What defines a football club as the world’s greatest?
Barcelona’s treble clinching Champions League triumph over Juventus at the Olympiastadion in Berlin in 2015 attracted an estimated global audience of 180 million people and as the world cast its eyes over the most watched annual sporting event, nobody could doubt the worth of the newly elected champions. Barcelona’s victory was further evidence for those who claim they are the best club team of the modern era.
A year later and Spain’s capital clubs, Atletico and Real Madrid, would feature in an improbable rematch of the 2014 Final. The synopsis for the match was much the same – a glorified one off spectacle to see who would be crowned champions in UEFA’s seasonal finale – but this time the outcome brought a less satisfying conclusion. Real Madrid were never convincing yet clinched victory through the chance climax of a penalty shootout. It left a somewhat bitter taste. This stage demands the crowning of a deserving champion on that near unreachable platform, but the end reward was not just for the means of Real’s performance in the competition as a whole, or in this microscopic representation of their qualities. There was a sense that true greatness had not been witnessed on this most definitive of platforms and for the wider audience, an inclination to feel somewhat cheated from 2016’s El Derbi madrileño final.
The same could not be said of their win in the 2017 final, under the roof in Cardiff against old adversaries Juventus. Looking to become the first team to defend the most prestigious club trophy in European football for twenty-seven years, an even longer club wait of fifty years, and complete a first double since 1960, Zidane and his men arrived in Wales with the weight of history on their shoulders.
And yet, with the match poised at 1-1, there was an authority and conviction about Madrid’s second half performance that portrayed a team at ease with the sizeable expectations mounted against them. There was an air of inevitability about their victory as they took a firm grasp of the game with two goals in three minutes from Casemiro and Cristiano Ronaldo, and the Old Lady were never given a route back into the contest after falling behind for a second time.
If Zidane’s team don’t quite impersonate the Frenchman’s fluency and flair of his playing days, they certainly carried all the assured calm and cool he reflects from the dugout. If at all shell shocked by Mario Mandzukic’s acrobatics, Zidane’s team may well have found comfort in their manager’s focus on aerobics. It was noticeable how they comfortably outlasted their opponents, as they did in the La Liga title race and Madrid saw out their thirteenth Champions League win in surprisingly convincing nature.
There could no longer be any doubts about their claim to be at the peak of the European game, yet despite all the club’s undeniable fame and attraction, it had taken considerably more time and effort than many might have imagined. The world’s wealthiest club put their fans through a twelve year wait before claiming the obsessively sought La Decima, European title number ten, and have shown a stubbornness to allow such sustained failure to recur.
Real Madrid’s entanglement with the European Cup was established after a five year spell of dominance, starting from its inaugural season in 1955 and their neurotic self entitlement has been insufferable ever since. A 32 year wait to regain the trophy was broken in 1998 and having gone on to claim their eighth el campeonato in 2000, the club would throw their weight in gold in a bid to monopolize European football indefinitely.
Led by newly appointed club president Florentino Perez, everything associated with Madrid became about glitz and glamour and to this day that ellure has often proved too difficult to turn down. Even for Luis Figo, star of Barcelona’s La Liga topping team alongside players such as Rivaldo and Patrick Kluivert, and adored by the millions who worshiped him as a darling of Catalunya, the seduction of Madrid’s riqueza proved too much. His arrival, followed by Zinedine Zidane’s record breaking transfer from Juventus a year later, cemented their status as the showbiz club of football. That stupendous Zidane volley against Leverkusen landed yet another Champions League in 2002, and fronted by Perez’s wealth, Los Blancos stance at the summit of the game appeared undefiable.
Yet all the greed and galacticos in the world didn’t guarantee prosperity quite like it was imagined. Zidanes y Pavones, the club’s strategy to blend global stars with locally bred talent to forge an assault to conquer domestic and European football, never materialised. Perez’s policy to only reward his high profile attacking players with substantial wages created a class divide within the club, and those homegrown became isolated and ultimately out of their depth alongside the galacticos. Another La Liga title was lifted in 2003 but that would prove the limit for the most extravagantly expensive football team ever assembled. “We will not miss Makelele”, proved to be ill-fated words from Perez, as his stickler for the luxury player eroded any balance and cohesion the team once had, to no avail. Instead, exploiting their high profile stars for huge marketing profit margins on a global scale was their only real success of that era. Inevitably, that was never enough for a club so enriched with on-field achievements.
