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  • Writer's pictureRuairidh Barlow

Cholismo: The Philosophy Of Combatting The Establishment

There will never be enough time in our finite existence to mull over the nuance and complexity of every person. In spite of Leo Tolstoy’s best efforts, even he was doomed to talk at least somewhat superficially of each character. Diego Simeone is probably comfortable in the box in which he has been placed. Yet without that complexity, the appreciation of his brilliance continues to be anaemic. For all his years in the public eye, he is so often reduced to his caricature.

Atlético Madrid’s success under Simeone is almost unparalleled when taking resources into account. Wedged between the greatest decade in Barcelona’s history and the most successful European era ever across the city, Atleti not only wrestled the title away from the giants of Spanish football, they did so with the duopoly in their prime. Cruelly short of fortune, Los Rojiblancos came seconds and inches away from their own European domination. Making it to two Champions League finals flew in the face of logic.

With the exception of Tottenham in 2019, Atleti are the only side since 2004 to make it to the final who weren’t already an established European force. Only Real Madrid and Bayern Munich have turned up more often since 2010. Simeone’s resurrection of Madrid’s second side has been biblical, which makes it easy to cast him as David. It has elevated him into a living legend. His achievements give him a mythical air - they don’t belong to reality. “Almost impossible, and I only say that because we did it, otherwise I would say impossible,” Simeone told The Coaches’ Voice.

Diego Simeone has now spent a decade fighting against the rules, but above all against the establishment,” wrote Salva Lupi in Spanish football magazine Panenka. Lupi referred to the style of football he propagates but it’s a sentiment which is reproduced in everything Simeone does. Partly because he likes it. Partly because the establishment has an approved way of everything, one Simeone has little care for.

In the era where football is at its most bourgeois in history, Simeone is the anti-establishment, working-class hero. Collective over the singular, the brightest star is Cholismo itself. “Against a backdrop of economic and political crisis, Cholismo expressed a new spirit of the times,” Rayco González, a professor at Burgos University, told The Blizzard. Granted, a certain leap of imagination is necessary to maintain that image, given Atleti spent €127 million on João Félix. Nevertheless, Atleti are a glance back at a shared purpose, as many squint before the dazzling excess and individualism. “He was a popular choice and a populist one too,” wrote Sid Lowe, as Simeone charged towards that famous LaLiga title.

Jonathan Wilson highlights the deep Argentine roots of Simeone’s style, harking back to the ‘anti-fútbol’ of Victorio Spinetto in the 1940s. He then compares Simeone’s meetings with Pep Guardiola to those of César Luis Menotti and Carlos Bilardo. “On the one hand the artistry of tiki-taka and on the other the struggle of Cholismo,” Wilson terms it.

Atleti are not a participant in an expressionist work, allowing space for creatives to flourish, an attitude which doesn’t agree with everyone, even if it is to some extent an imposed consequence of football’s imbalanced finances. It reduced even the most amiable and beloved Jürgen Klopp to bitterness, spitting out his retorts in the aftermath of that duel. Writing about that match, Jonathan Liew finds the nub of the issue; the idea that attacking and possessing the ball are intrinsically regarded as more “moral”. But Michael Owen unwittingly cut to the heart of it on BT Sport straight after Atleti slayed Goliath.

“I don’t think there’s anything genius about setting your team up to defend. Genius is what Pep Guardiola does. Genius is what Jürgen Klopp does: being expansive, no matter what you face. Loads of men behind the ball? And great players, at that? I respect it, but I don’t think it’s genius.”

Although the football cognoscenti respects his achievements, they never quite gave him the credit he deserved. They enjoyed the narrative briefly, but the same dogma that adorns Pep or Klopp never lingered around El Cholo.

Despite his task being that much more difficult, never is he afforded descriptions like those of his peers. The success itself is praised, but the method is not. Unlike Guardiola or Klopp or Hans Flick, he’s no innovator. Don’t buy it.

Too little is said of the small revolution that El Cholo instigated, both in Europe and more obviously in Spain.

