Most have considered it near-impossible to break the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid in the modern era of Spanish football. The two superpowers and the resources that they have rendered it a Herculean task for an outsider to attempt to break it. Not since Valencia in the 2003-04 season had a team outside of the duo clinched the league title, a fact that makes Atletico Madrid’s 2013-14 triumph all the more special, given the circumstances that befall Atletico.
To overcome Barcelona and Real Madrid requires consistency, quality and mental strength, all of which was displayed through the course of the season. But of course, if there was any team in Spain that could it, it was going to be the side led by Diego Simeone, a manager with infectious charisma like no other in the modern world, and whose tactical philosophy was granted the moniker ‘Cholismo’, after his nickname. It was from then on that El Cholo made his mark on the footballing world as the conductor of the Spanish underdogs.
Argentina have always been a passionate nation when it comes to football, but the frenzy stepped up a notch when they won the 1978 and 1986 World Cups, an achievement that would go on to inspire a new generation of passionate football fans, one of whom was Diego Simeone. Born to a middle-class family in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires, the importance of hard work and effort was quickly ingrained on his young mind, a quality that would go on to define his style as a player and as a manager. In his own words, “effort is non-negotiable.”
Football was on his mind from the start, as he recounted a tale when at San Lorenzo of a time when his proclamation of his desire to become a footballer in secondary school was met by widespread laughter. But criticism never fazed Cholo back then, nor will it in the future.
It was his time at Vélez Sarsfield, one of Buenos Aires’ other clubs, that went on to define him as a footballer. His energy and aggression earned him the nickname ‘Cholito’ from youth coach Oscar Nessi, on account of the similarity between his style and former Boca Juniors player Carmelo Simeone, to whom he bore no relation. The term cholo was first coined as an insult towards lower class Latin American men, but over time it has come to imply street smartness, toughness and ruggedness; an awareness of the dark arts, all qualities that have come to define Simeone as a character, player and a manager.
Playing beautiful football is all well and good, but Johan Cruyff’s ‘Total Football’ and Pep Guardiola’s tiki-taka attests to the fact that those philosophies require skilful and quality players. For some managers, football is all about beauty and entertainment. Simeone represents anti-fútbol in its best form- demonstrating his single-mindedness and a win-at-all-costs mentality, something that has been ingrained in him since his early days. Rather than come through Boca or River Plate, two of Buenos Aires' most famous clubs, he spent his youth at Velez, and it was there where he was influenced by Victorio Spinetto, a man who believed in the importance of grit and fight over skill and trickery. It was in his time when Argentina adopted the concept of La Nuesta, a style based on trickery. The style of choice from the 1930s to 1950s, Spinetto went against general belief to coin his own style of play - anti-fútbol.
For Spinetto, football was a game to be won. Beauty? Putting on a show? Those were terms that were non-existent in his dictionary. If you played, you played to win. This mentality saw Spinetto take Vélez to great heights in his time there in the 1940s, winning their first title, but also saw him influence Osvaldo Zubeldia, whom he managed between 1949 and 1955. Zubeldia took Spinetto’s vision to further lengths during his own managerial career, with his Estudiantes side in the 1960s not easy on the eye - fouling hard, with their defence as their mode of attack. But it was under Zubeldia that Argentina’s 1986 World Cup winner emerged: Carlos Bilardo, the embodiment of Estudiantes’ anti-fútbol in midfield, who took inspiration from Zubeldia’s tactics in employing a system-driven approach in his attempt to triumph.
Argentina’s 1978 World Cup win was built on widely different ideology, though: under César Luis Menotti, they broke the shackles by playing beautifully. That was his intention, to bring back the days of La Nuestra, creating a clear contrast with Menotti in terms of philosophies and ideals. The conflict between idealism and pragmatism has followed many individuals through the course of history, but while the Treaty of Versailles was born of a compromise between a pragmatic Lloyd George and an idealist Wilson, Simeone’s choice was not to be made of his own volition, for Bilardismo was written in his blood, and not Menottiismo.