After his departure in 2006, there was some domestic success with back-to-back titles. However, consistent failures in the Champions League, coupled with Pep Guardiola’s treble winning success with Barcelona, meant Madrid were a far cry away from the expected level. A new direction was needed yet a familiar presence returned. Perez was reelected for a second term in 2009 and immediately set about his now trademark work – purchasing Europe’s most sought after players for record breaking fees – and Cristiano Ronaldo, along with Karim Benzema and Kaka and Xabi Alonso were signed. However, it was not until Jose Mourinho arrived a year later, that a change in emphasis could truly be identified. After masterminding Inter Milan to a treble, including a first European win for forty-five years, the Portuguese manager was tasked with bringing his tactical nouse and defensive organisation to the Bernabeu. Perez’s first reign was criticised on two accounts; for neglecting defensive security and suffocating his managers attempts to build. Mourinho was afforded more time but was not the most popular figure in Madrid and while his time at the club was never deemed a complete success, the foundations were built for Carlo Ancelotti, and later Zidane, to capitalize and prosper.
This club is considered the biggest in the world and is built for occasions like those witnessed at the Estádio da Luz in 2014 and the San Siro in 2016, but it’s hard to claim that true greatness had been witnessed on either occasion. Madrid’s path to the 2016 final was unspectacular, and even if Zinedine Zidane should be praised for breaking the Champions League’s clean sheet record en-route to the final, it was an admirable rather than inspiring feat. Nobody could begrudge their pride at claiming an eleventh European title, but it was notable that they didn’t manage to combine their European supremacy with success at home in any of their five Champions League triumphs between 1998 and 2016. League form is a greater indicator of a team’s durability at the top and in contrast, longstanding rivals Barcelona have won the treble in two of their last three Champions League winning seasons, and at least claimed the La Liga title in their last four. Certainly, succeeding in a knockout competition which no longer holds exclusivity to domestic champions does not meet the requisite for being the greatest on its own.
When claims of being truly elite are made there are lofty expectations and when the bar has already been raised to such an extent, simply winning doesn’t deserve the desired adulation. Unfortunately, comparisons with Barcelona are inescapable and it’s hard to ignore the manner of the Catalan’s triumphs in the same era. Their outclassing of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in 2009 and 2011 were pristine examples of a team completely at ease with its ideologies. Rarely are finals competed with such unassuming control as those won by Barcelona in the last decade and their last three Champions League victories have all been routine demonstrations of the class they display on a seemingly habitual basis throughout the campaign. There is a deliberation to those occasions which is a result of the philosophy deeply embedded from the work of the late Johan Cruyff and the peak of Pep Guardiola’s famed legacy may never be bettered. This is not to say Barcelona have the only philosophy that deserves any merit, rather that they are the greatest example of expressing a playing style that has achieved so much success over a significant period of time.
Just when Madrid seemed to be heading back to the golden era of the fifties they’ve handed the initiative back to a Lionel Messi inspired Barcelona and find themselves in La Liga no man’s land. Managed by an iconic club legend; headed by one of the greatest players of all time in Cristiano Ronaldo, standing tall with three Champions League triumph in four years but still unable to assert any domestic domination must be of great frustration to their supporters. First world problems these may be, but the demanding Madridistas will never let go of that sense of elitism and even a figure as lauded as Zidane is not safe from their wrath.
Next week’s Champions League Quarter Finals present Ronaldo & co with an opportunity to at least satisfy their supporters thirst for domination abroad and take another step to a historic European treble. They would be the first team since Bayern Munich in the ‘70’s to achieve this and having confidently despatched of heavy weight wannabes PSG in the last sixteen to set up a rematch against Juventus, Zidane’s side look to be coming to life at the right stage of the season yet again. With Ronaldo back in ruthless goal scoring fashion and a squad with more winning experience than anyone in the competition, Barcelona included, the stage is set.
A thirteenth European title, six more than their nearest competitors and their fourth in five years, would perhaps be the strongest argument a club can make for being the great modern football club even in the boredom of their now habitual but arguably unexciting successes.