Sunday, 25 May 2014

La Decima - Real Madrid's Favourite Toy

By Shane Thomas

This was a story of wanting. It was made up of persistence, ego, and greed. But ultimately, it was about a want. A desperate, edacious, grasping want.
For Real Madrid, the European Cup is their sustenance. They have self-styled themselves as the football club, the baseline for the sport: attacking football; an iconic stadium; a conveyor belt of success; revered worldwide. Los Blancos are ostensibly as good as football gets.

And in the European club game, the European Cup is as good as it gets. It's the pinnacle, the trophy with the most prestige attached to it. The one that every side covets. The European Cup made Real Madrid's name - or is that the other way around? 

Their five successive victories in the competition between 1956 and 1960 gave rise to a new phenomenon; galacticos. A team that weren't a group of men. They were otherworldly superheroes. Assembled together from all over the world, at great expense. An unstoppable force. Football's Harlem Globetrotters. Walking out onto the pitch to face them must have been like the scene in Avengers Assemble, where The Avengers all... well, assemble.

Of course, the legend sometimes gets printed over the truth. Real have never always been the apotheosis of football as some madridistas like to proclaim. And some of their earlier European Cup wins were a result of them being an offshoot (deliberate or otherwise) of General Franco's fascist regime, when he was in charge of Spain.

But this mattered little to those at Real, and least of all club President, Florentino Perez. The construction magnate threw fortunes at the club, not only to attain trophies, but to purchase players with huge profiles. Real Madrid were to be (sorry, Barcelona) more than a club. They were to work like a thriving global corporation. The McDonald's or Coca-Cola of football.

And they needed the European Cup to underscore this aspiration. That's the reason for all the money spent, the absurd turnover of coaches, the constant internal politicking, the construction of teams that were rich in talent, but often lopsided. The European Cup was the ultimate end to justify what were sometimes perplexing means.

Former Real player, Michel Salgado has said, "Our entire identity is bound up in it. I can't imagine Real Madrid without the European Cup, or the European Cup without Real Madrid." When one has a prize that they want to achieve more than anything else, the blinkered pursuit of it can become the heaviest of psychological burdens. All of a sudden, thoughts can turn to how awful it would be it you were to fail in your goal, and thinking about the target overtakes the chase of said target.

Ever since Zinedine Zidane's wondrous goal won the 2002 Champions League (the club's 9th), Real Madrid have gone through 10 head coaches, spent £869 million, and broken the world transfer record three times. That period has garnered 3 La Liga titles, 2 Copa Del Reys, and 2 Spanish Super Cups. But this wasn't enough for the fans. It wasn't enough for Perez, who returned as President in 2009. They needed "the 10th". They needed La Decima.

This pressure seemed to severely hamper the Real players last night. While credit must go to Atletico for the way they structured their defence, the way Los Merengues used the ball was at times, appalling. A rather dubious tactic to cross the ball from deep positions seemed to play into the hands of the Atleti defence. And after Diego Godin gave Los Rojiblancos the lead, Atleti began to seize the contest. Like a boa constrictor, they had their prey, and began to squeeze the life out of the match. Their high-energy pressing, exemplified by their tireless captain, Gabi appeared to drain the will from Real.

The story of this match will be the historic 10th European Cup, Gareth Bale justifying his enormous transfer outlay, and Carlo Ancelotti joining the pantheon of the coaching greats - with his 3rd European Cup as a coach (and his 5th if you include the ones he won as a player) equalling the record of Bob Paisley.

But this narrative hung on a knife edge, and was dependent on a set-piece. A corner kick from Luka Modric, headed home by Sergio Ramos, levelling the scores with 2 minutes of stoppage time remaining. And the question has to be asked, why on earth didn't Atletico have a man covering that post[1]? Had a man been positioned there, the ball gets cleared, and Atleti likely celebrate a La Liga and Champions League double.

Ultimately, it was Real's superior bench that made the difference in extra-time. Bringing on Marcelo for Fabio Coentrao was an astute decision from Ancelotti - who would likely have been fired in the result of a defeat. The Brazilian had the licence to attack, and often gave Atletico an extra man to deal with down the left flank.

And it was that left flank which proved the source of the liminal point of the match. Angel Di Maria was Real's star performer throughout the night, and his coruscating dribble opened up the hitherto durable Atleti backline. His shot was well saved by Thibaut Courtois, but opportunity knocked for Bale.

The Welshman had an atrocious match up to that point, missing three decent opportunities to score. But the goal was gaping, and all he had to do was get the looping ball on target. His header crept inside the near post, the fans draped in white behind the goal went into delirium, an emotion matched by Bale. They knew La Decima was won. The third and fourth goals from Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo proved academic, giving the score an uneven look.

But these are subordinate to the ultimate thread from this story. The story is of Real Madrid's unprecedented 10th. An achievement that will remain a high watermark in footballing history. For madridistas, the wanting is over, and football is how it should be again. For 12 years, they felt like a lost club. A toddler without their favourite toy. But now they have the European Cup. They have La Decima. To them, nothing else matters.

[1] - Lee Dixon pointed out the same thing on ITV's coverage of the match.

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