On Saturday, Real Madrid will face Juventus in the Champions League final. It’s a storied matchup that dates all the way back to 1962, picking up steam in 1998 when these two teams played in the Champions League final in Amsterdam, and, like an elliptical on ‘fat-burn’ mode, fluctuated in intensity at various times over the past 19 years. 11 times these two teams have faced each other in the Champions League since that day Mijatovic sunk a favoured Juve side in Amsterdam. Just like the rivalry against Bayern, it’s typically a gut-wrenching affair.
Let’s take you back. If you read my weekly column, you already know my favourite thing to do in life is taking you back. Memories are futile if you can’t resurface them. Memories are good, memories are bad — but you could argue even those bad memories serve some purpose in our lives. Yes, some of the memories in the above Marca article I wrote made me want to spear someone with a trident, but put it this way: had we not had 12 years and 93 minutes of European misery after la novena, Sergio Ramos’ goal wouldn’t have discharged our trapped souls the way it did. General rule of thumb: the more your suffer, the more meaningful your jubilations become.
Know this: 12 years of misery included more than just calamities at the hands of Schweinsteiger, Henry, Morientes, Kahn, Elber, Messi, Torres, Lewandowski, Vucinic, and Pjanic. Juventus did their part too -- they’ve completely dominated Real Madrid since 1998’s upset.
You may be a new fan of this club, joining the bandwagon in 2014, which makes you a virgin to pain. If you’re lucky enough to sport some wounds, you may have been around long enough to remember Real Madrid was a European laughing stock after getting eliminated by Lyon in the round-of-16 for the seventh straight year, right after they had spent money on Ronaldo, Kaka, Xabi, and Benzema in one summer.
But were you around for that time Rafa Benitez made us look like a high school team — like not even a regular high school team, but a high school team that is so small it doesn’t play in the first or second tiers, it just puts together some spelling wizards and straight-A social studies coasters to travel down the road to play against other studious and non-athletic kids, while their moms put together a basket of fresh clementines for them to eat at half-time — at Anfield. That was the day I was in the basement, in front of the tv, on the floor, in the fetal position, accepting that my soul was no longer in my body, but rather on fire in a dumpster. That was the day I had given up on Fernando Gago. That was the day I wrote a letter to Fernando Redondo and apologized for ever thinking Gago could replace him. I’m sorry Nando. I’m sorry that that thought ever crossed my mind.
But guess what? That pain doesn’t even begin to describe what pain really is. So let me tell you where pain really starts (in the context of this story). The first real moment of pain, starting chronologically after Real Madrid and Juventus last faced each other in the final in 1998, actually came in 2003. Yes, there were losses scattered throughout before that, but pain is relative, and has different thresholds. Pain can be defined by one man (Raul Bravo) as a measuring stick and everything else revolves around this measuring stick of pain.
The Juventus - Real Madrid Pain-o-Meter
Trezeguet and Del Piero burning the near post. Pain level: 7/10
In 2003, Real Madrid — in my correct opinion — had their best team of the Galactico 1.0 project go down in flames in Turin. Of the first four years of Perez’s reign, Real Madrid of 2002-2003 played the best football of them all — that is despite not winning the Champions League that season. I’ve said it so many times before: it was a damn shame that team didn’t win a European crown. But, to put things into perspective, they were denied by peak Buffon (I have no idea what peak means in this context. Peak Buffon stretched half-a-century), Nedved, and a handful of other legends.
In the 2003 Champions League semi-finals, Real Madrid headed into the second leg in Turin with a 2-1 cushion, only to see it dissipate with two Juve goals in the first half — both coming from the near post. A cross from the right flank found Del Piero far post, whose header squared it to an embarrassingly unmarked David Trezeguet (Cambiasso reacted late, and Hierro, who really should’ve been there to begin with, was better off retiring before he was even put into that situation) to volley it past Casillas near post. Shortly after, Del Piero found a tiny amount of space between Hierro and Salgado to burn past Casillas’ near post again.
Luis Figo’s penalty miss. Pain level 10/10
This was the first true pain-inducing (of this harrowing magnitude) moment post-century. In that same match in 2003, Real Madrid had a chance at redemption. Cambiasso’s pass into the area found Ronaldo, who was brought down by Paolo Montero. Figo stepped up, knowing a goal would put the game to extra time. At that moment, I would have bet my life Figo would score that penalty. He was always reliable from the penalty spot, and had been through all the adversity before. The stage wouldn’t phase him. He was experienced, composed, a big-game player — all elements you need to step up to such a big occasion. With those expectations, you can understand what it felt like to see Figo strike the penalty so tamely.
