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A farewell love letter to Šime Vrsaljko

The Croatian reflected Atlético’s values during an up-and-down half-decade in the Spanish capital.

Villarreal v Atletico Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

A tinge of sadness could be felt sweeping through the Atlético Madrid fanbase as news filtered through that Šime Vrsaljko would not be renewing his contract. In stark contrast to, say, Héctor Herrera (who felt like a “what could have been” signing) or Felipe (whose future remains up in the air, despite all logic indicating that Atleti should not want to retain his services), Vrsaljko’s departure is a sad one.

Officially heading to Olympiacos in Greece, the Croatian warhorse brings to an end a six-year association with Atlético. It marks the end of an era — one that has disappointed many as it comes, perhaps, to a premature end.

The brutal truth is Vrsaljko was never really good enough to be an Atlético Madrid player. Limited offensively, easily beaten for pace, and far from excellent in terms of technical ability, others like Kieran Trippier showed up the gap in quality between the pair.

When he joined the club, Vrsaljko was something of an unknown. Arriving from Sassuolo in Italy, he appeared to be the kind of signing that Diego Simeone would push for. Tough-tackling and committed, he made a strong first impression that resonated with the club’s fans, but he never quite delivered on the quality needed to replace Juanfran long-term.

Eventually, it would lead to him leaving the club as they looked for an upgrade. Santiago Arias, then Trippier, were chosen to supplant Juanfran, and Vrsaljko was banished back to Italy — the forgotten man, as the club moved on and progressed without one of their consistent, steady regulars.

When Vrsaljko returned from Inter Milan following a knee injury, few expected he would stay at the club for long. But a lack of suitors meant that he hung around, struck down by injury, and he would only have a few chances here and there.

To this day, one of his most memorable moments in an Atlético shirt came in London, where Atleti took on Arsenal in a 2018 Europa League semi-final first leg at the Emirates Stadium. Booked twice in rapid succession, he was sent off early on in the tie and threw the team’s game plan away. It was the kind of hot-headed rush that would let Vrsaljko down on more than one occasion, with this being the biggest.

But that was part of what made Vrsaljko endearing. He was never an elite player. He played himself alongside Juanfran, a similar player in that sense. Neither looked the part of a world-class right-back worthy of a place in one of the world’s best defensive units, but they stood out for their attitude.

Even in Vrsaljko’s final season in Madrid, the turning point in his campaign originated from the visit to Porto, where the Rojiblancos secured progress to the Champions League knock-out stages. It was in that game that Vrsaljko played out of position, on the right of a back three, and played more than half a game with a broken cheekbone.

You would never have been able to tell.

Vrsaljko was indefatigable and passionate, which became apparent late in his Atleti career. He inspired his team-mates and gave them something to fight for. He was Simeone’s presence on the field and grew into a natural leader, something the current squad lacks in abundance.

Vrsaljko’s final season was, ironically, the one in which he made his joint-highest number of appearances at 29. Despite playing nearly 1,000 fewer minutes than in 2018/19, he showed he was the kind of squad option Simeone could depend on, even if he was never a convincing first-choice full-back.

Perhaps the moment that best summarised Vrsaljko’s Atlético adventure was the game against Manchester City at the Wanda Metropolitano. He didn’t play a single minute. An unused substitute. Even so, he was the one being held back in the tunnel as he clashed with City’s Scott Carson and Kyle Walker. He hadn’t been part of the match, he hadn’t been on the end of a hard tackle, but he was living the game just like any other player out on the field.

FC Porto v Atletico Madrid: Group B - UEFA Champions League Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images

That echoes Simeone himself. It’s the kind of presence Atleti fans appreciate and love, and it’s a good reason why Colchoneros never turned on Vrsaljko. It had been clear for some time that he was not Simeone’s preferred choice, or even a high-quality option, but he was a player who would give his all. He would put his body on the line if need be. He represented a work-rate and a commitment that was like that of yesteryear, harkening the likes of Gabi, Diego Costa, Diego Godín, and others.

In that sense, Vrsaljko learned from some of the best, representing Cholismo’s values and fighting for the shield. This is one of the reasons his departure is disappointing— it feels as though yet another piece of the club’s values has been chipped away.

Another one of his truly great moments came, yet again, for something that had nothing to do with a football. Vrsaljko didn’t just fight for his team, but he saved a life, literally.

When Fernando Torres was knocked unconscious against Deportivo La Coruña in a LaLiga fixture back in 2017, it was Vrsaljko who sprinted over, putting him into a recovery position and stopping El Niño from choking on his own tongue.

As this written-form highlights reel shows, Vrsaljko will be remembered more for his achievements and feats off the field, or at least off the ball, rather than on it. At a time when the club’s identity is being eroded at a faster pace than ever before with a new club crest, a new stadium, and now wavy lines on a shirt, it feels like this departure is a kick to a man who is already down.

Few would have argued that Atleti could not bring in a better right-back, but there can be no debate — no-one would reflect the club’s values more strongly than Vrsaljko. And, simply put, there is no trust in the current board to even bring in a replacement who would improve on his quality.

The message from Atlético fans is clear: Thank you, Šime. Not so much for what you achieved on the pitch, but for what you represented.