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Jan 9, 2012

Never fear, Diego's here

The word 'carácter' in Spanish is called a 'cognate' in linguistics, or a 'false friend' in less formal terms. It's one of those words which doesn't mean what you think it's going to mean, just because it looks like its English equivalent. Nevertheless, whether friend or foe, the word is particularly resonant in Spanish culture, almost to an annoying degree. Parents use it here to describe their young children, as if it were a badge of honour. 'Tiene mucho carácter' is often used as an excuse for unruly infant behaviour of the loud-mouthed type, where 'carácter' would mean 'bad temper' in English. Fathers are particularly fond of using the term to praise their offspring, as if by condoning pushy behaviour they are implying that their child will get on well in the dog-eat-dog world, and they may be right.

But it's still annoying to a feathery Brit like myself. Even after twenty years here in Spain, I still harbour a certain 'children should be seen but not heard too much' attitude, or at least I reckon that the basis of good behaviour is respecting other people's space. I worked on that with my kids here, even though I often thought that I might be putting them at a disadvantage. You can see where this is going, because in Spanish football, the word 'carácter' is the sine qua non of attributes - the real thing in terms of qualifying for the job. If a player lacks it, it's as if he only has one leg. He still might make it as a pro, but he'll never be great, never be a leader. The opposing (British) idea, that a player can be a 'character', such as a Paul Gascoigne or a Robbie Savage, is quite another thing, a wholly different concept. The British lament, to some extent, the extinction of this species of player, due to the ever-increasing professionalization and rigid legality of the game, but the Spanish are far more interested in the other version.

One of the prime examples of this type of player was Diego 'Cholo' Simeone, and his re-appearance this week as the replacement for Gregorio Manzano at Atlético Madrid has brought about a mass of twittering, tweeting and media attention, some of it positive and excited, some of it tinged with nostalgia, and some of it more blatantly hostile. As they say, Simeone 'no deja indiferente a nadie' (everyone has an opinion on Simeone) and his Spanish managerial debut away to Málaga, where his team earned a respectable 0-0 draw to staunch the bleeding, turned into the event of the weekend's La Liga re-start, despite attractive-looking encounters such as the Catalan derby and the other one at Villarreal v Valencia.

You needed to be conscious and awake to football in the mid-1990s in Spain to be aware of the Simeone effect. The Argentina defensive midfielder in actual fact played more games in Serie A than he did in La Liga, accumulating nine seasons in Italy with three different clubs as opposed to seven seasons in Spain, beginning with Sevilla and then going on to play for Atlético on two separate occasions - the second time in the twilight of his career in 2005. However, it was during his first spell there (1994-1997) that he laid down his emotional roots, left his calling-card and famously proclaimed after one particularly feisty encounter with Barcelona, 'I like to play with a knife between my teeth'. Aha me hearties! If he fails at the Vicente Calderon, he could always get himself a bit-part in the next version of Pirates of the Caribbean. He has that pantomime villain thing about him, despite the record of almost casual brutality that characterised his career. And of course, he is lauded by certain factions of the Atlético supporters precisely for this reason, and his return - long desired by the murkier prophets of the club's blogs and unofficial websites - signals a return to the carácter-fuelled days of Atlético's famous double year, in 1996.

It's difficult to exaggerate the importance of that season, both in general La Liga terms and in specific reference to the present-day psyche of this troubled club. The infamous president back then, Jesus Gil, declared Simeone 'my son' and of course, the rump of Gil's biological family still runs the club. Many Spanish journalists at the time reacted to Atlético's double (they beat Barcelona in the King's Cup final) rather in the manner that the purists of the English media had reacted to Leeds United a couple of decades before, declaring them personae non grata. One journalist described Atlético's double as having been achieved 'a base de patadas' (by kicking s**t out of the opposition) and of course, Simeone was the prime exponent. He was also a very good player, an astute reader of the game and the sort of guy you'd prefer, in almost all circumstances, to have on your side. But his return this week has resuscitated a lot of old ghosts.

