Late on the night of January 18th, 2011, the phone rang for Diego Simeone. It had been nine months since the Argentine had been at the helm of a top flight club, having left San Lorenzo in April of 2010 after an abysmal run of form that saw him become a target for vociferous fans. A managerial career that had started so brightly with league titles at both Estudiantes and River Plate had stalled. But over in Italy, where the man known as Cholo had built a reputation as an indomitable figure in the center of the park during his playing days, somebody still saw him as a savior. With Catania precariously teetering just three points above the relegation zone in Serie A, director Pietro Lo Monaco wanted Simeone in Sicily to stave off the drop. In all likelihood, it was the voice of Lo Monaco himself that the former Inter and Lazio midfielder heard when he got the call that night.
As the story goes, Simeone boarded the next flight out to take up the Catania post, a resounding display of his thirst for challenges – and moreover, success. He wasn’t to be denied. Four months on, the final day of the Serie A season rolled around. Simeone’s Etnei were handily dispatched 3-1 by his former club Inter, but it didn’t matter. Catania were already 10 points clear of the bottom three in the table, having defeated Cagliari, Brescia and Roma on the trot in the three games prior. Simeone had done exactly what he was brought to the Stadio Angelo Massimino to do, and in convincing fashion. From a humble corner of Serie A, the Argentine had launched himself as a coach in Europe, just as he had done at Pisa in his playing career more than two decades before.
But it would be some time before Simeone would take his place among Europe’s elite managers. After striving daily to keep Catania in Italy’s first division, the Argentine left the continent altogether. Simeone and the Etnei amicably took the mutual decision to terminate his contract less than two weeks after safety had been secured. The Argentine’s next job would come back in his homeland with Racing. Yet he’d be back soon. By December 2011, he departed Racing after finishing second in the Apertura. What happened next in Simeone’s story stands as an illustrious chapter, one that has made him one of the most sought after coaches in world football.
Like his return to Italy with Catania, Simeone’s taking over at Atletico Madrid was some combination of a reunion and a rescue job. Gregorio Manzano, who had replaced Quique Flores during the summer, had failed to get the best out of his side. On top of this, Manzano had lost the dressing room, having a particularly memorable falling out with Jose Antonio Reyes. In a disappointing tenth place in La Liga, Atletico were on the verge of a entering a devastating tailspin. Then, along came Simeone. Back in the heady days of the mid-1990s, he had delivered a La Liga and Copa del Rey double as a player at the Vicente Calderon. And Simeone would be damned before he’d let the chance to bring glory to the less fashionable side of the Spanish capital once again slip through his fingers.
It was Simeone who truly unleashed Falcao on the world. The Argentine charged up the Colombian and brought the very best out of him. On the wings of 36 goals in all competitions from the former Porto man, Atletico soared to fifth place in La Liga and the Europa League crown. In a few short months, Simeone had taken an underperforming side and kicked it into an overachieving top gear. This ability to motivate, galvanize, and find the proper balance to get the best out of what’s at his disposal has served Simeone brilliantly to this day at Atletico. Former Argentina international-turned-pundit Roberto Perfumo had declared Simeone a “born manager” at the outset of his coaching career. Since the 44-year-old took over at the Vicente Calderon, that much has become clear through his exploits.
But being a natural leader is one thing, adaptable another. Down the years at Atletico, as Simeone has added the Copa del Rey and La Liga title to the trophy case against all odds, to go along with his initial Europa League triumph, Simeone has been dealt a tough hand in one regard. Turnover has always been a feature of Atletico Madrid. Laden with debt, not a summer goes by in which at least one of the side’s top performers must be sold in order to keep some semblance of financial well-being. First, it was Eduardo Salvio and Alvaro Dominguez during Simeone’s tenure. The next year, Falcao followed out the exit door. This past summer, Diego Costa and Felipe Luis were cruelly snatched away by Chelsea, while long-time loanee Thibaut Courtois was finally called back to Stamford Bridge. Each year, important pieces of Simeone’s puzzle are pried from his hands. Yet this phenomenon has only served to make his work all the more impressive.
“I live day by day,” Simeone told Clarin this past week. “Right now I want to keep improving this team, as we mustn’t lose our philosophy and focus on building our future so that we can compete in every tournament.”
That he continues to do. In an age where the football landscape is largely defined by who tops the Forbes rich list, Simeone has Atletico at the top of the pile. Winning La Liga last term was no mean feat with Barcelona and Real Madrid involved. So was coming within minutes of taking the Champions League title at the latter’s expense as well, only to fall to a devastating defeat after Sergio Ramos’ late equalizer. Simeone has continually managed to replace his departed stars with tools already at hand – such as Diego Costa for Falcao – or brought in players he can mold into his image. Antoine Griezmann, Mario Mandzukic and Jan Oblak are among the first few players Simeone has been allowed to invest deeply in since taking charge of Los Colchoneros – spending €117 million on new signings this past summer. This was largely enabled by the some €90 million the club recouped in sales, however. It was also the first time in Simeone’s tenure that Atletico didn’t turn a profit on the market, dipping into the coffers a bit to support the boss. But the reality remains that Simeone continues to bring Atleti forward, all while lacking the resources managers like Carlo Ancelotti, Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Laurent Blanc have at their disposal.
