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Real Madrid needs to rekindle its La Liga Romance

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How the world’s biggest club forgot how to love the league, and how it can get that ex back

Real Madrid Celebrate Winning La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Real Madrid closed out the year 2000 by being named the Best Club of the 20th Century by FIFA. Alfredo Di Stéfano and Florentino Pérez oversaw collection of the trophy, which was presented to them during a ceremony in Rome. Real Madrid were awarded the accolade having won 42% of the votes. Manchester United and Bayern Munich were the runners-up, both receiving 9% of the votes respectively.

This award was added to Real Madrid’s trophy cabinet from the 20th century, which was previously made up of eight European Cups, two UEFA Cups, two Intercontinental Cups, 27 La Liga titles, 17 Copa del Reys and five Spanish Super Cups.

Read that again. 27 of Real Madrid’s 33 La Liga titles came before the year 2000.

The legacy of Real Madrid was built upon dominance in the domestic circuit, and the royalty was added with European success. But in recent times, Real Madrid seem to have forgotten one of the pillars of its foundation of being the best club in the world: Domestic dominance. Newer fans know this: Real Madrid don’t win La Liga anymore. Madrid has won just eight La Liga titles since 1990, which shows that there is a deep underlying problem that has hindered Real Madrid’s success in Spain.

But contrary to the popular theory that Real Madrid just don’t do well at the domestic front, the club’s history has been riddled with periods of extended domestic dominance.

Early dominance

The Real Madrid that we love and admire today was essentially built in the 1950s, when Santiago Bernabeu created essentially the first multinational team led by Di Stefano. They created history by winning the first five European titles. That team played football which resonated with the people of Madrid and won admirers all over the world. They won five straight Champions League titles and five La Ligas during the 50s.

Then came the Ye-Ye era of the 1960s. This behemoth of a team took La Liga home in all seasons that decade bar two. They won eight La Liga titles, as well as the 1966 European Cup which cemented their legacy as the best team in Spain.

Madrid then won another five league titles in the 70s.

Quinta del Buitre, and the Asterisk(*)

Emilio Butrague?o Spain 1986 World Cup Photo by Allsport/Getty Images

Then came a period of transition. After the bleak beginning to the 1980s, where Real Madrid didn’t win any league titles, and Spain was going through a period of political transition, a group of kids emerged that would change the landscape of Spanish football and would go on to define an era. They initially got recognition when El País journalist Julio César Iglesias wrote an article about five kids from La Fábrica named ‘La Quinta del Buitre’ (the vulture’s cohort). The five ‘kids’ were as follows: Emilio Butragueño (known as the vulture or buitre), José Miguel González Campos ‘Míchel’, Martín Vázquez, Manolo Sanchís, and Miguel Pardeza. They would go onto play the kind of football that would transcend Spain and be essentially a myth of fury, passion and desire.

We were lucky to have these kids emerge in one generation and under the same colors. This was also an era of comebacks. They would go on to solidify the ‘never give up’ spirit born during the 70s under Juanito and marked an era of European comebacks -- notably against Anderlecht and Inter Milan. I think the best way to describe their football is ‘blitzkrieg’ -- basically a German war tactic where you overpower and demolish your opponent with quick, violent, and intimidating furious aggressive attacks. They would go on to win five consecutive Spanish league titles (1985/86-1989/1990), and two consecutive UEFA Cup wins but never a Champions League title. And that “but” has always been the asterisk associated with the legacy of this team.

Such was their dominance on the domestic level that they scored an astounding 107 goals during the 1989-90 campaign which was the record for the most goals scored in a single season; a record that was only broken by Real Madrid themselves in the 2011-12 campaign. To put this into perspective, this record of 107 goals was not bested by either Cryuff’s Dream Team or Pep’s “legendary” Barca team. They were expected to make a dent on the biggest stage but somehow winning those two-legged ties was a problem. It must be kept in mind, though, that they regularly came across great sides, notably ‘The Invincibles’ of Steaua Bucharest, Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan, Bayern Munich, etc. They crashed out to eventual winners PSV in 1987-88 -- A PSV side that didn’t win any games from the round-of-16 (winning only on away goals or penalties) on their way to the title.

The following year, Real Madrid eventually ran into Sacchi’s Milan, which turned out to be their last big chance on that stage. Those three semi-final heartaches in 5 years were as close as they got, and the European Cup remained their unfinished business. Such was their dominance that it was considered a blasphemy that this side never went on to win the biggest prize of them all.

Each year they wouldn’t win The Champions League, the heads dropped a little more, groans grew a little louder, and the desperation was more and more evident. After every elimination the weight grew heavier, and that 1966 triumph seemed further away. Still, Madrid was winning one league title after another. But after Barcelona’s ‘Dream Team’ went on to win their first European Cup, everybody at the club really put all their eggs in the European Cup basket. But they made one fatal mistake: they took their domestic dominance for granted.

Real Madrid turned their attention to the European trophy -- a cup they believe to be their rightful property. In the years that they don’t win the European Cup and have it displayed in the Santiago Bernabeu, it’s like they’re loaning it to other clubs -- much like your friend borrowing your car for an errand. The club’s identity is built through its European success.

As the focus in the 90s turned more and more towards the European Cup, the attention paid to La Liga started to decrease year by year. Real only won La Liga twice that decade as they finally ended their 32-year-old wait for the Champions League in 1998 against Juventus. Rarely have Real Madrid, with their pedigree, been the underdogs in a final, and they were just that in 1998 as they edged out a 1-0 win over Juve at the Amsterdam Arena on 20th May 1998. That European Cup win tops the list for the most important moment in Real Madrid history for a lot of the older fans because of the anguish that preceded it.

