Just one week ago in Kiev Real Madrid beat Liverpool 3-1 to win their third European Champions League in a row, and their fourth in five years. In American sports this is known as a three-peat. And a team with multiple successes is a sporting dynasty. Real Madrid are surely this. To put all this in context, until last season no team had been able to win back-to-back Champions League titles. 24 years of intense competition under the revamped format had produced a different winner every time. Not even Barcelona at their most brilliant managed to win the European Cup then do it again the following season. Last year’s demolition of Juventus saw them break the champion’s jinx. And now they have broken their own record. The recent burst of titles means that Real Madrid actually have a higher success rate – seven wins in 26 attempts than they did under the original format, where after winning the first five and one in 1966, they endured a drought of 32 years before winning their seventh title. That makes a record of six wins over 37 seasons. Indeed, the last time Real Madrid lost a European final was against Alex Fergusson’s Aberdeen in 1983 – 35 years ago. Since then they have been in two UEFA Cup and seven Champions League finals winning all of them.
This success of the last 20 years is put in perspective by their role in the in their own league. Seven Champions league wins have been accompanied by “just” six league titles. In the same period Barcelona have four Champions leagues but eleven league titles. Bayern Munich have two Champions leagues and 14 Bundesligas. Juventus have just one Champions League, but they have won ten Serie A titles. This number would be twelve, but after the Calciopoli scandal they were stripped of the two titles won under Fabio Capello in 2005 and 2006. They were also relegated to Serie B for the first time in their history. Nevertheless, they won four more league titles than Real Madrid. How can a team that dominates in Europe not dominate at home?
A number of pundits have been less than generous in their appreciation. They are said to be lucky, but no team wins this tournament without a dose of luck. This fortune included the odd refereeing decision and Sergio Ramos injuring Mo Salah. Former Barça midfielder Xavi has invoked witches. I would agree that this is not a team like 1970s Ajax, Sacchi’s AC Milan or Guardiola’s Barcelona. But this team is different – they have not revolutionised football. But they do have the greatness of being competitive. They don’t mind if other teams punch them in the face – they just get up, dust themselves off and keep fighting. Their German midfielder Toni Kroos summed it up before their semi-final tie in Munich:
“Many of our players played big games so we know how to stay calm in difficult situations because we know we can beat everyone. Even when we’re not winning we can change the game. We’ve experienced all kinds of situations so we don’t feel anxious.”
After their unexpected debacle in this year’s league the Champions League was their only chance; failure was not an option. This competitive DNA can sometimes seem to affect opponents three of their last four goals came from horrendous goalkeeping errors. Sven Ullrich must have thought that he had the worst goalkeeping error against Real Madrid in the 2017-18. Of course the second goal by Bale was out of this world.
Then we have the manager Zinedine Zidane. I have to say I wasn’t especially optimistic when he was appointed. His results with Castilla were distinctly underwhelming. It shows how difficult it is to judge what makes a manager successful. Curiously he doesn’t seem to fit the profile of what club chairman Florentino Perez wants. He seems to want the authoritarian types who crack the whip with their players. The chief exponent of this style was José Mourinho. But what seems to work are the more easy-going types, such as Del Bosque, Ancelotti and Zidane. Florentino has won 23 titles, 19 of which have been with these three trainers. I don’t know if he is tactical genius, but he is an excellent man-manager. And after all the sterile controversies of the Mourinho years, Zidane was just the opposite, a wonderful ambassador for the club. In over 300 press conferences and in all his other dealings with the media he deployed his considerable charm. His skills will be sorely missed.
The future suddenly looks a bit more complex. It started minutes after the final whistle last Saturday, with Bale and Ronaldo both asking to leave. We will see who the new trainer is. Now Florentino will be coming to the fore. I can’t say that fills me with optimism. I do rate him more in terms of the business and marketing areas, but I wouldn’t want him anywhere near the first team. Recently there haven’t been all these marquee signings so beloved of Florentino. There has been a more rational policy and this has coincided with the success. If you look at the Real Madrid midfield, it probably cost more or less the same as Pogba. I have a feeling that with a World Cup this summer the chequebook will be out again. Still, Barcelona with the great Leo Messi have won just one champions league since 2011 and are now eight trophies behind Real Madrid. And we have the three-peat to keep us going.