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Koke set to lead Atlético into new era

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He’s played with the club’s previous three captains, and now the academy kid will stake his own place in Atlético’s annals.

Club Atletico de Madrid v AS Monaco - UEFA Champions League Group A Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Just one year after Gabi handed the captaincy onto Diego Godín, the torch would be passed once more.

The Uruguayan symbolically handed over the armband to Koke after Sunday’s 1-1 draw against Sevilla. At Atlético Madrid, where legends such as Gabi, Godín, Fernando Torres, Antonio López and Kiko Narváez have all held the role in the past couple decades, the captaincy is a great responsibility and one Koke will shoulder from the 2019/20 season onward..

It was fitting that Koke scored Los Rojiblancos’ goal on Sunday, the day he was welcomed into this elite fraternity of club captains, like a partying college freshman downing ungodly amounts of alcohol as an initiation or like a first-year boy scout reciting his promises. More will be expected from the Spaniard in the coming years as a leader, but also as a footballer after one of his quieter seasons in recent memory. It was encouraging, then, that he found the back of the net in this one, even if he was helped by a deflection.

Koke knows what it means to be a captain, so Atlético fans can rest easy. He first led his team out back on March 17, 2015 — which was 1,518 days ago — for a Champions League last 16 second leg against Bayer Leverkusen. With first-choice Gabi and second-choice Raúl García starting that match on the bench and with third-choice Godín suspended, the then-23-year-old was given the responsibility by Diego Simeone and he delivered. He won the ball back for his side more times than anyone else and played the most passes in the opposition third. While Koke did miss a penalty in the shootout, he wasn’t afraid to take one and Atleti ultimately prevailed anyway.

Shortly after that thrilling European night, Koke was given the captain’s role once again in a league match against Real Sociedad, a 2-0 victory, and was voted as the official third captain in summer 2015 by his teammates after Raúl García left for Athletic Bilbao. The academy graduate was still only 23 years of age.

Now 27, he has since gone on to captain Atlético on 16 occasions (by this author’s calculation). That number will only rise and rise, and it’ll soon be a common sight to see the midfielder shaking hands with the officials and the opposition captain before matches.

While Godín leaves a huge leadership void, just as Antoine Griezmann does in attack, Koke can help fill in those gaps. He has never been one to shy away from responsibility and he is the player that club chief executive Miguel Ángel Gil Marín once described as Atlético’s “franchise player.” If there is no Torres, no Gabi and no Godín, who better to represent the club than Koke?

He’ll have sidekicks like Saúl, Jan Oblak and José María Giménez, but Koke has to be the leader. It’s his time now, and it’s also time for Atleti fans to get behind him and dream of him lifting silverware at Neptuno. Because that’s not just a fantasy — that’s a reality that can one day transpire.