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Koke: “If we don’t suffer, we’re not ourselves”

The captain spoke after his 500th appearance ended with a vital victory.

Atletico de Madrid v Real Sociedad - La Liga Santander Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Jorge Resurreción Merodio doesn’t turn 30 until next year, but Atlético Madrid’s skipper stepped onto the Wanda Metropolitano pitch Wednesday night and became one of only two men to suit up 500 times for los rojiblancos.

Koke joined Adelardo Rodríguez in the 500 Club during Atlético’s win over Real Sociedad, and he’ll probably break his fellow midfielder’s record of 553 appearances early in the 2022/23 season. But more importantly, Koke marshaled his team to a hard-earned win with another rock-solid performance — the 2-1 win taking Atleti to 80 points on the season and a big step closer to a first league title in seven years.

“Spectacular work today, from start to finish,” Koke said Wednesday. “Maybe at the end we took a step back, but we had put in a huge effort.”

Igor Zubeldia’s 83rd minute goal from a corner — the eighth time this season Atlético have conceded in the final 15 minutes of a game — produced a nervous climax to the night. But Koke and Diego Simeone credited the Atleti supporters gathered outside the Wanda Metropolitano with helping the players get over the line.

“I understand everything (that the Spanish government is doing), and the needs that have been generated as a response to (the COVID-19 pandemic),” Simeone said. “But, since so many things have reopened, I also think that football needs fans (back in stadiums), because football belongs to the people, and without the people it is all very sad.”

Atlético are set to complete an entire season without fans in the seats at the Wanda Metropolitano, but los colchoneros have still clinched LaLiga’s best home record with a game to spare. Atleti have won 14, drawn three, and lost one at its three-and-a-half-year-old stadium, conceding only 10 times in 1,620 minutes there. And Osasuna’s visit on Sunday could feasibly present Simeone’s men with a chance to clinch the title if Real Madrid drop points again.

“If I was nervous and anxious last week, I am even more so this week,” Simeone said. “I’d rather not watch (the Madrid game) and find out what happened afterward.”

Cholo ran down the tunnel pumping his fist after full-time Wednesday, an expression of exaltation after Atlético saw out a narrow result. His captain was thrilled, too, acknowledging that doing things the hard way is part of the Atleti experience.

“We are Atlético,” Koke said. “If we don’t suffer, we’re not ourselves.”