Innovation in Conservatism
Why Diego Simeone's philosophy had ramifications for beyond football
24 April, 2012. Camp Nou. Barcelona, coached by Pep Guardiola, are beating Chelsea, coached by Roberto Di Matteo, 2-1. It is the second leg of the Champions League semi-final and the aggregate score is 2-2. However, Ramires’s goal at the end of the first half means Barça have to win by two goals to reach the final. With only few seconds to go, Chelsea are showing clear signs of fatigue; they have been playing with a man down since John Terry was sent off in the 37th minute of the first half for kicking Alexis Sánchez. As Xavi plays the ball into the box, it is cleared by Ashley Cole. With all 10 Barcelona outfield players in the Chelsea half, Fernando Torres is left with a clear run at Víctor Valdés. It is one of those rare moments in football when the options narrow and the action focuses on just two individuals: this to win it. The Madrileño striker takes the ball round the keeper and slides it into the empty net, confirming Chelsea’s place in a final they will win for their first Champions League title.
The following day I went to my usual bar to have breakfast. If you listen to conversations between waiters and customers, it’s clear how football serves as a metronome for social life. On entering, I found myself drawn into a heated conversation between the owner and a regular. A few lines in an open newspaper made clear the subject of their discussion: “How Unfair Football is!” I politely joined the conversation. “Anti-football should be banned,” said the bar owner. “But who,” I replied, with deliberate provocation, “decides what anti-football is?” The reply was instant: there was this latest Barcelona, begun by Frank Rijkaard and continued by Guardiola and there was the Spain national team that had won Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup. That was football; everything else was anti-football.
In fact, my interlocutors were simply reproducing the rhetoric of the high priests of tiki-taka (although Guardiola hates the term, preferring juego de posición), a hegemonic style whose successes were a safeguard against criticism. The accusation that was always hurled at their detractors at that time was precisely that of “anti-football”. And in that battle between the tiki-taka of Barça and the anti-football of Chelsea nobody remembers the vicissitudes or the circumstances of the match itself, because what really seems to matter is the reminiscence of a system of highly reductive values adopted by Spanish football culture: football against anti-football.
Near the end of that conversation, the owner drew a comparison not uncommon in this kind of debate. He told me, “In my bar I’ve hired waiters who live their profession with passion and are grateful to learn from you, whereas others see it as a job: they come, get paid and leave and, after all, favours are soon forgotten… Well, just like in football, you work and play the way you live.” That final point left its mark on me and I think I clearly understand the reasons why. A few months earlier, in December 2011, a former Atlético player returned to Spain, to become a young coach. His only success as a coach had been with the Argentinian club side River Plate. It was Diego ‘Cholo’ Simeone, one of the leaders of the glorious Atlético that in 1996 won the double of la Liga and Copa del Rey, positioning himself against the hegemony of tiki-taka. Cholo Simeone curiously repeated the same words spoken by the owner of that old-style bar: “You play like you live.”
There is nothing new under the sun, since one of the most widespread cultural habits is to value our own practices for what they are not. In other words, when we explain any of our practices – which is the elementary way in which we value them – we have a tendency to use some other equivalent or contrary practice as a unit of measurement. In economics and philosophy, where the so-called theory of value has had the greatest impact and development, it is quite clear: value expresses the relationship and hierarchy between different elements and forms. In the end, value clusters and ranks differences. In fact, every culture has its own value systems explaining how individuals define themselves as a group and in relation to other groups. Football culture cannot escape this rule.
But value does not only rule isolated spheres of cultures, such as football. Often, in order to value some socio-cultural activity, we look for enlightening comparisons and metaphors in other distant and seemingly incomparable spheres. This happens, for instance, when we compare behavioural or dress codes with styles of eating; or when – as Claude Lévi-Strauss did in a classic work of anthropology – some tribal cultures make equivalent elements that are apparently as distant as ashes and honey according to criteria that are difficult to understand for those who do not participate in the values of that culture.
