Behind every elite sporting success is a snarling
trainer with a whip. In the case of Atlético Madrid, they have
Óscar Ortega, known as ‘El Profe’, ‘The Professor’. He is a short, 60-year-old Uruguayan and he
has been vital to all of the club’s successes since Diego Simeone took over as head coach. In the words of Mickey Goldmill, the fictional
trainer of Rocky Balboa, to crap thunder you need to eat lightening. Ortega would be a big believer in this. As Atlético’s fitness coach, Ortega is
the man responsible for making sure that Simeone’s team are able to last a whole demanding season. Given that the club’s financial resources
pale in comparison to some other clubs, Atleti must compensate by being able to run an extra
few hundred metres per game. Additionally, their style of football sometimes
sees them play predominantly without the ball, a position in which elite fitness is necessary
to maintain team structure and to still have the energy to break when opportunities arise. When Simeone arrived in 2011, he brought Ortega
with him. The pair had first met when Ortega was the
Atlético fitness coach under Gregorio Manzano during the 2003/04 season, when Simeone was
a player at the club. So impressed was the Argentine with his fellow
South American that when he launched his own coaching career at Racing Club de Avellaneda
in 2006, he called Ortega and asked him to work as his fitness coach. They’ve been together ever since, working
throughout Argentina, in Italy and eventually moving to the Spanish capital. Ortega’s background is extensive, having
worked in far-flung places such as Mexico, Colombia and Japan, before starting to train
LaLiga sides at the turn of the century, starting at Sevilla. While he has a football background, his main
source of income during his early coaching career was rugby, which he taught at the British
College in Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital. As he began to focus more and more on football,
he continued to turn to rugby for tips and tricks on how to keep footballers just as
fit and tough as the rugby players he’d previously coached. “There are things from rugby that are transferrable,
like knowing where it’s good to pressure, how to tackle and how to work as a team,”
he once explained in an interview with El País. Putting his fitness regime under the microscope,
there are some orthodox elements to what Ortega does, as well as some very unconventional
ones. Perhaps foremost amongst them is his summer
camps, which players have described as “a living hell”. In pre-season, Atlético always spend some
time on retreat, usually in Segovia just outside of Madrid. There, the Uruguayan puts the players through
14-hour days of running, running and more running, with just a few breaks for meals
in between. The players are made to run up and down the
hills of the local golf course, past the bushes which the veterans point to as a secret spot
for a quick exhaustion-induced vomit, and all of this under the gruelling summer sun. Ortega doesn’t allow for any slackers and
the newcomers are often shocked, having never been put through anything quite like this
before. Like most fitness coaches, he leads by example
and joins in significant chunks of these runs. Even at 60, he is as fit as a fiddle. Ortega’s tactical input is also valued,
with Simeone allowing the Uruguayan to design custom fitness sessions based on the tendencies
of the upcoming opponent. He even makes sure training sessions are as
game-like as possible, with few stoppages between each drill. When it comes to making substitutions, Ortega’s
input is valued too, as he knows better than anyone else which players have, as the cliché
goes, fresh legs. He’ll be on the sidelines with the players
from the 46th minute onwards to put them through their stretches and to make sure that whoever
is selected to enter the fray is truly ready to do so. This is partly why Atlético players suffer
so few muscle injuries. Nobody crosses that white line feeling stiff. Ortega’s most important contribution, though,
is in the general cardiovascular fitness of the squad. The hard miles put in on the golf courses
of Segovia help, but their ability to keep this rhythm up all season is unparalleled
when compared to other elite European sides with a high number of games. He is the reason they had the energy to sustain
a Barcelona siege on the final day of the triumphant 2013/14 season. He is the reason they were able to compete
on all fronts in the 57 matches of the 2015/16 season. He is the reason they were able to thwart
Arsenal in the first leg of the 2017/18 Europa League semi-finals, even though they played
80 minutes with 10 men. He is the reason for Atlético Madrid’s
third lung.