It is tradition that Atlético Madrid supporters pay homage to Diego Pablo Simeone during every home match.
It might be an “Olé, Olé, Olé, Chole Simeone” or a round of “Cholo-o, Cholo-o, Cholo-o”. But they always do it. The Argentine, in turn, always salutes them while sometimes tapping his chest to ensure they know where his loyalties lie and that they have a place in his heart. Simeone knows he is a legend at the club — but only recently did he feel the his cult-like status negatively impact one of his star men.
Antoine Griezmann fit seamlessly into Simeone’s model. He was a superstar who rarely needed reminding of that and one who never needed to be pandered. His courting of rumours and inability to kill speculation during the summer, however, led to a rift between the Frenchman and the fans. There was skepticism as to whether he even wanted to be at the club. And when the goals stopped coming earlier this season, it felt like the weight of Atlético’s Champions League crisis was put squarely on the Frenchman’s shoulders.
Simeone declared that Atlético had no difference-maker in the squad just prior to a match at Deportivo La Coruña in November. Atletico couldn’t score to save their lives and Griezmann, a player who finished third in Ballon d’Or voting just a year before, had lost his way. His manager’s patience was eroding. While Atlético under Simeone tend to rely on a coherent system and formidable style of play to prevent goals leaking, they typically look to just one player to score them up the other end. Since Diego Costa’s departure for Chelsea in 2014, that burden had fallen on Griezmann. It came so naturally to the little Frenchman that he basked in it — until he didn’t.
The comments about “not having the kind of player who can win games on his own” might not have been a strategy to wake Griezmann up from his goal-scoring slumber. Maybe Simeone was just as frustrated at everyone else and was using the microphone to needle his side as they continued to sleepwalk through games.
During the November derbi against Real Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano, that feeling became visceral. The fans whistled their talisman from the stands as he was substituted. Simeone, who knew the fans loved Griezmann during a feast and would look to him during a famine too, needed to act.
“I am with those in my family until the death — as long as they are in my family,” he said, with barely-concealed emotion. “With them to the death. I am almost 50 and I won’t change now. Everyone has to show themselves, not just Griezmann.”
And with that, Griezmann’s redemption had been laid out: as long as he was in Simeone’s squad, he had his backing.
In a chapter of Simeone’s book “Believe,” there’s a chapter called “Value.” This follows a pattern: other chapters titled “Dream” and “Organise” reflect the various facets of the Argentine’s leadership style. The whole theme to “Value” is that you must work and value what you have regardless of the heights you reach.
“When you achieve something, it is because of love [for playing football],” he said in the book. “When you divert from that love, you change.” He went on to insist that one needs to enjoy the moment because while things might be going well one day, it won’t always be that way.
Simeone was upset that the player who he counted on most took his eyes off the prize. But Griezmann learned the lesson after whistles came from the crowd. After Griezmann scored the winning goal against old team Real Sociedad in December, instead of whistles, he was greeted with a hug from his coach and roars from the crowd. It was the kind of hug you only tend to see at Christmas time at airports for returning kin: there was plenty of love there.
Atletico’s best form “coincides with the best form of our best player, Antoine Griezmann” is what Simeone said before that game, even if they have improved again since then thanks to Costa’s return and Griezmann turning the volume up to 11. He has scored seven goals (!) in his last two games and has scored 10 in his last seven in LaLiga. It no longer seems strange to put “Ballon d’Or” and “Griezmann” in the same sentence again.
Griezmann knows he’s the best footballer on the team and so do the fans, but sometimes they both need a reminder. Simeone’s words tends to carry so much weight at the club that he needs to be the one doing the reminding. He saved a potentially fatal situation when he realised that earlier in the year, and all Atléticos are reaping the rewards of that realisation.