For the first time in recent years, a team that is neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid is perched at the summit of Spain’s top flight of football, La Liga. Make no mistake; these are exciting times for any avid European footballing fan.
For it is not, perhaps, customary for both Barcelona and Real Madrid, the two most successful domestic sides in Spanish history, to occupy the unfamiliar league positions of second and third. In fact, you have to trawl back exactly a decade, to the season of 2003-04, when Valencia were crowned deserved champions ahead of Barcelona. The team currently leading the way after 32 games played, however, is not Valencia.
Going by a number of nicknames, Los Colchoneros (the Mattress Makers), more commonly Los Rojiblancos (the Red and Whites) or simply El Atleti, this particular club plays at the rather imposing Estadio Vicente Calderón in Madrid and boasts a long standing tradition of success that can be traced back over 100 years. I’m talking, of course, of Atlético Madrid.
But what is it, precisely, that has enabled a side formally languishing on the fringes of Champions League qualification to this year dominate ahead of its rivals? And how has a team managed to consistently adapt and, more significantly, improve on a regular basis following the all-too-familiar departure of its strikers over the years, including Fernando Torres and Sergio “Kun” Aguero? While most clubs in Europe suffer setbacks after a star striker moves on to greener pastures, for Los Rojiblancos this is but a minor nuisance, a common occurrence, an annual expectation.
As a club that isn’t generally expected to win the league title any time soon, to boast the modern day talents of Radamel Falcao, David Villa and Diego Costa, players who have all donned the famous red, white and blue strip in recent years, seems somewhat peculiar. Not for Atlético. This club, particularly over the last three decades has somehow become accustomed to losing its prolific number 9 only to replace them with a figure who is able to replicate similar or, indeed, more success on the pitch. And it would be naïve to think that this unique ability of furnishing strikers, often players that are either forgotten, unknown or considered unworthy, is solely specific to the club’s modern day scouting network. Believe it or not, this long line of acclaimed strikers stretches way back to pre-World War Two from Francisco Campos to Pruden to Jose Juncosa.
Atlético – A history
In first part of If we turn our attention, even if only briefly, to the footballing word of past, to times gone by, to an era of football brought to life today only by black and white photography and surviving museum relics. Throughout the early post-war period through until the late 1950s, Atlético fans witnessed pure genius in the form of Adrian Escudero. Signed at the tender age of 17, not unlike a certain young Spaniard called Fernando Torres in 2001, Escudero was the first great striker in Los Rojiblancos history.
In many ways, Escudero was the complete forward; technically gifted, blessed with pace and, as all strikers should, an acute eye for goal. Despite only finding the net twice in debut season, the Spaniard went on to win both the crowd and an array of silverware plummeting a record number of goals, including a 28-goal campaign in the early 1950s before retiring, aged 30, in 1958.
While the late ’50s and early ’60s marked a disappointing period of few successes, in the face of a rampant and resurgent Real Madrid side, a particularly deadly duo emerged who were capable of firing Atlético back to the elite of Spanish football by the turn of the mid-1960s. Luis Aragones and Jose Garate, the two Spaniards, combined to produce some of Atlético’s finest moments.
Both trumping Real Madrid in acquiring the league title, first in 1966 and again in 1977, the pair also managed to pip Athletic Bilbao to the title in 1969-70 and lift the Copa Del Generalisimos (now known as the Copa Del Rey) three times. While Escudero’s individual brilliance as a lone striker during the 1950s won him many deserved plaudits, the pairing of Aragones and Garate is perhaps comparable to the modern day pairing of Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero, whose complimentary styles, great teamwork and natural link-up play inspired the team at large to exceed all expectations.
A story of the Flying Dutchman and “the Kid”
The modern era is certainly where Atlético’s glittering array of attacking talent has been most noticeable. Before the tenure of Diego Costa, before the arrival of Radamel Falcao and even before the pairing of Forlan and Aguero, there was once a young Dutchman who plundered all the goals and grabbed all the headlines. A name you may well be familiar with, having played for a host of clubs across Europe including Campomaiorense, Leeds United and Chelsea. In case you haven’t guessed, his name was Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.
A £12 million purchase in 1999, Hasselbaink was tasked with the unenviable prospect of replacing fan-favourite Christian Vieri (who had secured a place in the hearts of supporters after an incredible 29 goals in 32 games in his debut season). Adapting to the Spanish game well, the prolific Dutchman notched an impressive total of 24 goals in 34 La Liga appearances and 32 in all competitions, though his efforts were somehow not enough to save the club from relegation.
Staying for just the one season before heading to the Vicente Calderón exit door, Hasselbaink managed to replicate a rather similar impression upon the loyal fan base as had Vieri before him and was perhaps remembered best for his man of the match performance at the Santiago Bernabeu, the home of Real Madrid, where he bagged a brace and an assist in a mighty 3-1 win over the Los Blancos in the famed ‘El Derbi Madrileño’.
While Hasselbaink set about his business of scoring goals, a younger, promising, home grown talent was being nurtured behind closed doors. A talent that was fostered, developed and moulded by the brilliance of former striker, Luis Aragones. Fernando Torres, or as he was nicknamed, El Niño (the kid), was, in many ways, christened a new hero, a symbol of hope that was very much one of their own.
