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The reinvention of Atlético Madrid: a rebellion disguised as the end of an era

Atlético Madrid are losing many stalwart players, and that could have unintended consequences — for better or worse.

Club Atletico de Madrid v Sevilla FC - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Atlético Madrid are set to experience their most drastic turnover since they won LaLiga in 2013/14 and made it to the Champions League final only to be beaten by Real Madrid. They were badly beaten, embarrassed, by Juventus in the last 16 this year after taking a 2-0 lead into the second leg in Turin. And while changes were expected in the summer, nobody expected the avalanche to slide this quickly.

The difference between this summer and that summer, however, is that this year is a rebellion camouflaged as the end of an era. It’s like a butterfly effect experiment contained in a small space — a dressing room, to be exact. The consequences of the flapping wings — or in this particular controlled experiment, Diego Godín announcing he was leaving — have been radical.

If a football team is a house, Atlético’s defence consists of the load-bearing beams that stopped the roof from caving in and the walls collapsing in on themselves. And within a couple of weeks, three of those four girders are leaving. Reports in Spain say Juanfran and Filipe Luis will join Godín at the departures lounge at Madrid’s Barajas airport.

The rebellion lies in these rejections or individual acts of defiance after the leader on and off the field was basically told he could leave before the season began. Godín insisted he wanted to stay but obviously couldn’t given the club’s stance on giving him a new and fair contract. Juanfran said “no” to an offer presumably lower than what he might get elsewhere and Filipe is set to leave too, with Barcelona linked.

Antoine Griezmann wore a Godín shirt to last Sunday’s Sevilla game after he was photographed in tears at his teammate’s farewell presser. Teammate, in this case however, seems too frivolous a word — Griezmann’s daughter is Godín’s goddaughter. He is more akin to a role model or an idol, but most definitely a friend and certainly a confidante. If sides were to be taken and battle lines drawn, we know what flag Griezmann would be waving — the Uruguayan one.

And now, Griezmann — who is said to be “destrozado” (destroyed) over the situation — will leave in the summer too after Atlético sent word that he had told them he didn’t want to stay beyond the summer.

After a number of years fighting the big boys domestically and in Europe, this summer and the months leading into it are a reminder that Atlético can’t truly compete with those teams year in and year out, most definitely economically. Bayern Munich purchased Lucas Hernández for €80 million and offered him wages in line with his CV after he won the World Cup in the summer. Jan Oblak’s new contract is a good sign, but his €120 million release clause is tempting and someone could pay it at some point. The rest of the departures and rumoured departures range from Griezmann, who presumably wants one last crack at winning trophies, to prized midfielder Rodrigo, who could be tempted by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City machine.

The Griezmann departure is a punctuation mark on a sentence that had already been written — Atlético needed to refresh their playing squad, their playing approach and especially a dressing room that had grown disillusioned in light of Griezmann’s new contract.

When the Frenchman released his infamous documentary last summer before the World Cup, it was a deal with the devil in some ways. Atlético kept one of their most creative players on a team that has lacked creativity since Arda Turan left on an ill-fated voyage north-west to Barcelona. But the club skewed their wage structure and inadvertently frazzled the dressing room. On a team of no stars, they now had an all-star. A team built on sacrifice had indulged their main man. That’s not to say he didn’t deserve to be paid, but it left a bitter taste. Diego Costa in particular, whose temper is never far away from the surface, was one player who struggled all season and was said to have taken particular exception to Griezmann’s wage increase.

And now, Atlético need to find the new Griezmann. Paulo Dybala might work. Philippe Coutinho could certainly do with a new start. Alexis Sánchez can’t get any worse and Los Colchoneros have money to spend at any rate. Porto look set to send three players to Madrid in Hector Herrera, Alex Telles and Felipe Monteiro according to ESPNFC, and Simeone — despite being animated on the sideline, loyal to a fault and hard in the head — will surely appreciate that something must change in their approach if only it means failing with a fresh approach next season. A repeat of Groundhog Day is a non-runner and cannot happen.

Griezmann’s departure might restore some harmony in the dressing room. And just like how his contract extension last summer had unintended consequences in the negative, this exodus might help to reinvigorate the team. But the inverse — much like Costa’s temper — bubbles underneath, and that future is not so idyllic.