Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Real Madrid's European dynasty
Different players may own single European Cup finals. Different teams may own individual eras. Ultimately, though, only one club can ever really lay true claim to the trophy itself.
Real Madrid have famously won the competition a record number of times. To put that into proper context, however, there has never been even a moment since the very first final when that has not been the case. In essence, all the European Cup has ever known has been Real as the unrivalled barometer, at the top of the three.
Five in a row, nine in total and what is widely considered the single greatest performance in any final. That 1960 team will forever remain as the reference point for any champions. As Eintracht Frankfurst's Paul Osswals said following that famous 7-3 showpiece in Hampden Park: "They should just give Real Madrid the trophy and make another one for the team that earns the right to be humiliated by them in the final."
To add to that, the club were the first to win the competition with two different teams (1960-1966) and then the first to win it with three (1998-2002).
"We feel as if it ours," former defender 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."
The only problem with such an association, though, is that it has also created something of an obsession. As Clarence Seedorf said of the eve of the tense 1998 final: "It was virtually a duty to win the competition. That was the purpose the club was built for. They hadn't won it for 32 years and you could feel the hunger."
Complicating that obsession further was the response from opposition sides. Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, many did see Real as that European Cup barometer, but perhaps not in the manner the Spanish side envisaged. Instead of serving as the monolith that overshadowed the entire competition and psychologically conditioned the rest of the field, they merely became a scalp that proved a coming club's quality.
All of Inter 1964, Manchester United 1968, Ajax 1972, Bayern Munich 1975, Liverpool 1981, PSV Eindhoven 1988, Milan 1989 and Juventus 1996 made great virtue of their victories over such a storied club on the way to historic finals.
In that sense, a record 42 years of involvement in the competition - which is also over 10 more than any other club - has been constantly characterised by wondrous wins, but also long waits, with the latter frequently involving reality-shifting defeats.
That curious double-think, though, has also been evident in some of their victories. Real have often been the notional best club in Europe without even coming close to the best in their own country. As if to sum that up, Real have only done doubles of the league and European Cup twice. Seven of their continental wins have come without the added conviction of domestic victory.
Take the initial golden age. Helenio Herrera's Barcelona frequently best Real in the Spanish league. So, while the five European Cups afforded the club a dynamic aura, they were never truly dominant across many fields to the degree that Ajax 1970-73 or Liverpool 1976-84 were.
What cannot be denied, though, is that they were - as 1960 defender Pachin put it - a 'European Cup-winning machine'. That, however, was exactly what the club was designed for. When Santiago Bernabeu came to power at the stadium which would later bear his name, he had vibrant visions of creating the greatest power in world football.
Little wonder, then, that he was one of the most influential voices behind the very creation of the European Cup in 1955. Little wonder, either, that he was so determined to prevent Barcelona adding this new Argentine revelation to their title-winning squad. In 1953, some of the Catalans' suspicions about state help for Real were justified as Bernabeu called in a few high-level favours to ensure Alfredo Di Stefano did not end up at Camp Nou.
It's often forgotten that at that exact same point, though, Real were not exactly a supreme Spanish power. They had, after all, only won two domestic titles and the last was in 1933. It's in that context that the European Cup became even more important in the creation of the Madrid myth. The competition arrived at an opportune time, just when Di Stefano was coming to his prime.
"It all starts with Alfredo," Pachin said. "I'd say he was the beginning of everything. That's how we became famous all over the world."
That and being feared all over the world, not just for what happened on the pitch. One of the key's to the club's early monopoly of the European Cup was the manner in which they improved every single season. In 1956, for example, they had already secured the signature of exceptional French playmaker Raymond Kopa before meeting his Stade Reims employers in that season's final.
Real took the trophy with a 4-3 win before taking the opposition's star player too. And, having bolstered their attack that summer, the Spaniards worked on the backline the next. The 1957 win over an ultra-defensive Fiorentina was followed by the signature of Jose Santamaria.
It is no coincidence that such balance brought what was probably the most complete season in the five-year run. Real were only a 2-0 Spanish cup final defeat to Athletic Bilbao from winning the continent's first ever treble, as they beat Milan in the European Cup final.
The most complete performance, though, was still to come. Inevitably, it also followed the transfer of one of the most technically complete players of all time.
Despite an initially difficult introduction in which the two players were sent off in successive European Cup ties, both Ferenc Puskas and Di Stefano would ultimately combine gloriously. Never more so than that 1960 final. The Argentine would hit three, the Hungarian four. The famous five, meanwhile, would end with a magnificent seven.
In the Scotsman newspaper the next day, Hugh McIlvanney wrote that the crowd "had not simply been entertained. They had been moved by the experience of seeing a sport played to its ultimate standards... the fact [Real] were engaged in winning the European Cup for the fifth successive year seemed equally inevitable and incidental in the midst of the most magnificent sporting artistry Hampden Park has ever seen."
"It was a defining moment in history," Pachin said. "We were all aware of the significance of winning five in a row. Everything just flowed beautifully. We knew as soon as it was finished that we had achieved something that was not normal... but it was pure spectacle."