Atlético are longing to re-assert their position as Spain's third club, which, statistically speaking, they are - if you only consider this in terms of league trophies. After the big two's bloated record, Atlético have nine league wins to their credit, and their win in 1996 stands alone among 15 surrounding seasons of Real Madrid-Barcelona trophy swapping. It took Deportivo's subsequent win to break that up in the millennium year but, for the neutrals, the Galicians were always an easier side to accept. The rest of Spain has always looked on Atlético with a mixture of horror and fascination, and now Diego's back! Get out your shin pads, lock up your children, and don't show them footage of his tackle on Julen Guerrero!

Ah - what a wonderful coincidence, or whim of the gods, was their decision to return Simeone to make his debut as manager at Malaga. Bilbao's Julen Guerrero, the pin-up hero (of both sexes) of the 1990s in Spain, is now the director of youth football at Malaga, and was probably shifting uncomfortably in his seat in the stands at the sight of his returning nemesis. This is because there are two fouls which define Spanish football's 'carácter' in the last thirty years.

One of them is Andoni Goikoetxea (The Butcher of Bilbao) and his foul on Diego Maradona in 1983, and the other is Simeone's extraordinary right-footed lunge on Julen Guerrero in 1996, a challenge that failed to earn the perpetrator any more than a yellow card and which left a series of stud marks on the victim's thigh which enraged the nation, partly because of its brutality but also because of Guerrero's extraordinary popularity - the sex-symbol of the times assaulted by the gnarly defender - beauty downed by the beast. The best moment was, however, Simeone's reaction, in a sort of 'What, me?' expression, as if the world was conspiring against him. 'Never did it m'Lud' maintained Diego. Such was the hostility towards him that he high-tailed it a year later to Inter Milan, where his 'qualities' fitted in rather better with that club's traditions.

Will his return make any difference? Probably in the short-term, yes. His presence and his straight-talking approach may awaken the various qualities that are dormant in his squad, despite the departure of their two biggest names in the summer, Diego Forlan and Kun Aguero. But the team are out of the cup (eliminated by Albacete, from Segunda B) and currently lie eleventh in La Liga, four points from the relegation spots with the worst away record in the league. Their point at Malaga means that Simeone has equalled Manzano's previous away haul - of a single point. Things are looking up.

Simeone has a mixed record as a manager - starting well and winning two Argentine league trophies with two different sides, but seven clubs in five seasons is hardly a solid CV. He has brought with him a compatriot and another Atlético legend, the ex-goalkeeper Germán 'Mono' Burgos, a character of a wholly different nature, rock star and all-round good bloke. His expertise as a No. 2 is also of dubious reckoning, but in terms of Atlético-based popularity, it would be difficult to unearth an equal pair of human beings. If you want to read about Burgos in his prime, I did a piece for ESPNsoccernet on him back in 2003, entitled 'Of mavericks and monkeys'.

Elsewhere, I landed in Bilbao airport on Saturday from the UK (en route from Florida) and was driven straight to Anoeta, arriving three minutes late for the Real Sociedad v Osasuna game. This is only the second time in my life that I have gone directly from an airport to a football match (and timed the flight deliberately to do so), the previous occasion being the Grimsby v West Bromwich Albion game in the old Division 2 in March 1987, which I reached after a long flight from New Delhi, a train ride from London and a patient mate who took my suitcase into his house on the way to the ground. We won 3-1, and I can remember the scorers, but I won't embarrass myself. Sociedad only managed a 0-0 draw, but deserved rather more, kept at bay by the remarkable goalkeeping of Andres Fernández.

Over on the east coast, Espanyol managed a last-gasp equaliser at home to Barcelona, and then survived a pretty blatant penalty appeal against them to hand their mates in Madrid a five-point lead in the league, which is a decent enough way for Mou's men to start the new year, having beaten Granada 5-1 in the Bernabéu with a grumpy Cristiano Ronaldo but a brilliant Karim Benzema, carrying on where he left off before Christmas.

It's all to play for so tune in next week, same time same place. And of course, a happy new year.

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