One day the phone rang and everything changed. “They called me from the club to see if I wanted Luis Suárez and I laughed,” Diego Simeone said. “I said: ‘Are you serious? Like mad. Go for him. Let me call him.’ I called and said: ‘Look, Luis, we have to win and you want to win’.” And so they did, the 2020-21 league season ending with Simeone laughing, Suárez sobbing and everyone going wild in a car park in Valladolid 195km from home, the trophy they had won handed over the following evening back at the Metropolitano, where the club’s anthem was sung live by Francesca and Valentina. Neither had been born the last time Atlético Madrid won the title.
It had been a long journey, going back to when La Liga had marked the opening weekend by lining the streets of Madrid with concrete footballs only to have to take them away again, stupid people concerned that even stupider people would kick them. It was a strange journey too, a season without supporters – the best news of all was limited only to the final fortnight and to Valencia and Galicia – and with cardboard crowds, makeshift dressing rooms, treatment tables in passageways. Players arrived and left in their kit, like the world’s greatest Sunday league. And yet by the end, it turned out it really was a great league. “Fantástico,” Simeone called it. Super, you might say. The cups were pretty special too.
This was a season that didn’t always make sense and didn’t always feel right but a unique one that packed a lot in. A year with the kind of snowstorm not seen in a century and even an earthquake – “I thought it might be the kids,” the Osasuna coach, Jagoba Arrasate, said. There was a Spain international at Ipurúa for the first time, Bryan Gil called up; a Barcelona president behind bars; and Voro saving Valencia for the eighth time.
It had a seemingly endless supply of hat-tricks, special ones too: Youssef En Nesyri became the first man to score two in a row at the Sánchez Pizjuán; Kike García, a clumsy “lump” in his manager’s words, scored the first, absurdly brilliant hat-trick in Eibar’s history; and Carlos Soler scored three penalties against Madrid, despite being forced to retake one, becoming the third man to get a hat-trick from the spot.
The season had two penalty appeals at the same time in the same game but at different ends, the referee left to decide which one to give, standing at a screen as a pantomime played out around him, the pressure of an entire season on his shoulders. It had Marko Dimitrovic, a goalkeeper, scoring a penalty against Jan Oblak when others could not.
“He took it because everyone else missed and he’ll keep taking them until he misses one,” his coach said … which he promptly did next time. He was one of five goalkeepers who scored, but that wasn’t the only way they were making their mark. After a career stretching back to the last century, in week two the Cádiz keeper, Alberto Cifuentes, became the oldest primera debutant, kept a clean sheet and promptly retired at the age of 41, having completed football. Meanwhile, Ángel Jiménez became the youngest debutant at Granada, saving a penalty.
On it went, a season that had two Copa del Reys, the Basque final they had waited for all year and 111 years before that and a cup reign that was the shortest in history but will last for ever. It had the Williams brothers playing together in Bilbao, sons of Maria and Felix who crossed the Sahara bound for Spain. Koke Resurrección, who joined Atlético at eight and captained them to the title. And Pau Torres, the boy from Villarreal – “tall, handsome and a good lad,” in Luis Enrique’s words – at the heart of the most exciting thing the town had seen. It had an English champion, a 75-year-old strike partnership reaching the quarter-finals in Granada’s firstEuropean season, and Lionel Messi, even if he originally wished it hadn’t.
It had Orsai, Dani García on drums, Oscar De Marcos, Mikel Balenziaga and Mikel Vesga on guitar, Lekue, Iñigo Lekue on bass and Asier Villalibre on trumpet, a cup game that finally explained a saying everyone had used for years without knowing where it really came fromand even the best thing in football: a dog on the pitch.
It had lots of tears – pitchside interviews with Valencia defender Gabriel, the Huesca coach, Míchel, and Suárez come to mind, while even Simeone’s voice eventually cracked – and plenty of smiles. You just wished it could have supporters in the stadiums to share it, a feeling reinforced when 2,000 made the trip from Vilarreal to Gdansk for the Europa League final.
Others missed out. Even the cup final that waited for the supporters had to go ahead without them. When Osasuna scored the first goal at the new, redeveloped El Sadar, Rubén García ran to the touchline and grabbed a shirt with “Fans 12” on the back. Asked what their target was, Cádiz’s manager, Álvaro Cervera, put it even better: “To survive so we can do all this again next season and the supporters can see it.” Which, remarkably, they did.
