Why did Atletico Madrid boss Diego Simeone cut his contract by two years?
"It's true that it happened, but nothing changes. We're fine, I'm happy where I am, I'm guided by my feelings and my heart. During the two years we can renew the deal, if they don't want to get rid of me first."
It was last Friday at Atletico Madrid's training complex and coach Diego Simeone was defending, but not explaining, the decision made earlier this summer to cut two years off his current contract.
The last line of the answer was supposed to be a joke, but few of those present laughed. Many people are still wondering why Simeone, who in 2015 agreed a lucrative deal running until 2020, had shortened his connection with Atletico. And also why the club agreed to weaken their hold on a super successful coach who is coveted by most of Europe's richest clubs.
"The first thing in the 'Simeone case' is to understand that we are looking at a very unusual club-coach relationship," Inako Diaz-Guerra of El Mundo tells ESPN FC. "Simeone is not Atletico's coach -- he is a God for the fans, a saviour, the guy who took a buried giant and, overnight, converted it into one of Europe's top five clubs. There's no other case in current world football where the success of the club is so inextricably linked with its coach. Atleti is Simeone."
It's not difficult to understand why Atletico fans feel this way. When the team's former midfielder returned as coach in December 2011, they sat 10th in the table, closer in points to the relegation zone than European qualification. They had recently exited the Copa del Rey 3-1 on aggregate to third tier Albacete, and it had not really been a surprise.
Just six months after replacing Gregorio Manzano, Simeone guided the same team to the Europa League trophy. His first full season ended with a 2-1 Copa del Rey final win over Real Madrid, Atletico's first win in 13 years over their neighbours. His second season brought a first La Liga title since 1996 and his own playing days, clinched on the final day at Barcelona. The European Super Cup and Spanish Supercopa have been celebrated too.
But there have also been the two agonising Champions League final defeats to neighbours Madrid. Speaking at Milan's San Siro after May's penalty shootout defeat, Simeone said the word "failure" for the first time, and claimed he would have to go away and consider his future.
"When Simeone said after losing the final in Milan that he had to think about whether to continue or not, panic spread," Diaz-Guerra adds. "Various players, with [Antoine] Griezmann at the head, attached their staying at the club with the coach staying."
After weeks went by last summer with no confirmation from Simeone over his plans, Atletico's chief executive Miguel Angel Gil Marin and sporting director Andrea Berta went to Argentina to sit down face-to-face.
"When Gil Marin travelled to Buenos Aires to negotiate with Simeone, who had a huge offer from Paris Saint-Germain, he sat at the table with a much inferior hand," Diaz Guerra says. "A year off moving to a new stadium, a decision which annoys most of the club's fans, he had to make sure that Simeone stayed this season and the next. And he did that with this pact."
Simeone posted an image of that meeting to social media, but none of those involved spoke about the change in his contract until last week when the news leaked out.
Ruben Uria of TV Espana and Cadena Ser insists he can see why both sides agreed to the new arrangement until just 2018.
"There are many ways to interpret the reduction," he tells ESPN FC. "That Simeone is preparing his exit. That every cycle comes to an end. That Simeone is not comfortable, as the board did not give him what he asked for. Or simply that both sides have become convinced the best thing is not to mortgage their future."
Indeed, 2018 could be seen as the end of Atletico's current cycle. The move to their new La Peineta stadium will probably have been completed and senior players who have been key to their recent success, including Diego Godin and Gabi [and Fernando Torres], are out of contract that summer. By then the club's most talented youngsters -- Griezmann, Koke, Saul, Jan Oblak, Yannick Carrasco, Jose Maria Gimenez -- could be tempted away too.
Despite their recent success, due to years of previous mismanagement, Atletico still have very serious financial issues. Each previous summer under Simeone had seen a key player sold for big money -- Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa, Arda Turan. But this year their biggest names all stayed. There were also new big money contracts for Griezmann and Saul, among others.
"The length of Simeone's contract does not matter," Jesus Martinez, director of fans group Senales de Humo (Smoke Signals), tells ESPN FC. "Simeone will stay at Atleti, regardless of the terms, while he feels good there, he feels loved and he can compete. The reason for shortening the contract could have been a way of pressuring the owners, who know they cannot get rid of him due to his relationship with the fans, given the disagreements over transfer policy."
There was no sign that the Calderon was questioning their leader's decision during Saturday's 5-0 La Liga win over Sporting Gijon on Saturday, with Simeone cheered as always. In any popularity contest with Gil Marin and president Enrique Cerezo, the Argentine will win easily. But it still seems clear that an eventual exit is now closer than before.
"It's a compromise in which both win -- Atletico in the short term, with the guarantee that Simeone leads the stadium move," Diaz-Guerra adds. "And Simeone in the long term, as he can leave for free in 2018 if he wishes -- before that his freedom will cost €40 million.
"It is, without a doubt, a strange situation, unusual, but it is pretty reasonable. Better two years for sure, than four which was bound to end in acrimony. And in 2018, we will see what happens."
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan