The Grass Is Greener: Real Madrid’s Road to Kiev

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, they say. We may be in love with Italian calcio, but there’s more to football than what happens south of the Alps. In our “The Grass Is Greener” column, we discuss what’s up with international football and its trending news.    

Today, as the Champions League Final approaches, The Cult of Calcio’s Spanish correspondent and Real Madrid fan Carlos Molano takes a look at Real’s bumpy road towards the final showdown in Kiev, mixing personal memories with the club’s recent history.

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In 1994, my dad made me a member of Real Madrid – what is known in Spain as a socio – the same way my grandad had done with him in 1953, when he was only seven years old.

My grandad had become a socio himself in 1946, when moving from Extremadura to Madrid after the Civil War. Dad’s first game at Santiago Bernabéu as a socio coincided with the debut of La Saeta Rubia Alfredo DiStefano as a Real Madrid player. It was September 23rd 1953, a friendly game versus French side Nancy.

They could both experience the glory days of Real Madrid in the European Champions Cup during the ‘50s, with the club winning five consecutive titles between 1955 and 1960, followed by one more in 1965.

“La Saeta Rubia” Alfredo DiStefano poses with the five European Cups in a row he won when playing for Real Madrid. He was Los Blancos’ first global star, and he is regarded by many as the greatest football player ever (Photo: www.football-history.net)

But then the unthinkable happened, a long desert crossing of 32 years. During my teenage days, I kept hearing my grandad, dad, and uncles talking about DiStefano and Real’s glory days. But I couldn’t see my team reaching even the semifinals of the renamed Champions League – previously known as the European Cup.

Then finally in 1998, at the end of a horrible season in La Liga, with coach Jupp Heynckes leading the club to a disappointing 5th position, and coming very close to being sacked several times, Real Madrid unexpectedly reached the final again. Odds were strongly in favor of their opponents – la Vecchia Signora Juventus – which could line-up players like Zinedine Zidane, Alessandro Del Piero, and Edgar Davids.

After a very tense game at the Amsterdam Arena, a lone goal by Predrag Mijatovic put an end to our 32 years of drought. Real Madrid reached glory again, and I, too, finally had a story to tell my grandchildren. Nevertheless, President Lorenzo Sanz still decided to fire coach Heynckes.

In 2000 and 2002, under the direction of Vicente Del Bosque, Real managed to lift La Orejona (the nickname given in Spain to the trophy, due to its resemblance to a pair of big ears) two more times. But this successful period was then followed by another long drought, with the club failing to advance past the Round of 16 between 2004 and 2010.

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After moving from Juventus to Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane led Los Merengues to their 9th Champions League in 2002, scoring a spectacular goal in the Final against Bayer Leverkusen

Many things happened on a personal side during those years. My grandad passed away in 2009, missing the chance to see Real Madrid winning La décima. (“The Tenth One,” their tenth top European competition title) In 2013, my dad received a gold badge from the hands of football legend Alfredo DiStefano himself. The award recognized him as a one of the most senior socio, having been a part of Real Madrid for 60 years.

With the advent of Jose Mourinho and his iron grip, the team became competitive again and reached three consecutive European semi finals. However, something was still missing.

In 2014, Carletto Ancelotti and his assistant coach Zinedine Zidane pushed Real Madrid once again onto the highest step of the podium after an agonic final in Lisbon against city rivals Atlético Madrid. It was the first Champions League final ever disputed by two teams from the same city.

With Atlético leading 1-0, Sergio Ramos scored an equaliser in the 93rd minute with an incredible header and sent the teams to extra time, where a physically stronger Real managed to score three more goals.

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Real beat twice city rivals Atletico (2014 and 2016) in two unprecedented European derbies to capture their 10th and 11th top competition title. In both occasions, captain Sergio Ramos left his mark on the triumph scoring some fundamental goals  

A few weeks after that incredible final, La Saeta Rubia Alfredo DiStefano passed away, as he could finally rest in peace knowing that the tenth Orejona was now displayed in the museum of Santiago Bernabeú stadium.

