Real Madrid’s reign is over: now is the time to salute, not mock them
The humiliation by Ajax led to much mirth at Madrid’s expense but four Champions League crowns in five years is a period of dominance that history will look upon kindly
Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste. I’ve been around for … well, quite a long time as it happens, most notably as champions of Europe for the last thousand days, an era of oddly room-temperature dominance that has now come to an end.
The period of public mourning has been notably brief. Instead Real Madrid’s ejection from the Champions League on Tuesday night was greeted not by tributes and tears, but with a chorus of crowing delight. Sympathy for the devil’s Meringues? There’s not much of it around right now.
It has been a devastating 10 days for Madrid. Evisceration at the hands of Ajax followed a pair of season-ending defeats by Barcelona. Into the vacuum has come a joyously received acrimony. Santiago Solari is most likely on his way out, with the possibility of a return for the king of pain himself José Mourinho. In the meantime tell us more about Sergio Ramos having a furious dressing-room row with Florentino Pérez, an altercation that could be improved only by finding a way for both parties to lose in humiliating fashion.
Praise for Ajax’s role in all this will be sustained and richly deserved. The sight of that ageing champion team being pulled apart by a crop of gorgeously fluent sporting saplings will live long in the memory. But there is something else here too, an equivalent pleasure in seeing Madrid fail.
And why not? It is an easy dichotomy to draw, in part because Ajax are so easy to like. Their entire annual revenue is less than £80m. By contrast you could buy the entire city of Amsterdam with only three golden hairs from Cristiano Ronaldo’s armpit. Ajax are the ewoks here. Madrid are Darth Vader, capitalism, The Man, human mortality, the club of historical Spanish imperialism, a tool of Franco when the blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank.
At which point it is probably worth taking a breath. There is quite a lot that gets thrown away in this narrative. Let’s take a closer look at the charges. First, the idea that there is no Madrid era, that four Champions League wins in five years was an extended fluke, a triumph of star power to be glossed over and shrugged aside.
It isn’t hard to see why Madrid are a disappointment in this regard. Their success has no “philosophy”, no shroud of ascetic intellectualism. But it was still deeply modern, pegged out around possession football, fast counterattack, a converted centre-forward, marauding full-backs and all the rest. Try telling Luka Modric his take on the complete modern midfielder was somehow an inferior celebrity tribute act.
In pure sporting terms that five-year run remains an amazing achievement. The opening act saw Madrid beat Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and Atlético Madrid. Bayern were European champions, with seven players who would win the 2014 World Cup three months later. Madrid thrashed them 4-0 in Munich, the flukey gits.
In 2017 they were irresistible, scoring 20 goals in the knockout stages. Last year they knocked out PSG, Bayern and Juve and took the final against Liverpool with an on-brand blend of standalone brilliance and hard-honed shithousery.
What more do we want from this bunch of grizzled stars, a team that stayed pretty much the same over its five-season span, its success, funnily enough, an unexpected tribute to the virtues of stasis and continuity and team building.
This is another key objection, the idea Madrid represent a triumph of resources, the death of the team in favour of the star vehicle. It is, of course, true to a degree. But here’s a thing. Madrid had the same number of academy players on the pitch as Ajax at kick-off on Tuesday night. The great cash-flashing short-termists have more home-grown first-team players than Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United.
Outsourced stars, self-generated talent, brand building: Madrid are simply a high-functioning model, driving elite club football from the front seat since the 1950s. The galáctico era may have been sparked by its own kind of state-aid corruption. But this is still recognisably a football club owned, like Ajax, by its members, an entity that exists simply to play and to win, not to enrich third parties or act as a soft power tool.
Football needs them, too. Madrid give us an absolute. They’re the Beatles, the Basilica of Rome, Winston Churchill, Hamlet, Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, a measure against which to judge and rate every other success. We cherish these pantomime villains.
Ramos may resemble the impossibly handsome fitness instructor who seduces your wife and daughters just so he can steal your favourite pair of socks – and then throw them away as he zooms off on his Vespa laughing. But he is also an irresistibly high-grade footballer, just as the Ronaldo supremacy of the last five years gave an added lustre to the things around it; not least Lionel Messi’s competing brilliance, the beauty of that operatic rivalry.
Real Madrid are not the enemies of football. Boredom and entropy are the enemies of football. As are corrupt administrators, publicity-seeking political entities. Madrid, by contrast, are heat and light, an undying fascination.
These are changing times too. That wonderful Ajax team will be pulled apart before long, and not only by Madrid themselves. Give it a few years and it’s possible we might just look back on those five years of white light and say, well, that was a team: a juggernaut of the old-school that was, for all its flash, driven by nothing more than its own sporting legend.