It won’t top Leicester City winning the Premier League, but should Atlético triumph over Real Madrid in the Champions League final on Saturday, it would be close. Atlético have never won the European Cup, though they have twice been denied in the last seconds of the game. They’ve had the hardest path to the final, defeating holders Barcelona and Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich—widely regarded as the two best teams in existence today. And, most of all, they’ve managed to survive—and even thrive—despite losing some of their best players in the last two years.
Atlético belongs to that tier of top European clubs not quite big enough—i.e., rich enough—to hold on to their best players. So, whenever they achieve success, the vultures come circling and the team is bled dry of its top talent. Another club to suffer this fate in recent years is Borussia Dortmund, which reached the Champions League final in 2013 to first lose the game, and then stars Mario Götze, Robert Lewandowski, and Mats Hummels, to Bayern Munich. Though coach Jürgen Klopp brought in replacements like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the team couldn’t quite staunch the bleeding, and endured a horrific season in 2014-15 that saw Klopp resign.
What’s incredible about Atlético is that this kind of hemorrhaging hasn’t stopped them. After the Champions League final in 2014, Atlético lost five of their starters: Thibaut Courtois, João Miranda, Raúl García, Diego Costa and David Villa. Arda Turan also left, as did Filipe Luis, though he has since returned. And yet, you could argue that this team is even better than the 2014 squad.