THE CURRENT ERA WILL GO DOWN alongside some of the greatest in Atlético Madrid’s storied history. A La Liga title has been won, as have two Europa Leagues – and they have missed winning the Champions League by the finest of margins on two separate occasions. Every summer there is talk of manager Diego Simeone leaving for a bigger club, but the truth is that, today, there are few bigger clubs than Atleti. They have gatecrashed the Real Madrid and Barcelona duopoly, and La Liga has a big three now.
Simeone has been rightly credited as being the major factor behind this glorious upturn in fortunes for the capital’s second side. Having had two spells as an Atleti player, he returned to the club he loves after a second stint managing Racing in his native Argentina. The improvements were immediate and vast; if you didn’t adapt to El Cholo’s regime, you were out.
Simeone’s players have not been devoid of praise during this generation too. Of the team that reached the first of their two Champions League finals in 2014, Diego Costa and Thibaut Courtois impressed and earned transfers to Chelsea. Filipe Luís followed. They were smartly replaced, and amongst the new faces, Antoine Griezmann has proven to be particularly successful. There are others; Koke and Juanfran have had national team call-ups and Jan Oblak has established himself as a superior goalkeeper to the departed Courtois. One player, though, for whom praise has been strangely lacking is the captain, Gabi.
Born in Madrid in 1983, Gabi took longer than most to become properly interested in football. Eventually deciding – after gentle persuasion – to find a team, he became a key figure for his local team San Eladio. His abundance of talent soon emerged, and Gabi’s boyhood team Atlético came calling, along with, reportedly, the city’s other big team. Coming from an Atleti-supporting family in the red and white half of the city, it was an easy choice for Gabriel Fernández Arenas.
Despite earning a place in Atleti’s cantera, Gabi didn’t have the skills or the easy-on-the-eye talent of some of his peers – and it wasn’t until he turned 19 that he earned a game for the B team. A couple of seasons of treading water in the second-string side followed, despite being a part of the Spain squad that finished as runners-up at the 2003 Under-20 World Cup.
Gabi was clearly a good player, but not deemed anywhere near good enough for a place in the first team. By 2004, now 21, Gabi had become impatient for senior action. With none forthcoming at Atleti, the club shipped him out on loan to newly promoted local rivals Getafe.
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It was a breakthrough season in the development of Gabi as the player we know him to be today. He established himself from the off as a starter in a decent Getafe side, with Los Azulones finishing 13th – and just three points behind Atleti in 11th. Gabi returned to the Vicente Calderón having amassed 32 LaLiga appearances during his time with El Geta, and it was evident immediately that he was held in much higher esteem.
César Ferrando had been sacked at the end of what had been a very disappointing season for Los Colchoneros and his replacement, the Argentine Carlos Bianchi, saw Gabi as very much part of his plans. Bianchi had previously managed an array of talent at Boca Juniors, so he knew a good central midfielder when he saw one. Gabi, though without the beautiful La Pausa of Bianchi’s favourite son, Juan Román Riquelme, had shown himself to be an effective bridge between defence and attack during his loan spell at Getafe – and he was finally integrated into the first team.
Over the next two seasons, he made 52 LaLiga appearances for Atleti, establishing himself as the midfield enforcer they had previously been lacking. Bianchi proved not to be the answer managerially and lasted just half a season but, fortunately for Gabi, was replaced until the end of the season by Pepe Murcia, Gabi’s old B team manager. Murcia allowed Gabi to carry on showing his worth to the team and opportunities continued to come the following season under new manager Javier Aguirre – poached from fellow LaLiga club Osasuna.
He still wasn’t starting every game, though. As hard as he had worked to earn himself a space on the Atleti team bus every week, neither Bianchi nor Aguirre were able to find a system in which Gabi could truly flourish. Not blessed with great pace or an abundance of natural skill, he was an easy player to leave out if the fans ever needed a scapegoat. And so, in February 2007, Gabi signed a pre-contract agreement with another LaLiga side in Real Zaragoza. In a deal worth around €9 million, he would move to the Aragon side in the summer.
Despite establishing himself as one of the stars for Los Maños straight away, his first season at Zaragoza did not go to plan and they were relegated from LaLiga. Despite a rumoured relegation clause in his contract that allowed him to look for other Primera clubs, Gabi – known for his loyalty – remained with the club. Still relatively young, Gabi and those advising him knew that another move wasn’t what he needed now; Zaragoza had spent a reasonable amount of money on the defensive midfielder and stability was key.
