Before the world knew Diego Simeone as the renowned and respected coach of Atlético Madrid, there was Diego Simeone the player: a midfielder who typified the Argentine fighting spirit and covered every blade of grass with clenched fists and gritted teeth. An aggressive, win-at-all-costs footballer who bled for the shirt on his back. With a fearlessness driven by a force unrecognisable to those not imbued with it, and unexplainable to all who have felt it course through their veins, Simeone took on all comers.
More than merely a will to win, it’s a compulsion bordering on malady. This is what comprises so many of those players that are adored by their team’s supporters, yet inspire a guttural hatred in rival fans. Committed, courageous and heroic in the eyes of their own; overzealous, ruthless and dirty to everyone else. That was Diego Simeone. That was El Cholo.
He occupied the same space as a professional wrestling bad guy – or heel, to use the correct nomenclature. You could imagine Simeone in another life sporting a luchador mask and spandex tights, up to all kinds of dastardly tricks inside the ring: poking eyes and delivering below-the-belt strikes while the referee is distracted, all the time revelling in the jeers of the crowd, and all with the express aim of gaining an advantage, no matter how slight.
Simeone described his playing style as being that of a man “holding a knife between his teeth”. There are many ways that that could be interpreted, but it is undeniable that there was a certain militant element to the way Simeone played, and that is a quality that was fostered within the former Internazionale and Lazio player from a young age.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1970, as a teenager Simeone was given a chance to pursue his dream of becoming a professional footballer when he joined the academy of Vélez Sarsfield, in the Liniers district of the city. It was there that a young Simeone studied under the tutelage of Victorio Spinetto, who was coach to the Vélez youth players at the time.
Spinetto was a no-nonsense centre-half who’d played for Argentina in the mid-1930s and coached the national side in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He had also been Vélez coach for a 14-year period between 1942 and 1956. But by the 1980s, he was a semi-retired septuagenarian, holding an informal role with the academy set-up of his beloved club.
As detailed in Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, there are two very distinct styles of play that have been prominent in Argentina’s rich footballing history. First, there was La Nuestra, a free-flowing, short-passing and dribbling style that began to emerge in the 1920s and grew through to the 1950s. La Nuestra was viewed by its exponents as a being akin to an art form, more concerned with aesthetics that outcomes.
Then, following a shocking 6-1 defeat to Czechoslovakia at the 1958 World Cup, the wheels were put in motion to bring about a directional shift in Argentine football. La Nuestra was derided for bringing humiliation upon the national team, thanks to its perceived softness and refusal to bend to the growing tactical development of the world game.
A new approach was needed and, at the vanguard of what would later become known as the anti-fútbol style, there stood Spinetto. “Perhaps it would be unfair to say Spinetto was not a romantic,” Wilson writes. “But his romanticism took a very different form to that of his contemporaries. His passion was not to create a spectacle, or to prove his side more capable of artistry than others; what he cared about was his Vélez, and about winning.”
Under Spinetto, the young Simeone was instilled with the ethos of an ultimate winner: failure is not to be accepted and celebration of nothing other than victory is permitted – no pat on the back for a near miss, no applause for a fancy trick. More recently, Simeone was asked what he expects of the players he coaches: “Effort is non-negotiable,” was his reply. The understanding that the good of the team is put before that of the individual is undoubtedly something that he will have learnt at Vélez and a mantra that would’ve been preached by Spinetto.
And it was while coming through the ranks as Vélez that Simeone was given the nickname El Cholo, supposedly because of a stylistic resemblance to former Boca Juniors defender Carmelo Simeone (no relation), who was notable for his dogged tenacity.
Simeone’s formative years came during what would be considered as somewhat of a golden era for Argentine football: World Cup winners on home soil in 1978, then again in Mexico in 1986, driven by the inspirational Diego Maradona. As a 16-year-old from Buenos Aires, watching Maradona – who came from a poor suburb of the city – rise to the level of being unanimously acclaimed the greatest player on the planet following the 1986 finals, served as motivation for Simeone. His dream career had never felt closer to becoming reality.
And little more than a year after watching La Albiceleste lift the World Cup in Mexico City, a 17-year-old Simeone made his first-team debut for Vélez in a 2-1 defeat to Gimnasia. Instantly a key player for El Fortín, Simeone played 28 times in that season’s Primera División, scoring four goals. The teenager’s reputation may have been built on competitiveness and aggression, but his technical ability was evident.
As an all-action box-to-box midfielder, Simeone could do it all: tackle, pass over all ranges, break-up opposition attacks and instigate his team’s offensive manoeuvres. It would be easy to pass him off as a buzzing nuisance who covers every blade of grass but there was much more to Simeone’s game, even at this early stage.
His three seasons as a Vélez regular encompassed an international debut in 1988, before his venture to Europe in 1990. Pisa were by no means the most attractive club in Italy but they offered Simeone the chance to pit himself against the game’s elite in what had become – and would remain for the best part of a decade – the most glamorous league in the world: Serie A.
But things didn’t quite go to plan in Pisa, as i Torri were relegated at the end of Simeone’s first season and were unable to gain promotion from Serie B in the following campaign. The young Cholo was forced to put a bookmark in his Serie A dream as he was sold to Sevilla in the summer of 1992. It was at Sevilla that Simeone would work under another influential Argentine coach from the anti-fútbol school, Carlos Bilardo.