But Simeone was not confined by the tenets of Bilardismo; as with the refining of Spinetto’s original philosophy, Cholo’s ideals were shaped by his time in Italy, a country famous for their rigid Catenaccio in the 1960s. While Simeone moved to Pisa in 1990, it was his time at Inter which gave him insight into the virtues of a strong defensive structure. His manager here, Gigi Simoni, had learnt from one of Catenaccio’s great exponents, Nereo Rocco, of the importance of stability. Simeone was no Ronaldo, but the Argentine was a battler, helping Simoni in his attempt to create a defensively sound outfit. He modified Rocco’s system, helping Inter to finish second to Juventus, along with the best defensive record in Serie A. Simoni recognised Cholo’s nous from then on, realising his future would be as a great coach. But it was this education that he received from Simoni that held him in good stead, especially at Catania, a smaller Italian outfit. Simeone ensured that their lack of quality would not hold them back with his Simoni-inspired tactics. Defend and counter-attack was the mantra for success: it is no wonder why Catania comfortably finished 12th in a season they might have expected to finish lower in the table. It is his experiences in Italy which led to his success at Atletico: in his own words, his Atleti came from Italy, in terms of ideas and financial difficulties. It is a touch of irony that his son, Giovanni Simeone, now plays in Italy for Genoa; wholly different players in terms of style, but not too dissimilar in terms of career path.
This counter-attacking style is a staple of his Atletico side. It is one that stems from a need to compete against the top two, but also from his initial stint at Atletico as a player, where Raddy Antic, then-coach, implemented a 4-4-2 that cut down space for the opposition, a system that would eventually return under Simeone. Cholo had more of an attacking role to play here, running in from deep and helping to control the tempo. With his unflagging energy, it is no wonder why he was a key facet of the side. While he played more defensively under Simoni, Antic allowed his attacking game to flourish, his 12 goals testament to that.
Three different strands led to the formation of Simeone’s Cholismo. His success as a manager at Atletico came from his defense-first approach and his winning mentality at a time when tiki-taka was the flavour. That represented the Menottismo of the footballing world; the beautiful football, the elegance and the aesthetics of the play. But the Bilardismo in him saw such an approach tough to follow given Atletico’s then-travails and financial issues.
Incessant in his need to carve his own niche, he decided to rank efficiency high on his list of approaches. Winning was his life and soul, and he needed his players to buy into that philosophy, to understand the struggle and commitment that was needed to succeed, to win. Victory was everything. Simeone showed the world the way of anti-fútbol, providing an alternative to tiki-taka, pulling beautiful football back from its high pedestal just before it was going to become the be-all and end-all. Atletico thrived without possession, choosing to put compactness before anything else, to deny space just like Antic’s Atletico. They defended and counter-attacked like Simoni’s Inter and Simeone’s Catania. Cholo modified his tactics to ensure they were not a one-season wonder, that they were there to stay after an improbable title victory. People now rated Atletico as a genuine threat, and football tactics took a turn yet again.
Cholismo involves much more than just tactics- it includes Simeone’s thirst for victory, his intense training drills, his passion, his principles. For him, it is a way of life. In many ways, it is comprised of his experiences through his life, as he encountered and played through various philosophies which he based his tactics on. From Bilardismo came the single-minded desire to win, while the counter-attacking style comes from Simoni’s Inter. Lastly, from Antic’s Atleti comes the 4-4-2 formation and the compactness in midfield. It is why he believes in the power of collective over the individual, even when he has Antoine Griezmann in his side.
Simeone will always be an image of Bilardo, but a modified and redeveloped one, for which he is better off.
El Cholo represents grinta at it’s best, but despite his many successes, he will always be the boy from Velez. The ideals he was inculcated with at Velez will keep him grounded. His various roots have shaped who he is. Menotti may not approve of Simeone, but El Cholo has never been one to care about other’s judgements. Just like when he was laughed at school, he is his own man. There is no doubt he loves it that way.