No club is more synonymous with the European Cup than Real Madrid. Since the tournament’s inauguration in 1955/56 no club has won it more, nine times in total with the first five tournaments being won outright by the men in royal white. Whilst it isn’t unheard of for the club to go through barren stretches between lifting the jug eared trophy, their longest patch lasting the thirty-two years it took them between 1966 and 1998 to be reunited with their most treasured possession, the current wait has possibly been the hardest. It is now twelve years since Zinedine Zidane wove his magic on the turf Hampden Park in Glasgow to bring home to Madrid their ninth European Cup victory and the wait for La Decima, the unprecedented tenth victory for the biggest football club in the world, has been torturous. Ten managers have come and gone in the meantime, just over a billion euro has been spent in transfers and Barcelona, their most hated rivals, have won it three times. The wait has to end sometime and it could very well end on Saturday in Lisbon. All that’s stopping them is their city rivals, newly crowned La Liga Champions, Atletico Madrid. On the eve of their potential triumph it is perhaps worth remembering how we got to this point though.
Back in 2002 the then president of the club, Florentino Pérez, confidently predicted the tenth triumph would be followed in quick succession by the eleventh. It may seem wildly arrogant now, especially in light of the growing statistic that no club has ever retained the European Cup in the modern Champions League era, but it wasn’t without foundation. After waiting so long to win the European Cup again in 1998, the club set about ensuring that wait never happened again with some vigour. Their 2002 victory was their third in five years and their teams included some of the biggest names in world football. Roberto Carlos, Raul, Luis Figo and Fernando Hierro were the superstars who lined up alongside great players like Claude Makelele and Fernando Morientes. Also sitting among the superstars of the Real Madrid team was the brightest footballing star on the planet, Zinedine Zidane. Signed in 2001, for a then world record fee of €75m, the greatest player of his generation was tasked with ushering in the kind of European dominance Madrid had enjoyed in the early days of the competition. After a rocky start to his Bernabeu career in his debut Zidane repaid a large chunk of his transfer fee by producing the greatest winning cup final goal in football history.
Such was the dedication of the club to achieving the dream of a quick tenth victory that a team with the attacking options of Raul and Morientes weren’t deemed good enough and Ronaldo, the Brazilian fresh off winning the Golden Boot at the World Cup, was brought in from Inter Milan for €34m. A league title followed but the Champions League victory did not, the team losing 4-3 on aggregate to Juventus in the semi-final. Winning La Decima was a club wide fixation that cost the manager, Vincente Del Bosque, his job and the full era of the Galacticos was ushered in. Pérez’s belief that assembling the most costly team in football would secure them their own coveted place in the history books was seen by some as madness at the time but is now looked back on with some fondness. What football fan couldn’t love a team that contained Zidane, Carlos, Beckham, Ronaldo, Figo and Casillas all at the one time after all?
With the new era, rocks of the team like Makelele were sold to be replaced with star names like David Beckham. Money was thrown at in-form players like Jonathan Woodgate (€16m), Michael Owen (€10m), Wesley Sneijder (€28m), Robinho (€26m), Baptista (€21m), Van Nistelrooy (€13m) and Robben (€30m) but the trophy never came. Pérez, the architect of the Galactico era, left in 2006 to return in 2009 after four more presidents had come and gone. The league title has been won six more times since 2002 but the club hasn’t won the Champions League again, they haven;t even made a single final that night in Scotland. All the more galling for the club, they have had to stand by and watch Barcelona, fueled by players brought up through their academy, win the European Cup three times in that same period, whilst playing the type of football that has seen them proclaimed as the greatest footballing side ever. Better than the AC Milan team of the Nineties, the Liverpool side of the early Eighties and even better than the all-conquering Real Madrid side of the Fifties.
The latest chase is set to end on Saturday one way or the other. On paper it’s difficult to see who the favourite is. It should be easy, Real Madrid outspend their city rivals in wages by five to one, but Atletico are just off the back of winning the league title in, of all places, Barcelona last weekend. The changing of the guard seems to be in the air. There is, however, obvious hope at a club that has the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo on its books, though there is an injury doubt hanging over him for the final, and there is the oft referred to pedigree of the heavyweights of the competition. Only AC Milan of Italy, with seven championship victories, can touch Real Madrid when it comes to winning European Cup finals. But Atletico, having broken the decade of Barcelona – Real Madrid league duopoly, are on the verge of their own history. Finalists only once, in 1974 when they lost to Bayern Munich, they will be eager to put their more prestigious neighbours in the shadows. If they do so it will be interesting to see if Real Madrid can respond in the coming years. There isn’t much they haven’t done to secure their dream of a tenth European Cup. The current crop of Perez Galacticos include Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, together costing near €200m in transfer fees, but a loss could very well usher in an unheard of period of playing third fiddle to Barcelona and Atletico. Now might be the best chance they have of achieving the Decima dream for some time.