414 games in Atlético colours. 414 games, 10 years giving his body and his life to his boyhood club. Many think of Atlético de Madrid and only one player springs to mind – the man who represents the club mindset better than anybody. El Capitán, born on July 10th 1983; Gabriel Fernández Arenas.
On July 3rd 2018, Atlético held a press conference to honour their departing hero. Gabi would be leaving to join Xavi at Qatar’s Al Sadd, a move which came out of the blue several days prior to the press conference. This sparked a flood of tributes from Colchoneros worldwide, devastated that the man who had lead them to so much was now saying goodbye. Atleti’s press conference was emotional – fans watched as Atleti players bid farewell to Gabi and saw as Koke tried to put into words what his captain and “older brother” meant to him before both players broke down in tears.
As cliché as it sounds, football is different with Los Rojiblancos. The club is a family, Simeone and Gabi made sure of that. Every player fights for the others and, looking at these footballers in the tunnel before games, you can see they are all ready to go to war for each other. In recent years, the club has said goodbye to other icons like Raúl Garcia and Fernando Torres. None were as painful as this, though.
One of his defining moments I look back on the most as an Atleti fan came on May 17th 2014. No, not Gabi’s assist for Godín’s header to win us the title – but Gabi hugging Koke in the aftermath. Two players from a different generation, both boyhood Atleti fans realising that their dream had come true. They had broken the duopoly of Madrid and Barcelona over 38 games, a feat which was viewed as almost an impossibility at the start of the season. A title which could not have been achieved without Gabi’s influence and leadership.
Despite having the likes of Diego Godín, Koke, Filipe Luís and Diego Costa in the team – all leaders in their own way – there was something different about how Gabi inspired his teammates. If Atleti went a goal down, or struggled without him, it often looked like the belief was drained from the team. With him on the pitch, if the same thing happened he lifted them, pressured them and made sure they fought to the final whistle, no matter the odds. This is what Atleti will miss most. Unquestionable command over anyone who played in Rojiblanco, a man who demanded that everybody gave all they had.
Determined to feel once again what it was like to win silverware for Atlético before he left, Gabi threw back the years in the Europa League final, playing 90 minutes, getting around the pitch like he was in his prime again, assisting Griezmann’s opener and capping off his last European game for the club by scoring the final goal in a 3-0 win against Marseille with just one minute to go. He shared the lifting of the Europa League title with fellow club legend Fernando Torres, without the fans realising this was the last time they’d see him raise a trophy in front of them.
His commitment to the club was so great that he admitted before he left that he wasn’t comfortable joining Al Sadd at first, purely because they play in white. Being an Atleti player is more than pulling on their shirt, it’s about love for the club flowing through your veins, the badge being a part of you. There is no one who showed this the way Gabi does. He’s the embodiment of what it means to be Atlético and one day, he’ll follow his mentor Diego Simeone’s path from Atleti captain, to Atleti coach.
Gabi let me see what it was to be Atlético through and through, in bad times and good times. He is an idol to millions of Colchoneros in Spain and across the globe. A key part of club history and the captain who brought us a golden era, lifting 6 trophies including 2 Europa Leagues and the 2013/14 Liga title. Gracias Capitán.
By: Jonny McConnell