Atlético midfielder Koke, a jewel of the club’s youth academy, for months sat forlorn on the bench while Gregorio Manzano was still calling the shots at Atleti.
Despite reassurances from both Manzano and sporting director José Luis Caminero over the summer that he would play an important role on the squad this season, the Spanish youth international didn’t feature much in the first half of the 2011/12 campaign, often inexplicably being sent on in the dying minutes of settled matches.
With the arrival of coach Diego Simeone however, the 20-year-old’s fortunes quickly began to reverse.
The gifted youngster has appeared in seven of Simeone’s nine games with los Colchoneros, and has started the last three matches, garnering the praise of an admittedly partial-to-home-grown-stars fan base.
Along with team-mates Adrián and Alvaro Dominguez, the Madrid-born footballer was called into Spain’s Under-23 pre-Olympic squad on Friday.
Koke is widely expected to step in to fill the creative void left by Brazilian playmaker Diego, who suffered a thigh injury last weekend that will keep him sidelined for at least three more weeks.
Ahead of our big clash this weekend against Barcelona, AS reporter and great friend of AtléticoFans Dani Hidalgo interviewed the young idol, who loosened up and offered an introspective take on his experiences so far this year.
Below is an excerpt of the full interview which can be found here.
“After three years of fighting, it’s starting to become customary to see you in Atlético’s starting XI”
At the moment, I’ve played three games as a starter. I’m very happy to be relied upon by the coach and to be able to help the team the best I can.
“Throughout the years, who have been your top role models?”
During my childhood, my idol was Juninho and as the years went by, I admired Torres because of how he made it to Atlético’s first team and became big. Then, in my position, I look up to Xavi and also Iniesta – he’s very good.
“What about within the Rojiblanco dressing room? Who do you look up to the most?”
I tend to look up to Tiago a lot, because to me he is a very great football player and a great person. Within the dressing room, I identify myself with him a lot because of how he plays. We talk a lot and he gives me a lot of tips. He’s also one of my role models.
“Your story is becoming one of success for Atlético’s cantera“
This world is very difficult. There are so many of us canteranos fighting to be up here, and very few of us make it. For example, Mario, Gabi and even Antonio López had to leave before being able to play here. Domínguez and I though, stayed. One must fight. It’s very tough. On my part, I have to fight and continue working to be here.
“During the winter transfer market, three players from the first team left on loan to Rayo, two of them from the academy. Is the cantera undervalued?”
They went in search of the minutes they weren’t getting here. I hope they get all the minutes they can with Rayo so they can come back here more developed and return as even bigger ‘cracks’ than they already are. I wish them all the luck in the world.
“It seems like the canterano is more at the mercy of the coach than the rest…”
One must adapt to what there is. Each coach has his own way, his style, and the player must adapt himself.
“Tomorrow you have to face off against Barcelona, we’re not talking about just any opponent…”
Certainly not. This is a very special game. It’s against the best team in the world at the moment, especially because of the football they display. We must go all out in order to take the three points and for a boost in morale.
“What are your thoughts on the Madrid-Barça duopoly in la Liga?”
[Real Madrid] and Barça are a step above everyone. Each team has to know what they play for. We have to qualify for Champions [League], our objective. Not this year because it’s already too complicated but, next year, if we can fight for la Liga, we will not give up on it.
“This Barça have a lot of weapons. For you, which one is the most fearsome?”
“Who in particular?”
Busquets, Mascherano, Xavi, Iniesta, Thiago, Cesc, they are great, world class footballers. We will have to fight hard in order to be able to win.
“How do you beat this Barcelona?”
You have to play a perfect game and not let them play. If they have the ball they suffocate you and kill off the match. We have to try to take the ball away from them and try to break quickly. With the intensity and fight we have under Simeone, we can defeat them. I think that’s something we’ve been able to transmit to our fans.
“Simeone’s arrival has been very important for you, in particular, no?”
The first part of the season was difficult for me. I was rarely counted upon by Manzano, but now, Cholo has arrived. When he got here, he told me to remain calm; that, whether I would play five, 20 or 90 minutes, he was going to count on me. He told me I was going to be important and he is fulfilling what he said. I’m playing and I try to repay him on the field for the faith he has placed in me. I will fight to the death on the field for him.
“In these two months, what have you been able to learn from the coach?”
As a team, we’ve learned how to increase our level of intensity, something that we lacked before. Now, we have it. If we lose a ball in the 85th or 90th minute, we’re going to kill ourselves to recover it. We have to leave our all on the pitch, that is the key.
“It feels like Simeone isn’t just another coach. Is that the perception in the dressing room?”
He has transmitted to all of us a special feeling for what he experienced here as a footballer. On the field, we are leaving our all for him and for the fans. The first round this season was complicated, and it was imperative for us to take off.
“There are Atlético fans that would rather lose to Barça in order not to lend a hand to [Real Madrid]…”
We come out to win every match. We always have to. If we offer [Real] Madrid a favour tomorrow by winning, that’s fine, but we have to look out for ourselves and not for others.
“Will the team suffer because of Diego’s injury?”
Diego’s absence is a very critical one. He was at an incredible level. He’s a spectacular footballer and it’s a shame that he can’t be with us, but we have [options on the squad] to try to resolve these absences.
“You spent your years in the academy playing as a pure midfielder before having a more offensive role on the first team. Xavi had a similar experience at Barça…”
I’ve always played in the centre, sometimes defensive, sometimes offensive. Now, the coach uses me on the flank or behind the forward. I feel comfortable helping the team out wherever.