Perhaps the only miracle to surpass his own was rooted in Cholismo. Just as teams found it hard to penetrate the Atleti bedrock in 2014, Leicester’s 2016 Premier League title was borne out of the same principles. Claudio Ranieri may have been outwardly more frivolous, but his team were just as coercive. Compact, deep defending complemented by a ruthless exploitation of space with the ball. As was the case with the other managerial prophets, everyone was aware of what was being done – the competition was simply powerless to stop it at the time.

Previously prompting ridicule for anyone who dared to use it, the very essence of the outdated English game itself and the cause of their struggles internationally, the 4-4-2 formation thundered back into fashion. Taking scalp after scalp, Jamie Vardy lacerated defences while Diego Costa kicked the door down.

The world was delighted for them, genuinely happy that for a fleeting moment Wes Morgan and Gabi had got one over the oligarchy. That whiff of condescension was never far away though. Never were they credited with reinventing football. Sweeping in generalisations, international trophy-winners Spain and Germany were tiki-taka; France and Portugal were just solid. Nobody considered their success an elaboration of Simeone’s work. There was no place within the pseudo-intellectualism for Cholismo.

A spiritual leader, hard-working and intense, fuelled by a fiery passion within; the clichéd description of Cholo Simeone. Seldom will he be presented as the genius whose system broke the big teams. Of course, Simeone courts this image and his discourse is just as exaggerated as his media caricature. Yet Zinedine Zidane and Ernesto Valverde’s tranquillity is assumed as a sign of intelligence, while the Simeone beyond his ardour is often ignored.

“I have an open mind, I listen a lot,” admits Simeone in a more relaxed interview. Talking of Simeone’s evolution from player to manager, legendary fitness coach Óscar Ortega finds that nuance; “He’s still demanding but he’s more contemplative, more flexible, more of a compañero, more pedagogical.”

The instinct to maintain his image negates more flowery elements. What stood out for Simeone when Atlético Madrid won the title was a smile he shared with his close friend and assistant Mono Burgos. “The emotion that came through in that moment and the expression of joy, that was the first thing I felt,” he glazes over. The next photo which crystallises in Simeone’s mind is seeing the players and staff, surrounded by their children and parents, because “that’s Atlético Madrid: we’re a family.”

Maybe that Atleti team was less entertaining than their opposite numbers, yet that season when they went to Camp Nou and sealed the title on the final day, it was captivating. Most surprising is that Simeone did not turn to the amphitheatre and his critics, roaring, “are you not entertained?”. They were though: the Camp Nou was applauding. An award many other great teams never received.

Within their stingy defence, there was artistry too – stifling, strangling and eventually suffocating their rivals. There’s a terrifying beauty to this anaconda-like death. Their work without the ball was the art form and for all the talk of rigidity, Atleti became a fluid organism. Wherever the ball moved, Atleti would transfigure themselves into an unbreakable block again. Capable of withstanding all temperatures, they absorbed pressure casually.

As mentioned, Simeone justifies his stereotype too. Formerly captain and currently on his coaching staff, Gabi explained to Panenka that “with our commitment, we are giving the people what they want: to feel proud and be able to say ‘f***, this is my Atleti’.”

"Partido a partido [game by game] is the life of the man on the street, day by day," Simeone told The Guardian. "We see ourselves reflected in society, in people who have to fight to keep going. As soon as we stop fighting, we have no chance. People identify with us, we're a source of hope to them.”

This mentality, convincing the players that what they are doing is larger than themselves, together with his footballing acumen, have made Atleti successful. Both of these traits and his system have echoed out from Madrid across Spanish football, which has been seen with the rise of similar styles in LaLiga in recent years.

Certainly the tag of anti-fútbol is one that follows Getafe wherever they go. If Simeone’s side are the bad boys of Europe, Getafe take that title in Spain. Manager José Bordalás has instilled a similarly confrontational physicality into his team. At times, it borders on unpleasant. Within Bordalás, the intensity is more visceral – it feels a little less controlled than that of Simeone. ‘The Roman’, as he is nicknamed, feels the ruthlessness of the empire he studied. Brutus would be a far more apt comparison than Caesar: Bordalás is far more likely to be doing the stabbing.