That penalty miss is one of the big ‘what ifs’ of Real Madrid’s history.
The sad corpse of Hierro. Pain level 7.5/10
Cherish your defenders, Real Madrid fans of 2017. Hold them tight. Hold them in your hearts. Every night before you go to bed kiss Ramos, Pepe, Varane, Nacho, and Vallejo on the forehead, count your blessings, and be thankful. In 2003, in the flaming inferno of Delle Alpi, Real Madrid’s central defensive line consisted of Hierro and Helguera, with just one back-up on the bench: Pavon. At that time, Hierro was down to the barebones of his physical capabilities. That was even moreso disastrous that night in Turin, because Makelele was injured and didn’t play. There was no safety net.
Zambrotta’s pass caught the tail-end of Hierro’s career, as Nedved symbolically jogged past him to ice the tie.
Raul Bravo’s gift to Zalayeta. Pain level: 9/10
Real Madrid’s center back situation in 2005 was hardly better than it was in 2003. Woodgate had arrived, but he was injured longer than Buffon’s entire career which has no beginning nor end. Walter Samuel was an exciting signing, and was one of Serie A’s best defenders prior to his arrival — but he just didn’t pan out. So get this: Raul Bravo, Roberto Carlos’ understudy, and perennial snafu extraordinaire, started as a center-back alongside Samuel in the second leg of the Champions League round-of-16 in Turin.
But hey, what does it matter who your defenders are in the post-Makelele/Cambiasso era when the team is anchored by Thomas ‘El Dia Despues first ballot hall-of-famer’ Gravesen?
Real Madrid looked in really good shape heading into the second leg after a Helguera set-piece header gave them a 1-0 cushion in the first leg. But in the return leg, Real struggled to find an offensive spark outside of some individual brilliance from OG Ronaldo. First, Trezeguet scored in the 75th minute to level the score on aggregate after yet another volley from a near-post assist header (this time from Zlatan); then, in extra-time, minutes before an impending penalty shootout, Raul Bravo dealt with a cross horribly to allow Zalayeta a sight on goal.
Del Piero puts himself in a time machine. Pain level: 6.5/10
2008 was not a fun time to be a Real Madrid fan. There was a lot of heat surrounding the club, and results / good performances were hard to come by. In this particular match, Del Piero was brilliant, rolling back the clock a few years to peak-levels. He scored two brilliant goals, and was subbed off by Ranieri to a standing ovation from the Bernabeu. The stadium started emptying around the 80th minute that night. Still, pain on this was lower than it was during other daggers from Juve, as it was ‘just’ in the group stages.
Alvaro ‘big game’ Morata channels his inner Morientes. Pain level: 9.5/10
Accurately appointing the pain level on this one was difficult. This match had so many chances for both sides, like a back-and-forth FIFA melee with opportunities sprinkled for everyone. Ultimately, the most important chance fell to ‘our boy’ Alvaro Morata who got the better position of Toni Kroos. He sunk us and didn’t celebrate. That was painful, but I ranked it below Figo’s penalty miss for two reasons: 1) We had just won la decima; and 2) It’s almost impossible (keeping this open-ended, because Real Madrid can break the drought on Saturday) to repeat as European champions.
Look, as I mentioned above, pain is not always a bad thing. These scars build us up for something big — that’s how this all works. Kiyan is not here to zap your spirits, he’s here to lift you up from those lacerations, stitch you up, put you on his shoulders, and tell you that victory follows crisis closely — we have ample proof of it in the club’s history. Juve have dominated this match-up since 1998, but most of their comfort comes in Turin, not at the Bernabeu, and certainly not on neutral ground. That’s not to say Real Madrid will win on Saturday (for a more in-depth / tactical discussion, check out our latest podcast), but it also doesn’t mean they won’t.
18 years ago, Predrag Mijatovic scored an emotional and timeless goal against Juventus in the Champions League final. That day, Real Madrid were underdogs. On Saturday, we need to carry the spirit of Mijatovic with us — win or lose, that spirit is most important of all.