For a generation of supporters Diego Simeone is one of the world’s most influential and talented tacticians and little more, unaware that the Atletico Madrid commander was once one of Europe’s most feared and accomplished midfielders.
Social media is awash with YouTube videos of the playing exploits of cross-city coaching rival Zinedine Zidane, but few for the South American turning 50 on April 28, despite having an equally significant impact on Italian football.
Born in Buenos Aires, young Simeone bucked the trend and did not climb the youth ranks of the capital’s superpowers, Boca Juniors and River Plate, spending three years on the edge of the city limits at Velez Sarsfield.
However, it was a connection to Boca from which he took the nickname of ‘El Cholo’, displaying the same unrelenting tenacity of famous defender and namesake (no relation) Carmelo Simeone.
To test himself against the very best, in 1990 Serie A was the only place to go and where Argentine hero Diego Maradona had helped transform Napoli. Pisa, though, was the slightly less glamorous posting as Simeone left his home comforts behind.
A virtual ever-present in the Tuscans’ first team and performing impressively, the box-to-box midfielder would have mixed feelings about the end to the 1990/91 campaign. Winning the Copa America with Argentina softening the blow of relegation to Serie B.
He remained loyal to Pisa at first, but their inability to return to the top flight at the first attempt made his departure inevitable. Simeone then set off for Sevilla, where he would join former national team coach Carlos Bilardo and countryman Maradona.
Something of an all-round midfielder at this stage of his career, Bilardo improved Simeone’s tactical awareness in Seville and Atletico Madrid swooped in 1994. El Cholo became an Atletico legend as they won a domestic double in 1996 and he topped an incredible year with Olympic gold in Atlanta.
During the summer of 1997 the world record transfer of Ronaldo from Barcelona to Inter stole the headlines, yet it was the €6 million signing of Simeone that was just as important in turning them into title challengers and presented him with another opportunity in Serie A.
The Argentine’s newfound discipline allowed the Biscione to release the creativity of their attacking stars as they controversially lost the Scudetto to Juventus, but found European triumph over Lazio in winning the 1998 UEFA Cup.
However, his achievements that season were arguably overshadowed by that incident at France ’98, which saw Englishman David Beckham sent off before the South Americans triumphed on penalties.
Future England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson had been suitably impressed though and Inter foolishly agreed to a €10m Lazio offer in 1999, immediately providing the perfect balance for the talents of Sebastian Veron and Pavel Nedved.
Manchester United were dispatched with relative ease in the UEFA Super Cup and by the end of the campaign the Biancocelesti were celebrating their centenary year holding aloft both Serie A and the Coppa Italia.
While Simeone had seemingly rubbed enough salt into the wounds of former employers Inter by defeating them in the Coppa Italia final that season, two years later it was his goal on the final weekend of the 2001/02 campaign that ended their Scudetto hopes.
Before ending his career back in Buenos Aires with Racing Club, a brief return to Atletico extended his legend status and his playing career ended with 95 goals overall. Not bad for someone widely believed to be just a defensive midfielder.
A short tour of Argentinian clubs is credited for his evolution to an elite coach, yet many forget another spell back in Italy, Simeone citing the five months saving Catania from relegation in 2011 as a crucial part of that education.
“Catania was a real learning curve,” reflected the Argentine in 2017. “I grew during difficulties.
“In terms of courage and ideas, a lot about my Atleti comes from Italy.”
While Italy no doubt left a mark on Simeone, his own significant contribution is a story still being written, with son Giovanni currently at Cagliari and more chapters still to come.
In December 2018, Simeone reiterated that one day he will “surely return to the San Siro as Inter boss” and few would deny him the chance to leave a more lasting legacy than he did on the pitch in Milan.