FRIDAY JULY 12, 2013 – Istanbul, Turkey: José María Giménez was 24 hours away from the biggest game of his life to date – the under-20 World Cup final. After a host of spirited showings throughout the group stage, and then the knockout stages, Uruguay had manifested themselves a date with destiny. But although the game represented the world to Giménez (just as it did for his brothers in arms), his world had already ceased to never be the same again.
Widely considered to have been the competition’s standout defender, it goes without saying that a number of clubs already had their noses in his business. But their admiring glances were already well overdue. In typical Atlético Madrid fashion, Diego Simeone’s forces had barged themselves to the front of the pack, establishing an agreement with the young man in advance of the tournament.
With his move to Europe common knowledge to those paying attention, Giménez was understandably the hot ticket among journalists throughout the three weeks, with his media obligations stretching far beyond his country’s defining moment.
On the day before the France clash, in an interview with Axel Torres of MARCA, a fresh-faced Josema gushed of his excitement at joining Los Rojiblancos: “I’m very happy. The big step I never imagined taking has arrived.”
Victory against Les Bleus in the final or not, the youngster’s path was established. With just 21 starts to his name in senior professional football and mere months after making his Danubio debut at the age of 17, Giménez was heading for the Vicente Calderón.
The 18-year-old was shifted over to right back for the final, with the attack-minded Guillermo Varela dropping to the bench for the first time in the competition. In came Emiliano Velázquez at centre back for Uruguay – a man Giménez knew well from their time at Danubio, and incidentally, a man who would later follow him to Madrid – as manager Juan Verzeri opted for the most resolute ensemble of stoppers he could find.
It was with good reason, too. France’s under-20 team were averaging over two goals a game in the tournament and boasted the talents of Paul Pogba, Florian Thauvin and Jean-Christophe Bahebeck to name a few. With perhaps the exception of Spain, Pierre Mankowski’s French team were ostensibly the most gifted group on show at the tournament.
The game ended 0-0 at the Türk Telecom Arena and, for the third time in seven days, La Celeste would have to endure the rigors of extra time. Among the fallen victims of their brutal schedule, Giménez would not endure the final in its entirety. He had to be substituted in the 84th minute of the game, unable to continue with a mix of fatigue and injury.
As medics helped him off the field, propping him up on either side, he looked to the skies with tears in his eyes. Despite playing an enormous role in his team’s surprise journey to the final, the prospect of him not being there at the bitter end hurt him deeply – for more reasons than one.
The final didn’t just represent the last remaining piece of what had been a personal master class from Giménez. Rather, the end of an era in his young life. There was no going back home to football in Uruguay after, nor would he ever play for the youth categories of his country again. The majority of his comrades would simply head back to South America after the final, back to normality. But the small town Toledo boy had outgrown his reality, and life would never be as elementary again.
Instead of being where he wanted to be, out on the pitch, seeing out his final moments alongside teammates and friends, he watched on from the sideline as both teams slugged it out for another half an hour. But still, without distinction.
Uruguay had covered hundreds of kilometres over the three weeks of the competition, but now just twelve yards would decide their fate. Giménez had limped from his spot on the bench to embrace his teammates before the shootout began, as the Uruguay side stood shoulder-to-shoulder, united in huddle.
Player of the Tournament, Paul Pogba, was the first man to step up. Tip-toeing slowly but coolly towards the ball, he sent Guillermo De Amores the wrong way before cupping his ears to the crowd. Pogba’s ruthless conversion proved a tough act to follow for Emiliano Velázquez – who scuffed his effort harmlessly into the feet of Alphonse Areola moments after.
Giménez’s Danubio teammate exhibited a rye smile on his long walk back to the halfway line – and for the first time in the tournament, Uruguay looked vulnerable. Jordan Veretout’s conversion was followed up by a second consecutive miss by Uruguay’s Giorgian De Arrascaeta. That meant that even with Lucas Olaza breaking the duck with his team’s third attempt of the night, Dimitri Foulquier would seal the shootout for France two spot kicks early.
While the French team raced to swamp Foulquier and the heroic Areola at the far end, Juan Verzeri’s boys remained motionless in the centre circle. Physically and emotionally exhausted, Giménez hobbled away from the pack soon after. Shuffling along the turf, grimacing with each step, like a cub who had just been on the worse end of a battle for the first time.
Less than two weeks after the heartbreak of the final, Giménez reported for duty at the Ciudad Deportiva de Majadahonda (Atlético’s training ground). Diego Simeone’s team had just returned from some initial pre-season work out in Los Ángeles de San Rafael – a secluded town some 70km northwest of Madrid, filled with little more than rolling hills and few temptations.
