This is a translation of the article originally written for the excellent ForzaAtleti.com, where Ricardo Menéndez is a regular writer.
Sánchez Pizjuan on the sideline, Sunday November 5th, 2005. A young and nervous kid takes off his tracksuit and waits next to the fourth official. He is only 18 and a half years old. Only three players younger than him have made their debut with the red and white jersey in over a hundred years of history. One of those three historical players is on the pitch at that moment, Fernando Torres, in fact he’s wearing the captain’s armband. Fernando sees him standing waiting on the sideline and makes an encouraging gesture. “Go Mario!” can be read on his lips.
Young Mario tries to shake off the nerves, doing some last minute heel flicks and shaking his limbs from side to side. He can’t appear nervous. Not being a midfielder. He must look calm and sure of himself. Midfielders are the core of the team. The whole system revolves around them. No space for nervousness, let alone for mistakes. In this crisis-struck Atlético, Carlos Bianchi seems to be coaching his last games. One has lost count of the long list of sacked coaches that have failed to achieve decent results in recent years, the worst in rojiblanco history that led the team to a humiliating relegation and the worst period for the institution since it was founded. Almost ten years have gone by from the historical “Doblete” that he witnessed as a kid in front of his TV set. “Where did that Atleti go?” thought Mario as he waits for the official to raise the electronic display.
The official raises the display and a green ten lights up. Mateja Kezman gets a half stern, half disappointed look on his his face when he sees his number as the third substitution tonight and realizes the game is over for him. He mumbles to himself on his slow trot off the pitch and in the last moment raises his head and says “Come on kid, go get them!” and Mario Suárez Mata is on the pitch. His career as a professional football player has just begun.
He won’t be the only one reaching the height of the first team from the youth this season. Cuéllar, Braulio and Molinero all get there and even remain longer on the roster than him. But Mario will prove to be the most talented and the most successful canterano in the long run. Fast forward seven years and at 25 he’s already made over 200 appearances. At the end of 2006 he will receive the a bronze medal in the prestigious “Fútbol Draft” award as the best young defensive midfielder of La Liga. Among the awarded are other up-and-coming players such as world cup winners Javi Martínez and David Silva.
Mario doesn’t know yet, but his dream to have a career as an Atleti player is still far off. He will have to move on. As a first step he is sent on loan to a successful Segunda side, Valladolid, who set a new record for points on their way to the title in Spain’s second division. It feels good to be important for the team, to grow professionally.
Still without a place in Madrid, he again goes away on loan the following season to Celta. He doesn’t manage to return to the top flight with the Galician side, but his good performances earn him a ticket to Mallorca. He is sold to the islander side and is signed for four years. The fine print says Atlético have a buy back clause for the first two years, but that seems remote now. His main goal is to play well and improve now that he’s finally a regular in the Primera División.
He plays solidly next to Cléber Santana during the first season and Borja Valero during the second with Gregorio Manzano as his coach. He becomes a fixed starter. Those two years don’t pass by undetected and he is bought back. In the summer of 2010 the time has come to return home. Mario starts very well, playing and scoring his first goal as an Atlético player against Real Sociedad. The return is sweet, but under Quique Sánchez Flores the team fails to be consistent. Mario also struggles to play his best football and even though he reaches his 100 game milestone as a pro, the feeling is sour because he’s not up to the level displayed at Mallorca and people wonder why. “Is the pressure of playing for Atlético too much for Mario?”, fans wonder. It wouldn’t be the first case.
His game becomes predictable and he loses the freshness displayed in previous seasons. The truth behind this is that he is in pain. He suffers from a groin injury which takes all the swiftness from his gamestyle when moving the ball from the defense to the offense. Manzano is appointed for Atlético de Madrid and suddenly Mario Suárez becomes the main culprit of the lack of results after the first months. He is said to be favored by Manzano in an unfair way, just because Mario played for him at Mallorca for two full seasons. Something surprising happens, the local fans start booing and target their abuse at him more than anyone else. Him! A true canterano whose dream was to play for Atlético ever since he was a teenager. The fans are so unfair. Supporters angry at Manzano blame Mario for the bad season and state the Spanish saying that second parts of anything are normally not good ideas (in reference to Manzano’s and Mario’s second period as Atlético members).
As months go by the team only performs solidly in Europa League competition and a humiliating defeat in the Copa del Rey, added to Atleti drifting away from the top of La Liga, get Manzano sacked by year’s end. Mario meanwhile receives more abuse from the stands. He never has a sour word or gesture towards fans, he assumes it’s part of the job. He just concentrates on working harder. The end of the tunnel comes with the new coach who brings aboard his winning spirit (and luck as well), who brings a simple playbook: Everything is obtained through sustained hard work, effort and team spirit. With Simeone’s arrival, Mario’s pains fade away and his better qualities come to surface. He experiences a sensational second half of the season that are topped with two finals in Bucharest and Monaco. Perfect performances. Meritful to the extent of being worthy of a spot on the national team (one of his current biggest To-Dos). In a country with the largest collection of top notch midfielders, there is a proud Madrilenian team that play with three boys from home doing an outstanding job in that area.
The midfield of Atlético de Madrid is currently a fairy tale or a daydream we don’t wish to wake up from. Many of us believed our cantera-love could not be surpassed after the loss of Fernando Torres. But years down the road, the triplet Mario-Koke-Gabi makes us regain hope in our youth system. Mario is the intermediate generation and stands for rewards that come with sacrifice. Gabi is the leader and undisputed captain. Koke stands for the generations just arriving and a hope for continuity. They are the core of the team right now and we will not fully understand the importance of having such an impressive amount of home-grown players until we see them retire and start to find them amiss.
That Sevillian night, so far away in our memory, seven years ago, seemed just like another crummy draw at an away game, with Atleti stranded in the middle of nowhere in La Liga. Yet another season and we all went to bed upset and disappointed for what seemed to be (and definitely was) another season of failure and mediocrity. But in that team, which featured Gabi as well, a seed had been planted and here we’re living to see the fully grown results: Gabi and Mario have come a long way ever since that chilly November evening: they’ve played finals (and won them), they’ve visited Neptuno with silverware to show off, they’ve won trophies, they’ve returned their club to the step in Spanish football history from which we should have never stumbled. They had to leave the club to earn their way back and command us to victory.
His name is Mario Suarez, he’s only 25 but he has already had a magnificent career and has won three European titles. This week we celebrate his seventh year as a professional and we feel pride to see him successful. He is one of our own. Congratulations Mario!
Ricardo Menéndez is a life long Atlético fan who hosts the excellent This is Atleti-podcast. He regularly writes for ForzaAtleti.com, MadridAtleticos.com, ForzaFutbol.com among other websites. We highly recommend you check out his Twitter-account Rickyam.