El Cholo’s Last Stand

Even more telling, perhaps, is the sea change in Atlético’s fortunes off the field. His success has effectively wiped out the club’s soaring debts, and attracted the kind of deep-pocketed foreign sponsors — China’s Wanda group, Azerbaijan’s tourism board, an Israeli billionaire — that helped pay for a new stadium, for higher salaries, for new players. Last summer, Atlético spent $142 million on a single player — João Felix — and a further $100 million on strengthening the squad.

Atlético, in other words, is no longer the poor relation: It has paid more for a player than Real Madrid, and it reportedly pays its coach more than any team in the world.

On Tuesday, when Atlético hosts Liverpool in the last 16 of the Champions League, it will not be at Simeone’s beloved Calderón. The club left its longtime home in 2017 for the Wanda Metropolitano, a state-of-the-art but slightly soulless bowl on Madrid’s northern fringes, one grand enough to be the stage on which Liverpool won last season’s Champions League final.

Atlético is close to opening an equally lavish training base, too, one that — according to Simeone — “lives up to what the club deserves.” At last, in his eyes, the “growth of the club is parallel to that of the team.” Simeone still regards Atlético as “socially, morally and emotionally the people’s team,” but even he acknowledges its image, and its status, have changed.

In 2012, as his team prepared to face Chelsea in the European Super Cup, Simeone declared that the English club’s vast financial superiority was irrelevant. “Heart can cancel out budget,” he declared then.

For years, that was how Atlético competed, how it ensured its cherished place as European soccer’s great irritant. Now it does not need to. That is the extent of what Simeone has achieved: He has helped the eternal outsider crash through the doors of the palace. Atlético is now part of Europe’s elite. The question most are asking, now, is where that leaves the coach who took it there.

Simeone wanted more energy. Not, in that precise moment, from his team — toiling at home to Bayer Leverkusen in a Champions League group game in October — but from the fans. Midway through the second half, with the game goalless, he paused in his characteristic prowling around the technical area to turn to the crowd with his fist raised, demanding more noise, more power.