Atletico Madrid’s mentality has shifted since Diego Simeone took over in 2011. Gonzalo Moreno / Getty Images
Atletico Madrid’s mentality has shifted since Diego Simeone took over in 2011. Gonzalo Moreno / Getty Images

Atletico Madrid’s changed approach is reaping dividends

Andy Mitten

The suited elderly gent by the players’ entrance at Atletico Madrid’s training ground has something to say.

“This is a great team we have here,” he said. “The coach, Simeone, is doing very well.

“His team plays as he wants. It will be tough, but we can be champions again.”

The suave gent is a fan, he is also Atletico Madrid’s most famous player.

Adelardo, Atletico’s club’s record appearance holder with 401 league games between 1959-1976, when he was 36, is a regular at training.

All the players know who he is. He may not have the profile of the Real Madrid legend Alfredo di Stefano, but then Atletico do not match Real’s status.

Adelardo, the captain of the team which won the 1962 Uefa Cup Winner’s Cup and reached the 1974 European Cup final, was very, very good.

“We played Bayern Munich in the final in Brussels,” he recalled. “0-0 after 90 minutes.

“Then Luis Aragones scored in extra time. We were about to be European champions.”

Adelardo shakes his head. Georg Schwarzenbeck, the Bayern Munich defender, hit a speculative long-range shot in the 120th minute. It went in and forced a replay two days later, which Bayern won 4-0.

Bayern Munich refused to enter the Intercontinental cup that year. “My highlight was winning the Intercontinental Cup, we beat Independiente over two games,” recalls Adelardo.

The defeat to Munich summed up Atletico Madrid. “Pupas” they called them. “Pupas” means unlucky, an apt adjective given all the club has gone through.

Even the son who asks his father “Why do we support Atleti?” in a much aired TV advert is not afforded an answer. Because there is not one. They just do.

Former player Fernando Torres said their fans were “a prisoner to a feeling.”

“Everyone said Atleti had the players to be a good team, but not a great one,” recalls former striker Diego Forlan.

“It’s true that we had to be 100 per cent perfect to win a game. If we were only 99 per cent, we’d lose.

“There was too much negativity about in the psyche of the supporters and that fed into the players. We’d get a good away win and then the fans were convinced that we’d lose an easy home game a few days later because that’s what Atleti did.

“And you know what? We did lose because some players believed the fatalism. They were used to failure. I tried to be positive, tried to help change the mentality and we had some success.”

Forlan played with the likes of Sergio Aguero, David de Gea, Simao and Jose Antonio Reyes. They won trophies.

“Great players,” he says. “They didn’t care about the pupas thing or what the journalists said.

“They were winners and we won trophies. Our generation broke the mystique.”

They did. They won the 2010 Europa League final, with Forlan scoring both goals. They lifted the Uefa Super Cup in Monaco.

The psyche of the club was changing, but those memories of failure went back a long way.

The final change came when Diego Simeone took charge in December 2011. Tenth when he arrived, they finished fifth.

They also won the Europa League again, and the Uefa Super Cup when Radamel Falcao destroyed Chelsea. Fans idolise him. Players value Simeone’s communication skills.

“He has these small, concise conversations with the team, one-minute conversations, every two, three days to try to get into our heads, always focusing on the present, never the future,” says full-back Filipe Luis.

Atletico started last season well, then faded, but their 76-point total was unmatched by any third-placed team in 15 years.

It was still 24 points behind 100-point champions Barcelona and nine behind Real Madrid. Atleti lost all four league games to the big two last season.

That changed this year. In May, Atletico met Real Madrid in the final of the Copa del Rey – at the Bernabeu stadium, too.

Implausibly, they won. They beat their neighbours again in the league this season at the Bernabeu and they held Barcelona home and away in the Super Cup.

“We should have won,” says striker David Villa, who arrived from Barcelona in the close season and has formed an excellent partnership with Diego Costa, the Primera Liga’s player of the season so far.

Fifteen games into this season Atletico are joint top with Barca on 40 points.

They have won 13 of their games and are three points ahead of Real Madrid. In the Uefa Champions League, they were the first team to qualify for the knockout stage.

Their current captain Gabi once called supporting Atleti “a suffering”. Not any more. “Because what’s happening now is incredible,” he says.

It will be difficult hard for Atletico to wrestle the league from Barca or Madrid, both of whom have revenues four times as high, but they are showing no signs of slowing down.

Adelardo recognises their quality and the rest of football is now starting to take notice, too.

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