Atlético Madrid have dealt with their fair share of heartbreak in recent years, especially when losing two Champions League finals to their city rivals, but Diego Simeone has rebuilt his team with a core of players who are free from the emotional baggage of those disappointments.
Luis Suárez arrived from Barcelona in the summer and has already scored 16 goals in La Liga. The defence has been equally impressive, only conceding 16 goals in 23 league games. The Brazilian centre-back Felipe has played his part in keeping the team tight at the back. He has come a long way considering that, while Suárez was scoring goals for Ajax in the Champions League, Felipe was making a DVD of his best moves to send to a second tier club in Brazil.
“Atlético are always fighting to win titles,” says Felipe. “We knew we would be strong this year and we have improved on the things we did wrong last season – which is why we are enjoying a great moment in La Liga. The Champions League is a bit different, because every club is strong enough to win the title, and one mistake here can hurt us.”
Felipe is wary of the threat Chelsea pose. After stuttering towards the end of Frank Lampard’s time in charge, they now look solid under Thomas Tuchel, who has not lost any of his seven games in charge. Does the change of managers make Chelsea a tougher proposition? “I guess that doesn’t make Chelsea any easier to face,” says Felipe. “They are strong, one of the best in England and we have to look out against them.”
While Chelsea players have become accustomed to managers coming and going, Atlético are a picture of stability. There have been nine different managers in the Chelsea dugout since Simeone took over at Atlético. Even though Simeone is now into his 10th year at the club, Felipe believes he is still their greatest asset. “When Simeone asks for something, he does so with clarity and that is one of the reasons that we trust him even more,” he says.
“He has been at the club for many years and has been through the good, the bad and the ugly with Atléti. He believes in his work so much and it’s paying off. New players quickly get used to this kind of environment, so we always try to be on point. We focus on the team, on our guys wanting to play every game, and the only other team that we worry about is the one we are facing next. Every player at Atlético wants to play every match. We don’t know if we’ll win the Spanish title, but we need to keep the mentality we have to make it possible.”
Things were not always this straightforward for Felipe. When he celebrated his 18th birthday, he started to think he might not realise his dream of becoming a footballer. He had just started a job for his girlfriend’s mother, delivering mushrooms to restaurants and cafés, and he was still playing São Paulo’s amateur leagues. The life of a Champions League footballer felt distant while he was still competing on astroturf pitches.
“I used to receive about 50 or 60 reais for each game,” he says. “When you turn 18 and things have not worked out, you start to doubt that they will ever change. Despite that, I played in the fourth division of the Campeonato Paulista for União Mogi and a friend of mine, Bruno, gave me the idea to make a DVD of my best highlights. I need to thank my friend and his father, Itair, for helping me achieve what I have now.” continue reading