Even if Getafe play higher up than Atleti, more unites Bordalás and Simeone than separates them. Asked whether Getafe were thinking about Champions League qualification last year, he responded, “we don’t talk about that, we’re taking it day-by-day.” Almost word for word it is Cholo’s famous ‘game-by-game' philosophy. Conditioning coach Javier Vidal doubles as Getafe’s Profe Ortega, gaining a reputation for similar levels of discipline. Right up to the penchant for Uruguayans, the hallmarks of Atleti are visible 20 kilometres south in the Coliseum Alfonso Pérez.

Perhaps because of his furry face or the fun-loving nature of the city around him, Álvaro Cervera seems almost cuddly in comparison. Cádiz’s rise to the Primera División was also beyond reasonable expectations and although results are slowing now, their return to LaLiga was sensational. All built from a Simeone-style 4-4-2 with similarly impermeable defence.

Simeone would be proud of such durability but also the connection that Cervera has fostered with his environment. “La lucha no se negocia [the struggle is non-negotiable]” is now firmly ingrained in Cádiz as a mentality. It appears on merchandise, t-shirts and one fan even renamed his house after the motto, such was his identification with the ideology. “It applies to life as well. To overcome the adversities that you face day-to-day,” exhorts Cervera.

Although these managers are passionate, they maintain the respect of their players in spite of emotional outbursts which in many settings would be sneered at. The passion is genuine. Still, they are saved by the intelligence and discipline they exhibit elsewhere. We are taught that the intellectual is always cool, calm and collected. Fiery though these managers may be, they are still in control. Well, maybe with the exception of Bordalás on occasion. Their excitement aids them in squeezing the most out of their players. It’s also what football is about.

Valladolid too, have become intoxicated by the Simeone Kool-Aid. Much is made of the deep connection between Simeone and Los Colchoneros, each side valuing the personality of the other. Former team-mate Kiko Narváez even went as far as to say that “El Cholo was born rojiblanco.” A connection which helps on the pitch and is espoused by Valladolid manager Sergio González. “This may seem an exaggeration, but it was like finding the love of your life. They enthralled us and we enthralled them; right from the start, we had a very tight relationship.”

Valladolid are another unpleasant opponent for Barcelona, Real Madrid and other creatives due to a sturdy structure without the ball. Their relegation was almost assumed when they first came up. Such was the contribution of this unity and organisation, larger clubs never came to poach their stars after their survival. Only Fernando Calero left for money in the summer of 2019, there weren’t stand-out individuals to be poached.

Sergio holds special affection for former captain Javi Moyano, who exemplifies their rise. A humble defender, who probably thought Primera out of reach at that stage of his career. He would go on to debut in the league at the age of 32, surpassing all expectations and embodying Sergio’s psyche, just like Iza Carcelén at Cádiz and Djakonam Djené at Getafe. Not dissimilar in trajectory to Juanfran at Atlético Madrid.

The thing that made Sergio happiest on winning promotion, though? “I was obviously very happy, but what made me even happier was seeing the faces of the people around me. I enjoyed watching my wife, the other players, the coaching staff and the fans all smile.”

Maybe the scariest thing for their rivals is that Atleti appear to have evolved into a different animal this season. Simeone has found a different formation. He has found another Juanfran in Marcos Llorente, converting him into one of the finest attacking midfielders in Europe.

The form is a little different but the doctrine remains the same. “The important thing is the block,” Stefan Savić hinted to Rubén Uría back in November. Once again, Atleti are punching above their weight and doing so because of the collective.

With the same manager, the same identity and the same discourse. And while that identity remains the same, Simeone probably won’t be accepted in the sleek bar with the martinis. No-one will think to invite him to sit at the table with Julian Nagelsmann and Pep Guardiola, replete with roll necks and copious amounts of metallic lighting.

You get the feeling he would rather be in the taberna with the blue-collar workers anyway. Still, whether it be a martini or a caña, raise it to Diego Pablo Simeone. A visionary and a genius.

If you'd like to see more up-to-date Spanish football news, match information or are looking for where to buy an all-black wardrobe like El Cholo - you can find us on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown

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