Two legends, one will add the Champions League title.
Zinedine Zidane and Diego Simeone are already legends at their respective clubs. But on Saturday, one will elevate himself to all new, almost unthinkable heights.
By the end of the Champions League final, Zidane and Simeone won’t just be incredible players at Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, respectively, who have made the transition to managers. One will also be the manager of the champion of Europe.
Zidane will have done it in less than a year, having taken over for Rafa Benitez midseason. When the Frenchman was named manager, the Merengues were in the midst of a slide, looked nothing like one of the best teams in the world and star players like Cristiano Ronaldo were looking at moves away from the Bernabeu.
It’s been a remarkable turnaround for Real Madrid, and it was orchestrated by Zidane. That’s the same Zidane who was the best player of his generation, won a World Cup, won Serie A twice and brought a La Liga title and Champions League title to Real Madrid. For him to be any more beloved is nearly unthinkable, but he can do that on Saturday.
Simeone wasn’t quite the same player that Zidane was. He was merely one of the best Argentines of his generation, earning over 100 caps. But he was also a great Atletico Madrid player, winning La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the affection of the club’s fans in his five years at the Calderon.
Where Simeone has shined even brighter is as a manager. Ever since taking over at Atleti five years ago, he has transformed the club and pushed them into the upper echelon of European sides. He broke up the Real Madrid and Barcelona hegemony in 2013/14 when Atletico Madrid became the first club in a decade from outside Spain’s big two to win La Liga. They also won the Copa del Rey a year earlier, serving notice that they were ready to compete with the best, and they were.
The one title that has eluded Simeone at Atletico Madrid is the Champions League. He went to the final in 2014, but lost to Real Madrid as a stoppage-time equalizer sent the match to extra time, where the Merengues prevailed. Now Atleti are back and once again, set to take on their crosstown rivals.
If Simeone never wins the Champions League, he will still be a hero at Atletico Madrid. The same is true of Zidane. Both are so accomplished and so beloved after decades of incredible play, and now management. But capturing the biggest trophy in club football would take them to another level. One will do that on Saturday.