But, above all, it did have that ending, the season unfolding in ever more unexpected ways, always on edge. Simeone saw something almost mystical in it all. “In a difficult year for the world, Atlético Madrid appears and it’s not chance,” he said, whispering in awe. “Destiny choses big moments to show you that you can, that it’s possible.”
Even he hadn’t imagined it being possible like this: although they ultimately held top spot for 27 weeks all the way to the finish, in 14 days Atlético dropped as many points as in the previous four months, their early advantage reduced and a four-team title race taking is place. Barcelona were close, Real Madrid were the T-1000 on Atletico’s back bumper and Sevilla were there, until a 90th-minute goal from Iñaki Williams in front of one journalist on a Monday night at the Sánchez Pizjuán effectively ended their challenge.
With five matches left, the table read: Atlético 73, Madrid 71, Barcelona 71, Sevilla 70. Defeated by an 86th-minute Iñigo Martínez header in week 33, Atlético found themselves in danger of losing it all, relinquishing that lead they had held for almost five months. As it turned out, it was better this way. As Koke said: “We wouldn’t be Atleti if we didn’t suffer.”
Boy, did they suffer. The final 20 days in May were agonising, game after game after game until the last day when it was just Madrid and them left, both needing to come back from a goal down, the title on the line until the last whistle.
“There are all sorts of obstacles along the route, good moments, bad ones, good luck and bad luck, good play and bad, and if you get there you enjoy it but what you enjoy most, what really matters is travelling that path,” Simeone said before winking and walking off a few weeks before. Now when it finally ended he just cracked up, laughing.
Their opponents cried. Valladolid went down with Eibar and Huesca, Pacheta’s great escape almost pulled off. Instead, Elche survived in front of 3,518 people, returning just in time. “This is the most important moment of my career,” said the coach, Fran Escribá. “I’m exhausted and just want to go home now.”
Everyone was, but there was joy too. A season that began with Sevilla coming close to winning the European Super Cup ended with Athletic Club winning the Spanish Super Cup and playing two Copa del Rey finals in two weeks, losing to Real Sociedad in last year’s and Barcelona in this year’s. Then it had Atlético claiming the best, tightest La Liga race anyone could remember.
There was still time for Villarreal to take the drama one step further, back to the spot where so much of the season’s drama had played out – Fidel Chave’ss penalty especially. On the biggest night in their history, every Villarreal player scored in the shootout, placing their fate in the hands and at the feet of another goalkeeper. The reserve goalkeeper. Gerónimo Rulli was handed one shot to make history. Well, two: the penalty took he took and the penalty he faced. All that and it came to this, the story of the season.
Spain had five teams lifting trophies and even a Champions League-winning captain. But it’s not just about Athletic, la Real, Barcelona, Atlético and Villarreal, oh no …
Most heroic club
Real Madrid, saving football.
Most heroic player
Roberto Soldado, booting the VAR screen for all of us.
Most welcoming club
Huesca, whose captain wore a different armband at every game, dedicated to their opponents, historic and cultural references woven into the fabric – including paying tribute to Michael Robinson when they faced Cádiz.
Most provocative club … to their own fans.
Raúl Martín Presa, president of the self-styled, left-wing people’s club Rayo Vallecano inviting Santiago Abasacal the leader of far-right party VOX to Vallecas – during a pandemic when fans can’t get in – to see them play. Coincidentally on the night they faced Albacete, whose striker Roman Zozulya the Rayo fans accused of being a fascist like him, prompting the first stadium closure in Spain.
Best response to provocation
Rayo fans turning up the next day in yellow plastic suits, carrying scrubbing brushes and bottles of bleach and proceeding to disinfect the ground.
Sport and Mundo Deportivo selling Barcelona masks for €9.99. “Get your best defence,” the slogan says, leaving you to insert your own joke here. But nothing beats Leganés’s cuddly cucumber, Super Pepino, flying from the vegetable patch to save the day.
Even if Miralem Pjanic had played really well, his signing for Barcelona would have been all wrong. He didn’t. “It leaves a bad taste and lots of questions,” he said, so that was right at least.
Oh, come on. “I almost sent [the Barcelona directors] a photo,” he said.
Biggest faux pas
Suárez, but they’ll let him off.
Most generous player
Raúl García. Unable to meet all the requests made of him at full-time, the Athletic striker instead sent every Alcoyano player his shirt a few days later. Then there’s Real Zaragoza’s José Narvaez who encouraged those who were struggling to feed their family not to be ashamed to get in touch privately, pleading: “don’t you or your kids go to sleep hungry” and still had time to bang in the goals. Please, don’t stick to sport.