This proved to be a wise decision, with Los Maños making an immediate return to LaLiga, having finished second in the Segunda, one point behind champions Xerez. Gabi’s top-flight quality shone through amongst some fairly average players in the Segunda, and he even scored four goals. The following season, Zaragoza were determined not make the same mistake as previously and, with Gabi anchoring the midfield, they finished 14th.
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The following season, he was named captain and shifted to a more advanced role in a desperate attempt by the Aragonese club to keep hold of their star man. Consequently, Gabi he 11 goals – still the only time he has reached double figures in a season. Looking assured as both a midfielder and as a captain, Gabi had peaked the attention of some of Spain’s top clubs.
Right at the start of the summer transfer window in 2011, the inevitable happened and Gabi returned to his boyhood club Atlético for the surprisingly meagre fee of €3 million. He had options from elsewhere, but the urge to continue the Atleti love affair was too strong. Life, however, is never straightforward in the red-and-white half of Madrid.
Just as in his first season at the club, the manager who had re-signed him, Gregorio Manzano, was sacked within six months of Gabi re-joining the club. Football has a strange way with coincidences, though. Who would Manzano’s replacement be? None other than the man who kept Gabi out of the first team in his early years as an Atleti player – Diego Simeone.
Simeone, who had been coaxed away from Racing, recognised straight away that Gabi was the type of character he wanted as a figurehead in his new-look Atleti. Gabi made 31 league appearances in his first season back as Atleti finished fifth, two points off moneybags Málaga in fourth. More importantly, though, Gabi started 17 games in Europe as Atlético won the Europa League, to date the only time they have won the competition.
Gabi’s combative and simple style of play worked wonders for Simeone’s side against what at times was much more physical opposition than they were used to in LaLiga. Further success followed in the European Super Cup as Los Colchoneros beat Champions League winners Chelsea to lay down a real marker to the rest of Europe.
Gabi had laid down his personal marker too. He became the on-the-pitch embodiment of everything that was Simeone. He was prepared to launch an attack, but defensive duties always came first. Simeone rewarded Gabi with the captaincy, making it clear that he wanted his on-field boss to be the embodiment of the club, an example for everyone else to follow. That season, 2012/13, Atleti won another trophy, this time the Copa del Rey. Led by their captain, who amassed 45 appearances, they were showing signs of being a real force.
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The following season was the manifestation of that potential, both for Gabi and the club. After a good first half of the season, Atlético found themselves top of the league after round 22. Knocked straight back off the top by Barcelona, few were tipping Simeone’s plucky underdogs for the title. But going into the final day of the season, Atlético found themselves needing just a draw to do exactly that. The only problem was that they were facing Barcelona, at the Camp Nou.
Atletico found themselves behind at half-time, and the dream appeared to be over in the cruellest way possible. But then Gabi, eyes set to their usual steely gaze, walked over to take a corner. He swung it in to be met by his vice-captain, Diego Godín, who scores. Cue pandemonium amongst the small contingent of travelling supporters from the capital.
That goal won Atlético Madrid their 10th league title. Although they were denied what would have been the greatest of doubles – losing to city rivals Real Madrid in extra time of the Champions League final – Atleti had produced one of the finest seasons in the club’s history. Gabi had been a key part of it, and was rewarded with a place in the LaLiga squad of the season as well as the Champions League squad of the season.
Further success has followed for Atlético, with another close attempt at winning the Champions League in 2016. Again, they were denied by Real, this time on penalties. And again, Gabi was named in the Champions League’s squad of the season. Simeone’s Atleti continue to impress, both domestically and in Europe.
At 34, Gabi may well be past his prime now. It is difficult, however, not to feel as if, even at his peak, Gabi didn’t receive the plaudits he deserved. He has been named in the Champions League squad of the year twice, yet he has never been capped for his country.
Is the reason for the lack of praise because he is a defensive midfielder, perhaps the most unheralded positions of all? Is it because he is the embodiment of Diego Simeone’s no-frills Atlético? Has he just had the misfortune of playing at the same time as a special generation of Spanish midfielders? One thing is for certain, though: Gabi is an Atlético Madrid legend. And they’ll miss him when he’s gone.