In our present culture, football is a great repository of comparisons and metaphors through which we value and consequently give meaning to our collective decisions and our historical situations. Moreover, when a football style becomes sufficiently accepted, an interesting phenomenon often happens: the term used to describe it becomes a concept of movement and expands its use to other very distant spheres of our collective life.
In the last decade a new term has appeared that has charaterised Spanish and Latin American football: cholismo, the rugged, pragmatic football favoured by Diego Simeone. To understand it, it is worth asking ourselves about the sporting value of this style and what set of other cultural practices are explained today by establishing a relationship with this style. But where does this value criterion of football styles arise from? No one would now hesitate to say that it comes from the success of a style that has become known as “tiki-taka”, a term that includes all those styles of play based on high possession of the ball and the precision of the short pass. The origin of the word is lost in the past, although it seems certain that it was used by some Spanish coaches during the eighties pejoratively to criticise that style of possession football without verticality.
In 1994, Ángel Cappa, the Argentinian who worked for a long time with César Luis Menotti and who at the time was assisting Jorge Valdano, wrote an article in El País entitled “El tiqui y el toque” in which he explained the main elements of what he considered the core of football and what, in opposition, should be understood as anti-football. Cappa accused the latter of playing outside the rules, that is, of cheating. To make his point, he used a chess metaphor: “It’s like pretending to checkmate by kicking the board and thus rushing the game.” From his perspective, anti-football is just “strength and speed” while his “tiqui-toque” is based on “an essential necessity of football”.
For him, it is not mere entertainment or an aesthetic option, it is not a matter of differentiating poetry from prose, as Pier Paolo Pasolini did in his famous article, but the tiki-taka is what defines the sport called football. Actually, Cappa considers that anti-football is exclusively a problem of game and not of play, that is to say, he excludes anti-football from the stylistic variants of play. It is like saying that those who practice anti-football will not accept the rules that the game sets.
The connections with the ideas of Menotti are quite evident. In fact, Menotti writes his memoirs (Fútbol sin trampa, 1986) in the form of an interview, in collaboration with Cappa. In his opening pages, Cappa asks Menotti to define football and he responds by summarising his own individualistic idea of the game: “Football as a game is born in the player and with the player, in his capacity for creation.” In addition, Menotti says that behind any style there is always a previous inheritance, a history, which is that of the neighbourhood and that Argentinian football, in short, has a “working-class style” whose characteristics are “daring, mischief, fun, nonchalance”. When Cappa and Menotti poke around in the essence of football, they cannot help but emphasise the individual over the collective, seeming to forget that, ultimately, football is a team sport.
I don’t forget that the tiki-taka style owes a lot to Cappa and Menotti, particularly in its appropriation by Barcelona and the Spain national team. The term was definitively fixed in the memory of Spanish and Latin American culture by the late journalist Andrés Montes, who used it to praise the style of Spain during live TV broadcasts of the 2006 World Cup. Spain’s new coach, Luis Aragonés, had revolutionised their style of play, choosing players with great technical ability and a desire to play possession football for the team and relegating previously important figures.
The tiki-taka style would achieve its first success at the 2008 European Championship in Austria and Switzerland. Aragonés left the job after that tournament, just as Guardiola replaced Rijkaard at Camp Nou. The Spanish federation appointed Vicente del Bosque to replace Aragonés, hoping he would ensure continuity of style.
Despite the links to menottismo, tiki-taka also has some features that tie it to the theories of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff and their conception of Total Football, on which Barcelona built its own stylistic identity. In this sense, tiki-taka was also presented as a collective form of play whose purpose was to generate the conditions for individual talent to express itself. Its greatest historical success occurred between 2009 and 2010, when Guardiola’s Barça won all six titles it contested and Spain won the World Cup in South Africa. But, as always happens in the history of football styles, there is a moment when the dominant style in one period begins to be countered by other styles that try to displace it.
