Atletico Madrid’s Best Ever Players

MADRID, SPAIN - Jul 24, 2021: The facade of Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in Madrid, Spain

Diego Simeone brought happiness back to Atletico Madrid fans with the Spanish capital city club eclipsed to new heights under its former player. Colchoneros continues to fight on all fronts to add more trophies to their cabinet. Before that, let’s revisit those who made that happen in the club’s 120 years of existence. As usual, we start with the close calls – the Honourable Mentions.

  • Tomás Reñones – (1982-1996) – 452 games, 2 goals – third-most appearance maker. In his last season, won a first league title and fourth Copa del Rey.
  • Juan Carlos Aguilera – (1987-1993) (1996-2005) – 442 games, 34 goals – fourth in the appearance list and won the cup twice in his first stint
  • Diego Simeone (1994-1996) (2003-2005) – 167 games, 30 goals – won a domestic double as a player, created a dynasty since coming back to the club in 2011 
  • Sergio Aguero (2006-2011) – 234 games, 101 goals – Atleti was his first European club at 18 and won the Europa League with the club before his Manchester City chapter
    Saul (2008 – current) – apart from times he spent on loan at Rayo Vallecano and Chelsea, Saul, who joined the club from Real Madrid at the age of 14, has been a constant presence in Atleti’s midfield.
  • Angel Correa (2015 – current) – the World Cup winner will soon become one of the players with 400 Atleti appearances. 
  • Juanfran Torres (2011 – 2019) – 355 games, 6 goals – the guy who started his career at Real Madrid won all domestic trophies as a key figure at Atleti
  • José María Giménez (2013 – current) – injuries limited his stats, but a colossal figure at his only European club, especially when he used to play alongside compatriot Diego Godín

 

Diego Forlan

2007 – 2011 (198 games, 96 goals scored)

Major titles: Europa League, UEFA Super Cup, Pichichi Trophy

Before joining Atleti, the Uruguayan striker played for European giants Manchester United and finished La Liga top-scorer with minnows Villareal. But it was a daunting task of replacing fan favorite Fernando Torres after the young captain’s transfer to Liverpool.

Yet, with Sergio Aguero on his side, Forlan helped the club to a first Champions League qualification for over a decade in his first season. He repeated that feat the next term by scoring a Goal of the Season contender and a last-minute winner against Espanyol.

He won the La Liga Pichichi Trophy and European Golden Boot for the second time that season, finding the net 32 times in 33 matches. 2009/10 started on the wrong foot for Forlan and Atleti, but they revived their season as Quique Sanchez Flores’ arrival was the turning point.

And, ironically, that was the season he won his only major trophy with Atleti. Forlan scored six goals in the successful Europa League campaign, including two against Liverpool in the semi-final and both goals in a 2-1 final win over Fulham in Hamburg.

At the end of that season, he finished joint World Cup top-scorer as Uruguay reached the semi-final in the first tournament staged on African soil. A year later, he left the club with fond memories to replace Samuel Eto’o at Inter Milan.

José Eulogio Gárate

1966 -1977 (241 games, 135 goals scored)

Major titles: 3 La Liga, 2 Copa del Rey, Intercontinental Cup, 3 Pichichi Trophy

The Argentinian was one of the few top Basque players to have never played for Athletic Bilbao. In the late 1960s and early 1970s Atletico Madrid team, he was the leading striker, finishing three consecutive top-scoring awards in the process.

In the cup, he scored winning goals in Atleti’s triumphs in 1972 and 1976. He was also part of the team that reached the European Cup final in 1974. With champions Bayern failing to participate in the subsequent Intercontinental Cup, Atleti won the competition beating Garate’s hometown club Independiente in the two-legged final.

The club opted to remember him with homage to the striker in the 2018/19 club membership cards – marking the 50th anniversary of his first Pichichi award as an Atletico Madrid player.

As he picked Spain over Argentina to represent on the international stage, Garate never had a chance to play in a major tournament.

