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On Real Madrid, Ronaldo and the March of Time

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Real Madrid Celebrate After Victory In The Champions League Final Against Liverpool Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

I buy a new Real Madrid kit every year. I’m not saying I buy the whole outfit including with customized socks or whatever (I’m not 13 any more) but I do get the shirt; sometimes—in Good Kit years—I even get multiple shirts. For the last two years (and a third now), my kit has come with a steadily increasing number on the arm. 11, 12, 13. And these shirts have come with that little gold patch.

That little patch is weird. It references this meaningless competition—the FIFA Club World Cup—which is so useless FIFA might literally sell it. It hasn’t been competitive since the 1990s. It’s basically a given that the European team will win it every season. The patch itself clashes with the colors on the rest of the shirt.

But it’s also the most significant part of these jerseys. It says “yeah, this team was the best in the world”. It’s an annoying, color clashing, design-ruining symbolic reminder of the team’s unprecedented success. I love it.

After Real Madrid won their third Champions League in a row—13th overall, fourth in five years—we didn’t actually get that long to celebrate. The crisis was immediate. Bale and Ronaldo used their post match interviews to indicate they were displeased. Zinedine Zidane, the coach who never lost a Champions League knockout, resigned. The players all went to the World Cup, and more began to talk about life after Madrid.

One thing that hasn’t changed is how aggressively regular this fanbase is. Everything is a crisis; every preseason “loss” is a catastrophic failure; a preseason “win” is actually an epic vision of a new Real Madrid, a continuation and elongation of the glory days. At Madrid, there is no nuance, at least not in this fanbase. It’s almost comforting to know that this fanbase will continue to act like this long after I’m dead and this website is consigned to the dustier corners of the internet Way Back machine.

So sure. It really is weirdly comforting to see the talking heads melt down after the first preseason match. The fans are fighting in the comment sections like a massive, earth-shattering, monumental change hasn’t taken place. Twitter reply guys still flood into our mentions every day to comment on the latest bullshit. The world goes on, time keeps moving.

It strikes me that there is an unspoken topic that everyone has agreed to avoid mentioning directly that nevertheless guides every discussion on every forum covering this team. That is—how on earth can they top the last few years? And if they can’t, what’s the point? The quiet premise that flows through all fandom is that things will be better in the future—sure, this year the team sucked, but next year is our year, next match will be better, the next trophy is surely ours. But what happens when, appraised honestly, fans come to the painful realization that, perhaps, their team won’t be better than the previous edition?

The relationship we, as sports fans, have with time is fascinating. Teams are at once fleeting moments, ephemeral, whisps of smoke in the tapestry of time, lost and forgotten, “tears in rain”. But they are also monuments to mankind’s ability to rage against the loss of time, bulwarks against the ravages of age, passed on between generations, enduring long past the end of one or another group of people. We carry both these visions with us.

So let’s talk about what success looks like in this new era. And it is a new era, despite what some extremely *logical* commentators might say (“Ahhh ACTually the end of this era was the 2017 Champions League, the new era really began in 2017” shut up). Real Madrid have a new coach. More importantly, they lost their icon, the player that, for better or worse, will define this mid-2010s glory days.

So what does success look like? I’ve been wrestling with this for days now. What can we realistically expect out of a team that just won the Champions League back-to-back-to-back?

At base, I think this is a question everyone will have to answer for themselves. I know that sound’s like a cop-out. It is. I don’t have the ability to tell you the answer to this question.

That is partly because each person has a different relationship with time. Everyone experiences the feeling of time marching forward, that inevitable march towards oblivion, differently and personally. It’s a lonely journey. Can this team be better than the previous version? We know it won’t be the same.

Maybe the answer is simply that fans don’t ever think like that. The past is lionized. There’s always something to be done better. Some accomplishment left to conquer.

But I tend to think that this vision is misplaced. I’ve loved buying the kit each year with that unsightly gold patch. But if we get too obsessed with that patch, we risk conflating it with greatness—or even happiness—by itself. If we imbue this patch with too much meaning it becomes our own half sunk shattered visage, a monument to the team’s temporary success, “look on my Works ye Mighty and Despair!”

Real Madrid v Liverpool - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

When I look back at the kits I’ve bought the last three years, I try to see something else: a moment in time, a fleeting whisp, a memory, a quiet wood filling with snow. It’s a pleasant vision.

We can take a moment or two to watch this idyllic scene and remember this team that once was ours. But we have to come back to this time eventually; and when we do, we look forward, always—

Because we have promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep.

The opinions expressed are the author’s alone and are not those of his employer. Gabe is the Editor-in-Chief emeritus of Managing Madrid and a co-host of the Managing Madrid Podcast.