Bilardo was the standout player of Spinetto disciple Osvaldo Zubeldía’s great Estudiantes side of the late 1960s. Bilardo’s own coaching style was shaped by Zubeldía – and therefore indirectly by Spinetto – whose influence could be seen in the way El Narigón (Bilardo’s nickname, meaning ‘Big Nose’) set up his teams. Bilardo was an immensely successful coach, leading Argentina to their 1986 World Cup triumph and coming close to retaining the trophy in 1990, losing to West Germany in the final.
After a two-year sabbatical following the World Cup final defeat, Bilardo took charge of Sevilla in 1992, and, having given Simeone his international debut four years earlier, the pair were reunited at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, where they would also be joined by a certain Diego Maradona. Bilardo and Maradona only lasted one season in Andalusia but Simeone stayed on for another year before joining Atlético Madrid.
Perhaps never before or since has a player been more compatible with a club than Simeone at Atleti. Los Colchoneros live perpetually in the shadow of their city rivals Real Madrid. Constantly outshone by the gleaming white shirts of their neighbours, Atlético are forever fighting against the financial and political might of Los Blancos. If there were ever a player suited to the life of footballing struggle, to the constant battle against the playground bullies, to being the irresistible force crashing towards the immovable object, it’s the man “holding a knife between his teeth”. It’s Diego Simeone.
Simeone was the heart of Antic’s Atleti, relentlessly beating at maximum intensity. A leader to those around him despite still being only 24, Simeone became a cult hero thanks to his trademark lung-busting breaks from midfield to join the attack. Often seen approaching the opposition’s penalty area, head tilted back, sprinting at full speed to get on the end of a pass, having made the tackle that won possession deep in his own half just seconds earlier, Simeone led and everyone inside the Vicente Calderón followed. They implicitly trusted that their team would be safe in the hands of a man who clearly cared every bit as much as they did.
He eventually left Atlético to join Internazionale in 1997 but he would be back: firstly, in his last foray as a player in Europe in 2003, then as manager eight years later. So, seven years after it had begun, Simeone’s Serie A conquest resumed. In this six-year spell in Italy, Simeone proved to be the catalyst for instant success at both Inter and Lazio.
In his first season with the Nerazzurri, he found himself under the command of journeyman coach Luigi Simoni. Not dissimilar to Spinetto and Bilardo, Simoni set up his sides with the express aim of getting results. An advocate of the Catenaccio style of football, Simoni would line up his Inter team with Salvatore Fresi as sweeper in his hyper-cautious system. The idea was to fill the team with disciplined, willing runners, tasked with shutting down the opposition and feeding the ball to Youri Djorkaeff, Iván Zamorano and Ronaldo upfront. And it worked, as Inter won the UEFA Cup in 1998.
Simeone’s return to Italy had set in motion an evolution of his game; the all-action, end-to-end driving force behind Atlético’s historic double morphed into a deep-lying ball-winner. Simeone 2.0 was a more tactically disciplined player, rarely breaking ahead of the ball.
This new approach was the motivating factor behind Simeone being recruited to join Lazio in 2000. Sven-Göran Eriksson has built a team full of attacking flair, with Pavel Nedvěd, Juan Sebastián Verón and Hernán Crespo among the Swede’s offensive weaponry. But it was the addition of Simeone and his midfield nous that helped the Roman club secure the Scudetto for only the second time in their history.
Upon leaving Lazio in 2003, Simeone wound down his playing career with two seasons back at Atlético Madrid, before hanging up his boots with Racing Club in Argentina and immediately segueing into management with La Academia.
In a 14-year international career which was made up of 103 caps – the fifth most in Celeste history – with two Copa América triumphs and a FIFA Confederations Cup, it is at once frustrating and entirely fitting that Simeone in an Argentina jersey is most synonymous with his part in David Beckham’s red card at the 1998 World Cup in France.
Having clattered into the back of Beckham early in the second half of Argentina’s last-16 tie with England in Saint-Étienne, Simeone held his hands up in apology in hope of avoiding a booking for the over-zealous challenge. As Simeone began to back away from the scene, the felled England star kicked out at the Argentine, grazing the back of his calves. Simeone fell to the ground dramatically, while simultaneously gesticulating to referee Kim Milton Neilsen, making absolutely sure that the official had not missed Beckham’s petulant retaliation.
Simeone was unsuccessful in his attempt to escape a booking for his part in the incident, but his instinctive gamesmanship ensured that Beckham was sent off. Advantage gained. “I had tackled him, and we both fell to the ground.” Simeone told The Observer in 2002. “As I was trying to stand up that was when he kicked me from behind. And I took advantage of that. And I think any person would have taken advantage of that in just the same way.”
It was cynical it was conniving, and it had helped his team win (Argentina won a penalty shootout after the match ended 2-2). Sure, given the choice, he’d have preferred to have scored a 30-yard screamer to settle the encounter, but an opportunity presented itself and he took it. Victory is paramount.
The 36 seconds that started with the deliberate foul designed to disrupt England’s rhythm to the moment the red card is brandished is Simeone’s football career in microcosm. Hero and villain, with him or against him – that’s Diego Simeone. That’s El Cholo.
By Ryan Baldi @RyanBaldiFW