Former Bafana Bafana defender Quinton Fortune is not surprised at how Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid pipped Real Madrid and Barcelona to the Spanish title in the just-ended campaign.
It was Simeone’s second La Liga triumph since returning to Atletico as a coach in December 2011.
In 1996, Fortune shared the Atletico dressing room with the Argentine whom he describes as a fiery character as the Colchoneros captain.
Now with the Spanish giants having also claimed two Europa League titles, a Copa del Rey and reaching two Uefa Champions League finals under Simeone, Fortune feels his former teammate should be mentioned in the same breath as the world's best football managers.
“Diego Simeone was like the Roy Keane of Atletico Madrid at the time. He was a real leader, very vocal, he was ruthless with his game,” Fortune told La Liga South Africa. “He was a typical Argentinian who would not give you anything on the pitch.
"I am not surprised that he has been so successful as manager of Atletico and I am delighted that he and the club managed to win La Liga again this season. The way Diego coaches is the way he was as a player.
“He was relentless and he drove the club to the title this season. He has been their 12th man, kicking and heading every ball from the touchline, and the fans absolutely love him. What he has achieved at Atletico as manager is unbelievable. He has got to be rated amongst the likes of Pep Guardiola as one of the best managers in the world right now.”
Fortune revisits his days at Atletico where he played under the late Serb Radomir Antic who signed him from Tottenham Hotspur as a 19-year-old in 1996.
The ex-Manchester United left-back also relives his Atletico debut against a star-studded Barcelona in a match in which he marked the Brazilian Ronaldo.
“Radomir Antic gave me my Atletico debut against Barcelona. They had the original Ronaldo, Pep Guardiola, Luis Figo and Ivan de La Pena in their team that day,” said Fortune.
“Radomir asked me to mark Ronaldo, the best player in the world and one of the greatest players of all time. I think he scored a hat-trick against us that day, he really was phenomenal.”
That season, Simeone captained Atletico to their ninth 1995/96 La Liga crown, the first one since 1977.
Real Madrid, laced with some superstars, went on to finish a distant sixth, Barcelona on position three, while Valencia were runners-up.
“It was absolutely mind-blowing being part of the Atletico squad in 1996 that won the Spanish league and cup double. I still have the little miniature La Liga and Copa del Rey trophies we were given by the league that season, which is very special,” Fortune said.
It took the return of Simeone, now as coach, for Atletico to bag their 10th La Liga title in the 2013/14 season before their latest success.
Fortune spent three years in Madrid before a reported £1.5 million transfer to Manchester United in August 1999.
“It was a really crazy experience for all of us and an honour being part of the huge, amazing team Radomir formed at Atletico,” Fortune concluded. “He played me in several positions, left wing back, striker, midfielder. I really learnt a lot during my time at Atletico, it was a real football education.”