To a certain degree, though, it also created something of a spectre for the club. As often happens with such historic teams, building for the future and making the necessary chances can be fraught. Although Real reached another two finals with an aging Puskas and Di Stefano leading the line, both were ultimately bested by their most obvious successors: Benfica's Eusebio in 1962 and Inter Milan's Sandro Mazzola in 1965.
Tellingly, it wasn't until Real found their own successors, in the likes of Fernando Serena and Ramon Grosso, that they finally won the competition again in 1966. Even that victory, though, came at a fortuitous moment between eras in European football. Catenaccio was declining, total football was still embryonic. But, for the next 32 years, Real still found themselves in an odd and frustrating middle ground.
That was for a number of reasons, from a temporary ban on foreign players to misadministration and even the simple fact other clubs were making tactical and technical strides well beyond them.
There were a number of keynote moments that summed this up, too. In 1973, as Ajax led 2-1 at the Bernabeu in the semi-final, Gerrie Muhren had the temerity to start juggling the ball. In 1981, as the club came closer to that long-awaited seventh win than ever before, Alan Kennedy's late winner for Liverpool in the final illustrated just what a limited side that Real were. Then, in 1989, came the real line in the sand - Milan thrashed the Spaniards 5-0 in the semi-finals and also changed the face of European football.
Much is rightly made of the manner in which manager Arrigo Sacchi sparked a quantum leap in the evolution of football with his Milan tactics. The Italian side were just as influential off the pitch, though. Because, while Sacchi was ripping up expectations within the competition, Silvio Berlusconi was looking to do the same with the competition as a whole.
The media magnate's TV-backed approach and free spending started to change the way the mega-clubs thought. Much like Bernabeu four decades before, Berlusconi pushed for the evolution of the European Cup in favour of the big clubs. He was among the first to realise - and therefore promote - the benefits of broadcasting rights and enclosed competition. With the threat of a super league already growing, such sentiments led to the birth of the Champions League.
Given their size and earning capacity, then, Real were ideally placed to grow themselves. It is no coincidence that all of the first winners of the remodelled competition, other than Ajax, adopted the Berlusconi model wholesale.
Indeed, because of the sheer excess of the Galactico era, it's also often forgotten that much of the mid-90s in Spain was marked by huge expenditure. The fall-out from Barcelona's 'Dream Team' era created yet another escalated arms race between the two, especially in the summer of 1996.
It was that outlay that was to form the foundation of that team which finally delivered the trophy again in 1998 - not that Real's new superstars didn't feel the nerves. Fernando Hierro described the night before the final against Juventus in Amsterdam as "terrible".
Raul, meanwhile, was sharing with Fernando Redondo.
"The night before, every 20 minutes we were whispering, 'are you awake?' to each other, and the reply was always 'yes'!"
Ultimately, after a hugely entertaining match, Real prevailed. Predrag Mijatovic, one of the players signed in 1996 in response to Barcelona's capture of Ronaldo, scored the only goal. Afterwards, Di Stefano himself said "this is what European Cup finals should be all about".
And, soon, they would be all about Real again. Two years later, the same core of players reclaimed the trophy, if only after the mid-season introduction of Vicente Del Bosque and much improvisation.
The turning point in that campaign famously came in the quarter-finals at Manchester United. It also proved a turning point in Real's entire recent history. After Redondo flicked the ball through Henning Berg's legs and Raul started finishing, it didn't just fire the team to the title, it fired the imagination of property magnate Florentino Perez.
He saw the waste at the club under Fernando Sanz and wondered, before making some promises. Perez said that, if he was elected president, he would bring Barca's Luis Figo to the Bernabeu. To be fair, as well as following through on that, he did much more. He immediately wiped the club's debt, allowing Zinedine Zidane to arrive the next summer. A third Champions League in five seasons would follow too.
It's interesting how football history occasionally offers up these moments of perfect synchronicity.
That night in May 2002 against Bayer Leverkusen, Real Madrid weren't just playing for the last chance of a trophy in their centenary season, they were playing at the very Hampden Park stadium that provided the greatest performance in those 100 years. Appropriately, then, Zidane produced a match-winning moment that rivalled anything Puskas or Di Stefano did.
Defeated Leverkusen coach Klaus Toppmoller perfectly summed up the divine volley: "We can spend all our time planning for Real's tactics, then something happens that you can't plan for. That was Zidane's goal."
That victory came on the back of Perez's 'Zidanes y Pavones' plan; the idea that expensive megastars could be complemented by evolving youth graduates. Emboldened by success, though, Perez's strategy soon evolved: the Galacticos were born.
With that, however, Real's chances temporarily waned too. While their great rivals at Barca continued carefully planning from within, Real merely attempted to sign from without and became a bloated, overblown team.
So far, Jose Mourinho has managed to streamline them again. But, for a club that has become obsessed with numbers, landmarks and milestones, they're still waiting for that perfect ten. The obsession is only growing again.