While the first team squad resumed normal service back in familiar surroundings, Giménez spent his first session being put through his paces by fitness coach Óscar Pitillas. It would be a little while yet before the 18-year-old could join his new teammates on the grass, with all the frills of signing for a top European club still on his innocent agenda.
The following day, he was presented in the media room at the Vicente Calderón by President Enrique Cerezo. Suited and booted, a virtuous Giménez spoke on stage to the famous Madrid media for the first time: “It wasn’t important for me to have a holiday,” he began, after essentially jetting straight to the capital following the conclusion of the World Cup. “I’m very happy, it’s a dream to be here. My new teammates have welcomed me warmly and given me a lot of confidence.”
However, it wasn’t long before his focus turned to his new teammates, including one in particular that he was evidently fond of:
“Diego Godín is a reference for me in the Uruguay national team,” Giménez beamed. “He is a true leader and I am looking forward to learning a lot from him.” Copa América winner, Europa League winner, UEFA Super Cup winner, Copa Del Rey winner – Godín was to Giménez what Hierro was to Ramos; what Maldini was to Chiellini; what Moore was to Terry.
He had watched his idol from afar as a young man growing up in Uruguay’s premier division, the same one in which Godín cut his teeth before beginning a European conquest of his own back in 2007. If there was one man Giménez could have picked to guide him on a journey of a lifetime, few would have taken pride over his national compatriot.
Although football’s elite surrounded him now, Giménez would have to watch and learn in every sense in his first season at the club. Diego Simeone had just completed his first campaign in charge at the Vicente Calderón, where he had guided the team to two trophy wins in one campaign – a feat that had not been achieved since 1996 by Radomir Antić’s.
Under the guidance of El Cholo, Atlético were a team in the process of rejoining Europe’s elite – a reality that meant there was precious little scope for the blooding of young players. Because of that, Giménez went on to make just two starts in all competitions during the 2013-14 campaign, although, being lodged behind the intractable duo of Miranda and Diego Godín, it probably wasn’t too surprising.
Still, watching his idol from a box-office seat every week was hardly a torturous reality. The content served up by Simeone’s team was BAFTA-worthy too, especially in the defensive realm in which Giménez lived.
Appearances for the national team were actually more prominent than ones at club level in his first year. A senior team call-up arrived from Óscar Tabárez just a month after signing for Atlético, as his new-found status already began to reap its perks elsewhere.
55,000 people had packed into the Centenario in the Uruguayan capital for his debut. The opponents were Colombia and the platform was World Cup Qualifying. José Pékerman team needed a point to ensure their place in Brazil, while Uruguay had to win to keep their hopes alive. As well as that, Radamel Falcao was the man tasked with giving the 18-year-old a rather merciless initiation that night.
Against all the predicted outcomes, it proved to be an uncomfortable night for Los Cafeteros who eventually went down 2-0. Falcao was supposed to teach Giménez a lesson, but not if he had any say in it. ‘An Atlético mops up Falcao’ ran one Madrid paper the next day – a headline that inevitably warmed the cockles of Colchoneros back home in the capital.
Giménez even got a tattoo on his arm with the date of his national debut shortly after, although it probably warranted a severed head of Falcao somewhere on it too.
In the aftermath of the game, the Colombian megastar revealed to the press just how the youngster had managed to put the brakes on him so effectively, admitting:
“Giménez drove me crazy and I couldn’t concentrate on the game. First, he asked me what car I had… then he started asking me why the flags of Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela all have the same colours.” Not long after, the other side of the mental battle was revealed. “If you were speaking to him when the move was developing, he would look at you and concentrate on you instead,” said Giménez, like a man already thoroughly engrossed in the Cholo Simeone art of battle.
Four days after his strong-arming of Falcao, another debut arrived. This time it was at the Vicente Calderón. An injury to the ever-present Miranda meant Giménez was in alongside Diego Godín to face Almería in the league. For the second time in less than a week, another solid performance ensued. MARCA described him as a “gladiator” the following day. But, no sooner than he had been displayed at the Calderón was he back in the shadows. Back to being a sponge, rather than a competitor.
In the run up to 2014, he had watched his team handsomely keep pace with Real Madrid and Barcelona, as the Diego Simeone revolution continued. By February, the team was top of the Primera División and showing no signs of pumping the brakes. Things were looking pretty in the Champions League and the Copa del Rey too.
Giménez was witnessing first hand the birth of arguably the finest defensive team in world football – one with his idol Diego Godín at the epicentre. He might not have been on the field yet, but he was with them through every step of the way. On the training ground, in the changing rooms, in Diego Simeone’s pre-match briefings… the mindset and environment of a winner was already permeating his every fibre, whether he realised it or not.