Player with the most class
Step forward, José Bordalás.
Florentino Pérez. El Chiringuito. The Super League.
Barcelona. League, cup, Champions League. Goals scored 182, goals conceded 11. Absurd.
David Medié Jiménez offered a repertoire of wrongness so magnificent the Villarreal captain, Raúl Albiol, struggling not to laugh, said: “I reckon if we had played without a referee, we would have been able to agree most of those decisions between ourselves.” But the winner has to be Ricardo de Burgos Bengoetxea who provided the season’s most bizarre scene in Seville when he blew for full-time too early and had to bring the players back out – but not before some had swapped shirts and started getting changed, leaving Marcos Acuña sitting pitchside frantically pulling his socks and shin pads back on. Everywhere in Spain stadium clocks stop at 90 minutes, because fans and footballers can’t be trusted to know the time, when it turns out it’s the referees that can’t.
It’s not that the angle from which Iago Aspas became La Liga’s top scorer and the all-time leading scorer at Celta de Vigo was tight; it’s that it wasn’t an angle at all. Kike García bent in a beautiful shot against Real Madrid before his absurdly good hat-trick against Alavés. Rafa Mir’s three against Valladolid were almost as ridiculous and he kept scoring belters. Alexander Isak’s hat-trick against Alavés was pretty special too, as much for the superb assists – Merino, Silva, Oyarzabal – as the neat finishes.
Speaking of which, have a look at this hat-trick of assists from Gerard Moreno at Eibar. Look, too, at his goals this season, particularly against Granada where he left poor German on the floor, at Osasuna and against Levante when he sends Duarte stumbling out of shot.
One day at Cerro Espino, Simeone was talking about how it had been a long time since an Atlético player scored a direct free kick. Well, Suárez said, I used to take them. Give it a go then, Simeone said. Which he did.
Real Betis pulled off a neat routine against Valencia and Messi avoided a wall, a man on the floor, a man on the post and the goalkeeper against Athletic. The next time they lay down for him, Gerard Piqué approached Koke and asked him if he’d like a G&T while he’s stretched out on the lawn like he’s on holiday.
There was Nabil Fekir’s fabulous moment against Levante, turning on the halfway line and running through. Brais Mendez’s gloriously subtle touch against Levante. Karim Benzema’s one-two against Elche, plus his backheel in the clásico. Damián Suárez’s annual moment of inspiration, this time a nutmeg and mash it against Celta. Raúl Carnero’s volley against Sevilla. Dani Parejo’s shot tearing into the top corner against Real Sociedad. And Ander Barrenetxea almost breaking the crossbar to leave the ballboy behind the goal holding his head in his hands against Eibar. There was also Jules Koundé being a, erm, centre-back.
The best team move could be Barcelona pim-pam-pim-pam-pim-pamming past Real Sociedad’s defence, finished off by Messi who, you might have heard, is quite good. This year he seemed to be smashing it a bit more often, he again scored a serious amount of incomprehensibly good goals that barely even registered because he’s beyond all that now. There was the Maradona moment and the best of them might just have been the third in the cup final. Which still wasn’t his best Copa del Rey final goal against Athletic. Yet maybe the winner has to come from the second division this season. The state of this, from R.D.T.
Best goal scored by a goalkeeper
What could possibly be better than a goalkeeper scoring a penalty, like Dimitrovic? How about a goalkeeper scoring a penalty in the shootout, like Rulli. Or a goalkeepe97th-minute equaliser, like Zaragoza’s Cristián Álvarez. Or maybe a goalkeeper scoring the winner with the last kick, like Bono. Better still, what about a goalkeeper thinking he’s scored the winner with the last kick? Ladies and gentlemen, Vinarós versus Peñíscola.
Best goal celebration
For silliness, there’s Borja Iglesias wearing a panda head. There was something beautiful basic about the response to Suárez’s winner against Osasuna – no choreography just emotion piling up in the corner. Count the bodies, if you can, boots sticking out at every angle, a pair of sliders in there somewhere.
But here’s one with feeling: Javi Ontiveros celebrating the goal that finally earned Huesca’s first victory after 13 weeks by reaching into his sock, pulling out his shinpad, running towards the camera, pointing at the pad, imprinted with a photo of his grandmother, crossing himself, mouthing “I love you” and breaking down in tears. “It’s for my grandmother,” he said afterwards, barely able to get his words out, a long pause filling the silence. “ … who’s in hospital … ” he eventually managed to add, breaking down and crying as he said: “ … with coronavirus.”
