November 29, 2010
It wasn’t like Real Madrid weren’t good. They had just finished dismantling Athletic Bilbao - a side that would finish sixth in the league table - to cap off a 19-game unbeaten streak spanning two months. Ronaldo had been in fine form - scoring a hat-trick vs. Athletic to take his tally to 25 goals created (18 goals and 7 assists) - while new signings Mesut Özil and Ángel Di María were looking to be elite talents bought for pennies on the dollar. As a result, Los Blancos were comfortably one of the five best teams in Europe and were led by a manager that seemed to have the mental fortitude and tactical nous necessary to topple any side in world football.
Yet, on November 29, 2010, Real Madrid walked off the Camp Nou in disgust. They had been utterly outclassed by an FC Barcelona team that had toyed their way to victory. Lionel Messi didn’t even need to score; he just dropped into midfield and watched as his teammates converted his inch-perfect through balls. When Barcelona weren’t smacking in goals for fun, they were taking advantage of their 3 vs. 2 superiority in the middle of the park (Mourinho had decided to go with his standard 4-2-3-1 with Özil at CAM) to pass circles around José’s men. In the 92nd minute, Sergio Ramos had had enough. He scythed down Messi and struck Puyol in the face, starting an all-out brawl that resulted in Ramos’ sending off.
It was embarrassing, but it also perfectly reflected the white-hot anger burning in the chest of every Madridista - an anger that desperately tried to overpower an intense feeling of hopelessness.
Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona was unbeatable - simple as that. Throughout the course of a nightmarish three-year period, La Blaugrana only failed to win three of the fifteen trophies available to them. Not only did they have the best players and the best manager in the world, they also had a mental edge that intimidated opponents into submission before the game even began. After the disappointing 2009/10 season, which started with such promise and ended in such debilitating defeat, and the Manita that brought Madrid to their knees, the objective was no longer to win, but simply not to lose.
With this mindset internalized, Mourinho changed his tactics immediately, playing Pepe in defensive midfield in every Clásico for the rest of the season. Keeping the ball for half a minute felt like a victory - a 1-1 draw like a trophy.
April 20, 2011
And then the day of the Copa del Rey Final came. Madrid looked half a second faster to every loose ball; Pepe played like a man possessed; Di María and Özil, who flanked a lone center forward, appeared sharp; and, most important of all, Cristiano Ronaldo looked inspired.
In a game plan that depended entirely on counter-attacks to succeed, Ronaldo blazed forward in a virtuoso performance that outshone everyone else on the field. He ghosted past players like they weren’t there, controlled the ball under pressure like there was none, and pummeled Pinto’s goal with the fury of someone who was tired of losing. Yet, incredulously, his own shots, as well as his teammates’, kept missing. Thus, despite thoroughly outplaying their opponents, the game stretched into extra-time with the score still 0-0.
Doubt began to set in the minds of the supporters. Surely not again? Surely Los Blancos couldn’t lose after such a performance?
But wouldn’t that be perfectly in line with the script; that no matter what Madrid do, no matter who they buy, no matter how they play, they will always be second best to Barca?
If it was, Ronaldo wasn’t having any of it. In the 103rd minute, seemingly unaffected by the long-winded sprints and mental blows dealt by misses, he soared into the night sky to dispatch a perfect Di María cross.
Just like with the hopelessness, it’s hard to describe how much this victory meant to Madridistas if you didn’t experience it in real-time.
It was treated like the end of the Pep-era and the beginning of a new power shift in Spain. Mourinho had finally outclassed Guardiola; Ronaldo was finally Messi’s equal; and Real Madrid fans finally had hope again.
April 27, 2011
“Injustice” was the first word to rise to the lips of Madridistas, as they watched as Pepe was unfairly sent off in the 61st minute of the 1st leg of the Champions League semifinals. But the score was still 0-0. Maybe there was still a chance.
Then, Messi happened. In the 76th minute, he dashed in front of Sergio Ramos to tap in an Ibrahim Afellay cross. 11 minutes later, he drove through the heart of Real’s midfield to land the killer blow and end any hope of La Décima.
The white hot fury was back - this time aimed at the referee for being fooled by Dani Alves’ dive. But just like on November 29, 2010, the anger was merely a shield that was used to bat away the feeling of utter hopelessness brewed by another debilitating defeat. The Copa victory seemed but a distant memory - one step forwards, two steps backwards.
Perhaps the collective feeling of Madrid fans was best summed up by Ronaldo’s reaction to getting caught in one of Barca’s famous passing triangles.
He was irate - desperate to get a touch of the ball and frustrated that his team wasn’t attempting to contest for possession. Later, he criticized Mourinho’s approach (though only lightly), creating the overall image of an exasperated individual who was simply sick of getting beat. He could’ve easily given up. He could’ve easily left for any other team. Manchester would’ve welcomed him back with open arms and any team that could afford him would’ve as well.
Yet, that’s not who Cristiano is. He chose to come here. He knew what he was getting into. Ronaldo was a fighter - he was a fighter ever since he was a kid.
His accent was mocked ruthlessly when he decided to leave Madeira for the mainland when he was only 12. He cried for his mother everyday and almost quit football. But he stuck with it and gained his respect on the field. He quickly grew into Sporting’s most promising talent and secured a transfer to English giants Manchester United. It wasn’t smooth sailing to start, but his difficulties were nothing compared to what came after the 2006 World Cup.
The press declared Ronaldo public enemy number one and away stadiums recited chants and spat boos every time he touched the ball. He again thought of quitting, only to remain and win three league titles and a Champions League, become PFA player of the year twice, and capture a Ballon d’Or.
He could’ve stayed at Manchester and built on that success, taking advantage of an established Ferguson team that would’ve steamrolled their way to league titles year after year. Even if he remained hellbent on leaving, he could’ve easily joined Lionel Messi at the Camp Nou. It would’ve been like Kevin Durant joining the Golden State Warriors - Ronaldo could’ve won whatever he wanted for as long as he liked. Sir Alex Ferguson did his best to make that happen, calling Real Madrid a “mob” and saying that he “wouldn’t sell them a virus.” Ronaldo could’ve accepted the decision of the man he saw as his second father - he could’ve taken the easy path.
But this is Cristiano Ronaldo we’re talking about. He only knows the hard way. His life has taught him that an incalculable number of obstacles will always stand in the way of his personal ambition and that he must relentlessly forge his own path if he is to achieve his dreams. Playing for Real Madrid was his dream. Winning with Real Madrid was his dream. If achieving that dream meant coming to a Los Blancos side that hadn’t made it past the Champions League Round of 16 five times in a row and had openly declared it was “impossible” to beat Barcelona, so be it.
April 21, 2012
73rd minute. Di María picks up the ball deep inside his own half. He bursts forward and pings a pass into Mesut Özil, who is positioned on the right flank around ten yards in front of the halfway line. Özil looks up and spots a tall figure with orange neon boots streaking down the middle of the pitch. Özil plays the pass - an incisive through ball that whips past the Barcelona defense. The sprinting figure latches onto the ball with a glorious first touch, giving him an inch over Victor Valdés. The figure’s orange boot slams the ball. Goal.