Diego Godín and José María Giménez: why the apprentice is ready to fill his master’s boots

Diego Godín and José María Giménez: why the apprentice is ready to fill his master’s boots

“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” That verse from the Book of Proverbs probably wasn’t written with Diego Godín and José María Giménez in mind. In fact, it almost certainly wasn’t. Maybe … I’m 90 percent sure. But what matters is that it is applicable. These two steely centre-backs have made each other better over the six years they’ve played together. 

So similar in some ways and so different in others, they go together like a knife and a fork. Giménez started off as the centre-back equivalent of a hyperactive puppy and learned to read the game with more patience, while Godín was the technical and tactical central defender who was spurred on to play with a little extra fire. There has been footballing osmosis between these two players over the past six years, with their faults cancelled out by the other and their attributes passed on like a grandmother’s tiramisu recipe. 

Of course, there is an age gap. Godín is just under nine years older than Giménez. He has been the master and Giménez has been the apprentice during their time together. In the six years since their first appearance as a duo in 2013, they’ve gone on to reach a total of 166 matches played side by side. There is nobody Giménez has played more frequently with than his compatriot. Indeed, there are only seven players who Godín has made more appearances with.

For two players in the same position, this is quite incredible. The Uruguayans have been partners 166 times, but have also been rivals in that time, too. When Giménez wasn’t playing much during his first years at Atlético Madrid or with the Uruguay national team, it was because Godín and others were ahead of him in the pecking order. So, to have featured together 28 times per year since 2013 is something special. It’s something unique.

Making this relationship extra special is the fact that the two players were born just under 150km away from each other. A two-hour-long drive down Route One between Rosario and Toledo, near Montevideo, is all it takes to move between the two areas where these stars grew up. When Godín left Rosario behind at the age of 15 to move to the capital, he was even closer to his then-six-year-old future colleague.

Their paths out of Uruguay and towards Madrid were slightly different but spookily parallel. In the case of Godín, he almost gave up on football after being cut by his club Defensor Sporting at the age of 17, only to give it another go and to pass a trial with Club Atlético Cerro, earning a permanent transfer for the modest price of 840 Uruguayan Pesos, or €25 in today’s money. 

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The youth coordinator at Cerro, William Lemus, spotted Godín’s potential to play at centre-back and moved the player deeper and away from the number 10 role he had occupied all his life up to that point. Godín never looked back and his performances in front of the goalkeeper were impressive enough to seal a transfer to Montevidean giant Nacional, and then to Villarreal, where he made a name for himself in Europe. 

“He adapted very quickly as his characteristics transferred to the Spanish league very well,” explained Fernández Navarro, the author of the Godín biography Coraje, Corazón y Cabeza. “At a team like Villarreal, which played offensively and which left spaces in behind, Godín’s speed and his impressive aerial play made him indispensable.” So indispensable that the club had to dispense with him because an €8m offer came in from Atlético Madrid. So he moved to the Spanish capital and the rest is history. 

Giménez, meanwhile, took a different route to the Vicente Calderón, although there were some similarities with Godín’s. The younger centre-back passed through the books of Nacional’s domestic rivals Peñarol, but it was there that he too suffered a setback and was cut. “You don’t have the conditions for it, you won’t play football,” Peñarol youth director Víctor Púa is believed to have told the youngster, who left the training ground in tears. “It hurt so much because my dream was to become a footballer and I made a promise that day that I would reach the first division and prove it,” the player later recalled.

That’s exactly what happened. Like Godín, he took a step back in order to take several leaps forward. The young defender ended up at Danubio and, after a position change of his own from defensive midfield to central defence, he made it to the first tier, proving Púa and many others wrong. 

Yet Giménez went straight to Atlético Madrid, skipping the Villarreal-esque rung on the ladder. Scouts from Los Rojiblancos had spotted him playing in Uruguay and were so impressed that they quickly brought him in and signed him up. So keen were the Spanish club to confirm the deal that they insisted the player fly to Madrid just a few hours after the operation was given the green light, persuading the defender to miss a Uruguay under-20 match in Chile.

Just 18 at the time of his 2013 transfer to the LaLiga giants, Giménez didn’t hit the ground running in the same way that Godín had when he arrived from Villarreal as a 23-year-old with European football experience under his belt. The first year in the Spanish capital was tough, Giménez playing just three times for Diego Simeone’s team, and lost five kilograms as the shock to his personal life meant he wasn’t eating as much. 