From one particular point of view, all these facts can seem nothing more than a fortuitous coincidence. But some logic can be found in the fact that while the dominant style reaffirms its hegemony, failure forces change. Both Barcelona and Spain achieved their greatest sporting successes under the aegis of tiki-taka (albeit Spain’s a more cautious variant than Guardiola’s). 2012 was a crucial year: in April Guardiola announced his departure from Barça; in May Di Matteo’s ultra-defensive Chelsea won the Champions League; in July the tiki-taka Spain won their last international title so far… and last but not least, Cholo Simeone inaugurated his career at Atlético, winning two European titles. On May 9 he led Atlético to success in the Europa League final against his compatriot Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao, and on August 31 he swept aside Chelsea 4-1 in the Super Cup. And so began what some consider a revolution in Spanish football: cholismo.
I don’t know whether Simeone applies his lifestyle to football or his style of football to life. It’s the usual question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The answer perhaps is that offered by Samuel Butler: “The chicken is the way the egg creates another egg.” Or, in other words, I don’t think that separating the two spheres and placing them in a chronology is the right way to understand the relationship between style of play and life. Perhaps it would be better to define football as a means of expressing different ways of understanding life. Like theatre, literature or painting, football offers enough stylistic variety for our contemporary society to see it as a privileged means of expression. Cholismo was not only built up during the most successful period of Atlético, but also from the consecutive interpretations given by Simeone, often in the form of profound teachings about life itself.
The Spanish term cholismo was actually coined by the journalist Mario Torrejón in 2012 alluding exclusively to the style of play of Simeone’s Atlético. From the point of view of the variants of the game in Spain, this style had a particularly innovative value, as it was in direct opposition to the hegemonic tiki-taka. The latter has a series of features that bring it closer to the Argentinean “criollo style”, especially in its insistence on individual talent within the collective. Football has often been conceived as a struggle between individual and society, with the former meaning liberation and the later oppression and submission. In fact, one of the most frequent ways in which styles are divided is precisely that of the individual/collective poles, to the point of apparently excluding each other. And from this strong opposition also arises the romantic value attributed to both the tiki-taka and the criollo style. For many, both mean the liberation of individual talents subjected to the collective order of the team.
Of course, tiki-taka introduces more collective elements. It is true that there is a new balance between the individual and collective poles in tiki-taka, but the collective is here conceived as the means to make individual genius appear. It could be said that tiki-taka is the most sophisticated style focused on individual improvisation. Both Barça and Spain had a number of players who introduced their own genius at specific moments during the matches: Ronaldinho, Messi, Iniesta…
There is an idea that these highly individual-focused styles arose in response to highly collective styles. Let’s take a look at some historical examples. Brazilian football changed in the fifties as individuality became incorporated within a 4-2-4 structure. This historical duality of Brazilian football – explained by Paolo Demuru in his 2014 book Essere in gioco – reappears in other national histories. Once again, Argentinian football seems from its origins to have incorporated a stylistic antagonism, which has led to a kind of double national identity, as explained by Eduardo Archetti and Jonathan Wilson, among others. In fact, we know that football contributed substantially to the construction of Argentina’s specific national character, the so-called argentinidad. On the pitches of the early years of football, the “criollo style” began to assert itself, celebrated by popular newspapers as a distinctive national trait. Especially from 1928 onwards, Borocotó, the editor of Argentinian El Gráfico, supported the theory of two different foundations of the national football.
The first refers to its British origins, while the second goes back to the exploits achieved by Racing, the first team composed exclusively of local players and winner of seven consecutive national championships between 1913 and 1919. On the one hand, that British style, taught in private schools and sports clubs, focused on the athletic condition of the player and on a particular form of collective organisation – traits the Argentinian press related to industrial society and modernity. On the other hand, the criollo style was associated with the potreros, the vacant lots of the rapidly expanding Buenos Aires, where the canchitas learned the game without the intervention of schoolmasters, becoming proficient both in dribbling and at looking after themselves. According to the Uruguayan poet and theorist Eduardo Galeano, this style has the evocative value of a mythical origin of football and of a lost individual freedom.