The rest is recent history. In 2016, Zidane replaced Rafael Benitez on the bench in the middle of the year, and won a new Champions League on his debut season as head coach for Real, once again beating Atlético in the final. Then, one year later, the Blancos became the first club in history to win the Champions League in two consecutive seasons since the new format introduced in 1992.

They are now ahead on their way to make it three. Real Madrid started the 2017-18 season beating twice Barcelona to capture the Spanish Cup, then lifted to heaven the European Supercup as well, after a very tough game with Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United.

But right when the team seemed unstoppable, they suddenly collapsed in La Liga, suffering their worst crisis in the last 30 years. Santiago Bernabéu lost its status of an unbeatable fortress, and almost every team started to get away from it with some points. The club hit rock bottom on Christmas Eve, losing 0-3 El clásico against Barcelona. On that day, the manager, players, and even the club chairman realized that La Liga was over for Los Merengues before 2018 even started.

Looking at the Group Stage of Champions League, the situation wasn´t promising either. Tottenham was superior in both games, especially in Wembley, where they topped Real on a 3-1 score. Due to the poor performance of Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid still made it to the Round of 16 as second, but was left in a tough position for the next round draw.

The seeding pots delivered the worst possible opponent to Los blancos, as Paris St. Germain and their newly-signed stars Neymar and Mbappé were expected to come to Bernabéu. Everyone in the capital city of Spain feared their season was coming to an end in February already.

It was in that moment, with Real Madrid facing one of their deepest crisis in recent years, that senior players had to make a step forward. The whole stadium felt it was a special match since the moment all fans started to sing El himno de la décima, a song composed by artist RedOne in 2014 to celebrate the tenth Champions League victory.

PSG scored first, and everyone started shaking. But that was when the real DNA of Real Madrid came out, making them coming from behind to capture a sounding 3-1 win. In the second leg in Paris, Real dominated a French side missing the injured Neymar, and prevailed again on a 1-2 score.

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PSG star Neymar Jr. was well-contained by Real Madrid, which eliminated the French side in the Champions League 2018 Round of 16, despite odds being against them

In the Quarter Finals, another extremely difficult contender was waiting for the Blancos: Former season runner-up, and six-time Italian champion Juventus. Cristiano Ronaldo stole the scene in the first game with a sublime performance, featuring a beautiful overhead kick in the sky of Turin that will go down to football history. The game ended 3-0 for Real, but the battle was far from over.

Juventus still wanted to show what big champions they are, and one week later Mario Mandzukic scored after just two minutes, casting the worst of fears over fans and players at Santiago Bernabeu.

The unthinkable happened, with Juve scoring twice more, and equalizing the aggregate score.  Then, in the very last minute, a much-controverted penalty awarded for a foul by Medhi Benatia on Lucas Vazquez pushed Los Merengues further.

The Semifinal obstacle were five-time Champions League winners Bayern Munich. Destiny is unpredictable, that´s what coach Jupp Heynckes must have thought when he was called to replace Carlo Ancelotti on the Bavarians’ bench in the middle of the season. The winner of La séptima substituting the winner of La décima, and now facing Real on their way to another title.

In both matches Bayern totalized more ball possession, more scoring chances, and played better overall. But once again, that special DNA, that never ending honeymoon between Champions League and Real Madrid made Los Blancos advance and make it to their third consecutive final.

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Bayern Munich was a tough contender for Real Madrid in the 2018 Champions League Semifinal. The Germans played better overall, but Real managed to move forward on a 4-3 aggregate score

Another five-time champions, British side Liverpool, is the last opponent for the final showdown to be held in Kiev on May 26th. A game to look forward to, with two offensive sides, which play a fast-paced football, and are specialized in counterattacks.

Scoring one more goal than your opponent, that´s the philosophy both managers, Jurgen Klopp and Zinedine Zidane, share. That makes us predict wide-open defenses, and hopefully the chance to see many goals. As a Real Madrid socio, but moreover as a football fan, I’m counting the days to the final.

And, as William Shakespeare once said, “The destiny is the shuffled cards, but we are the ones who play.”

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