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Feb 1, 2014

Goodbye to Aragones, long live tiki-taka

You probably remember Luis Aragones mostly because of his infamous, ill-advised motivational speech to Jose Antonio Reyes back in October 2004, a bizarre, over-the-top tirade toward Thierry Henry.

For Aragones, who died at the age of 75 on Saturday in Madrid, that terrible incident will go down as his biggest moment of shame, and it also led to one of the Spanish FA's most controversial decisions: an almost provocative 2000 pound fine.

But Aragones represents way more than your average hot-headed-player-who-became-a-coach for Spanish football. The "Wise Man from Hortaleza" (his working-class neighbourhood in Madrid) changed the way the Spanish national team played and behaved during an unforgettable Euro 2008.

Where many had failed, he succeeded in turning a fine but underachieving group of players into a winning machine.

Before that, Aragones had a long and distinguished career. As a player, he quickly became an icon on the pitch for Atletico Madrid, which was the biggest club in his heart despite the fact he had began his career at Real Madrid.

A classy, offensive-minded midfielder, deadly in set pieces, "Don Luis" won three Ligas and two Copas del Rey and also scored 160 goals in 360 matches. It was an impressive number for a midfielder and he even won the 1970 "pichichi" (top scorer trophy) in La Liga. He began coaching with Atletico in 1974, deciding to retire as a player once the season had already begun to steer the ship and solve one of Atletico's traditional dressing room crises.

In his first season he led the team to Intercontinental Cup glory against Independiente after Atletico played the final in place of European champions Bayern Munich, who declined the invitation to compete. In the following seasons he would add a Copa del Rey and his only Liga title as a coach to his tally.

His link with the Calderon was that of a passionate supporter. "Atleti is my life," he once declared to Marca. After his first coaching stint, he returned to rescue the colchoneros three more times: In 1982 and 1991, when he won a Copa del Rey each time, and in 2001, when he led the team to promotion from Segunda Division purgatory.

Atletico aside, Aragones made himself a name as a coach because of the way he organised the collection of middle-of-the-table (Betis, Mallorca, Oviedo, Sevilla, Espanyol and Valencia) squads he managed: well organised, always able to play to their strengths and deadly at the counter.

Aragones' teams entertained and played hard, regardless of the usually scarce resources at his disposal, and were known because they always gave the big two a run for their money.

He had only one coaching chance with one of Spain's mega-club duopoly, when he replaced Terry Venables in 1987 and took Barcelona to a Copa del Rey title.

His spell ended turbulently at the close of the season, as he sided with the players during what was called "The Hesperia Mutiny:" days before the Copa del Rey final, the captains publicly asked for president Josep Lluis Nunez to resign, after a strong disagreement over who should pay taxes for their image rights was resolved against the players' interests.

Not one to be intimidated easily, Nunez ignored the controversy and quickly hired Johan Cruyff. The Dutchman started from scratch, fired 13 players and planted the seeds of what would become the "Dream Team."

By the time Aragones was appointed Spain coach in 2004, doubts abounded about his ability to deliver. At 66 years of age, many wondered whether his "fastball" had already faded, as his obsession of talking about himself in the third person increased.

To be fair, it took him some time to settle. Signs of what would come next were already apparent during the 2006 World Cup, when Spain played well and lost, as it used to be their habit.

After their elimination against France and a couple of poor results in the qualifying stage of Euro 2008, Aragones took a hugely controversial decision and left Raul out of his squad, entrusting the team to a bunch of diminutive midfielders who could indeed play ball.

Always the king of the sound bite, he explained his decision to the country by screaming at a Madrid-based journalist: "Do you know how many World Cups has Raul played? Three. And how many Euros? Two. Tell me how many were won!"

David Silva, Marcos Senna, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta took over, and thus, the "Wise Men of Hortaleza" became the father of tiki-taka. The expression was coined during Euro 2008 by the also deceased -- and also unforgettable -- play-by-play narrator Andres Montes to describe the short-passing possession game that Spain started to play under Aragones. The term would later be used until exhaustion to describe any team that comes from Spain and can put two passes together.

His Spain was indeed different from Barcelona or the current national team, although slick passing became instrumental in all of them. Aragones' Roja would play a 4-1-3-2 with Marcos Senna, who he idolised, as the only holding midfielder, and two real forwards in Fernando Torres and David Villa. An attack-minded team, more risks were taken and thus the ball was lost more often.

On top of that, Aragones built a squad with a wide representation of Spanish football: after decades of Real Madrid or Barcelona duopoly, his starting 11 had three Valencia players, two from Villarreal, one from Atletico -- of course -- and a couple from the big two.

However, his biggest feat was not the new style or the representative-ness of the team, but the ability to motivate an undoubtedly talented, but thus far underperforming group of players and build a clear identity.

Aragones fathered the "La Roja" nickname, and spent a good amount of time reminding his players that "no one remembers second place."

During Euro 2008, Aragones gave plenty of examples of his old-school, but resourceful and intelligent man management, something that his players always praised.

He addressed them as "Usted" and "Senor," the most formal option in Spain, and expected them to do the same with him, although, according to Aragones, he remembered every linesman's first name: "You have to know each one of them by heart."

One still remembers a coaching morning after a day off in Neustift. Sergio Ramos had been seen out late the previous evening, and Aragones took advantage of the situation to set an example, giving the defender a dressing-down in front of the rest of the squad.

He screamed, "Mirame a los ojos!" (Look into my eyes!) every time Ramos stared down, re-enacting a famous scene with Romario back from their spell in Valencia. There were no more disciplinary issues from that point on. It is a lesson the current squad may learn from.

Aragones' incisive approach to motivation, always based on a deep understanding of what moved each player, was indeed bound to cross a few lines, but remembering him because of one instance of reckless excess appears unfair.

He gave Spanish football over 50 years of his life, but more importantly, he gave La Roja the mindset they needed to believe they could win.