In modern football this duality reappears under the guidance of two great coaches: Menotti and Carlos Bilardo. If Plutarch had lived to tell the tale, he would have included them in his Parallel Lives after the illustrious pairs of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, of Demosthenes and Cicero, or of Pericles and Fabius Maximus. Full of analogies and biographical divergences, the figures of Menotti and Bilardo finally went down in history as respective advocates of these two antagonistic national styles. On the one hand, the so-called menottismo represented both the individual player’s improvisation and ball possession and, on the other, bilardismo embodied tactical order and rigour, irremediably putting the player at the service of the team. Menottismo represented the ideals of the gaucho, in whose historical origins we find that independent and rebellious rural creole, who did not respect or obey authority. Except it is more complicated than that, as bilardismo’s apogee came at the 1986 World Cup with the triumph of Diego Maradona, perhaps the greatest of the canchitas.
Simeone has acknowledged on several occasions the great influence on his football style of the teachings by Bilardo, under whom he played in the 1992-93 season at Sevilla. This stylistic affiliation links cholismo closely to the historical polarisation of Argentinian football. For both Bilardo and Simeone, the individual must be at the service of the collective. Or, in Simeone’s own words, in a collective system “each one works like the piece of a machine, but the performance of the piece is worthless if it is loose”. It is understandable that, contrary to the lightness of the technical movements typical of the criollo style the technical gesture that best represents cholismo is the tackle: by stretching the legs to steal the ball from the opponent, this position is the best manifestation of sacrifice as an ethical value. Its plastic characteristics are those that most accurately embody the strength, vigour and power that define individual sacrifice in favour of the collective. This is how any gesture achieves a social meaning.
Simeone has always claimed sacrifice as the fundamental value in his style of play. It is worth remembering here two facts regarding Simeone’s professional career. The first occurred after Atlético’s opening goal in the first leg of the 2018-2019 Champions League round of 16 tie against Juventus in Turin. Simeone celebrated it with a gesture which consisted of a vigorous grabbing of his genitals with both hands. At the end of the meeting he tried to explain it: “It means we have a lot of balls.” This Spanish expression refers to courage and, of course, to struggle. Similarly, at the end of the second leg of the Champions League semi-final against Chelsea in 2013-14, Simeone paid tribute to his team’s agonising victory by thanking the mothers of his players “because they were born with balls this big”, making another gesture publicly criticised at the time. These gestures, obscene though they may be, are loaded with great expressive potential, as both identify his players’ ability to provide the necessary physical sacrifice leading to overcoming adversity.
All these gestures consistently express a value – sacrifice – which is at the very heart of both bilardismo and cholismo. Sacrifice has great religious symbolism, since it is often embodied in the messianic figure of a leader who renounces himself for the sake of others. This gesture of renunciation explains the positive value of sacrifice and other related values such as generosity and altruism. In all of them, a certain notion of the relationship between the individual and society is reflected.
However, a strange contradiction emerges here. If cholismo represents a rather conservative notion of society that places the individual at the service of the collective, how is it possible that it acquired a revolutionary and innovative value at any given point in history? Cholismo emerged under the shadow of various destabilising factors, derived from the world economic crisis, which also caused a crisis of national identity in Spain, which may partially explain its expansion. The use of the term “cholismo” was so widespread during 2013 that the Fundación del Español Urgente (Fundéu), an institution advised by the Real Academia Española (RAE), chose it among the candidates to be the word of the year. In fact, the term was spreading in a wide range of cultural spheres: political enemies, television broadcasters, actors and other iconic figures were progressively declaring themselves as “cholistas”. Against a backdrop of economic and political crisis, cholismo expressed a new spirit of the times. But how is this reversal of meaning possible? As opposed to the individual improvisation of the criollo style and menottismo, now the calculation and order of bilardismo and cholismo are to represent the rebellion. What could have happened to this change in value?
