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It would be fair that Diego Simeone is very much in vogue these days. Over the last three seasons his Atletico Madrid side – the very epitome of sacrifice and teamwork – have won titles in Spain and Europe and begun writing a glorious chapter in the club’s history. It was, therefore, a fitting reward, to see the Argentinian on the three-man shortlist for the 2014 FIFA World Coach of the Year for Men's Football award.
During his trip to Zurich last week for the FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala, the 44-year old sat down for an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. Among the topics discussed in a wide-ranging chat was the footballing philosophy at Atletico, a possible future as a national-team coach and his particular relationship with fans of arch-rivals Real Madrid.
FIFA.com: You’ve finally made the three-man shortlist for Coach of the Year. Do you place a lot of importance on recognition like that and wait eagerly for those kinds of announcements?
-->Diego Simeone: The recognition is good when it comes from actual footballers, and when it’s from players the world over, it’s even better. However, it’s nothing definitive, as football’s all about your next game, the need to keep producing the goods. But when it’s the opinion of footballers, I definitely place greater store on it. I’m pleased to be in a trio that includes [Joachim] Low and [Carlo] Ancelotti, but more than anything it gives me the impetus to work hard and improve in the future.
In Spain many people used to be divided on the respective playing styles of Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. Now a lot of the talk is about ‘Cholismo’ (Simeone’s playing style – a take on his nickname: El Cholo)
--> We have a clearly identifiable playing style, that’s true. I’ve always said that the teams that best espoused those ideals have been Estudiantes de La Plata, where I coached for a year and a half, and this Atletico side. That said, I wouldn’t go so far as to talk about ‘Cholismo’, even if my teams do play in a particular way.
--> And it is not just one-dimensional direct football either…
--> No, they’re just clichés trotted out whenever a team can’t find a way past us. That’s not our problem!
A lot is written about "El Cholo’s warriors" and their selflessness. Do you think that in emphasising this aspect of your play, the media are underestimating the team’s other qualities?
--> The great thing about football is that it’s so open to interpretation: there’s no definitive right and wrong, and in a sense everyone is right. There are myriad ways of playing but, as I’ve said before, I base things on the qualities of the players I have, empowering individuals for the betterment of the team. In all the finals we’ve competed in, we’ve used our top players, but we don’t believe that you can win with talent alone. Talent has to be accompanied by effort as well, and that’s shared around when you work as a team.
You’ve always maintained that sacrifice is non-negotiable, so what things are negotiable?
--> The human aspects. So long as people are upfront about things, I’m willing to discuss anything. I always say, ‘When we’re both on the same page, then we go for it. If you’re in one place and I’m in another, then no. I don’t like that scenario.
Do you regret any decisions you took in 2014?
--> Regret, no. With any possibly erroneous decision, you can always look back and think you could’ve done something differently – but always with the benefit of hindsight.
Right now I feel young and energetic, so one way or another, I participate in the game.
Would the decision to risk Diego Costa in UEFA Champions League final be in that category?
--> No, on the contrary. It was a very considered decision given that the final of the Champions League was at stake. I always tell people that the day before, Costa was doing 100-metre sprints and looked like an athlete! I reasoned that if he could give us 45-50 minutes, then it’d be worth playing him in the final, especially given his importance to us. Alas, fate had other ideas and we lost a potential matchwinner [after just eight minutes]. But he wasn’t the only one: Arda [Turan] got injured too and couldn’t play. For all that, we still competed at a very high level.
Have you watched the game again since?
--> No, no. You can’t turn back time. And when you cannot go back, it’s better not to dwell on the past.
As a coach your character is just like it was as a player. There’s no sign of that abating…
--> No they’re traits of mine. Every coach has them. Obviously when I’m older, I’ll probably – though I can’t promise – have different mannerisms. Right now I feel young and energetic, so one way or another, I participate in the game.
Not long ago, Atletico Madrid were looked upon sympathetically, like a perennial bridesmaid. How do you think people view them now?
