Atletico Madrid: The Number 9 Production Line (Part 1/3)
For the first time in recent years, a team that is neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid is perched at the summit of Spain's top flight of football, La Liga. Make no mistake; these are exciting times for any avid European footballing fan. For it is not, perhaps, customary for both Barcelona and Real Madrid, the two most successful domestic sides in Spanish history, to occupy the unfamiliar league positions of second and third. In fact, you have to trawl back exactly a decade, to the season of 2003-04, when Valencia were crowned deserved champions ahead of Barcelona. The team currently leading the way after 32 games played, however, is not Valencia.
Going by a number of nicknames, Los Colchoneros (the Mattress Makers), more commonly Los Rojiblancos (the Red and Whites) or simply El Atleti, this particular club plays at the rather imposing Estadio Vicente Calderón in Madrid and boasts a long standing tradition of success that can be traced back over 100 years. I'm talking, of course, of Atlético Madrid. But what is it, precisely, that has enabled a side formally languishing on the fringes of Champions League qualification to this year dominate ahead of its rivals? And how has a team managed to consistently adapt and, more significantly, improve on a regular basis following the all-too-familiar departure of its strikers over the years, including Fernando Torres and Sergio "Kun" Aguero? While most clubs in Europe suffer setbacks after a star striker moves on to greener pastures, for Los Rojiblancos this is but a minor nuisance, a common occurrence, an annual expectation.
As a club that isn't generally expected to win the league title any time soon (though they’re certainly giving it a good crack this year) to boast the modern day talents of Radamel Falcao, David Villa and Diego Costa, players who have all donned the famous red, white and blue strip in recent years, seems somewhat peculiar. Not for Atlético. This club, particularly over the last three decades, has somehow grown accustomed to losing its prolific number 9 only to replace them with a figure who is capable of replicating similar or, indeed, more success on the pitch. And it would be naïve to think that this unique ability of furnishing strikers, often players that are either forgotten, unknown or considered unworthy, is solely specific to the club's modern day scouting network. Believe it or not, this long line of acclaimed strikers stretches way back to pre-World War Two from Francisco Campos to Pruden to Jose Juncosa.
Atlético: A History...
In the first segment of a three part series, this article will return to an era of football long since past, to times gone by, to a generation of football brought back to life today only through the existence of black and white photography, surviving museum relics and memories. Welcome to Madrid, Spain in 1950. Throughout the early post-war period until the late 1950s, Atlético fans witnessed pure genius in the form of Adrian Escudero. Signed at the tender age of 17, not unlike a certain young Spaniard called Fernando Torres, Escudero was the first great striker of Los Rojiblancos history. In many ways, Escudero was the complete forward; he was technically gifted, blessed with blistering pace and, as all strikers should, an acute eye for goal. Despite only finding the net twice in his debut season, the Spaniard went on to win both the admiration of the crowd and an array of silverware, plummeting a record number of goals in the process which included a rather spectacular and noteworthy 28-goal campaign.
In a decision which shocked both fans and the wider footballing world, however, Escudero was not offered a renewed contract by the Atlético hierarchy in 1958. Consequently, the Spanish forward retired aged just 30, tragically cutting short a memorable playing career that spanned a total of 13 years. Having playing for one professional club all his life, the late Escudero was, and is still today, a true legend of the Spanish game.
Did you know that Escudero…
1) was once the all-time leading goalscorer for Atlético Madrid with 170 goals, having appeared for the club in 13 La Liga seasons, and more than 350 official games.
2) scored Atlético's 1000th goal in the top division, in a 2–3 away loss against Celta de Vigo, through a penalty kick on 8 March 1953.
3) succeeded in netting double digits in eight out of ten consecutive seasons for Los Colchoneros.
While the late '50s and early '60s are considered a disappointing period of limited success, certainly in the face of a rampant and resurgent Real Madrid side, a particularly deadly duo emerged by the turn of the mid-1960s who were more than capable of firing Atlético back to the elite of Spanish football. Luis Aragones, the Spaniard who would later become a coach at both his former club and the national side, and Jose Eulogio Garate (pictured below) the Argentine-Spaniard, combined to produce some of Atlético's finest moments.
Both trumped Real Madrid to the acquisition of the league title, first in 1966 and again in 1977, a feat that was replicated in similar fashion following a tight title race with Athletic Bilbao and the pair lifted the Copa Del Generalisimos (now known as the Copa Del Rey) three times. While Escurdero's individual brilliance as a lone striker during the 1950s won him many deserved plaudits, the pairing of Aragones and Garate is perhaps comparable to the modern day pairing of Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero, whose complimentary styles, great teamwork and natural link-up play inspired the team at large to exceed all expectation more recently between 2007-11. Make no mistake, however, the partnership of Aragones and Garate is among the most important in the club’s history during a glittering and somewhat trophy-laden cycle, perpetuated by the most intense tussle with bitter rivals Real Madrid.
BELOW: Luis Aragones, the freekick specialist, (top) and Jose Garate (bottom)
Luis Aragones (1964-1974): 372 appearances, 172 goals
Jose Garate (1966-1977): 241 appearances, 109 goals
Both were crowned deserved Pichichi winners in 1969/70. Garate, who had won the second Pichichi of the club’s history, went on in fact, to win the award on a hat-trick of occasions. It was a partnership that was responsible for alleviating the club’s woes of the early ‘60s, bringing about a degree of success while rejuvenating the club and forcing rival fans to take note of a prominent Atlético Madrid side one more.
In the next instalment of this three part series, the conveyer belt of top class strikers at the club will fast forward to the 1980s and 1990s; an era simply dominated in Los Colchoneros history by the marvel talents of Hugo Sánchez, widely considered as the best Mexican footballer ever and Christian Vieri, the one-season-wonder. And why exactly was Vieri a one-season-wonder I hear you ask? Find out next time.
(Alternatively, head over to my blog and find out now)
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