In the end, of course, it had to be Luis Suarez.
“His name, Suarez, that alone is enough … that tells you everything,” argued the coach of Spain’s new champions, red-eyed Diego Simeone speaking about the man who won him the crucial match, the man who won him the title, the man who Barcelona needlessly, egotistically, bullied out of their club last summer.
When Simeone was grinning from ear to ear — partially disguising the fact that he’d been in tears — after his Atletico Madrid had won 2-1 at Real Valladolid to relegate the project President Ronaldo Luiz Nazario started nearly three full seasons ago, he was talking about Atleti’s 34-year-old, 21-goal striker, and Suarez himself was in pieces.
We often, totally understandably, portray Suarez as a tough guy. That’s because he is. Born on a tough street, in a tough city in a tough country, Suarez has always been something of a hero in Uruguay despite his frequent portrayal as a street fighter following his notable and regrettable lapses of judgement. But he’s not that: in football terms, he’s an absolute thoroughbred.
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If you’ve met him, if you’ve spoken to anyone who knows Suarez — even if you’ve just watched him closely for Ajax, Liverpool, his national team, Barcelona and now Atleti during a glorious career — you’ll understand that he’s a man who suffers fools not for a second, whose judgements, and whose tongue, can lacerate. He’s a tough guy’s tough guy. Not dedicated to the rules, previously prone to those lapses in judgement — whether in taunting or biting a rival — and someone who absolutely believes that history always has and always will be written by the winners.
Yet there was “El Pistolero,” not basking in the triumph of having scored late winning goals in Atleti’s last two Liga matches to turn losing situations into the six points that made them champions for only the third time in 44 years. He wasn’t leaping about, spraying champagne, finding cameras to waggle his fingers at in admonishment of the former Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu, whose ugly ego meant that Suarez had to be booted out the door of the club he loved playing for. No, there was none of that.
Suarez, now an Atleti legend, was sat on the Nuevo Zorrilla turf not only crying but with his body wracked by sobs.
He’d spoken briefly to La Liga’s broadcast, live, and managed to force out a few phrases about vindication, about how this had been the toughest year of his life for those who love him: his wife, his kids, the rest of his family. But he was forcing those half-formed sentences out via that peculiar means of communication when someone overcome by the emotional impact of events keeps thinking that this is the sentence they can enunciate clearly without their chest heaving and the tears overtaking the words on the way out … but failing.
When Atleti’s leading goal scorer, their saviour, tried to make sense of his feelings, when he politely tried to answer the questions, we all saw him in a state we’ve not witnessed in public before. But that was just the beginning.
While Simeone took over the mic, and uttered some of the most beguiling, admirable and characterful sentences I’ve ever heard from him, Suarez was on the phone to someone he loves — his wife Sofia Balbi, I’ll wager. By now the tears were streaming down his cheeks, he was kind of shaking his head in disbelief at how consumed by emotion he was and the process of breathing, speaking and containing those huge sobs was making his chest heave in and out.
If we stop for a moment, it’s clear that this wasn’t simply about triumph. Suarez has won so much, been a central participant in magnificent victories, and ever since finding peace by moving from Anfield to Camp Nou he’s redeemed himself without the merest hint that he might fall back into that uncontrollable rage that once saw him bite opponents and racially abuse Patrice Evra. So the fact that he was engulfed by the enormity of becoming Spain’s champion, again, and leading Atleti to much lusted-after glory was not solely about winning.
Nor was it solely about the fact that he was hurt by the rejection of Barcelona far more than he’s ever let on in public — possibly hurt more than he’d even acknowledged to himself before. When you prove your enemies wrong there’s satisfaction, but there’s also a moment when the self doubts, the immense fear that those who put you down might be right this time, which have been gnawing at your subconscious, are vanquished once and for all.
However the third layer to what was going on was, I believe, the most important reason for seeing the hero of the hour seated on the grass involuntarily rendered helpless by a tsunami of emotion that, I’m willing to wager, he’d have normally felt like mocking in someone else. That most important reason was what Simeone went to immediately when asked what he felt about having become Spain’s champion again, his third time at Atleti, having won the cup and league double as a wonderful midfielder in 1995-96 then as coach in 2013-14.
