Perhaps there is sadness at the end of any competition. The narrative comes to an end, the cycle is complete and we all move one closer the end of the journey. But there is surely something particularly sad about the Europa League: if, as the great Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann said, a three-year rule applies at elite level, on the slightly less rarefied slopes of Europe’s secondary competition the lifespan of a successful team is far shorter.
The opening two goals in this year’s finals, magnificent strikes both, were scored by Radamel Falcao, who also scored the winner last season when he was playing for Porto. That team also lost its manager, Andre Villas-Boas, to Chelsea. For Atletico Madrid, this was a second Europa League success in three years – not a single player who started this year’s final also played two years ago. Europe’s giants will already be circling: Falcao proved beyond all doubt his immense gifts; Arda Turan proved his quality; Diego, despite his failure at Juventus, is surely a player who could add a dash of creative quality to most sides. And Mario Suarez, having been criticized for much of this season for inconsistency, gave an awesome performance at the back of the midfield. At 25-years-old, he too could have something to offer one of Europe’s grandees.
“He is an admirable player,” the Atletico coach Diego Simeone said of Falcao, whom he also coached at River Plate. “He also wants more, there is no ceiling to his ambitions. I hope he can stay with us but I will be happy with the best for him.” That sounded ominous, as though he were preparing the ground for the Colombian’s departure.
But it’s not just over the winner. After Bilbao’s performances in early rounds, against Manchester United and Schalke 04 in particular, it’s hard to believe this Athletic side will survive intact. Perhaps that’s why the 19-year-ol Iker Muniain was so clearly distressed as the third goal went in. Maybe he was just a young man weeping at a defeat, but such has been the impact of this side that his tears took on a symbolic, universal quality as though he were in mourning for a dream.
Marcelo Bielsa can do that. Perhaps it’s too much to suggest winning would destroy the mystique – he himself said near the start of his managerial career that “I am only interested in winning, although I understand there are thousands of formulas to achieve that” – but it is certainly true that to dismiss Bielsa as a coach for his lack of silverware would be to miss the point. For a coach as revered as he is, he has won remarkably little: three Argentinian titles and Olympic gold with Argentina in 2004. But he has also lost in three finals: the Copa Libertadores in 1992, the Copa America in 2004 and now the Europa League. Few would bet against another final defeat when Athletic face Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final later this month.
Although he would almost certainly reject the suggestion, Bielsa might be a greater thinker than a coach. He demands absolute control to impose his vision – which is why talks between him and Internazionale last summer came to nothing – and refuses to compromise. So while he may be about winning, he is also about creating an ideal. A more pragmatic coach might never produce the sort of football Athletic produced against United and, to a lesser extent, Schalke 04. A more pragmatic coach might have won more.
What he offers rather, is the possibility of beauty, and an idiosyncratic beauty at that. “I feel fundamentally responsible for the distance there was between what we are capable of producing and what we actually produced,” he said on Wednesday. There was no attempt to blame anyone but himself, which perhaps explains why players who buy into his method are so devoted to him. But the test really comes now: just how devoted are they? Muniain, Markel Susaeta, and Fernando Llorente, must all have attracted interest from Europe’s elite, and financially there’s no way Athletic could offer the same as a Barcelona, a Real Madrid or a Manchester City.
Rob Smyth perhaps said it best when he commented that, “Athletic make you remember why you fell in love with football in the first place.” Bielsa’s Chile attracted similar comments at the World Cup; the relentless attacking, the pace and the dynamism combined with technical mastery. It’s the best of both worlds – aesthetically pleasing football that wears its heart on its sleeve. That’s why a lot of neutrals would weep with Muniain. The glory of this side is about to be destroyed by economic reality; a reality that may well end up making Muniain an offer he cannot refuse.
Yet Athletic lost comfortably and deservedly so. Bielsa agreed Atletico had been worthy winners, although he suggested the final score was “exaggerated”. Given how Bielsa had dominated the narrative of the tournament, it’s easy to forget just how impressive Atletico had been in previous rounds; after all, Atletico’s win Wednesday night was a record twelfth straight in European competition. Yes, Athletic looked fatigued, the strain of a full season pressing with such ferocity with a small squad perhaps taking its toll. Yes, Fernando Amorebieta had a shocker, slithering a sliding all over the place as he tried to keep up with the brilliant Falcao. Perhaps on another day, Bilbao’s defensive line might have got a break in the 20 minutes or so of pressure it applied before Diego added Atletico’s third.
But this was also about Atletico’s excellence, about Falcao’s movement, quick feet and superb finishing and – particularly – about Mario Suarez and Gabi in front of the back four blocking the runs of De Marcos and successfully surrounding Llorente. Atletico stands four places above Athletic in the Spanish table. For all the flurries of brilliance from Athletic, the fact is that it is probably a better team.
Simeone played for Bielsa’s Argentina and, although a more orthodox coach, he has a similar focus on intensity. He readily acknowledges Bielsa’s influence over him, but he is, in a sense, Bielsa’s filter of extreme pragmatism. His managerial career has been hard to read so far. Argentinian titles with Estudiantes and River Plate (an achievement that looks staggering given what has gone on at the club since), but indifferent spells with San Lorenzo and Catania compose his short managerial career. He has created at Atletico that throbs with potential. You just fear economics will once again get in the way.