According to Manolo Sanchis, club captain for 13 years, “The 1998 Champions League final was possibly the most important game in Real Madrid’s history. That’s not to say the others weren’t, but the club had been waiting for 32 years. In all that time the hunger had been growing among the fans, the players and the club, and you can imagine the desire we had when the day came.”

Interestingly, Sanchis was the only member of the Quinta del Buitre to ever win the Champions League.

Florentino Perez and the Galacticos

Although the seeds of change in focus from dominating everything to just focusing on Champions league were laid in the 90s where only two La Liga’s were won, the era of the Galacticos really saw this become a prevalent theme. After Florentino Perez won the presidential elections in 2000, he embarked upon a mission to modernize Real Madrid (at that time nearly bankrupt) in the 21st century with his business acumen and his marketing genius.

Florentino, a Socio since 1961, was a diehard Madridista, and therefore cared deeply for the values of Madridismo. He believed Real Madrid was the pinnacle of football, and as the best club, it should have the best players. These best players not only play well but are also marketable, which is necessary for a club like Real Madrid -- a member-run club which cannot get cash influx from a sovereign nation or be bankrolled by a billionaire. He went about signing superstars like Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, and David Beckham. These were all good players, but the club started to put less emphasis on the midfield and defense because those players weren’t considered “sexy” enough. Great theory, but in practice, deeply flawed. Selling Makelele and using Beckham there instead can work in the career-mode of FIFA but not in real life. In Zidane’s words, “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?”

Emphasizing the Champions League over La Liga was being passed down from the top of management. This led to a culture of bad habits in La Liga because it was not considered as valuable as winning in the Champions League anymore. This was evident with the whimsical firing of managers even after a season of winning La Liga.

This is shown by the table below, which shows that the seven managers which led the club to eight La Liga titles after 1990 were fired after they won La Liga, or left by the next season.

Table shows how long the La Liga winning managers have lasted after the title win.

In fact, four separate times the manager left right after winning La Liga. Admittedly, for Madrid, a few managers were let go due to political reasons or dressing room problems, but the predominant culture was of ‘Champions League or bust’. Del Bosque was a calm figure who was able to not only mix Real Madrid academy players with the Galacticos but was also respected and brought a calm stable approach. However, his contract was not renewed after the 2002-2003 season where Real Madrid won the league and were a Figo penalty miss away from the final of the Champions League. Manuel Pellegrini was incredibly fired after a 96-point season, bested only by Pep’s 99-point Barcelona that year.

There is a prevalent lack of stability around the club. Stability is giving a sense of continuation to the manager and the players, as well as having a project in mind. The lack of planning is evident by managerial recruitment in the past decade. Here are the managers in the sequential order of their appointment: Pellegrini, Mourinho, Ancelotti, Benitez, Zidane, Lopetegui, Solari and back to Zidane. One style of play was replaced with a complete opposite one.

Since sacking Del Bosque, Real Madrid have had 16 different managers in a managerial merry go round. Barcelona have had six in the same period. Not one of them was sacked.

For a club of Real Madrid’s stature, focusing on one competition is absolutely bonkers. If we count the Copa Del Rey, La Liga, and the Champions League -- the three main trophies on the line each season -- since 1990 Real Madrid have finished 13 out of the 29 seasons essentially trophy-less. They’ve won eight La Liga’s out of 29, and three Copa Del Reys in 29 years. For any statistic enthusiasts out there, that is 3.6 La Ligas per decade and one Copa del Rey in 9.66 years. Again, Real Madrid won seven Champions league titles during this period, but do we as Real Madrid settle for saying a good season is the one with just one trophy? Why settle?

When Real Madrid won their 25th League title in 1990, they were 15 ahead of Barcelona who had won just 10. Today Barcelona stands at 26 -- having eroded Madrid’s lead to seven.

As much as Real Madrid pride themselves in their European domination, betting the success or failure of every season based on only European competition seems like a big risk. The sensitive nature of the competition is built on fine margins of Figo’s penalty miss vs Juventus; Ramos’s miss vs Bayern Munich; or Alvaro Morata’s goal for Juventus at the Bernabeu. The fact that the players only seem to focus when the knockouts stages come is a worrying sign. They’re professional footballers getting paid way too much money for them to leave the outcome of each season on seven knockout games. Real Madrid seem to start their season in February when the knockout stages come, but La Liga is essentially lost by then. This is due to the lack of focus, consistency, and desire in the early part of the season. Real Madrid is built on the virtues of never giving up, fighting for each ball and giving it their all each game — everything that’s missing from most domestic seasons since 1990.

What needs to change for Real Madrid to be regular winners at the domestic front is a dramatic change in attitude. It is inexcusable for a club of Madrid’s stature to focus only on one competition. La Liga should be considered an absolute priority each season. Do well in La Liga, and the Champions League will still be waiting for you in February. Doing well in the early part of the season in the league will give the team enough margin of error in the league to rest players here and there, near big European knockout ties. With the squad as ridiculously deep as it is, this shouldn’t be a problem. This is evident by the fact that we have seen four treble winning seasons by the other teams in the last decade. Liverpool this year too have shown how focusing on the league doesn’t necessarily mean that the European success is unattainable. In addition to this, the club needs to give the manager time to implement the desired system. If Zidane’s your guy, give him time. All of this does not guarantee success in the league, but hey — at least you have better odds than you would if you were impatient.

When Real Madrid became distracted by their pursuit for a holy European footballing grail, they forgot that the best team in Europe is also the best in their league. They seem to have forgotten their old love of La Liga. Maybe they need to rekindle that old flame again.