It’s greedy to suggest that Atlético Madrid’s La Liga winning 2013-14 season, ending in 4-1 defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League finals, was a letdown. But that’s also a measure of how high this squad, led by the uncompromising Diego Simeone, made us imagine. The team played 61 matches this season, and were as defensively perfect as a squad its size and cost could be over the first 5490 some odd minutes. But it was the final 90 seconds of injury time, when Sergio Ramos equalized on a header, that represented the simultaneous cruelty and exhilaration of small margins.

Actually, let me rewrite that last sentence. Leave it to Sergio Ramos (purchased for over $36 million) to beat Tiago (bought for under $10 million) to the equalizing header in the 94th minute. We can’t discuss modern sports without mentioning price, especially when sporting David meets Goliath. Except here, our hero wasn’t a white knight, but man dressed in black. And it goes on: Gareth Bale, Madrid’s signing of the summer, cost somewhere around $136 million. Meanwhile, back on planet earth, Atlético's starting 11 was assembled for roughly $66 million.

Soccer has its own way of remembering its almost teams – those squads that played “the right way” – full of attacking verve, passing, and movement that belies their resources. But most competitions aren’t won through 30 consecutive passes culminating into a tap in – they’re won through headers in the 93rd minute or by just not being tired. There’s a place for 2004 Czech Republic’s, ’07 Roma’s, and 2011 Universidad de Chile’s, even if it’s in footnotes, or whispered in bar settings with a cast more appropriate for The Iceman Cometh. They existed at one point inside our TVs and in Twitter discussions– and sometimes, what could have been takes over what actually was. The people’s champion is a consolation prize for the imagination.

Not that Atleti played the beautiful game with intricate geometry and passing moves. They gritted their way into our imaginations, overcoming hurdles starting with the financial structure of La Liga. We’ve established a connection between them and Borussia Dortmund, and there’s a common narrative in becoming the present day “it” team. An eccentric manager rounds up a rag tag group of overlooked players. Their styles becomes one, capturing the imagination of a worldwide audience during a Champions League run. They ultimately lose on the biggest stage. The quirky squad gets torn apart during the following summer, leaving for Manchester, Milan and Munich. And those 90 seconds become just another passage in time. 

Atlético’s Summer: Much the Same

Let’s get the two elephants in the summer transfer room out of the way. There’s no transaction this summer representing as big a blow to their side as Thibault Courtois getting recalled to Chelsea. I have many a Milan friend who swears they would have beat Atleti in the Champions League had Courtois not been a top class keeper. And that’s before we bring up that save against his parent club. As difficult as it is would be to replace Diego Costa, a genuine world class keeper is perhaps the difference between getting knocked out in the round of 16 (if my friends’ theorem hold true), and making it to the final of the Champions League.

Diego Costa’s contribution represent more than his 27 league goals, and he too is rumored for Chelsea (Chelsea seem to be in the middle of the soccer universe at the moment). Symbolically, he personified the uncompromising commitment of Simeone’s side. Pragmatically, his tireless pressing sets the tempo for their defending. And, you know, he scores every 52 minutes.

So how will Atlético replace its two most valued players? Most likely, by doing nothing. As Gabriele Marcotti points out, 12 out of the 13 players who logged the most minutes this year were on the team before Simeone arrived. Atlético's summer transfers will come in the shape of current players molded into roles. Saul and Oliver Torres, two midfield talents, return from loan. Adrian presumably takes over Costa’s position and becomes another in a long line of fabled strikers for the club. Koke will improve another year. And the back four stays in tact.  

If anything, I take the case of Jose Sosa as an example of Simeone’s recruiting policy. The 28-year-old winger came in from Ukraine for a six-month loan last winter. While the move lacked flash, Sosa is a selfless player who can round out a winning side (in FIFA terms, he’d have an overall skill of 75, but craft, commitment, sacrifice ratings of 99 with the arrow pointing upwards to infinity). And that’s where Simeone and Jürgen Klopp differ. Precocious attacking talents like Mario Götze must be replaced by buying more precocious attacking talents like Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. But Atlético doesn’t buy – they just become.

Although players do seem to develop more rapidly with a world class shot stopper like Courtois clearing mistakes.

But that’s next season. For now, I take three memories from an epic Champions League final.

First, Juanfran limping back to mark Ronaldo after having his ankle turned sideways by a wayward tackle.

Second, the Fox infographic displayed during extra time that showed how the four Atlético midfielders ran a total of over 8.5 miles each over the course of the match.

Lastly, Simeone chasing after Varane down 4-1, simultaneously scaring viewers around the world.

Each moment symbolized the grit, selflessness and fight that defined Atlético's season. And that can’t be sold, or replaced, over one summer.