Tears in his eyes, he stopped and there was applause from his teammates. “I hope she comes through,” he said. “Because I need her and I love her very much.”
Best trophy celebration (managers’ edition)
Best title celebration (players’ edition)
Speaking of which, best explanation:
A few months later, back in Seville, the scene was repeated, this time after Athletic lost the Copa del Rey final to Real Sociedad, forcing Mikel Oyarzabal to explain that Asier Illaramendi was not mocking their rivals when he tooted away at the team hotel. “Anyone who knows Illara since he was eight knows that he plays the trumpet with the band in his village fiestas every year,” he said. “And it wasn’t planned. In fact, Asier didn’t bring the trumpet with him. Carlos Fernández got it for him from a contact he has in Seville.”
Manager of the Year
In the longest, hardest season of all, Diego Martínez’s Granada overachieved again. “Go to Lourdes if you want miracles,” said Javi Calleja, but what he had done at Alavés didn’t seem so far off that.
Álvaro Cervera has brought Cádiz from Segunda B to primera, returning after 15 long years and kept them there with weeks to spare, beating Real Madrid en route. Manuel Pellegrini did what Manuel Pellegrini does, quietly getting on with being very good indeed: Betis lost twice in 2021 to take a European place. Unai Emery did what Unai Emery does too and Julen Lopetegui led Sevilla to their highest points total. Eduardo Coudet lifted Celta off the bottom and the edge of Europe. But the winner really has to be Imanol Alguacil, the Real Sociedad fan who took them to their first trophy in more than 30 years and the top of the “other league”, playing lovely football along the way. At least it would be if Simeone hadn’t done it again.
Player of the Year
Messi is still the best. KBenzema is brilliant. When he is fit, so is Luka Modric. For so much of the season, the winner appeared to be between Gerard Moreno and Marcos Llorente, possibly even Iago Aspas. But then there was the Oblakopus. The Player of the Year has to be the man whose move changed everything, his 21 goals directly contributing 21 points to the champions, carrying them through. No wonder Simeone called it The Suárez Zone.
Team of the season
GK: Jan Oblak, Atlético.
RB: Kieran Trippier, Atlético.
CB: Stefan Savic, Atlético.
CB: Jules Koundé, Sevilla.
LB: Mario Hermoso, Atlético.
M: Koke, Atlético Madrid.
M: Marcos Llorente, Atlético.
AM: Lionel Messi, Barcelona.
F: Karim Benzema, Real Madrid.
F: Luis Suárez, Atlético.
F: Gerard Moreno, Villarreal.
Subs: Carrasco, Correa (Atlético), De Jong, Pedri (Barcelona), Canales (Betis), Galán, Mir (Huesca), Benzema, Modric, Courtois, Kroos, Casemiro (Madrid), Oyarzabal, Isak (Real Sociedad), Aspas, Tapia (Celta), En Nesyri, Navas (Sevilla), Morales (Levante), García (Eibar), Pau, Parejo (Villarreal).
And finally, a few quotes to be taking on your way:
“Five minutes looking at it to come up with that that shit?!” Neto nails VAR.
“We’re a bunch of cheats in the Spanish league. They touch us and it seems like they’ve killed us.” José Luis Mendilíbar, we salute you. Again.
“Let’s not forget about football, let’s look after football.” Zinedine Zidane.
“It’s the kind of thing you come up with standing at the bar drunk at 5am.” Javier Tebas, president of La Liga, is not impressed with the Super League.
“Not even the Titanic can sink me”. José Bordalás hasn’t seen it, has he?
“An hour before the game your stomach hurts and you think, bloody hell, is all this really worth it? But when it ends if you’ve won you’re the happiest man in the world. That beer after the game, when you say ‘wow, lovely, how good was that?!’, that’s the best moment of the week.” Osasuna coach Jagoba Arrasate.
“I would play here for free.” Sergio Ramos. The quote’s not new, no, but it might be time to prove it.
“One bites, one kicks.” Diego Costa explains why Atlético’s front two will work well, only to leave before putting it to the test.
“I haven’t just been telling jokes for 20 years.” Joaquín.
“The first thing he told us to do was smile.” Celta’s captain, Hugo Mallo, reveals Chaco Coudet’s lesson for life.