Atlético Madrid and Barcelona traditionally make-up Spain’s ‘big three’ but are not direct rivals.
The Catalan giants’ animus is towards Atleti’s city rivals Real Madrid and despite their eternal hatred there’s been 22 direct transfers between La Liga’s most successful clubs.
Not to be left out, Barça have conducted business with Los Rojiblancos, no fewer than seven players have swapped the Camp Nou for Estadio Vicente Calderón now Wanda Metropolitano this century, and we’ve ranked them.
7. Thiago Motta
Disclaimer: this is a little unfair. Nobody knows quite what this spell might have been were it not for fitness issues. When Thiago Motta arrived from Barcelona after a tough spell with injuries, he got injured. Only briefly were there glimpses of quality across his 10 appearances, then he saw out the rest of the season injured. Before he became the cantankerous pivot we think of today, Motta was much more of a marauding presence and was expected to contribute as much to Atleti’s offence as its defence.
Yet after only a season, both sides were happy to sever the relationship and he left on a free having barely been on the pitch. Fans of his work will be pleased to know Motta did at least manage one red card.
6. ‘Nano’ Macedo
Whereas Luis García made the grade at Atleti and became a national name, it was there that Nano’s path took a fairly distinctive turn. Once a great promise in Galicia, he joined Barcelona and sat on the fringes of the first-team before following García and Barjuán to the capital. Initially he made good strides, featuring 28 times in his first season and looking like a threatening left-sided midfielder.
Yet when manager Gregorio Manzano vacated his post, so did Nano’s hopes of making it in Madrid. The most telling assessment of his latter stages there was made by Nano himself when he joined Numancia several years later: “I needed to feel like a footballer again after Atleti.”
5. Antoine Griezmann
How does one sum up Antoine Griezmann? There are so many angles from which to unpack his story, his journey, his performances and his career. And of course, his decisions. It’s too early to brand his return to Madrid with a one-word descriptor like success or failure (hence why he features so low in this ranking) but it is good drama.
Desperate to please, to be adored once more, he even chopped his mullet at the request of Atletico fans – only strengthening the sensation that the runaway teenager has realised it ain’t so bad at home.
From an Atleti perspective, it’s a calculated risk. They receive another slighted star keen to prove themselves. They do so with a reported profit of €50 million. Should Diego Simeone be able to extract the player that he once was, which Griezmann’s international form hints is still there somewhere, Atleti also receive a world-class forward for the end of his prime.
A football team is a curious equilibrium and there is the potential for the Frenchman to knock the team out of kilter. On the face of it however, Atleti appear once again to have exploited a market opportunity and all at the expense of Barcelona.
4. Sergi Barjuán
A legendary left-back for Barcelona and part of the oft-cited Cruyff dream team, Sergi Barjuán arrived from his summer holidays in 2002 to discover he had been ‘cut’ by Louis van Gaal. Aged 31, he decided the cauldron of Atlético Madrid was the right place to wind-down his career.
Three respectable seasons followed where he was a starter in each right up to his retirement in 2005, making 91 appearances.
It was a convulsive time in the capital for the club which speaks to his quality that he remained a figure of trust under three different managers. Collecting yellow cards with perfect defender’s dignity, his time there was not especially memorable and that’s a fairly good endorsement of a full-back.
3. Luis García Sanz
Part of the same generation as Xavi Hernández and Carles Puyol, it was in Madrid that Luis García made the transition from talented youngster to good footballer by trade. A singular season in the rojiblanco of Atlético Madrid was enough to convince Barcelona they had made a mistake and promptly they would use their buy-back option the following summer.
With Atleti having just won promotion, it was upon the partnership of Luis García and Fernando Torres that they based their 12th-placed finish. Of their 20 goals, Luis García contributed seven from midfield. An expert in the mechanics of the game, he mastered the llegada – that special timing of when to arrive in the box – that Thomas Müller would later make his own. Combined with a proclivity for raking long-range strikes, Luis García was a fun player. It’s easy to understand the affection towards him and he would return after his spell in Liverpool.
2. David Villa
Of course, Suárez was merely repeating the trick of his predecessor David Villa. After a season in Barcelona where Spain’s record goalscorer struggled to nail down regular football due to injury then latterly Pep Guardiola’s preference, Villa went to Atleti and laughed last.
While never having a troublesome ego, Villa certainly exhibited the natural confidence of a great goalscorer and towards the end of his spell in Catalonia felt under-appreciated. Different in character to Suárez, there is a spikiness to Villa which extends beyond his hair and exposes the steely insides of the Asturian.
Joining for a fee of €5.1 million, Villa was never quite the lead figure for Atleti but he was nonetheless a valuable contributor. He, too, was ‘used to winning’. With pleasing circularity, he scored on his debut against Barcelona and on the last day of the league season would celebrate a fairytale triumph on the Camp Nou turf. Tallying fifteen goals and five assists, Villa provided a respectable return given he was never a guaranteed starter.
Mission accomplished, Villa would depart for the free world after just a season but did so having carved out a fond corner in the hearts and minds of atletistas.
1. Luis Suárez
Charged up like a biblical storm, thunderous and ready to wreak havoc, Luis Suárez arrived at Atlético Madrid with just a little bit of an edge. The Uruguayan has always been a brilliant forward, but perhaps as the situation became stale in Barcelona, he had lost a little of his sharpness.
In Madrid, he found a team and a fanbase ready to love him; ready to accept his faults and instead focus on his strengths. By moving him closer to goal and asking only what Suárez could give, Diego Simeone gained a difference-maker for the reported measly fee of €7 million. All while Barcelona contributed to his wages.
“He’s used to winning,” Simeone pointed out. A facile statement yet no less significant. Suárez’s mentality was a major part of Atleti’s second title win in 25 years. That sharpened edge was decisive in keeping Atleti from being hunted down in LaLiga last year; across 13 games, his goals directly contributed to an extra 30 points for Los Colchoneros. From start to finish he was excellent, scoring on his debut and rapping home the winner in the last game of the season.
When Suárez left Barcelona, he had a burning desire to prove himself. Simeone gave him the tools to do so and in return received the key piece in his title puzzle – El Pistolero was a genius signing.