One of the most significant moments of cholismo occurred at 9pm on 18 May 2014 in Plaza de Neptuno, Madrid. A joyful crowd had assembled. Many of those present were dressed in T-shirts on which was printed “History is written beat by beat”. When the speaker announced Simeone’s appearance, there was unanimous excitement. Once he was on the podium in front of all the fans, he launched his short, eloquent, message: “It is not just a league, it is something much more important that these guys teach you all: if you believe and work, you can.”
This quote was inscribed in 2017 in the tunnel of Atlético’s new stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano, in commemoration of a historic milestone: the club’s 10th La Liga title, after 18 years of drought and against all odds. Alongside it were a whole constellation of other quotes from important club figures such as Luis Aragonés and the club anthem: for example, “Because they fight as brothers” and “Bravery and heart”. The selection is organised around the idea of sacrifice, a value that is also key to understanding its supporters’ group identity, built in opposition to the successes of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Indeed, the supporters of Atlético are mainly recognised by their ability to face adversity with resignation. The sacrifice lies in the persistent defence of their club despite historical setbacks. Instead, cholismo means rebellion against pessimism. The club’s historical experiences had instilled a solid fatalism that was condensed into a famous epithet, “el Pupas” (“Wounds”), coined by a prominent former president, Vicente Calderón, after Bayern Munich had stolen a draw in the 1974 European Cup final with a last-minute goal by the clumsy centre-half Georg Schwarzenbeck. Impossible, but real… The unexpected and fatal end has been a defining feature of Atlético.
The term Pupas encapsulated a sense of club identity – that of a failure-proof stoicism – while also condensing a whole value system that can be defined as “stubborn frustration” in the face of unavoidable fate. It seems that in Atlético’s historical development, despite the apparent contradiction, the unforeseen is expected, something close to the idea of fatal error (hamartia) of the classical Greek tragedy.
But when hardly anyone was expecting it, Simeone brought Atlético back to life, winning seven trophies in his first eight years as coach. Cholismo represents, then, the club’s most successful period so far, changing the course of its destiny: the club has transformed disastrous mistakes into a historic sequence of triumphs. And this has had an unexpected impact, quadrupling its membership and increasing sympathy among the general public.
Now, how did this transformation come about? I think that there is a full identity between work and life in the figure of Cholo Simeone. Interestingly, the media have tried to relate him to revolutionary figures such as Che Guevara, creating a contradictory ideologisation. In turn, Simeone took advantage of this to name his club “the people’s team”. It is contradictory because the way Simeone assumes work as his own destiny exudes a strong vocational component that brings him closer to some ethical systems of a protestant and conservative nature. It is sufficient to recall that the term Beruf, meaning both profession and vocation, is central to the analytical works of sociologist Max Weber, especially in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). This double meaning is based on the link between the first Protestant sects and modern professional lifestyle. Beruf originally had a divine meaning, that is, work was an obligation before God. As it became secularised with the rise of Lutheranism, the term came to identify the occupation to which the individual gives a strong sense of purpose, simultaneously losing its religious meaning. Therefore, Weber understands that the sense of work as vocation is the most characteristic of capitalist ethics and is embodied in the ideal type called Berufsmensch, a person entirely identified with their occupation, lacking a sense of life beyond its immediate horizon.
The figure of Simeone has the characteristics of this Weberian typology and his vocation is expressed in different elements. Simeone himself has explicitly described his total professional dedication: “I live football and life intensely. … I focus on the goals that I am set and dedicate myself to them 24 hours a day. For me there are no other issues. I have a degree of passion that … I give myself over to my task.” The purpose of his task is obviously victory: “I have no commitment to anyone. I only have it with winning.”