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The next season, though, he made 28 appearances, 21 of them with Godín. The partnership was starting to take effect. The first match the two centre-backs played together was in LaLiga on 14 September 2013 when they lined up in front of Thibaut Courtois against Almería, during the season when they’d go on to win the title. The fact that Toby Alderweireld had only just arrived and the fact that Miranda was unavailable led Simeone to give the 18-year-old a chance; he helped his side to a 4-2 victory over the Andalusians. 

That was Giménez’s only league appearance that season, but it wasn’t his only one with Godín. At international level, he was already considered such a promising prospect by Óscar Tabárez that he was playing more frequently for his national side than he was at club level. This meant more minutes with Godín.

The pair played together in central defence for Uruguay in 2014 World Cup qualifiers against Ecuador and Argentina, as well as in a pre-World Cup friendly against Austria. Uruguay captain Diego Lugano was still the first-choice partner of Godín, but an injury for the veteran after the first group game opened the door for Giménez to star on the world stage in a way he had been unable to do so during the domestic season at Los Rojiblancos. 

“Giménez was an unknown even in Spain, despite playing with Atlético Madrid, yet Spanish fans are now seeing this youngster line up with his father figure Godín and he’s breaking records,” a piece in MARCA explained. after he was one of the members of the team that defeated England 2-1 in the second group game of that Brazilian tournament. Giménez retained his place alongside Godín for the 1-0 victory over Italy and also for the 2-0 loss against Colombia that saw La Celeste’s campaign come to an end. 

By taking part in that tournament, Giménez became the youngest player to take to the field for Uruguay at a World Cup, doing so at just 19 years and four months of age. “It’s never too early to represent your country,” he said. “That’s the ultimate thing there is. It helps me to mature quickly.”

He certainly was mature, in part due to the instruction and teaching coming from a few metres to his side – from Godín. Yet even when he wasn’t next to his club teammate. the defender displayed the kind of boldness that has come to define him. 

For example, he made his Uruguay debut in place of Godín in a 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Colombia and rattled Radamel Falcao, then at his peak. “I couldn’t concentrate as Giménez was driving me crazy,” the forward later recalled. “He asked me questions. First, he asked me what car I had. When I was explaining it, he had already gone and was waiting to meet a cross. That was only the start. Then he asked me why the flags of Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela have the same colours. Next he came over to me and told me it was his debut, that he was very happy and that he would get a tattoo of the date of his match, asking me if September was spelled with or without a ‘p’. I ended up missing the chance to jump for a cross. He drove me crazy.”

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Think, then, how much better Giménez has gotten as a defender and as a provocateur since then. And, think how much Godín must have learned from these dark arts as well. Anyone who knows the characters of these two players will not be too surprised to hear about these antics from Giménez, while this isn’t the kind of thing you’d expect from Godín. At least not until he met Giménez; this teaching relationship was a two-way street.

Giménez has, of course, learned more from Godín than he has taught the Inter-bound centre-back, but this relationship has benefitted the veteran, too. Giménez is an antique centre-back, a throwback to the villains of days gone by who is as determined as a Siamese fighting fish. This isn’t the kind of centre-back that Godín was, but it is something that he has adopted into his game. “I’m not his teacher, no,” Godín said in an interview with FIFA before the 2018 World Cup. “I don’t need to teach him how to play football, even if I do try to advise him. I see myself reflected in him actually. I just try to share experience.”

There are obviously other people who Giménez has learned from during these first few years of his career; from Simeone and the Atleti coaching staff to other experienced players. When he first arrived in Madrid he was closer to fellow Uruguayan Cebolla Rodríguez – who left the club in 2015 – than to Godín. But it is with Godín that he has made the most magic on the pitch.

Of the 166 matches they have played together for club and country, there have been 109 wins, 24 draws and 33 losses. That’s a win percentage of 66 – highly impressive. There have been 92 clean sheets earned in these 166 matches too. That’s ridiculously impressive. “Playing with them means you can play with calmness,” Fernando Muslera, the Uruguay goalkeeper who knows the two defenders so well, explained. “They’re the best central defensive pairing in the world and this comes from the years put into this relationship,” said Rodríguez, perhaps the player who knows them better than anyone else.

Simply put, what we’ve seen from the ‘double G’ partnership over the years has been unique and special. Few national teams can count on a centre-back duo that also know each other from club football, and the ones that do don’t have two defenders of such immense quality.

The sad part is that the Godín and Giménez sessions will now only be seen on the international stage, with the former bound for Italy after saying his goodbyes at the Wanda Metropolitano at the end of the 2018/19 season. They’ll reunite at this summer’s Copa América, though, and opposition strikers should be scared. They should come prepared with answers about cars and the colours of South America’s flags. 

By Euan McTear @emctear

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