The stars are aligning as Atletico Madrid seek to invoke the spirit of Luis Aragones to help exorcise the demons of traumas past tonight in Milan, writes Sean Duffy.
It was 10:38pm on a warm spring evening in Madrid, and the unthinkable had come to pass. A girl of about 20 wept uncontrollably and was being pulled from the ground by her father. The man looked as if he had just seen a ghost. The girl’s mother had the wizened look of a woman who had witnessed such heartache before. All around her, the scene betrayed a different story. This was a new type of misery. Men in their 60’s sat stunned. The younger generation took out their angst on whatever was nearest to them. Sometimes that meant each other.
Sergio Ramos’ equalising goal in the 2014 Champions League final for Real Madrid against cross-town rivals Atletico will be indelibly etched in the memory of fans from both clubs. Those Atleti fans who had not managed to secure a ticket for the Lisbon final had gathered to watch on a giant screen in the centre of the club’s Vicente Calderon stadium - the launch pad for this unlikeliest of stories. The game would head to extra- time, but the fans of Los Rojiblancos already knew their fate. Extra time would be a procession for their hated rivals. Their heroes had given their all. There was nothing left.
They began streaming out of the stadium long before Cristiano Ronaldo had made it 4-1. Traditionally, fans of Atleti hail from the south of the city. Many of them sloped home without a word, crossing the bridge over the Manzanares river which runs along the side of the Vicente Calderon and over to the sprawling barrios which house some of the city’s poorest residents. They would bolt the door in their high rise apartments in despair, cosseting themselves away from a city that was about to embrace the 10-time European Cup champions, Real Madrid.
For the few thousand Atletico fans heading north into the city centre, the walk along the Paseo de Los Melancolicos – (Walk of the Melancholy) became just that. Only the sound of footsteps could be heard. Still stunned by what had occurred, they would soon hear the familiar, galling cries of “Hala Madrid”.
Having secured the La Liga title against all the odds a week previously, Atletico Madrid were now at their lowest ebb. They had always resented their status as the poor cousins from across town. Having been seconds away from their first ever European Cup against Real, they were now coming to the realisation they may never win the competition.
This had been their moment. And it had slipped away. Just over 40 years before, almost to the day, Luis Aragones thought he had secured Atletico’s first European Cup. A free kick in extra-time against Bayern Munich looked to have secured a 1-0 win. Much like 2014, Atletico were moments away from glory. And just like 2014, it was taken away at the death. A 119th minute equaliser from George Schwarzenbeck sent the tie to a replay Atletico lost 4-0.
Aragones would go on to become the symbol of Atletico. His first stint as manager brought a Spanish Cup in 1976 and a La Liga title in 1977. Another domestic cup was secured in 1985 during a second spell, with the side reaching the final of the Cup Winners Cup in 86. When he arrived for a third time, Aragones found his beloved Atleti languishing in the second division, an aberration he quickly set about rectifying; He guided the side back to the first division in the 2001/2002 season.
He was the man who had coined the term “El Nino” to describe Fernando Torres, the club’s venerated striker, whom Atleti fans viewed as one of their own. He coached Torres and the rest of the Spanish team to European Championship glory in 2008, ending a trophy drought which had haunted the national team at every tournament. For Aragones, it represented a glorious end to a life spent grafting his way up the football pyramid.
It felt especially poignant then, that Atletico should find themselves in a European Cup final the same year the club lost the man who became a father figure to so many of them; the man who had so nearly brought it home 40 years ago. The first home game after his passing in February 2014 was a raucous, rousing tribute that spurred a 4-0 win. Despite the sadness of Aragones’ death, there was the sense something magical was happening at the Calderon.
Aragones had instilled an obdurate defiance, and in Cholo Simeone, Atletico had found someone only too willing to carry the baton. He understood Aragones and he understood Atleti. It seemed written that he would bring home the European Cup as a fitting tribute. Alas, those dreams now lay in tatters - again.
Simeone arrived at the Calderon as manager having been a member of the last Atletico side to win a La Liga title. Season 1995/96 was a different era: A time before globalisation allowed Real and Barcelona the glamour and wealth to crush all-comers on the domestic front. In attempting to get them back to those heights, Simeone would build from the ground up. In 2012, Europa League and European Super Cup titles served notice of a team on the rise. A year later, the Copa Del Rey title was secured - at the Bernabeu, against Real Madrid. Then came the league.
The Champions League seemed the inevitable next step. After the final defeat, the impending departures of stalwarts Thibaut Courtois, Diego Costa and Felipe Luis were taken as evidence that Atleti’s moment had passed. Courtois had been a rock behind centre halves Diego Godin and Joao Miranda all season. Costa, for his part, had pitched in with 36 goals, and came to embody the snarling, belligerent nature of Simeone’s side. Many speculated the manager might feel tempted to call time on his impressive project. Those that did failed to understand the love Simeone feels for this club - his club. The coach set about rebuilding. Investment from Wang Jianlin, the Chinese billionaire, in January 2015 allowed Simeone the type of clout in the transfer market he could previously have only dreamed of. In addition to the departures of Courtois and Costa, many of his trusted lieutenants departed as the club sought to reinvigorate the Argentine’s project. While the personnel would change, the philosophy would not.
It has taken the guts of 18 months, but Simeone’s project has taken shape at just the right time. Such is the demanding nature of the Atletico approach, some of those recruited have not measured up to the exacting standards demanded. Jackson Martinez and Mario Mandzukic were jettisoned once it became apparent they could not fulfil the high intensity pressing instructions issued by their manager.
Others have found their feet having initially struggled. There is an amusing video clip of the first training session of Luciano Vietto, the young forward signed from Villarreal last summer. Vietto is left gasping for air, being consoled pitch side by the club’s medical staff as his teammates embark on laps of the training pitch. Simeone appears in the shot, laughing heartily at the travails of his newest recruit.
In the quarter finals of this season’s Champions League, the sense of déjà vu at the Calderon was inescapable. Atletico vs Barcelona. Atletico needing a 1-0 win to secure qualification. They had been in the same position in 2014. That time they got the job done. In so doing, they were the last team to knock Barca out of the tournament.
The stadium snarled and hissed as loud as ever. Simeone conducted the orchestra as only he knows how. On the pitch, his players hassled and harried, filing into shape- bristling, and breaking when they could. Collectively, by the end, they had become the self- reinforcing trident that Simeone has sharpened so expertly these past few years.
It was too much for the world’s greatest team. Barcelona surrendered their title with a 2-0 defeat.
The semi-final offered the club a chance to final lay the ghosts of that 1974 final to rest. Pep Guardiola’s legacy at Bayern was on the line, but Simeone and Atleti have no respect for legacies. They are concerned with forging their own. The tie hung in the balance when Torres - the player said to have suffered most from Aragones passing - missed an 83rd minute penalty. There would be no late heartbreak this time as Atletico stood firm, advancing to a second Champions League final in three years.
Bayern dispatched, the chance of complete catharsis comes in the form of tonight’s clash with Real Madrid. Perhaps this time they finally will do it. It would be nice to think of that weeping girl, a bit older now, crying tears of joy with her father as they embrace history. They will hope that the spirit of Aragones can help exorcise the demons of traumas past, while Simeone guides them towards their shared destiny.
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