Adelardo

1959 – 1976 (553 games, 113 goals scored)

Major titles: 3 La Liga, 5 Copa del Rey, Intercontinental Cup, Cup Winners’ Cup

Second in the all-time appearances list at the club, Adelardo played 400 La Liga games. The midfielder was part of two World Cup squads for Spain’s national team.

In total, he spent 17 years at the club he made a name for himself with technical quality, goal-scoring exploits from midfield, and his commitment to the club. Nine of those seasons ended with the club winning a trophy.

He was the captain of the side for their memorable European nights in 1974. At the Vicente Calderon for the semi-final clash against Celtic, after a first-leg game remembered for the three red cards for the La Liga side, goals from Garate and him sent Atleti to the final, where they lost out to Bayern Munich. 

Before Koke surpassed the record in September 2022, Adelardo was the most-capped Atletico Madrid player. A year earlier, the club paid tribute to one of their first legends with the 2021/22 club membership cards.

Jan Oblak

2014 – current 

Major titles: La Liga, Europa League, UEFA Super Cup, 5 Zamora Trophy

The only goalkeeper on our list, Oblak joined the club after winning the treble with Benfica. At the time, it was the most expensive transfer of a goalkeeper by a La Liga club.

After Thibaut Courtois’ successful loan spell, it wasn’t easy to step into the role. But with five Zamora Trophy accolades, for finishing the season with the lowest goals-to-games ratio, it’s safe to say they get the value (and beyond) for their money. 

The shot-stopper won four titles so far with the club. He was the substitute goalkeeper for the first one as Miguel Angel Moya played between the sticks in a Spanish Super Cup success. But he won his place soon before he played a pivotal role in the 2017/18 Europa League triumph. Oblak was La Liga’s MVP when Atleti won the league for the eleventh time in the 2020/21 season. 

At the end of last season, Oblak became the most-capped foreign player in the club’s history, breaking Diego Godin’s record. Earlier this season, he reached 300 La Liga games, becoming the seventh Atleti player to do so in Spain’s top division.

And, for now, we put him in seventh place of the all-time greats. The Slovenian still has more in his tanks to climb up places in this list as he also has a long contract (2028) at the club.

Koke

2008 – current 

Major titles: 2 La Liga, 2 Europa League, 2 UEFA Super Cup

We’re staying with the current team. The current captain played over 600 games for the club, making him the player with the most appearances.

He joined the club’s academy when he was eight. He’s one of the few players in the current major European leagues with a big chance of playing his entire football career at a single club.

Koke is also a standout with his versatility helping him pop up at fullback, although central midfield is his main forte. He has a tremendous passing range and keeps a team’s balance with his defensive skills.

For a club mostly known for determination and solid organization, especially in Simeone’s era, Koke is the perfect prototype of an Atletico Madrid player. He also showed his leadership acumen since taking over the captain’s armband.

Xavi, the former midfield general and the current coach of Barcelona, once referred to his Spanish teammate as “a footballer of the present and the future”.

Gabi

2002 – 2007, 2011-2018 (417 games, 10 goals scored)

Major titles: La Liga, 2 Europa League, Copa del Rey, UEFA Super Cup

Returning to his first club in 2011, Gabi was the team captain when they enjoyed success under Simeone. The Madrid-born midfielder is known for his work rate and leadership qualities.

In addition to winning the league, he was part of the team that reached Champions League finalists in 2014 and 2016. Unfortunately, their city rivals triumph on both occasions.

After ten years in the first team, Gabi hung up his boots at Al-Sadd, winning Qatar Stars League.

In his first season after leaving Atletico in 2007, he was part of the relegated Real Zaragoza side. But, four years later, he returned to his stomping ground to have a towering influence.

His first title was the 2012-13 Copa del Rey, incidentally the club’s first in 18 years. At the final extra-minute of the final against Real Madrid, which also saw Cristiano Ronaldo sent off, he received a second yellow card for not keeping his distance defending a free-kick.

