Where do Real Madrid stand on the highest level of football history after yet another Champions League win?
It might have been a match-winning goal to fit the record feat, but it wasn’t quite the match, or even the celebration. In the aftermath of Real Madrid’s third Champions League in a row, fourth in five years and 13th overall – ultimately secured by an overhead kick by Gareth Bale that soared alongside any piece of historic quality from any of those past victories – there was obviously happiness and cheers and satisfaction. But there wasn’t quite elation to fit the elevated achievement.
That is perhaps a natural consequence of winning so much, and there was a similar vibe in this very stadium, when Spain won their own third consecutive international trophy with Euro 2012.
“I think the first title gives the most euphoria with the most emotion because it’s the first after so many years,” long-time Madrid rival Gerard Pique had said. “The second a little less and the third you’re more contented. You know it’s there and the job is done.”
Pique’s long-time rival and international partner Sergio Ramos didn’t quite radiate that as he walked through the mixed zone with the trophy in his hands and maximum satisfaction, having already rebuked some of his teammates for talking about subjects beyond Madrid’s victory.
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It wasn’t that it was business as usual in Kyiv, but rather that so many players were just discussing business – particularly Madrid’s most high-profile and most expensive. Both their greatest goalscorer in Cristiano Ronaldo and match-winner in Bale were openly casting doubt on their futures.
Maybe this is the cold attitude that is required to reach such levels and win it all… but this is the thing, the oddity of all of this, and why this entire record-breaking match actually fit the circumstances.
Madrid have not won it all.
They can barely get near winning a league title, having only claimed one in the last six years.
So, despite producing the second greatest period of dominance in the European Cup’s 63-year history and by far the greatest in the modern Champions League era, they have so rarely been the best side in their own country.
There has actually probably been only one year out of the four when you could actually say they were the best team in Europe, and that was last season – the one time they did win the domestic league.
It is something that continuously undercuts the natural claims to now call them one of the greatest sides of all time.
Just how good are Real Madrid? (Getty)
It should be re-iterated here that this is not to say their achievement is not itself great, but it’s instead about their greater legacy and where they actually stand on that highest level of the game’s history.
“What we are doing is not normal,” Casemiro said in the aftermath of another victory, and it’s true, but not in the way intended.
There has never been a side to enjoy such abnormal success, so successful in the competition with the greatest prestige, and so unsuccessful in the competition that offers the greatest proof of quality.
The performance in itself fit this. Like so many other big games throughout this last half decade, Madrid didn’t really look that good. They were often sloppy, and vulnerable, and as if they were without an overall plan. They just looked as if they were so beatable… only to go and win the game with yet another piece of astounding individual quality. This is what money can buy, not to mention the deepest squad the game has ever seen.
Real did not have it all their own way against Liverpool (Getty)
The utter strength of that squad is really what stands about them, and is another key point here. They haven’t really changed the game or even left a greater philosophical mark like other sides talked about in the same terms like Real Madrid 1955-60, Internazionale 1963-67, Ajax 1970-73, AC Milan 1987-94 and Barcelona 2008-11.
There was then the luck. Like against Atletico Madrid as far back as 2014 and then again in 2016, like against Juventus and Bayern Munich this season and so many other knock-out matches, there was some supreme fortune. This time it was the tragic Loris Karius’ display, and one of the worst mistakes a top-level game – let alone the highest-level game – has ever seen.
It is not churlish to point this out, but instead would be blinkered not to do so, and doesn’t mean anyone is blinded to their quality. Such fortune can stand alongside the fantastic attributes that make them maximise it.
Many might say this is all a contradiction, but it’s not. It’s just the nature of a cup competition.
They have become experts at winning this competition (Getty)
The profound prestige of the European Cup, and the brilliant shine of its pristine silver, can blind people to that. That’s what it is. It’s still just a cup, prone to the same massive distortions from one-off sudden-death instances as any other cup, where single events have much greater effect. One ludicrous bounce can change everything in the way it won’t in a league campaign.
Its shine can also blind people in other ways.
The three-in-a-row has been built up as a mythic achievement, but it is mythic in more than one way. Real Madrid’s 1955-60 five-in-a-row predecessors only won two league titles in that time, while Bayern Munich 1973-76 only won one, and finished 10th in the Bundesliga in the middle of that feat.
There was admittedly a different threshold to the competition in those days, since you had to win a league to get into it, creating a greater sense of “journey” or “holy grail” about it all.
Zidane has enjoyed an unprecedented level of success (Getty)
And this is the other thing about this modern feat by Madrid. The Champions League is a cup competition… but also one that has significantly evolved over the last few years, and is more greatly conditioned by economics than ever before.
The escalating economic stratification of the game over the last decade has created a situation whereby a few “super clubs” have been virtually guaranteed places in the semi-finals. One of them has been Madrid, along with Bayern Munich and Barcelona. Madrid have not failed to reach the last four since 2009.
That’s quite a platform to start from, and does it make much more likely that the previously “improbable” feat of multiple Champions Leagues – let alone just retaining it – would be completed. It is all the more likely if you can have the extreme strength in depth to fully compete on all fronts… or if you are no longer really competing on one front, so can devote full resources to Europe.
Both have been the case for Madrid in this last half-decade, and this is a key point as regards the wider greatness of the side.
This is also not to do down their magnificent and historic achievement. Whatever about any caveats regarding luck or games they might have lost, there is a really admirable quality in being able to hold your nerve in such do-or-die knock-out games. That is what really is great about this Real.
It’s just that’s only one great quality. The teams that really deserve to be described as the greatest showed the full range of great qualities, and regularly succeeded across all fronts.
How many more Champions League titles can this side win? (Getty )
They were able to navigate these sudden-death knock-outs with the more sapping demands of a league campaign. They won it all, and showed it all, the sprint alongside the marathon.
Again, it does not mean that this Madrid are not a great side.
It’s just the gravitas of the trophy does not automatically mean that highest-level greatness.
The talk doesn’t necessarily fit the feat.
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