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Luis Aragonés: The Godfather of Atlético Madrid, Part III

The final part of our commemorative Aragonés feature addresses a caveat in his overall legacy.

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Club Atletico De Madrid v Real Madrid CF La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Read Part I here and Part II here.

It is impossible to discuss Luis Aragonés and gloss over his controversy in regards to Thierry Henry. While training the Spanish national team in 2004, TV cameras caught Aragonés attempting to motivate José Antonio Reyes by making reference to Henry, Reyes’s Arsenal teammate:

“You have to believe in yourself. You have to believe that you’re better than that black s*** (Henry).”

Aragonés defended himself, claiming he was not a racist and that he had a number of black friends; he said that one of his best friends was the Spanish defender Donato, who is black. Marcos Senna, the Villareal/Spanish national team legend, who is black, also defended Aragonés, saying that he didn’t believe he was a racist and that an accidental word may have slipped out while he was trying to motivate Reyes.

As an Atlético Madrid supporter, it is important to acknowledge these more unsavory elements of the club. It’s easy to chalk up Atlético’s tactical fouling and occasional borderline cynical play to their “band of brothers” mentality, a byproduct of lacking the financial power of the bigger clubs. Therefore, the argument goes, they have to play this way.

However, it is important to realize that the most important man in the history of the club made these comments. It is important to realize that the Frente Atlético - widely praised as some of the best supporters and ultras in the world - have right wing roots and a racist history. Yes, many other clubs’ ultra groups have similar backgrounds and similar incidents. But with a club in which the narrative is as strong as Atlético’s, we cannot allow these incidents to be explained away by “heart” or “passion” or “wanting it more.”

That said, Aragonés is undeniably one of the most influential figures in Atlético and Spanish football history. There is an unending well of stories about him, from repeatedly and intentionally calling Michael Ballack “Wallace” before the Euro 2008 final, to making an interesting promise while brandishing a Coca-Cola bottle before Atleti’s 1992 Copa del Rey final at the Santiago Bernabéu against Real Madrid:

"If you don't win today, I'll stick this up my a***. You've got to do them. This is the moment you've been waiting for: Real Madrid and at the Bernabéu. They've been sticking it up our a**** for so long, now it's our chance to stick it up theirs."

After goals from Bernd Schuster and Paulo Futre, Atleti exited the Bernabéu with a 2-0 victory.

He is the Godfather - not just of Atlético, but of modern Spanish football too. He is the man that Xavi said taught him more about football than anyone else. He is also the man who helped shape Atleti’s current philosophy of Cholismo. When Diego Simeone told Aragonés that Atlético had offered him a coaching job, Zapatones’s response was short and to the point: “So what are you waiting for?”

So ganar, ganar, y volver a ganar. That burning desire to win still courses through Atleti’s veins. Simeone preaches it. And Aragonés is the reason why.

On February 1, 2014, Aragones died of leukemia. He hadn’t told anyone that he was suffering from the disease.

The next day, Atlético played a match against Real Sociedad at the Vicente Calderón. They honored Aragonés before the game, former players unfurling a huge banner of his number eight shirt. The fans unveiled a massive tifo of the elderly Aragonés in the heat of managing. Simeone teared up.

In the 37th minute, David Villa received a cross from Diego Costa and slotted a left footed shot into the goal in front of the Frente Atlético, opening what would eventually be a 4-0 win. Villa ran behind the goal, slid on his knees, and pointed to the sky. He eventually stood up, eyes welling, still pointing to the sky. The day after Aragonés died, it was fitting the boy whom he had originally given a shot to lead his revolution - the man who replaced Raúl in the national team’s squad - was the man to honor the legend’s memory with a timely goal.

Atlético ascended to LaLiga’s summit that day and would not relinquish top spot again.

In the last interview before he died, Aragonés said, “I’d love to see Atleti win a European Cup. That’s a thorn in my side still.” This dream has yet to be realized; however, the league title that year had to be a pretty good consolation prize.