--> Just after I was appointed coach here, I said in a press conference that I wanted Atletico to become a team that causes problem for others. Taking on two giants like Real Madrid and Barcelona is very hard. If you think about it, in our domestic league we’re up against two clubs who are always expected to win the Champions League. We’ve managed to break that hegemony – just as we did in 1996 when I was a player – and triumph over the kind of financial muscle and great players that they acquire. Over time we’ve become something more than just a troublesome team, and that’s down to consistency, which is the hardest thing to achieve in football. For more than three years now, we’ve been achieving success, and we’re still doing it. We’re just three points behind Barcelona and [four behind] a Madrid side who have been in great form this season.
They’ve also demonstrated that, over and above the difficulties you face and using the tools at your disposal, you can compete, you can fight and you can find solutions where none appeared to be.
How do you think Real Madrid fans see you?
--> I imagine they’ve got mixed feelings. On the one hand I’m sure they don’t like me but, on the other, I get shown a lot of respect when I’m out on the street. I get a lot of people coming up to me saying 'I’m a Real Madrid fan, but I’d honestly like to congratulate you. I like the way your guys work and how much of a team they are'. I think that recently Atletico have shown something that people need in their everyday lives: energy. They’ve also demonstrated that, over and above the difficulties you face and using the tools at your disposal, you can compete, you can fight and you can find solutions where none appeared to be. We know that nowadays it’s hard to get a job and find stability, but these lads – through their hard work and persistence – have managed to show people that you do have the chance to say, 'Stop, we can do this. It’s not all about having money and using money to get things done'. Even if you don’t have so much, you can still go places.
Could you see yourself becoming the Sir Alex Ferguson of Atletico Madrid, in terms of longevity?
--> I always say that my approach is to think that I might get sacked tomorrow. For me, it’s the best way of making sure I live for the moment, because in football what matters, aside from what you’ve already achieved and which nobody can take away from you, is what’s coming next. I see Atletico Madrid as a club that’s growing very strongly and which has greater financial clout thanks to the success we’ve had. Players want to join us and we’ve got a team with a very good average age, lads like [Raul] Jimenez, Koke and [Diego] Godin who’ve got years ahead of them to keep improving and form the foundations of a side that we can keep on strengthening.
Are you ever able to take your foot off the pedal?
--> I’m not a fan of “switching off” because I know that when I find myself in that situation then I end up losing. Of course, every so often it happens, but I try and fight against it because it’s not a feeling I’m comfortable with.
But you do get the chance to do things like going to the cinema and reading books, right?
--> Yes, I lead a normal life like any other man on the street, but I also see myself as shouldering major responsibility. The game’s my life and I’m so passionate about it. When you see your life so intertwined with football it can make things very difficult. You might go and watch a film and start imagining footballers running across the screen, you know? It’s not easy [to switch off].
Hand on heart, were you offered the Argentina job after the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™?
-->No, but I know it’ll happen one day. I’ve always said in the national team you have room for what I call the son, father and grandfather types. In coaching terms, I think it’s a place for a grandfather – someone more serene and composed who can see things in a different way. I still feel I need to be on the pitch, doing training and being with players day-in, day-out. The national team cannot give you that. Is it something I’d like to do one day? Absolutely! I spent 12 or 14 years with the team – it was a privileged time and very much part of my life. Hopefully it will come to pass at the perfect time for both parties.
And coaching Lionel Messi wouldn’t be a bad thing…
--> Messi is a matchwinner who needs a team [built around him] to be even more effective. We were very close at the last World Cup and hopefully Gerardo [Martino], who already knows him from his time at Barcelona, can assemble a team that gets the best out of him. Above all, hopefully he can encourage his players to be a team. That’s the best thing you can do for Messi.
One hypothetical question please. You’re offered the best contract imaginable and unlimited funds, but on condition that you coach either Real Madrid or the Brazil national team. Which would you choose?
-->Ah, you guys are bad! (laughs) I think I’d have to pass on that and say goodbye to the money!
Lastly, if there was a Ballon d’Or awarded for one aspect of life, what would Diego Simeone win it for?
--> For being a straightforward guy. With me, what you see is what you get.