beast Diego Simeone looks for in his Atletico Madrid players, which explains why the club nailed Saul down with a nine-year contract earlier this summer—and a €150 million buyout clause.

"He's a guy who has a very strong character," El Pais journalist Ladislao J. Monino said. "He never interprets things badly. He's very confident in his possibilities. He's a typical Atletico player because of his personality. He's a player who goes for everything. He could play for other clubs, but his character, his way of playing, his profile matches perfectly with Atletico Madrid.

"He's great at 'arriving,' which is a key trait for an Atletico player arriving from 'the second line' into the box. Actually, I think Simeone sees a little bit of the player he was in certain things that Saul does, like the timing of his arrival into the area, and his heading ability. He's 'a little Simeone'."

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Martin Meissner/Associated Press

Saul is obvious officer material. He has already worn the captain's armband for Atletico. He had the nerve, as a 21-year-old, to take and score a spot-kick during the penalty shootout in the 2016 UEFA Champions League final against Real Madrid in Milan. Perhaps it's all in the nameSaul, the first king of Israel.

Saul's father, Jose Antonio named his three boys after biblical characters, per El Pais (in Spanish). The eldest is named Jonathan, who, in the Bible, was Saul's first son. He's known in the football world as Jony, and he plays as a midfielder in Spain's Second Division "B" with UCAM Murcia.

Saul's middle brother is called Aaron, which is the name of Moses' brother. Aaron was a "crack," a stupendous talent whose promising careerhe made his Champions League debut for Valencia against AS Roma as a 17-year-old in December 2006—has been blighted by injury; in particular, knee ligament damage. He plays for Real Oviedo.

"Aaron was the best player of all the brothers," said Fernando "Nando" Mancebo Blas, who played professional football with Saul's father in the 1980s with Elche. "Aaron had the most football. Because of his knee injuries he lost speed, his turn of pace. He lost the things that made him different. He used to be a very fast player. He was electric, very good one-on-one. He didn't score many goals, but he was slippery. Injuries restricted him so he never played at the top level for a good team as a result." 

Saul's father was also a handy footballer and carved out a 14-year career playing as a striker for a string of teams across Spain, per bdfutbol.com; during two spells with Elche, he scored 53 goals. He had a different, more bullish style than Saul's, says Nando.

"Saul's father was a forward with a lot of strength. He had a lot of 'furia,' fury. He was strong. He fought with defences. He caused a lot of headaches. He left defences with a lot of scars because he was hard.

"Saul is more technical. He plays in a different position. His father was a centre-forward. Saul is more of a central midfielder. I can't see any similarities when I see him play. For example, Saul is left-footed, his father right footed. Technically, his father was clumsier with the ball. He was a finisher. Saul isn't a finisher like his father."

Saul has shown remarkable tenacity in finishing off his goals in life, however. He didn't have it easy starting out in his football career. He joined Real Madrid's youth academy when he was 11 years old, having moved across the country from Elche on the east coast. He endured a torrid time. He left the club after a troubled season due to bullying, as per El Mundo (in Spanish).

He had boots and his food stolen. "He was a typical child that I am not sure if he was [well-behaved] or not," Monino said, "but he was accused of being an informer, a 'rat,' and he wasn't. He had a bad time there and decided to leave."

Saul didn't go far. Atletico snapped him up, and he went up through the ranks of their youth academy, making his debut for the first team in a Europa League fixture against Besiktas in March 2012. It was during his season on loan to Rayo that he made his La Liga debut, a date he has inked onto his skin as a tattoo, per El Pais (in Spanish).

When Saul was at Rayo, Monino started taking notice of him: "Rayo's manager, Paco Jemez, started to play him as a central defender. He was used to clean up the play. He was only 18 or 19 yet he had the responsibility of playing in the centre of defence for a team that was very offensive. For a player so young to have this responsibility was notable."

MADRID, SPAIN - DECEMBER 03: Coach Diego Pablo Simeone (L) of Atletico de Madrid gives instructions to his player Saul Niguez (R) during the La Liga match between Club Atletico de Madrid and RCD Espanyol at Vicente Calderon stadium on December 3, 2016 in
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Saul returned to Atletico the following season where he has made a name for himself by scoring gala goals, including a fine strike against Barcelona earlier this season during a 1-1 draw at Atletico's new Wanda Metropolitano Stadium; a bicycle kick in a 4-0 rout of Real Madrid in February 2015 at the old Vicente Calderon Stadium; and, of course, a match-winning slalom through Bayern Munich's defence in the first leg of the 2015/16 Champions League semi-final.

There was a time, however, when he didn't know if he would ever reach such heights. He was visited by misfortune on a cold night in February 2015 while making his Champions League debut in a last-16 tie against Bayer Leverkusen at the BayArena. The German side pinned Atletico back and were unlucky to only win by a single goal, 1-0, at the end of a feisty encounter. Atletico's Tiago got a red card in the second half.

Towards the end of the first half, Saul got kicked in the kidney by Bayer defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos. Saul was replaced by Raul Garcia and wheeled away for medical attention. It looked grim. His father was in tears at the sight of him being stretchered off. Mundo Deportivo (in Spanish) reported Saul couldn't move his arms or legs, and he ended up staying in a hospital in Germany for four days.

"All the family were worried," says Nando. "It was a big scare. The doctors almost removed his kidney. In the end they didn't operate on him, but he had renal problems. He couldn't play for a couple of months while he was recuperating."

For two seasons, Saul played with a catheter. After every training session and a match, he used to urinate blood, he told Spanish television station Mega (h/t Diario AS). "He already had a deficiency in his kidneys," says Monino, referring to renal colic surgery he had recently undergone before the fatal Bayer Leverkusen match.

"He got a very bad knock [in the match against Bayer Leverkusen], but he continued playing for a while, which is a thing we can't explain. He left the pitch vomiting. It speaks about the strength he has. He has a Gandhi sentence tattooed onto his arm, something like, 'Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will'."

It will be fascinating to see how far that self-belief will take Saul for the rest of his career. He's still only 22 years old. He has yet to come into his kingdom.

                

All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz

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