In 2014, he delivered the assist to Diego Godin’s crucial goal at Camp Nou as Atletico Madrid won their first league title since 1996. Four years later, he was once again decisive in a big night with a goal against Olympique de Marseille to win his second Europa League title.

Diego Godín

2010 – 2019 (389 games, 27 goals scored)

Major titles: La Liga, 2 Europa League, Copa del Rey, 3 UEFA Super Cup 

Godin joined Atletico Madrid from fellow La Liga outfit Villareal in 2010. And he started with a title as Atleti beat Godin’s future club Inter Milan in the 2010 UEFA Super Cup.

The following season, they won the Europa League beating Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao in the final. Before Jose Gimenez’s arrival, Godin also had a solid center-back partnership with Miranda. 

And, in the 2012/13 season, La Liga followed. Away at Barcelona, Godin rose the highest to clinch the much-needed point on the final matchday as Atleti won the league for the tenth time.

Although Real Madrid revived to win the final, Godin also scored in the Champions League final a week later. His former Villareal boss Manuel Pellegrini tried to sign him for Manchester City, but the Uruguayan stayed at the club until he was 33.

Before Angel Correa and Jan Oblak surpassed him, in 2017, he became the foreign player with the most appearances for the club. In his final game at Metropolitano against Sevilla, he passed the captain’s armband to Koke to symbolize the new era.

After retirement, Godin keeps following his beloved club with keen interest. The man who played in four World Cups for La Celeste usually gives opinions on Atleti matters and shows support to his friends from Madrid.

Antoine Griezmann

2014 – 2019, 2021 – Current

Major titles: Europa League, UEFA Super Cup, Spanish Super Cup

Godin is the godfather to the daughter of the guy we have at number 3. In terms of titles, the World Cup winner is not as decorative as some of the other Atleti giants we already dealt with, but his influence is greater.

After five excellent seasons at Real Sociedad, he joined the Madrid club in 2014. Another five years later, he was off again with a move to Barcelona keeping him in Spain.

But he soon finds out that the grass isn’t greener on the other side. Two years later, he returned to the white and reds with an initial loan deal. 

In his first stint at the club, he was UEFA’s Best Player for the 2017-18 season. The Frenchman scored twice in the Europa League final staged in Lyon, France, against French side Marseille.

It wasn’t easy to win back the fans’ hearts after his move to Barca, but after two seasons on loan, Atletico Madrid turned the deal into a permanent one for €20 million.

He was La Liga’s best assist provider for the 2022-23 season with 16. In the top-five leagues, only Kevin De Bruyne and Lionel Messi prepared as many goals in that campaign.

His path to legendary status is far from the usual ways we often see. When he was playing against Atleti as a Barcelona player, there used to be boos all around the stadium with his every touch of the ball.

And the first few months back at Atleti didn’t seem to change anything. But that’s how Grizzi operates. It took him a little while before adjusting himself into Diego Simeone’s tactical demands after signing to the club from Real Sociedad.

And, once again, he needed some time to regain his old form on his return to Metropolitan. At first, Atletico Madrid even waived the chance to sign him permanently for €40 million. But he’s now one of the best players in the world.

Despite a Madrid derby defeat in Supercopa staged in Saudi Arabia, El Principito (The Little Prince) eclipsed Luis Aragones as the club’s all-time top-scorer. Just like some of the names in our list, Griezmann can improve on this ranking as he currently has a contract until 2026.

Fernando Torres

1999 – 2007, 2015-2018 (198 games, 96 goals scored)

Major titles: Europa League, Second Division

The current Atletico Madrid U19 coach is the club’s icon. The guy who started life in a goalkeeping position impressed Atleti scouts at the age of 11 in 1998.

In his first year at the club, he was voted the best European player for his age group. As such, it was not a surprise when he signed his first professional contract when he was barely 15.

He played two seasons in Segunda Division before their promotion in 2002. His big break in top-level football didn’t take much time as he scored 13 goals in his debut season with Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea showing interest in him afterwards.

