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 success Los Rojiblancos have achieved 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. Success never comes out unless the right ingredients have been fed into the formula.
As Atlético’s fitness coach, Ortega is the man responsible for making sure that Simeone’s charges are charged up and that they’re able to last a whole demanding season. Given that the club’s financial resources pale in comparison to those of Barcelona, Real Madrid and the other European giants who fight for the Champions League, Atleti must compensate by being able to run an extra few hundred metres per game.
Since 2011, this has been the case. Simeone took over in December of that year and, crucially, 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 the fitness coach. They’ve been together ever since, working throughout Argentina, in Italy and eventually moving to the Spanish capital – where, incidentally, they replaced their former boss Manzano, who was sacked by Atlético after returning for the 2011/12 campaign and starting it poorly.
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.
It’s not just rugby, though, that has helped make Ortega the elite fitness coach that he is. He takes useful nuggets of information from all walks of life and from all kinds of sports. His intelligence and research, such as his thorough studies of VO2 max, are so important for the club that won LaLiga in 2013/14, but there’s also something instinctive about his craft, something other fitness coaches cannot replicate. “There are some illogical aspects that are difficult to explain, even if you’re read a thousand books,” he has said of his approach.
Putting his fitness regime under the microscope, there are some orthodox elements to what Ortega does, as well as some very unconventional ones. Perhaps what’s most impressive is that he has been able to earn the players’ love and respect, even when he is the one who puts them through what the players describe as “a living hell” each summer.
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, yet they still maintain respect for their fitness coach, whose wit and affection make him hard to hate.
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 and will go for runs each morning, even through the centre of cities like London, Milan or Moscow, when Atlético are on the road in European competition. He works as many hours as any of the other coaches and, as such, is Simeone’s most trusted assistant after the Argentine’s right-hand man Germán Burgos. Ortega’s tactical input is 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, like a sustained bleep test. Like a 90-minute match of professional football.
There are also personalised plans for each of the players and he showed impressive care at the start of the 2017/18 season when he helped Diego Costa regain fitness after the Spain international had spent most of the summer away from the gym and away from the training ground. One of the first things Costa said when he landed in Madrid after his move from Chelsea was that he knew Ortega would put him right before he could return to competition in January of 2018. “He’ll get me sharp”, Costa said of the fitness coach when interviewed by journalists at Madrid’s Barajas Airport. “I’m not scared of the scales, only of his training sessions!” he joked. Sure enough, Ortega had Costa ready to hit the ground running once he was once again eligible to play, with the striker scoring in three of the first four matches of his comeback.
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. “If the substitutes improve us then that’s great, but we’ll also applaud if they can come on and ensure our level doesn’t drop,” he has explained of Atlético’s approach to second-half changes, something he clearly considers vital. 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, just as he does with his intense warm-ups pre-match. 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 long when Atlético play as many matches as any other elite European side is unparalleled. The fact that he weighs the players every morning – shaming them in front of their peers if the number is not what it should be – shows just how attentive he is in the day-to-day grind of the season.
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.