Simeone, thus, enters the greater discussion of where he falls on the index of football’s greatest managers at present with something of a unique advantage. While Ancelotti and Guardiola are two of the finest coaches the game has ever seen, they have always been supported by generous financial backing – handed the keys to the kingdom, so to speak. Mourinho came from humble beginnings at Porto, but in his later travels has been backed to the hilt at clubs where failure is not an option. The list of examples could go on for quite some time. Most top managers solidify their place among the elite at the most illustrious clubs around. Simeone is doing so with an historic giant, but one that from a standpoint of conventional wisdom, shouldn’t be able to compete for the type of honors he has them in contention for.
Perhaps the closest comparison that can be drawn is with Borussia Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp. Like Simeone, the German has achieved remarkable success at the Westfalenstadion in a more modest situation than other managers of his caliber. Young, ambitious and with a fiery character capable of building a team that is disciplined and aggressive, yet also able to attack with ruthless efficiency, Klopp is very much an equivalent of Simeone. Having twice out-dueled the behemoth that is Bayern Munich for the Bundesliga title and come up just short in the Champions League final against them as well, Klopp’s Dortmund story sounds almost eerily similar to that of Simeone at Atletico. However, it’s now entered a cautionary phase. While Simeone’s Atleti side have soldiered on in the wake of last season’s success, Dortmund have nosedived under Klopp. Die Schwarzgelben appear to have finally tipped under the weight of their stars being poached away each summer, looking a shell of their former selves as Klopp’s previously successful methods have failed. With Dortmund in the relegation zone at the winter break, the manager went so far as to say he and his team look like “idiots” in the eyes of the football world at present.
Without a doubt, Simeone is aware of his counterpart’s current plight – and he’d do well to take note in the name of self-preservation. Given that both operate under similar conditions at their respective clubs, Simeone should be all too conscious that Klopp’s fate at Dortmund could befall him in the Spanish capital should he not utilize a measured approach in his career decisions.
But for the time being, while Klopp is on a downswing, Simeone’s stock remains on the rise. Atletico Madrid surged into the Champions League round of 16 barely breaking a sweat, while Los Colchoneros remain well within striking distance of Real Madrid and Barcelona in La Liga. One would be hard pressed to leave Simeone out of the discussion of the world’s top managers, but the jury remains out on exactly where he ranks on the spectrum. It admittedly would be hard to place the Argentine ahead of the well-funded likes of Ancelotti, Guardiola, and Mourinho, given their experience, bodies of work, and continued high performance. Beyond this trio, bosses such as Manuel Pellegrini, Antonio Conte, and Joachim Low have masterminded stunning successes of late, and in turn can’t be forgotten. The competition is stiff for Simeone, even in light of his accomplishments, and it doesn’t seem quite right to anoint him as the globe’s top boss quite yet.
For Cholo, that should be just fine. It’s all too easy to forget that Simeone is only 44 years old, his transition from player to manager nearly seamless when he decided to hang up his boots a tick over eight years ago. There’s still plenty for him to prove, a motivating place to be in for a man that has always had a natural chip on his shoulder and attacks challenges with ferocity and intensity. Bringing even more trophies to the Vicente Calderon and establishing the side as a perennial contender will only secure his short-term legacy. What will bring him top billing is what he accomplishes after. While Simeone has consistently outdone opponents supported by seemingly insurmountable budgets, he has existed in an environment in which expectations cannot realistically match those of Europe’s giants. When the time comes to move on from Atletico – where Simeone has earned the type of job security that is all too rare these days – it will in all likelihood be to make the leap to one of the wealthy elite. There, Simeone will have the chance to consolidate the prosperity of his young career on the touchline – and quite possibly, distinguish himself from all others in his position.
When Simeone’s phone rang in mid-January of 2011, the voice on the other end of the line called him into action. And the ex-midfielder duly responded in natural style – by seizing the opportunity in front of him and turning up halfway around the world to get to work immediately. Not only that, but Simeone carried out the task at hand with aplomb. It arguably was that four-month spell in Sicily that was most important in setting Simeone up for his dream run in Madrid, Atleti seeing from afar that the same Cholo who brought honors to the Vicente Calderon on the pitch was cut out to do the same on the bench. Roberto Perfumo was profoundly correct in his assessment of his fellow former Argentina international – Simeone was born to lead, to bring bands of footballers to heights they previously thought unreachable. So far, he’s made good on such enviable natural ability. But there are more chapters yet to be written in Simeone’s saga on the sidelines. In due time, the football world at large will see if the Argentine is simply a member of the elite, or the single leading luminary that all others aspire to dethrone as the best in the business.