In contrast to an almost-natural football, whose styles defend individual genius and freedom, cholismo promoted a football built on work and full dedication, thereby relating to those styles considered to be pragmatic. But it is surprising that such a Protestant notion of playing can be understood as a model of revolutionary behaviour. The problem with this question seems to lie exclusively in the rivalry with the great winners of Spanish football: Real Madrid and Barcelona. But it must be acknowledged that there is something else. Sympathies towards clubs that have snatched titles from the great have always existed: Valencia, Deportivo la Coruña and Sevilla are examples from recent history. However, the fact that it is becoming a concept of movement seems to reveal some deeper reason.
Menottismo and bilardismo also correspond to very crucial moments in Argentina’s social and political history. For instance, the only two World Cups achieved by Argentina, won by Menotti (1978) and Bilardo (1986), were filtered through several historical ironies: Menotti, once a declared communist, won it during the dictatorship, while Bilardo, openly defended by the military classes, won it during democracy. Both seemed to go against the grain at critical moments. Likewise, cholismo appeared at a critical moment in Spanish history: on the one hand, the enduring footballing dominance of Real Madrid and Barça had dragged the supporters of the other clubs into tedium and on the other hand, the economic crisis had generated incessant and worrying unemployment and social fear. In both areas, a change of direction seemed necessary.
A strong figure is required to overthrow the hegemony, a figure with strong and persuasive ideas. Simeone built his image also with interpretations of his successes that converged life and sport. An example of this is his usual Christmas greetings in which he quotes historical figures. One from 2017, that he misattributes to Churchill, seems to condense the whole spirit of cholismo: “A pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity, an optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.” And in 2019 he quoted Aristotle – or rather, the author Will Durant’s paraphrase of Aristotle: “We are what we do every day, so excellence is not an act but a custom.”
Success and crisis: two of the fundamental ingredients for sport to transcend its borders and turn its styles of play into lifestyles. Since that conversation in that bar in 2012, anti-football has disappeared from football discourse. It’s not that the football/anti-football dialectic, which is another way to express the old opposition between civilisation and barbarism, has definitely disappeared; what has happened is that in the moment of crisis, the individual/society dichotomy was placed on a new footing again. The economic crisis of 2007 called into question the individualistic models of late capitalism. Styles such as criollo, menottismo, and tiki-taka may have many similarities with some central ideas of capitalism regarding individual freedoms. Cholismo, though, focuses on the societal order, that is, on one’s own sacrifice for the sake of others, which made it a reference for a specific way of understanding life in quite different cultural layers. First of all, Atlético’s frustration, unable to recover the path of success, was transformed into optimism. Secondly, the social frustration derived from the serious crisis found hope in a football style that broke the present poor expectations. Thirdly, despair at the unbeatable dominance of the two giants of national football was transformed into new hope.
The interesting thing about football styles is their enormous interpretative variability: none of them has by itself a conservative or innovative value. In fact, their interpretations are renewed in each historical present, so that a style focused on encouraging more individual aspects, or another one focused on the collective order, can be considered more or less revolutionary depending on the moment of its historical appearance. Some desires, needs and expectations explain the appearance of cholismo, or is cholismo perhaps to awaken desires, needs and expectations?
It is difficult to say, just as it is impossible to conclusively answer whether the musical enthusiasm of the fifties and sixties came before or after the great youth riots. The question of whether the musical innovations of the Beatles, Bob Dylan or Pete Seeger preceded or followed the political and social excitement can only be answered by quoting Eric Hobsbawm: “The advance of socialism depends on the mobilisation of the people, which was more reminiscent of the Beatles’ break-up than of the great strikes.”
The break is the answer to the movements in football: to seek new paths that will be remembered and serve as future inspiration. Perhaps this is what made an initially “conservative” style such as cholismo an opportunity for innovation in a downbeat present. Sometimes social and political thinking can explain football, at other times it is football that can explain the social and political thinking of a historical period.