Atleti resisted and the decision paid off. The striker named Atletico’s captain at age 19 scored 19 goals to finish third in the scoring chart. Premier League clubs were always after him, and Atleti had to finally bid farewell when he became Liverpool’s most expensive transfer in 2007.

Although it was a short stint for the first team, Torres was seen as Atleti’s icon at the time for how he adapted quickly to La Liga standard and, mostly, for taking the captaincy before he turned 20.

And, luckily, that wasn’t the closing chapter. In 2015, Torres returned home with a loan deal from AC Milan in a mid-season transfer. It was a precious moment for the fans who used to adore their kid as 45,000 people were present for his unveiling at the Vicente Calderon Stadium.

With Champions League and Europa League at Chelsea as well as World Cup and European Championship success under his belt, Torres’ homecoming had a strange feeling. But he was always an Atleti boy, El Nino.

On 16 May 2018, Torres won his fourth club European trophy, although he was only a late substitute in the Europa League final win against Lyon. He scored twice in his final appearance for the club against Eibar at Metropolitano Stadium.

Torres might not have the big numbers and an extended stay as an Atletico player, but no one will strip him of his status as the fans’ favorite. After ending his playing career in Japan, he once again returned to the club to nurture talents as they did with him at the turn of the millennium.

Luis Aragonés

1964 – 1974 (370 games, 173 goals scored)

Major titles: 3 Spanish Championships, 2 Copa del Rey, Intercontinental Cup, Pichichi Trophy

As a player and coach, Aragones helped the club to four Spanish championships and the famous 1974 European Cup final. In their formative decades, Aragones stayed loyal to the relatively modest team.

But he played for Real Madrid at a young age and coached Barcelona in the 1987-88 season. When he signed for Atleti in 1964, it spilled the start of a unique nickname – Zapatones (big boots).

The free-kick specialist won the Spanish Cup in his first season before adding three league titles to his name. In 1974, Aragones scored the opening goal in extra-time against Bayern Munich in the European Cup final. But the West German champions forced a replay with a 119th-minute equalizer. 

In the days before penalty shootouts, Bayern crowned champions after they came out 4-0 winner two days later. Before the end of the year, Aragones hung up his boot and he was appointed coach of the first team.

Before Griezmann stepped up the game, Aragones was the club’s all-time top-scorer with 173 goals. The determined leader also won the league as a coach in the 1976-77 season.

His use of words to motivate players always centers around winning. That mentality is still maintained at the club by the current coach Diego Simeone.  

Aragones grew up in a less glamorous suburb of Hortaleza and he didn’t have it easy to climb to top-level football at first. At Getafe, there was no guarantee of La Liga football. And he couldn’t become a first-team player at Real Madrid.

Brief spells at Oviedo and Real Betis also didn’t indicate the birth of a legend of the game. But, at Atleti, Aragones was a big success from the first day. It was simply the perfect fit for both the player and the club.

After some time playing in midfield, Aragones linked up with Jose Garate up front as Atletico Madrid surpassed the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona for the best part of a decade. 

With Griezmann in great shape, the Frenchman can take over the greatest player crown from Aragones in a few years. But, in terms of influence at the club with different roles, Diego Simeone is the one that comes close to the former Spain national team coach. We should also reserve a line here for Vicente Calderon, club president for two decades.

After suffering from leukemia, on 1 February 2014, Aragones died at the age of 75. When Atletico Madrid reached the Champions League final that year, they wore shirts with his name written in gold. As customary with the club’s legends, Atleti remembered their biggest influencer in the 2019-20 season membership card. Although he was influential in their old ground Vicente Calderon, his statue outside Metropolitano Stadium was unveiled on 29 October 2021.

About Tony 9 Articles
I'm Tony, a football writer since 2005, from Warrington in the UK. I support Liverpool and have done since I was a kid. I've previously ran other footy sites, and have a love for the game overall (not just LFC). Find out more about me & my background on the about page, linked to in the site's main navigation.

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