Although he failed to win any silverware during two-and-a-half years as Atletico Madrid manager, Javier Aguirre admits receiving plaudits for laying the foundations of the outstanding success Los Rojiblancos are enjoying today is his own personal trophy.
Atleti under Diego Simeone have leapt out of the shadow of Spanish juggernauts Barcelona and fierce city rivals Real Madrid – breaking the duo’s nine-year monopoly on La Liga by winning the title in 2014. They’ve also appeared in two of the last three Champions League finals, losing in heartbreaking circumstances on both occasions to rivals Real. Yet, according to Atletico CEO and majority owner Miguel Angel Gil Marin, the key to the current success is Aguirre’s 31-month reign from July 2006 to February 2009. It was during this time that the Mexican brought European football back to Vicente Calderon.
At the end of his first campaign he led Madrid into the Europa League. After season two, Aguirre earned them a seat back at the top table when he dragged them into the Champions League for the first time in 12 years.
In 2014 he was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame, based in Pachuca, 125km north of Mexico City where he was born. Aguirre found himself in the company of former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, Brazilian 1994 World Cup-winning striker Romario, visionary ex-Real president Santiago Bernabeu and two-time Italy World Cup-winning captain Giuseppe Meazza.
“Gil gave a speech and said everything, all the success today (at Atletico), starts with Aguirre, which for me is a kind of trophy,” the 57-year-old told Sport360. “When I arrived in 2006 they were in crisis. They had debt around €450m. They’d just bought Kun (Sergio) Aguero, a big acquisition, but hadn’t played in the Champions League for 12 years.”
Aguirre was sacked after a poor run of five defeats and two draws in February 2009, but he is pleased with what he achieved there.
“I had three years there and at the end of each we played in Europe so, for me, it was a success. I understand why they sacked me and it’s no problem, I still have a lot of friends and I am happy with everything I did there.”
Simeone took over Atleti in December 2011, having enjoyed great success during two stints as a player. The Argentine won the La Liga and Copa del Rey double in 1995-96.
Although the two fiery South Americans never worked together – Simeone left for a second time in 2005, the season before Aguirre became boss – Aguirre believes the midfield general was destined for coaching.
“He was a coach as a player. With Gregorio Manzano (Atletico coach 2003-04) he was jumping and organising, he’s a natural,” Aguirre added. “The guy is clever like (Pep) Guardiola, like (Jose) Mourinho, like (Carlo) Ancelotti, that level. He’s burning inside but he’s always calm, polite.”
Past glories in the famous red and white stripes might have helped Simeone during his early days in the dugout, but Aguirre says where he has taken them in five years is a different realm. And he is not surprised.
“Today they are on another level with Simeone, he is an extraordinary coach,” said Aguirre. “He did a very good job of reunifying the whole thing. Fans, media, players, owners. Everybody trusts in him.
“I am not surprised by how successful he’s been. I played 10 to 12 years against Barcelona and Real Madrid. It’s really difficult. Always everyone knew who the winner was. Referees, fans, media, but Simeone changed their minds. They really think they are at the same level. Of course, not in income or budget but playing, it’s a toss.”
Aguirre, now coach of Abu Dhabi-based Al Wahda, is on to his eighth posting in management, and fourth country.
Sitting in the confines of the Clarets’ Al Nahyan Stadium media centre, it’s easy to get lost in conversation. Friendly and engaging, his anecdotes about his career are both honest and insightful. He’s not always so open sitting in this room, particularly when local journalists incessantly pester him on the fitness of his Emirati players ahead of an Arabian Gulf League match, but after such a storied and well-travelled career, he’s not easily phased.
“If they want to put me in trouble with a question, I have experience with that,” he adds. “At press conferences in Mexico I’d have 70 journalists attending which would last two hours and they’d ask me ‘if you are not champion of the world, will you resign?’, ‘do you receive money off each player selected?’. Crazy questions. The journalists are able to ask you anything so you have to be prepared for that.”
From speaking with him and realising what he’d started to build at Madrid, it’s not hard to understand why he’s so highly regarded by many there. His arrival coincided with big money purchases of Costinha, Maniche, Diego Forlan, Simao and Jose Antonio Reyes.
Another player who arrived in the same summer as him was a 17-year-old Aguero. Aguirre is proud of the player he has now become but the lethal 28-year-old Manchester City forward of today is a very different player to the raw, naïve teenager he first encountered 10 years ago.
“Sergio was at least 2-3kg overweight. He didn’t understand what he was doing there,” Aguirre recalls. “In 90 minutes you play 45- 50 minutes, no more. Divide that by 22 players and you have just two minutes with the ball. With those two minutes of course he was extraordinary, but for the other 88 Aguero was not doing anything. Pep said the same thing recently about him.
“You have to always kick the a** of Aguero because he was a little fat, lazy, young, always with his PlayStation. I took Aguero to my house. He was the same age of my sons. We took him to buy clothes because in Madrid the winter is cold and he was just there in a t-shirt, no sweaters, just being a kid. He didn’t look after himself properly.
“I wanted to send him to the second team but everyone told me I was crazy. ‘No, we paid €23m for him’. It was impossible. I put Fernando Torres on instead of him and Aguero on the bench, and they kill me. But at the end of the story now, I’m really proud of him.”
Aguirre, too, can be proud of his achievements because despite the lack of silverware at Atletico, the cabinet of his mind will be filled with memories of the indelible mark he left on the club.