Gaitán – Bringing O Mágico to Atlético Madrid

Gaitán – Bringing O Mágico to Atlético Madrid

Manuel Veth – 

With both the Copa America Centenario in the United States and the European Championships in France in full swing, the transfer of Nicolás Gaitán­ from Benfica Lisbon to Atlético Madrid almost went below the radar.

For the Champions League finalist Atlético Madrid, Gaitán is a typical transfer; a strong, fast, technically-gifted attacking midfielder, who should fit perfectly into the system advocated by Atlético manager Diego Simeone.

Atlético are known for their defensive first, up-tempo, and physical play. At the same time Atlético’s squad also includes several players who can not only fight and run, but can also play highly technical football.

Gaitán – Move to Atlético the Logical Next Step

For Gaitán, who has been one of the most prominent players at Benfica Lisbon since joining the Portuguese club in the summer of 2010 from the Argentinian club Boca Juniors for €8.4 million, the move to Atlético is in many ways the next logical step.

Yet Gaitán almost ended up in Russia. When Benfica sold Axel Witsel, who was transferred from Benfica Lisbon to Zenit Saint Petersburg on September 3 2012 for €40 million (a sum that has now been confirmed in the leaked contract, which can be found here), Benfica and Zenit also agreed on an optional deal for Gaitán.

Excerpt of the transfer agreement between Zenit and Benfica that shows that Zenit had an option on Nicolás Gaitán – Image via Football Leaks

Excerpt of the transfer agreement between Zenit and Benfica that shows that Zenit had an option on Nicolás Gaitán – Image via Football Leaks

The contract stated that Zenit could purchase Gaitán for €20 million until February 1 2013. But the Russians never exercised the option, and instead Gaitán remained in Lisbon.

There were always rumors about Gaitán possibly leaving Benfica Lisbon. Those rumors, however, seemed to have ended in December 2015 when Gaitán extended his contract at Benfica until 2019.

Gaitán Extended His Contract in December 2015

Gaitán told the press back in December that Benfica is “one of the biggest clubs in Europe.” Before making the deal Gaitán was constantly linked with a move to England, where Manchester United seemed to be interested in signing the Argentinian midfielder.

At the time it was believed that Gaitán had a release clause of €35 million, but by signing a new contract that clause was increased to €45 million. “This agreement is fantastic. It is a vote of confidence from the club and I am delighted,” he told Benfica’s official website. “Reaching an agreement was easy and quick. Both parties are happy.”

But then towards the end of the season there was talk that Gaitán could leave the club, despite the fact that he had recently extended his contract. Then came Benfica’s final game of the season, the final of the Taça da Liga on May 20, which Benfica won 6-2 against Marítimo, and Gaitán was seen reduced to tears after being substituted in the final minutes of the game.

At this point it was already clear that O Mágico, as Gaitán is known by Benfica fans, would leave Portugal to join Atlético. But with Gaitán travelling to the Copa America Centenario in the United States the formalities of the transfer took longer than usual, and Atlético did not officially confirm the transfer until June 16.

Reports suggest that the Spaniards had paid €25 million for the Argentinian. This would be indeed a good deal for Atlético, as the sum is €20 million less than Gaitán’s official release clause. Indeed it is possible that Benfica has included several clauses in the transfer agreement that could see the overal value of the transfer increase.

On the other hand Gaitán has been a loyal servant to the club and has never complained about the fact that Benfica turned down offers from several European top clubs for his services. Now aged 28 Gaitán knows that this might be his last chance to make it in a big European league. Atlético and Benfica are also understood to have a good relationship, and the two clubs have been involved in ten transfers over the last ten years—with an overal transfer volume of €90 million.

A Symbol of Benfica’s Development System

Indeed Benfica Lisbon, not unlike Atlético Madrid, consider themselves a premium development club. The club targets young talented players from Portugal and South America to develop them, and sell them onwards to top clubs in Spain, England, and Germany. Since 2000 Benfica has sold players for a total of €587.4 million, and earned €219 million in the process.

This year the transfers of Renato Sanches to Bayern for €35 million, and now Gaitán to Atlético have already earned Benfica €60 million—this does not include the bonus payments that the club is likely to receive from these transfers.

This strategy means than players such as Gaitán are happy to make Benfica their first European address. In fact Gaitán had a very succesful period with Benfica in Portugal, as the Argentinian midfielder has won ten titles with the Eagles, including three Portuguese league titles. He played 200 games for the club in which he managed 127 scorer points—the fast majority of which were assists.

The one thing that is missing from his collection at Benfica is an international title. The club came close to winning the UEFA Europa League in 2013 and 2014, but both times the club lost the final, to Chelsea in 2013 and Sevilla in 2014, and thanks to the Guttmann curse it would have been unlikely for Gaitán to win an international trophy with Benfica.

Back in 1962 the disgruntled coach Béla Guttmann told the board of directors “not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever be a European champion.” This statement has since been known as the Guttmann curse, and Gaitán hopes to overcome Guttmann’s black magic by moving to Atlético.

In fact Gaitán was the face of Benfica Lisbon, and the man with the number 10 has been the biggest star of the club over the last six years. His ability to play on all three offensive midfield position—left, centre, right—makes him extremely versatile. Yet he is probably the best at the centre of the park, where he can play like a classical playmaker.

It is as a playmaker that Gaitán is most dangerous, as he can drop back behind a natural striker—as was the case last season when he had the Brazilian striker Jonas playing in front of him.

Jonas scored 32 goals in the Portuguese Primeira Liga last season, which meant that the Brazilian finished fourth in the European Golden Boot competition. Gaitán meanwhile managed 16 assists in just 25 league games last season. Assists aside Gaitán was often the linchpin of Benfica’s attacking play, and as such was involved in more goals than the 16 assists indicate.

First the Copa Then Atlético

It will be interesting to see how Gaitán will translate his game to Atlético. But before joining Atlético, Gaitán will try to help his country secure the Copa America. Argentina are playing the United States in the semi-final on Tuesday June 21 in Houston.

Gaitán has played a far more important role than usual for his country at this tournament, as he was used as a replacement for Lionel Messi during the group stage. But while the two play a similar position they are very different players, especially since Gaitán is not a pure goal scorer.

Gaitán featured in three out of five of Argentina’s Copa America matches, including Argentina’s 4-1 quarterfinal victory over Venezuela. Now the mission will have to be for his country to beat the hosts, and to move on to the final, and to win the title against either Chile or Colombia. It would be Gaitán’s first international trophy with his country, and he would surely love to move to his new club as a champion of the Americas.

Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, and holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London. His thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, and will be available soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada.  Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus