Some smart people have written some compelling essays on why Real Madrid’s Champions League win is so impressive. They’ve talked of Zinedine Zidane’s tactical bravery and his commitment to an attacking ethos, they’ve referenced Cristiano Ronaldo’s stratosphere-burning numbers and his re-imagination as a pure goalscorer. All of those points are fair and so it’s difficult to contest that Madrid’s second European Cup in as many years, an unparalleled feat in itself, is an achievement for which they deserve to be applauded through the streets.
Saturday’s final was over as soon as Ronaldo had cut in his second goal. Juventus, having started the game so strongly, looked strangely vulnerable when they reappeared after half-time. Casemiro’s goal may have deflected fortuitously off Sami Khedira and spun beyond Gianluigi Buffon, but it was a moment Juve had practically invited. Surrender the initiative to Real Madrid and bad things usually follow. Going 2-1 down dented the Italians’ self-belief, but falling 3-1 behind shattered it beyond repair.
Once the tension vented out of the final and the result became a foregone conclusion, those watching dispassionately had the chance to consider what this meant. Not in the “three things we learned” sense or with an eye on what the future holds for these two sides, but in relation to something deeper. With Real playing out time and with the watching world imagining their white ribbons being tied to that most iconic of trophies, it was hard not to feel a growing emptiness. Compassion for Juve, certainly, and empathy for Buffon, but also a crushing sense of disappointment. It was as if everybody had lost 4-1.
The source of that is not only who Madrid are, but what they represent. They are a side constructed from players who have been torn away from fans of other clubs. Understandably then, their success just intensifies the sense of loss felt everywhere else. More figuratively, though, they are the ultimate footballing bogeyman – the kind of cowboy that sent frontiers folk scurrying back into their houses. They stalk the streets, punching the glass from shop windows, threatening locals, and gorging themselves on whatever they chose to take. They are a natural villain, so forgive the world if it turned away as the confetti fell on Saturday night.
But that isn’t it. That explains the animosity rather than the emptiness.
Last year, Atletico Madrid were the neutral’s choice. Diego Simeone’s industrial perspective on how the game should be played meant that, when his team were defeated on penalties, the obituaries weren’t overly romantic. But there was still a story behind them. Atletico aren’t a pauper club, but their journey to the Champions League final was still the culmination of an unlikely process. They may not have been the crowd’s blonde hair and blue eyed darling, but their beardy, burly determination still had plenty of pull. In fact, that rugged aesthetic was just evidence of a road well travelled; they’d come from somewhere far away and now they were here.
Because this is a relative world, Juventus were able to occupy a similar role. They too have been constructed at great expense, but not in a way which has eroded their resonance. In fact, there are relatable, human details throughout their side: Buffon’s eternal quest for club football’s biggest prize, Gonzalo Higuain’s semi-annual rage against the final ghosts which continue to haunt his career, even Dani Alves’ friendly war with whomever at Barcelona thought his top-level career was over. After the final whistle had blown in Cardiff, the hurt was obvious. On the faces of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and in the young eyes of Paulo Dybala. They will all go home to their mansions, their fleets of sportscars and their impossibly beautifully families, but there was still sincerity to their grief.
And that’s one of the differences: I’m not sure I believed Real Madrid’s joy. The people who gathered on the pitch made all the right faces and the victorious players ticked-off all the pre-presentation cliches. But there was something hollow to it, something about it which drained the neutral enthusiasm. As the television cameras panned around the Principality Stadium, they caught a Spanish fan clutching an inflatable European Cup. Seeing himself on the stadium’s big screen, he launched into a routine: raising his trophy, punching the air, and contorting his face into faux-ecstasy. I didn’t believe that. He presumably loves his club, but those few seconds were affected enough to be uncomfortable. Did it mean that much, or was that just a practised attempt to show appropriate joy? And Cristiano Ronaldo, too, sinking to his knees in triumph. But triumph for whom? His team or himself? Was that the expression of someone whose team has reached the continental summit, or an individual who knew that he could start shuffling his mantel piece to create room for another Ballon d’Or?
Despite having now defended their European crown, Madrid are also a footballing side who evade proper definition. In ideological terms, Zidane’s team are not definitively one thing or another. In fact, his own texture as a coach is remarkably light and, at the moment, his style is yet to be properly defined. Unfortunately, that further shapes the caricature: Madrid as the killing machine, dispassionately drowning its rivals in a sea of Euros.
It’s not totally fair. Those are accusations which only this particular club has to face. Are they prompted, in part, by the bitterness of envious rivals? Of course, but that isn’t to say that the suspicions of superficiality aren’t real. Where is the story at Real, beyond the aggressive transfer-strategy and Florentino Perez’s perpetual quest for re-election? Are these players who love the club, or who are in love with the stage it offers and the opportunities it provides. These are uncomfortable issues; vibrant symbols of “modern football” which turn us all cold.
And that’s what Real do: their success infuses us with indifference; their hand-picked superstars and McFandom have no affecting properties whatsoever.