Atletico Madrid’s rise to the top of European football has been a refreshing lesson that money cannot buy everything, yet they can still be hard team to like.
Neutrals are torn between admiration for the way in which coach Diego Simeone has transformed and reinvented his side over the last four years, and discomfort at the defensive tactics and gamesmanship that have been used to achieve it.
Simeone, who prowls the touchline with the same menacing air with which he patrolled the Argentina midfield during his playing career, has turned the Mattress Makers from relegation candidates into one of Europe’s top sides.
They have broken Real Madrid and Barcelona’s stranglehold on La Liga, won the Europa League and on Saturday will meet neighbours Real in their second Champions League final in three years.
In revenue terms, however, they are barely in Europe’s first division.
They were placed a modest 15th in Deloitte’s money league for last season with a revenue of 187.1 million euros ($208.4 million), below the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Schalke 04 and even crisis-torn AC Milan.
Success for Atletico can simply mean rebuilding as richer teams snap up their top players.
Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa, Arda Turan and Thibaut Courtois are among the players to have left on Simeone’s watch, but each time they lost a bug name, Atletico come back stronger and more determined.
In the context of modern soccer, it is a unique achievement and has led to suggestions that Simeone is the world’s finest coach. If only they were easier on the eye.
Unable to afford the world-class talents of their rivals, Atletico have become arguably the modern game’s greatest spoilers, almost always setting out to neutralise their opponents’ game and happy to concede 70 percent of possession.
There are no concessions to tiki-taka or the romantic side of the game from Simeone, who said during his playing days that a footballer should play “with a knife between his teeth”.
They rules are pushed to the limit as players waste time and go down injured with exasperating frequency.
Other tactics have included throwing spare balls on to the pitch to disrupt opposition counter-attacks, an offence that earned Simeone a three-match ban this season.
Simeone, invariably dressed in black, offers no apologies.
“The best thing about this group is that they keep going, they prepare, get up again and reinvent themselves, without changing their identity or commitment,” he told reporters on Friday.
“When you repeat things again, again and again, and you persevere, then you achieve anything.
“We are among the best teams in Europe. We have stability, balance, a clear idea of how we work, enormous competence in what we do. This puts us in a privileged place and the only way to keep it is by winning.
“I am very respectful about other people’s opinions,” he added, when it was suggested to him that some people did not enjoy watching his team.
“That is the beautiful thing about football; it’s like politics and religion, everyone can have a opinion.”