Aged just 15, Torres signed his first professional contract with the boyhood club he had supported all his life. His first few years, however, were blighted by injury and chances were subsequently restricted to that of the Segunda division as Los Colchoneros desperately sought to reinstate their claim as an established La Liga side.
It was in the top flight, however, where ‘the kid’ quickly adjusted to the pressure and expectations of the fans, developing into a core component of the team. A tally of 13 goals in 29 games helped Atlético to recover their feet in the coveted La Liga once again in 2002/03, a feat which was in fact bettered the following season as Torres finished as the league’s third highest scorer with 19 goals.
You wouldn’t be mistaken for noticing the captain’s armband on Torres’ left arm either (above). Much to the surprise of fans and disbelief of the media, at the mere age of 19, Torres was gifted the captaincy despite being one of the youngest players within the squad. Though if you thought such a responsibility halted his progress or ability, then yes, this time, you would be mistaken.
The spiky-haired forward, with pace, a poachers instinct and an ability to score all types of goals at his disposal, continued to defy his youth and perceived lack of experience to earn a number of call-ups from the national team and attract the attention of several clubs across Europe.
The modern day mattress makers
No doubt aware of the plaudits Torres was attracting from a far and the circling rumours of an imminent transfer, Atlético were quick to acquire the services of a young prospect from South America a year prior to Torres’s highly anticipated move to the English Premier League. Once again, with the emphasis of transfer policy upon youth and potential rather than age and experience, a fairly unknown 18 year old Argentine known as Sergio Aguero (“Kun”) was welcomed into the club. Would it be a fair statement to label Aguero as a like-for-like purchase, a carbon copy in the absence of the departed Torres? Perhaps. Sure, they were both young and both proved formidable strikers for the club. But, in reality, this is where the similarities stopped.
Aguero was an entirely different breed of striker. Whereas Torres was tall and had a rather lean physique, Aquero was small, yet broad, stocky and strong. Though, it was clear the Argentine was quick and blessed with natural flair. Placed alongside Torres’s direct replacement, Diego Forlan, the pair’s relationship blossomed. Centre-backs and defenders from across the league had good cause to be concerned.
Ricardo Carvalho, of Real Madrid, admitted at the time:
Forlan and Aguero are both very good…Forlan, specifically is difficult to defend against because he is a striker with great mobility.
In many ways, the pair were an unique embodiment of youth, promise, experience and proven talent all rolled into one.
At the end of the 2010-11 season, both Aguero and Forlan left the club (to Manchester City and Inter Milan respectively). Having laid claim to a Europa League and a UEFA Super Cup winners medal, the pair moved on. Naturally, fans were concerned. Between them, they had plundered an astonishing total of 197 goals. Who on earth could Atlético recruit that would be able to even match, let a lone top, that record?
Cue Radamel Falcao. The Colombian arrived in Madrid already established as one of the world’s best number 9′s, hence why the club made him their most expensive recruit. While failing to top the total of goals amassed by Forlan and Aguero, Falcao is considered to have had one of the greatest impacts that fans have ever had the joy of witnessing at the Calderón (which, as a striker, is impressive considering the history). It is worth noting that this is also a division that already boasted the superstar talents of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, yet Falcao’s 70 goals in 90 games propelled him almost instantaneously onto a level of equal standing with such players…unsurprisingly.
Strikers By Stats…
- 1997-98 – Christian Vieri: 32 games, 29 goals
- 1999-2000 – Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink: 47 games, 35 goals
- 2001-07 – Fernando Torres: 243 games, 91 goals
- 2006-11 – Sergio Aguero: 234 games, 101 goals
- 2007-11 – Diego Forlan: 197 games, 96 goals
- 2011-13 – Radamel Falcao: 90 games, 70 goals
Of course, this begs the question, who was the best?
El Cholo’s “Beast”
Diego Costa. The man of the moment. This is the striker who is currently Atlético’s star man. Scoring goals almost at will and tearing teams apart in the process. At 25 years old, Costa is a product of Brazil’s infamous street football, the same country he recently switched allegiance from in order to complete his controversial Spanish citizenship.
Interestingly, one of the most noticeable things about Spain’s defeat to Brazil in the Confederations Cup final of 2013 was the way the Spanish were bullied by Phil Scolari’s team. Diego Costa, however, does not get pushed around. Definitely one to watch this summer at the World Cup.
In a bizarrely ironic fashion, Costa is representative of a new type of striker at Atlético though his style of play, brash, brute and physical, is considered a throwback to an older generation. Almost like a Spanish version of Andy Carroll, but with talent and the ability to actually play football with both his feet, Costa has been a revelation for Los Colchoneros following loan spells at a number of clubs in lower divisions, having being on the books of Atlético since December 2006.
Moreover Costa’s demeanour perfectly surmises what it is like to support manager Diego Simeone’s side. No longer do Atlético hide behind the veil of their Real Madrid counterparts, no matter how mighty or impressive. Much like with Costa, there exists a renewed swagger to Los Colchoneros and their support, a vibrant energy that has not subsided despite the continued loss of prolific strikers. Like those before him, there’s a growing belief that this striker can elevate Atlético Madrid to even greater success.
Would you be concerned, as an Atletico Madrid, if the rumours are true that a host of European sides are considering a swoop for the in-form Costa? No, surely not. Based on this evidence, another striker will fill arrive, fill his boots and more than likely, better his record. You can’t argue with history.
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