Having admitted that the referee’s whistle, which ended the tortuous tension for Atleti’s man in black, brought a smile surging up from inside him and the urge to laugh, Simeone then cut to the chase.
“This has been a time when so many Atleti fans have died, when we’ve lost people all over the world to the strangest and most difficult of situations,” he said. “We’ve all suffered and to be able to bring people this happiness, to give them something after all they’ve been through … this is different. This is the best.”
And he’s right. Atleti have achieved something they’ve not managed since the mid-1960s. In every single league title win since 1966, Real Madrid haven’t really been a force. Since then, when Los Rojiblancos have been champions of La Liga, Los Blancos have variously been fourth, sixth, ninth and even in 2014 Madrid were five points adrift on the final day. This has been the first time since the year England won the World Cup that Atletico have seen off their neighbours, their often loathed superiors, the team and the club that has dominated world football since the European Cup was born.
The fact that Atleti comprehensively lost the first Madrid derbi of the season and then tossed away a 1-0 lead in the second — having played exceptionally well, far better than Zinedine Zidane’s side until Karim Benzema’s equaliser two minutes from time — had preyed on the consciousnesses of Simeone, the board, the experienced players and the fans. Zidane’s team, against a hurricane of injuries and COVID absences, kept finding a way to cling on to Atleti, to make sure that if Simeone’s mob tripped up just one more time, they’d be there.
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There’s no doubt that the biggest psychological scars Simone bears are the two lost Champions League finals when Madrid, each time in the most dramatic circumstances, denied Atletico the European crown. So for him to win this time, especially with reigning champions Madrid looking like remorseless, “seen this before, done this before” pursuers, well, this will be special and perhaps curative for Simeone. I think this will have vanquished some ghosts.
Yet he took time to think of the impact this will have on others. Those who’ve suffered because of the pandemic, those who’ve suffered because they’re Atleti fans and Madrid get the chance, over and again, to lord it in Spain’s capital.
(In a side note, I absolutely love the fact that Madrid, minutes after the final whistle of their hard-fought 2-1 comeback win over Villarreal that would have retained the title if Valladolid had somehow conjured up a late goal, used Twitter to warmly congratulate Atleti and their fans for winning the 2020-21 Spanish title. Sheer class. Lovely touch of grace.)
Elsewhere, Barcelona stumbled to a 1-0 Lionel Messi-less win over Eibar, the miracle club with a town population you could fit into a large phone booth, who now, finally, succumb to reality and drop a division.
Real Betis and Celta Vigo played master vs. pupil and the master won. When they were together at River Plate, Betis boss Manuel Pellegrini was coach and now-Celta coach Eduardo Caudet was his hard-working right midfielder. Caudet, since coming to Spain in November and revolutionising Celta, has made it crystal clear that Pellegrini was his inspiration, his teacher and remains someone the 46-year-old is trying to emulate.
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Not this time, however, as Betis fought back from 2-0 down win 3-2 and ensure Europa League qualification. The dream scenario is that they and Real Sociedad, 1-0 winners over Osasuna, do Spain proud in that UEFA competition next season and that Villarreal, who really mustn’t use Geronimo Rulli in goal against Manchester United in Wednesday’s Europa League final, win that date and qualify for the Champions League. That’s for another day.
Eventually President Ronaldo at Valladolid; Pacheta, the energising and talented coach at Huesca; and the mighty Jose Luis Mendilibar, who’s done incredible things at Eibar were all left contemplating life in the second division, licking their wounds and thinking of what might have been. Not Atleti, though. They offered succour to Suarez when the sucker at Barcelona thought he could break the Messi-Suarez power couple, and they’ve reaped a golden reward.
The Uruguayan front man came, saw, conquered, and gave himself a feeling of vindication that overwhelmed him and gave us a beautiful eternal image to remind us that, ultimately, football isn’t about sackings, statistics, stupidity, saves or daily newspaper sensation. It is a provider of the the most uplifting, outrageous, unpredictable human drama that television, opera, theatre and cinema can only gaze at in naked envy.
Congratulations to Atletico Madrid, Simeone and Suarez. This has been different, all right. This has been very special.