These are good times to be Diego Godin — with the Atletico Madrid and Uruguay defender facing into what could be the most exciting few weeks of his career.
The 28-year-old defender has a La Liga title decider against Barcelona to play on Saturday, the UEFA Champions League final against Real Madrid a week later, and then a World Cup on South American soil with his country Uruguay this summer. Such excitement seemed very distant back in December 2011. Uruguay was the previous summer’s World Cup’s bad-boys with their controversial elimination of neutrals’ favorites Ghana, while Atletico was going through one of its regular slumps.
When Diego Simeone took charge that month Godin’s team was tenth in La Liga, closer to relegation than European qualification, and had just been knocked out of the Copa Del Rey by third-tier Albacete. But Simeone somehow led a turnaround which brought the Europa League, European Supercup and Copa del Rey trophies to the Estadio Vicente Calderon in his first two seasons.
The next fortnight will now see if they can go even further and take the top prizes available in both Spain and Europe. Asked in a phone interview how Simeone had worked such magic, Godin told FOXSoccer.com that energy and organization had been key.
"[Simeone] is a coach who knows the club very well, who demands a lot," Godin said. "he knew how to put together a team with the players he had. He gave us all energy, above all organized the whole team defensively and knew how to get the maximum out of each player. That is what makes us strong as a team."
Most amazingly, nine of the Colchoneros side humiliated by Albacete less than three years ago [including Godin] featured last month as Atletico steamrollered Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea 3-1 to qualify for May 24’s decider in Lisbon. Godin suggested the most important element in this turn-around was former Argentina captain Simeone instilling his own remorseless winning attitude into a team previously known for its fickleness and inconsistency.
"[Simeone] gave the team his character, how he was as a player, and is as a coach," he said. "This aggression he has. The team shows that on the pitch. Without that, it would be very difficult to compete against teams like Real Madrid or Barcelona. We have a lot of quality, but without the other part — attitude, aggression, competing well — it would be very difficult to take on such powerful teams."
It still takes more than the proverbial 110 percent commitment for a club with Atletico’s scant resources to compete with Europe’s financial giants. Simeone is a more subtle strategist than some media caricatures suggest, and for big games regularly makes surprise tactical or selection calls — such as starting Adrian Lopez in the Champions League quarterfinal second leg against Barcelona, and again at Stamford Bridge versus Chelsea where the little-used forward scored his side’s vital first goal.
Godin says hours and hours of shared hard work on the training ground, not stirring words of inspiration, is behind such shock results.
"[Simeone] does not get too personal," he said. "From time to time we talk one on one, or in a group. But he works a lot out on the pitch, works and works and works. Each game is prepared differently, depending on the opponent. The coaches tell us what to do, both as individuals and as a group. The boss takes charge of this really well. And that has brought us many results during our time together."
Buenos Aires native Simeone often uses the adjective "aguerrido" [warlike] about his teams, a word with echoes of the also Spanish term "garra" [claw], which describes the physical, abrasive — some would say cynical — style which has long characterized the Uruguayan national team.
Uruguay’s recent international history also features a group of players of mixed ability regularly punching above their weight — reaching the World Cup 2010 semifinals and then surprisingly winning the Copa America ahead of much more fancied Brazil and Argentina a year later. Despite some similarities in approach, Godin says his national coach Oscar Washington Tabarez is quite a different character to Simeone.
"Uruguay and Argentina share practically the same football ‘idea’," he says. "The Uruguay team is very similar to Atletico Madrid for its commitment, the way it runs and fights on the pitch. [But] the coaches are really different. El Maestro Tabarez is nothing like El Cholo. The two have their own strengths."
Another Uruguayan player known for having a win at all costs mentality is Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, whose international and club careers have never been short of controversy.
"[Luis] is a very competitive player who wants to win, but off the pitch he is very relaxed, very simple, very normal," says Godin, who also mixes a mild manner off the pitch with a hard edge on it. "It happens to us all — on the pitch we are more aggressive. A lot of us players are like that. We want to compete and we want to win."
Smart observers have tipped South American sides to do well in Brazil this summer, benefiting from local knowledge of the culture and climate and a huge traveling support. Uruguay are in a tough-looking group with fellow former trophy winners Italy and England, but a relaxed Godin is focusing on their opening game against outsiders Costa Rica in Fortaleza on June 14.
"It is going to be very special because it is a World Cup, and Uruguay is right next door," he says. "There will be many many fans at our games to cheer us on. We are thinking about getting through the first round, which is our first objective. Winning our first game against Costa Rica will be fundamental for what comes in the group. But we are not thinking any further than that."
For now though it’s just one game at a time for Godin — first La Liga, then the Champions League, then Brazil. He might not win it all, but both of his sides will give the very best they can.