“I was tired of it all and I said: ‘Doc, just take the kidney out. Take it out.’”
It was 2015. Earlier in the year, a twenty-year-old Saúl Ñíguez had traveled to Leverkusen to make his Champions League debut for his team Atlético Madrid. But what should have been one of the crowning moments of his career to that point very quickly turned sour. After colliding with Leverkusen’s Kyriakos Papadopoulos in the first half, Saúl ended up being rushed to hospital. It soon emerged that the young Spanish midfielder had his kidney ruptured in the clash. The club’s president Enrique Cerezo put it somewhat less delicately: Saúl’s kidney had been ‘destroyed’.
The months that followed were painful. Saúl’s kidneys were still not functioning correctly and he was fitted with a catheter. Training with a catheter fitted was agony and Saúl would end up urinating blood at the end of more rigorous sessions. Fed up, he contemplated having the kidney removed so that he could focus on his footballing career. Only an intervention from Diego Simeone’s assistant, Germán Burgos, prevented the operation going ahead.
That single-minded determination was what made Saúl such a pivotal member of Simeone’s Atlético squad. Playing in the cholismo style requires athleticism, flexibility and tactical nous. Saúl had all these. But that shouldn’t trick you into thinking the Atlético midfielder was little more than a blunt instrument. As Guillem Balague noted, ‘He can play in the Simeone style without the ball, quick putting teams under pressure, but also in the Barcelona style if he wanted to, quick with his passes, and, of course, he has the physique to come from deep.’ Possessing such a well-rounded set of attributes, there should be little surprise that Saúl has been capped for Spain at almost every level of the youth set-up as well as for the national team.
Although he has only ever been professionally contracted to Atlético Madrid, Saúl arrived at the club having spent a couple of years in the youth set-up at Real Madrid. While this might tempt you into thinking of Saúl as one of a dying breed - the one-club footballer - he did spend a season on loan at Rayo Vallecano where he was deployed as a centre back, already displaying the flexibility that would make his so invaluable to Simeone when he made the move up into the first team.
By the following year, Saúl had become a stalwart in the Atlético midfield and, his injury woes notwithstanding, would go on to help his team to reach a second Champions League final in two years, Los Colchoneros losing out on penalties to their cross-city rivals.
Saúl Ñíguez is Atlético Madrid through and through. He could see out his professional career at the club. In 2017, he signed a nine-year contract to remain in Madrid, a contract that would see him through to the ripe old age of thirty-two. This shouldn’t surprise us. He is a player who would bleed for his club. We know that. He already has.