“Ganar, ganar, y volver a ganar.” Win, win, and win again.
In a lot of ways, this quote sums up a healthy chunk of Atlético Madrid’s collective worldview. Despite lesser resources, this club fight tooth and nail to make European Cup finals. After losing those cup finals in increasingly excruciating fashion, they take no moral victories. They engage in football’s dark arts, no one more so than Gabi, their talismanic midfield general and captain.
The man responsible for the quote is responsible not only for Atlético’s philosophical underpinnings, but also, quite ironically, the Spanish national team’s golden generation and its beautiful tiki-taka system. He was a motivator like no other, the leading scorer in Atlético history, and - it has to be said - the perpetrator of a single incident that, for many football fans in England, mars his legacy. He is likely the most important man in Atlético history, eclipsing even Fernando Torres.
He is Luis Aragonés.
Although Torres sees things differently - he always highlights that Atleti supporters love their team in good times and bad, singing the club anthem in the metro even after 3-0, home field beatdowns at the hands of Real Madrid - Diego Simeone is certainly cut from the Aragonés cloth. The current iteration of the team scraps and defends, fights and claws, in pursuit of the almighty result.
“Atlético are my life”
Like a number of Madrid footballer megastars - Torres (Fuenlabrada) and Iker Casillas (Móstoles) included - Aragonés grew up in Hortaleza, a less glamorous, nondescript Madrid suburb. He started his professional career in Getafe, another Madrid suburb, home to a team that usually bounces between Primera and Segunda. He eventually moved to Real Madrid, but could never crack the first team. Brief stops at Oviedo and Real Betis - where he truly broke into LaLiga - followed, and in 1964, Aragonés arrived at the club of his life.
“Atlético are my life,” Aragonés once said, and he was a huge hit from the get-go. Donning the number eight shirt, he played in central midfield, possessing a goal scorer’s touch, almost - and this is an extremely kind comparison for the current player, but he deserves it - like the man Atlético has chosen to wear the number 8 these days. A free kick specialist, Aragonés earned the nickname Zapatones (“Big Boots”), shedding the “Elf” nickname he had been received at Getafe.
Aragonés was a key part of one of the brightest periods in Atlético’s history. As a player, he won LaLiga three times and the Copa del Rey (then named the Copa del Generalísimo for Francisco Franco) twice. As his career progressed, he began to play in a more advanced role. For the 1969-1970 league winners, Aragonés combined with Jose Eulogio Gárate to form arguably Atlético’s best-ever strike partnership ever (though Forlán/Agüero or even Costa/Villa might have something to say about that). Both players scored 16 goals that season, tying Real Madrid’s Amancio for the Pichichi. The two of them dismantled Amancio’s in a particularly memorable victory on the Manzanares that season, too.
However, Aragonés wouldn’t be a true Atlético legend unless he had experienced some heartbreak. He ticked that box in the 1974 European Cup Final against Bayern Munich. After Aragonés scored a screamer of a free kick in the 114th minute, Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck equalized for Bayern in the 120th minute, leading to a replay that Bayern won 4-0. Thus, Aragonés and Atlético were denied a first European title.
Atleti would go on to win the Intercontinental Cup in 1975 - his first season as manager. Aragonés, 37 at the time, was named to the position within days of his retirement. During two lengthy spells as manager, Aragonés won another Copa and Liga, further cementing his legacy. He would then bounce around prestigious Spanish clubs, including Barcelona, Espanyol, Sevilla and Valencia. He even returned to Atleti for a third time in 1991, and in his fourth stint (2001-03) he brought the club back to LaLiga, giving a young striker by the name of Torres the chance to shine.
Eventually, Aragonés would find his way to Mallorca, where he received a phone call that changed his life.