People who don’t follow Atlético Madrid seem to remember Juanfran most for that missed penalty in Milan. Understandably so, for it’s hard to forget.
Each penalty taker had held their nerve to that point — only Juanfran and Cristiano Ronaldo remained as their respective teams’ fifth shooters. The sequence of events that led Real Madrid to hoist their 11th European Cup felt torturously preordained. Much like his teammate Antoine Griezmann — who had missed a penalty early in the second half — Juanfran didn’t seem to take a moment to compose himself. As soon as the ref’s whistle blew, he charged, “Leeroy Jenkins”-ing the ball off Keylor Navas’ right post.
Even in the moment, we all knew what would happen next. Ronaldo, quiet for most of the match, converted his penalty, ripped his shirt to shreds and covered himself in glory.
It’s easy to forget that a little over two months earlier, it was Juanfran who ripped his shirt off after he converted the winning penalty in a Champions League knockout fixture — one of the last great European nights at the Vicente Calderon. It was Juanfran who played the hero in a heartstopping, eight-round penalty shootout against PSV, after he stuck his penalty just inside the same corner he would later aim for in that ill-fated final. It was Juanfran, clearly elated, who reminded us all that despite his gaunt frame, his receding hairline and his “tortured poet” aesthetic, that he was still a ripped professional athlete and a club legend to boot.
Juanfran had acquitted himself well earlier in the San Siro final. He’d provided the cross that Yannick Carrasco turned home for the equaliser. He’d locked down the right flank and kept Ronaldo quiet as a cat.
You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain, it seemed.
The thing is, Juanfran never became an Atlético villain. After his miss in Milan, he approached the Atleti supporter section to ask for their forgiveness. He cried. His teammates cried. Their supporters cried. But rather than whistle him or curse him — which Real Madrid supporters, let’s face it, almost certainly would have done — the rojiblanco supporters cheered him as loudly as they could. Not one had left San Siro.
In the weeks that followed, Juanfran penned a letter to those same supporters. Like many good things that have to do with the club we love, it was a bit melodramatic, the result of a difficult loss. It doggedly assured of Atlético’s place at the table with the European elite.
”I also want to thank you for always believing in us and, above all, for proving that being an Atlético is something very special, different, and that our heart beats stronger than any other,” he wrote. “Two years ago, I told you that we would return to a final, now, I tell you that Gabi, our captain, will lift the Champions League sooner or later, and we will celebrate it all together in Neptuno.”
After his letter was published, sales of Juanfran’s number 20 shirt skyrocketed in the club store. Juanfran’s case was held up as an example of what it truly meant to support Atlético de Madrid.
Three years after that letter, Juanfran is on his way out at the club of his life. Gabi never lifted the European Cup, but he and Fernando Torres did get to celebrate another Europa League in the Plaza de Neptuno.
As so many of the players who defined the most successful era in club history are shown the doors — and as the club continues its bedding-in period at its shiny new stadium — the winds of change howl throughout in the Spanish capital. Truthfully, it’s felt that way for a couple seasons now. But as much as Gabi, Diego Godín and Tiago Mendes embodied Cholismo, it may be Juanfran — the former Real Madrid man — who marks the real end of this era more than anyone else.
Juanfran arrived at the Calderón not as a resolute fullback, but as a tricky winger. He’d come through Madrid’s youth academy before he transferred to Osasuna. He found many more opportunities in Pamplona than at the Bernabéu.
”I arrived (at Atleti) a Vikingo, and I left an Indio,” he said at his farewell press conferences. “I came as a winger. I never liked defending.”
He leaves as a right back who, if you squint hard enough, may very well have been the best in the world at his position at his peak.
It’s not Diego Simeone who can take credit for Juanfran’s initial conversion. It was Gregorio Manzano who asked him to play right back for the first time, a decision that likely marked the high point of Manzano’s tenure as manager. But it was Cholo who taught him how to thrive, and the Spaniard was one of the first names on the teamsheet for the better part of a decade.
”Thanks to Diego, who helped me be the player I am today, for teaching me defensive concepts and the will that I had to be important,” Juanfran added. “Everything good started from here.”
More than anyone, Juanfran represents the highs and (relative) lows of the Simeone era. He won everything that Simeone won and was a fixture in the 2013/14 league winners. He played a central role in the most successful period in the club’s history, a Golden Age. But like his manager, he has painful memories of meat left on the bone in the most important matches of his career.
More important than any of high or low is that Juanfran, alongside Gabi and Godin, felt like the embodiment of Cholismo. His most noteworthy quality in his prime was that lung-bursting stamina. He ran his ass off and left everything on the pitch in every single match.
His only social media page is a sparingly-used Twitter account. He doesn’t have 2019 Cool Guy hair like most footballers. He was lightly regarded, yet he became one of the greatest on the continent. In 2016, ESPNFC ranked him as the third-best fullback in the world. They described him as “rugged, insistent, and with more than a touch of genuine class.”
Juanfran also probably remained first-choice for a bit too long. Twice, younger fullbacks tried to dislodge him as an undisputed starter. Twice, he managed to see off their challenges and retain his status in Cholo’s eyes. Even in his later years, he would occasionally offer a glimpse of what he once was, such as when he outpaced Cristiano to a 50/50 ball in a derbi.
Cholo is nothing is not loyal and Juanfran deserved to leave the club on his terms. I mean, just look at this quote:
”To all the Atlético fans, thank you for loving me, for being proud of me. You singing my name was better than winning titles. People want titles, but before this there’s love and respect.”
In three sentences spoken right as he left the club, Juanfran essentially summed up what it means to support Atlético. For all the titles they’ve won and the progress they’ve made in the past decade, loving Atleti has always been about loving the players — who aren’t Galácticos but pretty much always make you proud of their efforts, whatever the result. Even if they miss penalties in big moments. It says something that Juanfran will go down as one of the most popular players in the club’s history.
Orgullosos de no ser como vosotros, a tifo at the Calderón read before the second leg of a Champions League semifinal against Madrid. Proud to not be like you.
Gabi is gone. Godín is gone. Now Juanfran is gone. The club’s marquee signings this offseason are a former Vikingo — albeit also a former Atletico youth product — and a €126 million wonderkid who, for all intents and purposes, is a Galáctico Junior. Atleti have become the kind of club that releases presentation videos on Twitter centered on 19 year-old João Félix as he ponders “The Garden of Earthly Delights” in the Prado. Still proud to not be like you, yes, but Atleti may be more similar to their northern neighbors than ever before.
These signings are a shot across the bow, a symbol of intent, an indication of a step up in weight class. In the wake of Antoine Griezmann’s departure, traditional Cholismo would’ve dictated that the mattress makers somehow pry a lesser name from a smaller club — say, Mikel Oyarzabal from Real Sociedad (who would’ve been crazy to sell him, but still) — and slowly give him more minutes until he demonstrated the defensive responsibility Cholo holds so dear. As the club necessarily moves into a glitzier era, with marquee signings and a state-of-the-art stadium, it’s no surprise that Juanfran is among those ready to move on. The times, they are a’changin’.
Perhaps Atlético will one day win a Champions League. And their longtime right back -- rugged, insistent, with a touch of genuine class -- will have played a huge role. He helped to lay the foundation. Gabi and Godin deserve the plaudits they’ve received as the keystones and the linchpins of this Golden Age. But there’s a certain poetry in a humble fullback — a converted winger, no less — who symbolized Cholismo more than anybody.