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Book Review: “Hijacking LaLiga”

Euan McTear examines Atlético’s stunning 2014 league title win through the stories of those who lived it.

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FC Barcelona vs Atletico Madrid Photo by Evrim Aydin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

If you’re looking for an excellent English-language read on Atlético Madrid, your options are...pretty limited. Diego Simeone’s autobiography “Creer” was released in summer 2016, but it’s only available in Spanish in the United States. “Hasta Siempre, Vicente Calderón,” written by AS’ Patricia Cazón, came out in October — unfortunately, it’s not for sale stateside. However, Spanish football journalist and occasional Colchonero Chat guest Euan McTear has provided the definitive read — in a compact 191 pages, to boot — on Atlético for English speakers.

At its core, “Hijacking LaLiga: How Atlético Madrid Broke Barcelona and Real Madrid’s Duopoly on Spanish Football” is centered on Atlético’s improbable run to the league title nearly four full seasons ago (I can’t believe it’s been that long). However, McTear understands that the story of that team cannot be told simply by summarizing all 38 matchdays from the 2013/14 season. That’s why McTear jumps all over time’s chess board — even back to the club’s founding as an offshoot of Athletic Club de Bilbao on April 26, 1903 — to tell the story not only of how Atlético conquered LaLiga, but positioned themselves firmly as an annual threat to Barcelona and bitter rivals Real Madrid.

The book begins — where else — at Camp Nou, where Atlético won LaLiga on May 17, 2014, ending a drought old enough to start college. From there, McTear recounts Atlético’s infamous relegation in 2000, brought about mostly by Jesús Gil’s many management faux pas. In 1987, Gil won Atlético’s presidency in a shock vote — largely because he promised to bring European Cup winner Paulo Futre to Madrid (which he did). Gil’s presidency later became an ownership after the Spanish government ordered all but four clubs to convert to public limited sports companies. This provided Gil with a platform to funnel money out of Atlético through a phony sponsorship deal with the city of Marbella. Gil siphoned money out of the club in order to pay for his lavish lifestyle.

Following that nightmare, McTear looks back at Atlético’s rise as the one-time favored team of the Spanish Air Force (which saved them from possible dissolution in the 1930s) and traces the beginnings of the intra-city rivalry with Real. Atleti’s fighting mentality, borne through scarring defeats as much as famous victories, is also mapped out — as are the coaching footprints left by Luis Aragonés and Quique Sánchez Flores to be followed by Diego Simeone.

McTear does a great job tracking and emphasizing the rebirth of Atlético’s academy — which Gil, of course, had closed in the mid-1990s, giving Raúl the chance to move across the city — and zeroes in on Gabi in particular. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Atleti’s captain, as McTear reminds us; the canterano failed to convince in his first stint in red and white (even Simeone had doubts about the young midfielder) and had to cut his teeth at Getafe and Zaragoza before he had been deemed impressive enough to merit a return to the capital.

By the end of Simeone’s first season as coach in 2011/12, Gabi had been named captain, with Cholo telling him thusly: “You’re not the Gabi I knew.”

The other characters from the 2013/14 team highlighted here include stars Thibaut Courtois and Arda Turan, battlers Raúl García and Diego Godín (who started his career in Uruguay as a striker!) and a rotating cast of high-scoring forwards from past to present: Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa, David Villa and Antoine Griezmann.

Finally, no story about Atlético’s crowning achievement in the Simeone Era (to this point) is complete without profiling the full-throated Vicente Calderón support. Ticket sales actually increased following relegation and that fervor for the mattress makers — home and away — drove them during their title triumph. Simeone’s role as conductor/cheerleader is also highlighted, especially when Atleti secured a goalless draw against Barcelona in January (which, looking back, was when I first really believed that team could actually win the league).

In summation: this is a must-read if you’re an Atlético fan, and you should still pick this up if you love Spanish football or football in general. McTear’s framing of Atlético’s rebirth, zenith and future is unique, compelling and pretty hard to put down.

“Hijacking LaLiga” is available April 1 in the United States. You can preorder it on Amazon.