On March 19, when Koke (Madrid, 1992) left his house, he told his wife, Beatriz: “Today I mark”. It wasn’t just another game. Atleti played in his neighborhood, Vallecas. There where he grew up sleeping with a ball. But his quarry was another: Atleti, alevin arrived. Today he is their captain. That March 19 he kept his word. The frame. His first goal of the season. The ups and downs are behind. Theirs, those of the team. Now City arrives, the quarterfinals of the Champions League. The Vallecano wants to continue raising his fist.
-Did you see the Rayo field from your house in Vallecas?
-No, but it was five minutes away. Calle Sierra Madrona, 34-3D was the address. I will never forget her.
-Was the goal there special?
-Yes. I didn’t mind marking the neighborhood team but I had a lot of friends there and I wanted to do well. For my team, for me, because the people of Vallecas can also succeed outside the neighborhood.
Is this your most difficult season?
Over the years you go through several phases. You are not always at the same level but I feel good, strong. Hard? I have had more difficult times. The team, yes it is true, had not chained so many defeats but in the end it is work and, if you work, it comes out. We have turned the situation around. Not only me. Everyone.
-Was the meeting with Miguel Ángel Gil necessary after the defeat against Levante?
-We had many meetings with Miguel, meals. In the end it is a change of chip. Hit the key. The game against Osasuna gave us back our philosophy.
“City? There is no fear. We are Atleti and we are going to try to eliminate them, win both games”
-In what position are you most comfortable?
-I like to play (smile). Wherever, whatever. Ninety minutes, five.
-That is known, it is seen game by game.
-I like to attack, be more offensive. But if the team needs me in another position, in any other position, I will give one hundred percent.
-Once, in an interview, you said: “There are times when I read the game too much and try to be everywhere.”
I always try to help my teammates. My head comes before my body. I try to visualize. And many times I think more about helping my partner than helping myself. That’s why, maybe, there are times when I don’t perform as well as I have to. Instead of thinking more about my partner, I should think a little more about myself, because in the end when you think about yourself, sometimes things turn out better for you.
-But it wouldn’t be Koke.
-Completely (laugh). And if I was selfish and thought of myself, I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am.
“What is defensive? What does everyone defend? In the end, in modern football, everyone defends…”
-How do you live, from within Koke, play for Atlético, go out to the Metropolitano, wear the ‘C’ for captain on your arm?
-Every time I go out, especially at the Wanda, I feel enormous pride. Because you say: “Oysters”. You think about the work of all these years, since I was little, until this day. And every day it happens to you. Every time I come home I think, “Joe, how lucky I am to do what I do and to be who I am.” Which is not easy. That you live difficult moments. That you suffer many times more than other people.
-Do you suffer more when you wear the captain’s armband?
I have always suffered. But now I think: “Oysters, you are the captain and things are not working out”. Or as this season has happened to us, with ups and downs: “Oysters, we can’t hit the key”. How to play, win games. And it suffers, quite a bit.
-Guardiola-Simeone. It will be a clash of styles…
-I am lucky that, in my club, I have a philosophy and a style of play and, when I go with the National Team, it is another, similar to that of Guardiola, Barça, the style that Luis Enrique has as well. I can adapt to both, share them, and enjoy both. And that very few people have the privilege to do so.
-What differentiates them the most? Does something equal them?
-The similarity is that in the end they both want to win. Some more with the possession and positioning of how to attack and, others, like our coach, with the positioning of how to stand to hurt yourself on the counterattack or in the rival field.
-Simeone said in the summer that he doesn’t like being called defensive. Has his style changed?
-In the end we are evolving. You see the teams we have had and I think we have very offensive players. It does not mean, because you are standing in one part of the field, that you are defensive. Then you always attack, and you have spaces, and you play in a different way. What is defensive? What does everyone defend? In the end, in modern football, everyone defends. And, if not, anyone can beat you.
-Have you talked to Rodrigo about this quarterfinal tie?
-Yes of course (smile), in the selection. He admitted to me that it was going to be a very tough game. “We live in the Premier many games like this.” “Yeah, but Atleti isn’t in the Premier,” I warned him (laughs). He told me that it was going to be strange for him to play at Wanda, he is very fond of Atleti. I already told him that we were going to win for sure, that he already knows what Atleti is like.
-Have you seen him evolve since he went to City?