In the end, ‘every step of the way’ not only meant a successful season for Atlético, but a changing of the guard in Spanish football as we knew it. Not long after Diego Godín had headed the league-clinching goal at Camp Nou in May, Giménez danced and sang alongside his mentor, draped in the Uruguayan flag, as the celebrations began. Los Colchoneros were champions of Spain for the first time in nearly two decades.
A week later, Giménez had watched again as Godín’s colossal impact threatened to steer Atlético to further glory. This time it was the Champions League final against Real Madrid, where he had opened the scoring with a first half header. As we now know, it didn’t go their way in the end. It stung badly for them to succumb to the enemy, but for Atlético the chance to rise again would come. Nobody had expected to achieve what they had, and not least Giménez.
With his first league campaign in Spain signed and sealed, the question was now: would Uruguay boss Óscar Tabárez take him to the World Cup? Giménez had started just four games in twelve months since moving to Madrid and, although he had impressed in the qualifying stages when called upon, his place on the plane was by no means a formality.
Fortunately, the doubts were short lived. Diego Lugano, Diego Godín, Martín Cáceres, Maxi Pereira, Jorge Fucile, Sebastián Coates, José María Giménez, read the list of Uruguayan defenders a few weeks after the final. Now he was in, the next question was: would he play at all?
Godín and Lugano, the most experienced defensive two, were unsurprisingly Tabárez’s preferred pairing. Giménez had to watch from the bench as his team went down without much of a fight against Costa Rica in their first game – a team who most deemed to be the weakest in the group. Only two games then remained and if the opener in Fortaleza was anything to go by, Giménez’s first senior World Cup looked as if it might bypass him without a whimper.
Then, a day before La Celeste were set to face England in their make or break second group game, news filtrated out of the Uruguayan camp that captain Diego Lugano’s tournament was over. ‘Hope for England as Uruguay captain Diego Lugano ruled out with injury’ headlined one English paper on the eve of the contest.
But not only was there no hope for England, there was no hope for Italy either. Giménez and Godín’s resumed partnership had played a leading role in the re-igniting of Uruguay’s tournament, conceding just once over the two games that everyone had tipped them to lose. For a 19-year-old whose most recent competition came against Almería over six months before, his handling of the occasion had been impeccable.
They were now in the round of 16 and a reunion with Colombia was on the cards. Giménez’s old pal Falcao wasn’t around for this meeting, but José Pékerman’s side were absolutely flying. In front of 74,000 at the Maracana, things didn’t go well for the young man this time. Star of the tournament James Rodríguez dumped them out of the competition with goals either side of half time, as Uruguay’s speculative rebound from the first game came to an abrupt end.
“This was a dream,” Giménez told a reporter in the tunnel, before his words were swathed by inconsolable tears. It was easy to forget along the way just how far he’d come; how untried he still was. Not even a year before had the same tears engulfed him at the under-20 World Cup, in a half-empty stadium in Turkey.
48 hours on from their World Cup exit, in an interview with Ovación, Giménez was asked what he learnt in Brazil. He responded: “The sacrifice, the dedication, the fight. The love for the shirt is incredible.”
I’m not sure if spider-sense is one of Diego Simeone’s many talents, but you can’t help but think he was somewhere in the world nodding in approval as the words left Giménez’s mouth that day. In the same way that the likes of Juanfran and Raúl García have demonstrated since being shepherded by the Argentine, attitude and character will take you far at the Vicente Calderón. And Giménez’s words were the assertions of a young man internally forged to play for Cholo and Atlético Madrid.
Almost a year on, those assertions morphed into an undeniable reality. From the moment he stepped back on the turf at the Calderón following his World Cup escapade, Giménez was no longer a prospect.
The saying ‘One Night in Turin’ may apply to a certain England World Cup team in the 1990s, but the Uruguayan will have a story of his own to tell with a similar title one day.
In a game at the Juventus Stadium in December 2014, Giménez lined up alongside Godín for just his second Champions League start. It was a match that Atlético could not lose, and on a personal level, somewhat of an undisclosed audition. Miranda had partnered Godín tremendously in their run up to the final in the previous season, but it was a chance for Giménez to show Simeone that he was a viable option on the big stage too.
You should know the theme well enough by now… a man-of-the-match performance followed for the young man. Again, it was another test of his mettle and one that he passed with staggering execution. It was also a baptism of his capacity and pledge to the Colchonero cause; the start of a long road in which glory may very well await.
Under the guidance of the great Simeone, in the perfectly suited battleground of the Vicente Calderón, and alongside an idol in his prime, destiny belongs to José María Giménez.
By Jamie Kemp. Follow @jamiemkemp