MADRID (Reuters) - Leicester City’s unlikely Premier League title win was hailed as soccer’s most remarkable story, but Atletico Madrid’s 2014 La Liga triumph could give it a run for its money according to the club’s president Enrique Cerezo.
Wednesday’s Champions League quarter-final, first leg at Atletico may be the biggest game in Leicester’s 133-year history but their opponents have got used to playing on Europe’s biggest stage, reaching the Champions League final twice in the past four years.
Cerezo, however, says it is easy to forget how much the odds were stacked against his side when they broke Real Madrid and Barcelona’s nine-year stranglehold on the Spanish title in 2014 with a budget one fifth of the size of their two rivals, who have won 56 titles between them.
“It was almost impossible to break the cycle of Real and Barca because they each had the best players in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi who were at their peak,” Cerezo tells Reuters in an exclusive interview at the Vicente Calderon stadium.
“Players in teams with smaller budgets can still be great players and we managed to build a good squad, we had a magnificent coach, we started the season well and we kept up the pace,” adds Cerezo, who watched his club clinch a first title in 18 years by drawing a title decider at Barcelona 1-1 on the final day of the season.
“The difference between teams’ budgets is something to remember, but in the end it doesn’t have to be definitive. It was the same for Leicester, they were competing with teams like Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United so them winning the Premier League was a huge achievement.”
Leicester’s owners were widely criticised for their lack of gratitude in sacking Claudio Ranieri in February after a dramatic slump in results, but Cerezo understands why they axed the Italian, a move that has been vindicated as the team have won six straight games in all competitions under successor Craig Shakespeare.
“Coaches live off their results, if the results are good they are gods, if they are bad they are demons,” he says.
Simeone certainly enjoys a god-like status at Atletico, where he was a crucial member of the 1996 title winning team and had a second spell there as a midfielder before hanging his boots up in Argentina.
After having success in his home country as a coach, he returned to Atletico in January 2012 to rescue a club on its knees, reeling from an early Cup exit to third-division Albacete and sitting four points above the relegation zone.
Five years on, Simeone is the second longest-running coach in Atletico’s history and has taken charge of more than 300 games, shifting the discourse in Spanish soccer from the big two to the big three.
“He came here when the team was in a very difficult situation and changed everything and has kept us at the top for five years. Simeone has demonstrated he is a magnificent coach, he is a magnificent Atletico fan,” Cerezo says.
Simeone often resembles a fan, wildly gesticulating on the touchline and flapping his arms to urge supporters to keep cheering the team on in difficult moments.
The Argentine raised alarm bells earlier this season by reducing the expiry date of his contract from 2020 to 2018, although Cerezo has no concern the coach is going to walk away any time soon.
“He has a great life here in Madrid, he’s just had a baby girl, he and his wife are very happy here. Everyone from the fans to the president to the board supports him, what more could he ask for?”
Another factor keeping Simeone at Atletico is the attraction of leading the team into their new 67,000 capacity stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano, on the other side of the city in September.
“We have been in the Calderon for 50 magnificent years, we have won many trophies here, the best players in the world have passed through here but everything has to change at some point and that time has come,” Cerezo said.
Cerezo hopes the new stadium, coupled with the team’s sustained success on the pitch, will encourage Atletico’s best players such as Euro 2016 Golden Boot winner Antoine Griezmann and Slovenian goalkeeper Jan Oblak to remain at the club, bucking a trend set by the likes of Sergio Aguero, Radamel and Costa who all departed while in their prime.
“The best players will always end up playing where they want but now fortunately we have players who want to play at Atletico,” Cerezo says.
“We are doing well in the Champions League, we finish high in the league every season, we will have a magnificent stadium and we have a brilliant fan base who love all the players. We have everything a player could want.”
Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Neil Robinson