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“Just a friendly”

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Real Madrid risk losing their most characteristic feature: the competitive mindset

Real Madrid v Atletico de Madrid - 2019 International Champions Cup Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/International Champions Cup/Getty Images

If you have managed to successfully disconnect from the news lately, you might not know that Real Madrid lost 7-3 to Atletico in a pre-season friendly. Yes, 7-3. Even worse, at 7-1 in the 80th minute it indeed looked as though it could get worse, even though Atletico had replaced most of their starters while Bale and Benzema were still – allegedly – on the pitch. Two late goals made the thrashing slightly less humiliating.

But the fact is that this squad has given another example of something profoundly un-Madridista: they take days off. It’s not that they at times struggle to perform, or that they don’t have the skills or the talent: they simply don’t show up to some matches, and that, for any old-fashioned Real Madrid fan who grew among Juanito and Camacho, is completely unacceptable. On a slight tangent, that is the reason why I enjoy so much watching the basketball section: they show up to play hard in every match, does not matter if the rival is Barcelona, CSKA Moscow or the humble Breogán from Lugo, up North in Galicia.

The football section lost that trait of their personality a while back. Granted, they have been shutting the mouths of many of us with Champions League titles, which is obviously the best possible way to make amends with your fanbase in football. However, now it seems like they’ve just gone too far. Conceding seven goals against Atletico should generate drastic consequences, but here it comes the most confusing moment of the preseason for me: Zinedine Zidane justifies the whole thing as a reasonable outcome in a friendly match. And, incidentally, so does Real Madrid skipper, Sergio Ramos. And the most damning piece of their post-match statements is a line which both of them uttered: Atletico took this as an official match, while we didn’t.

FBL-USA-ICC-REAL-MADRID-ATLETICO
Yep, our skipper thought this was a friendly
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

I have never felt more alienated that listening to coach and skipper openly recognizing with all their nonchalance that Atletico took things more seriously than Real Madrid in a derby. If there’s a piece of recognizable identity among Real Madrid fans is that the team never gives up – “Hasta el final, vamos Real” – let alone walks on the pitch as though a match against our usually irritating neighbour is just an extension of the recent vacation period. Just to make things clear in case this is needed, there are no friendlies against Atletico, Barcelona or any top-level club in Europe. In fact, and taking things slightly more seriously than they should be, Real Madrid plays no friendlies. It’s an integral part of their identity.

Now my concern is humongous regarding this season and the team. Not because of the skipper, because Ramos has given us plenty of signs that, regardless of his ability to put together immaculate matches when it matters, he doesn’t really understand the club. Several instances recently – the forced yellow against Ajax, the disappearance during the unbearable last months, the bizarre contract negotiation with President Perez – show that Ramos, just like many other players, supports Ramos FC first and then whoever is paying his salary. Fair enough for many clubs, but should not be the case for Real Madrid.

My real concern now is Zidane. I took his resignation two years ago as a sign that he got it. He saw an accommodating squad, he understood that there was not enough room to change it given the constraints club management defined, he did not like how players kept choosing matches to rest and matches to make an effort, and then left.

Can’t see those changes, Zizou

“We’ll make changes”, he said back in March when the club announced his comeback. What we’ve seen so far is indeed disappointing for those who expected them to happen quickly. The revolution has seen Toni Kroos play defensive midfield, something we know well he can’t do, and the same tired routines between Marcelo, Isco and Modric that do not surprise any defence anymore.

But it would be unfair to run an overly detailed tactical analysis of the team after three matches: what is worrying is not the personnel decisions or the tactical formations, but the fact that the players still look detached, unmoved by their coach, unmotivated by a match against Atletico.

When Real Madrid started their international tours under Bernabeu in the early fifties, the president decided to go to the dressing room before each match to let the players know in no uncertain terms that their responsibility was huge, that they represented the club and the country, and to remind them that if they won the match they would make the day or the week of plenty of Spanish migrants who lived in the specific city / country in which Real Madrid was about to play. Those motivational speeches quickly became classics, and were baptised as Santiaguinas – based on the first name of Bernabeu, Santiago.

Real Madrid v Fiorentina
They heard a few Santiaguinas

Back in the 80s, Camacho’s pre-match speeches were also memorable, and thus the Camachinas were born. Now I do believe that it’s time for the Zidaninas to make their appearance if the club want to recover a fundamental part of their identity: the competitive mentality. Otherwise, we will see more of the disheartening performances that have become half expected when the match does not feel like a do or die contest. If that happens, Real Madrid will become just another club to the eyes of many.