-In the end it’s another style of play. And in the National Team he also learns a lot from Busquets, who I think is his benchmark and is the best there. I have seen him grow a lot. But here at Atleti I would have done it too.
-But Guardiola called him. Did he ever call you?
-No. Not really.
-Your debut at Atleti was in a match against him.
-At the Camp Nou, 2009 (laugh). I’ve been in football a lot (laugh).
-Can Guardiola extrapolate something from the 2016 Atlético-Bayern tie?
-We are different teams. There are many players who are no longer. And many of us continue but we are different, we play in a different way. The match in Munich was one of the most I have suffered in my life.
-How do you play Pep?
-The coach hasn’t given the keys yet (laughs). But make the defense-attack transitions well, go out quickly and attack them well. And when you can’t, because the play has passed, take the ball from them, have possession in the rival field and tire them out, then do damage.
-What does Griezmann’s return mean for you?
-Antoine gave us a lot before and he is giving us a lot now.
“You can’t demand from a 20- or 21-year-old boy, João, to do everything, to always save the team. He doesn’t just play, we all play. And João has been put under a lot of pressure”
-What does he bring to the team?
-Intensity when attacking. How it moves, what it transmits to the group. He is a player who, when competing, makes his teammates grow. And besides, he’s an exceptional guy in the locker room. Everybody loves him.
-You were with him in the summer. I was very nervous?
We were talking all daylaugh), All summer. He wanted to return and in the end he was able to fulfill it.
-Joao Felix. Carrasco says that he thinks more about the group than about himself.
-He’s a young boy and he still has a lot of growing up to do. And a 21-year-old boy cannot be required to do everything, that he always saves. Not only does he play, we all play. And he has put a lot of pressure on him. He is now at a very high level. Antoine helps him a lot. He is contributing a lot to him by playing together upstairs. He is seeing a very nice forward. Luis also helps him a lot. Cunha when he comes out he is doing very well. We have very good people in attack, very important.
-How does the attacking partner change the game?
-João comes to receive at the foot, Griezmann breaks. Or they are exchanged. Luis receives from behind. Cunha too, he breaks. There are times more mobility. For example, João often comes to receive the foot, Griezmann breaks. Or they are exchanged. Luis receives from behind. Cunha many times too, breaks. Also depending on how the rival plays, how he positions himself. You also have to see the movements of the strikers many times, how you are pressing higher up or where you are attacking.
-Do dicks hurt a lot when they are for one?
-I think: “I’m going to work harder to change them for applause”. I don’t care if they whistle me, I care if the team wins. Nothing happens. In the end it’s a football thing. If they have even whistled for Messi, who is the best! Well… how can they not whistle Koke?
-He has 535 games with Atleti, very close to Adelardo’s record, 553, a record from 70 years ago. Do you think so?
-No, but everyone reminds me. I think about playing, adding, not in games. But it’s crazy. Now they play more. But it’s not easy being at Atleti for so many games, seasons, so often.
“I think that many times Atlético is undervalued”
-What is the Champions League for this squad? Juanfran said: “We will return…”.
-Many times I think that Atleti is undervalued. He is always there. Competing everything. Better or worse but always. We are going to play against one of the favourites, but there is no fear. We are the Athletic. We will try to eliminate them.
-You are reinforced. The goal in Vallecas. The National Team, where he was captain during the break.
-Look, I didn’t go to the National Team for two years and just the call I came back, I had to be captain. Go figure. It was hard not to go but he made me reconsider: “I have to work harder to have another chance.” And I was able to go to the European Championship and we are there, looking at the World Cup. We have a great team, young and veteran people, a great group. We’ve got people excited. We are not the Spain of Xavi, Iniesta, it is impossible, but give us a chance. Why not dream?
-What did you think of the draw?
-It will be very difficult. Germany, Japan… But we are Spain. If we do things well it will be difficult for them to beat us. We have chances to fight for the title.
-Like Atleti against City.
-By the way, does your son sleep with a ball like you?
-We don’t let him (smile). If not, don’t sleep. Stands all day. I said at the beginning: “This is going to happen”. But the other way around. He gets up and ball, and play. Is incredible. He has a thousand. I did not have the opportunity, there was only one, he has that luck. He has me dead (laugh).
-Are the parties better with him than with his brother Borja?
-(laugh) Different. With him I get more tired. Before he was smaller and I didn’t get tired of it. Now…