The banner behind the goal at the south end of the Santiago Bernabeu stadium read: “Wanted: A worthwhile rival to make a decent derby.”
The jibe was aimed at Atletico Madrid and on that November day 12 years ago, it felt especially cruel. Real Madrid were beating their neighbours 4-1. The banner spoke a truth. At that stage, Atletico had to rewind all the way back to the previous century to locate a Liga derby against Real where their opponents had finished as the losing team.
A month after the banner was brought into the Bernabeu, its collage pieces reassembled by giggling Madridistas once they had taken their seats, Atletico Madrid sacked a head coach for the 15th time in a dozen years and brought in their ex-player Diego Simeone. He ended his first full season in charge with a derby win over Real Madrid at the Bernabeu that also happened to be the Spanish Cup final.
Since then Atletico have barely looked backed. Barely, because although the biggest Madrid derbies of Simeone’s long era as the most transformative figure in Atletico’s modern history were lost, the fact that they were both Champions League finals – Real won in extra-time, having trailed for most of the 90 minutes in 2014 in Lisbon; Real were victors on penalties in Milan in 2016 – speaks to how a flakey club, unworthy of sharing the same heavyweight space with Real Madrid, have under Simeone joined Europe’s superclub circle. There have been two Liga titles, in 2014 and 2021, to break the duopoly on Real and Barcelona on that prize.
Yet as Simeone approaches his 40th Madrid derby as boss of Atletico, Real visiting the Metropolitano stadium on Sunday, the second club of the Spanish capital are starting to hear cruel taunts again. And some are coming from a little too close to home.
The costliest investment Atletico have made in a player under Simeone is the €127 million they committed on the then teenaged Joao Felix in 2019. On Tuesday night he scored twice in the Champions League. Trouble is, he was playing for Barcelona, making his second European debut of the calendar year for a club Atletico have loaned him to.
If his six months at Chelsea, who he joined in January, were flat, his fit at Barca, where he arrived last month, so far looks promising. Good enough that Joao Felix was on Wednesday giving interviews to different media explaining bluntly why he wants to be out of Atletico, and most of all, away from Simeone.
The tension between the Portuguese playmaker and Simeone had been no secret, but the criticism is fierce. “I wasn’t happy there. I didn’t adapt to the club’s ideas and the coach’s ideas,” Joao Felix told Mundo Deportivo, the Spanish newspaper. “But I always did my best, and obviously there were some good times, too.”
His three-and-a-half years in an Atletico jersey included a Liga title and 34 goals from his 131 matches, but the frustrations of an ambitious, impatient young footballer with what he perceived as Simeone’s crabby, counter-attacking style have left an angry residue. It is hard to see Joao Felix reunited with his parent club at the end of his loan if Simeone is still the coach there.
After nearly 12 years in the job, his departure would be seismic; jibes against the cagey gameplan, like Joao Felix’s, are nothing new either. Simeone is a combative, tough coach but also one who inspires a rare loyalty. Atletico under him are the club to which footballers return: Antoine Griezmann, accused of betrayal when he joined Barcelona, is back there, one in a line of footballers who moved on, sometimes in fractious circumstances, but then missed the place and came ‘home’, also see: Diego Costa, Yannick Carrasco and Saul Niguez.
The rupture with Joao Felix looks too grave to imagine him joining that list.
The season has started patchily. While Joao Felix was knitting together the sort of pass-and-move football he prefers and contributing his brace of goals to Barcelona’s 5-0 win over Royal Antwerp, Atletico were in Rome throwing away a lead against Lazio.
Simeone’s men, painstakingly drilled to absorb attacks and anticipate set-piece threats, saw a 1-0 lead over Lazio turned into a 1-1 draw in stoppage time in their Champions League opener, the scorer of Lazio’s goal was their goalkeeper Ivan Provedel, who had come up for an attacking corner.
On the back of last weekend’s 3-0 Liga loss to Valencia, it was another bruise to Atletico pride. The local landscape is not looking too flattering either, with Real top of the table, on a maximum 15 points, with Atletico in seventh.
The form of Jude Bellingham, who on Wednesday against Union Berlin scored his sixth goal in as many games since joining Real, is ominous, and can’t help but put a critical lens on Atletico’s transfer strategy. Like Joao Felix, Bellingham was signed at 19 years old for a €100m-plus fee. Unlike Joao Felix, Bellingham will have a say in the outcome of this weekend’s derby.