At Real Madrid, the only trophy that counts can still slip away

By Rory Smith

Real Madrid knows the route. The first stop will be at Almudena, the Spanish capital’s cathedral. Then it is on to Puerta del Sol, in the heart of the city, before a reception at the Palace of Communications, where the local council sits. The formalities over, it is out on to Plaza de Cibeles, the fountain-cum-roundabout where Real Madrid always celebrates its triumphs.

The path is a well-worn one. “Something of a routine,” as Real Madrid’s captain, Sergio Ramos, put it in 2018. The club has done it 13 times before; a substantial proportion of this current squad has done it four times since 2014.

It has done it so often that there are rules in place now. The players are no longer allowed to climb up the statue of Cybele, in a chariot drawn by lions, that stands at the center of the roundabout, after one of their overexuberant forebears managed to break her arm. Instead, one will be allowed to place a scarf, delicately, around her neck. Real Madrid knows what it does, where it goes and how it behaves when it wins the Champions League.

There is no equivalent among the three teams who might yet deny Real Madrid a 14th crown this year. Manchester City has made it to the semifinals for the second time in its history. Paris St.-Germain is here for the third time. Chelsea, Real Madrid’s opponent in the semifinals Tuesday (the match was still in progress at press time), has at least staged one victory parade, in 2012, but precedent is not quite the same as tradition. Chelsea would have to plot a map for another. Real Madrid can do the journey on autopilot.

This, then, is Real Madrid’s stage. In one light, coach Zinedine Zidane’s team should be the last choice of the four remaining contenders to win European club soccer’s biggest prize.

Manchester City is free and clear at the summit of the Premier League, on the cusp of a third title in four years under the guiding hand of Pep Guardiola, the finest coach of his generation.

PSG is propelled by not only the most expensive player ever, but by Kylian Mbappé, the 22-year-old standard-bearer for soccer’s next generation. Chelsea, revived under the German coach Thomas Tuchel, was reinforced by $250 million worth of talent last summer — in the middle of a pandemic — and now concedes goals only to teams managed by Sam Allardyce.

Real Madrid, on the other hand, is ravaged by injury. The player signed to sprinkle it with stardust, Eden Hazard, has barely featured in the two years since he joined. It failed to make the quarterfinals of this competition in 2019 and 2020, and came within a whisker of elimination in the group stage this time around.

Though it has not lost in any competition since January, its form has been stop and start. It followed a week in which it beat Barcelona and Liverpool with scoreless draws against Getafe and Real Betis. It has not even been able to do what Real Madrid does best: take advantage when its neighbor and rival, Atlético Madrid, loses its nerve.

But this is precisely the point when Real’s history becomes an active force, rather than a scenic backdrop. Every single one of the Champions League trophies Real Madrid has acquired is on display in the club’s museum. Twice, in recent years, it has had to expand the cabinet that holds them. This is not a problem any other team has. No other team feels quite so at home in this competition as Real Madrid.

It is strange, then, that only a week ago, the club’s president, Florentino Pérez, was busy trying to destroy it. The Super League project that he had spent three years developing — and substantially more time conceiving — might have been designed to “save soccer,” as he put it, but it could have done nothing but diminish the Champions League, the very trophy that plays such a central role in his club’s identity.

He was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a little skittish when that point was made to him on one of the ill-judged and, significantly, solitary television appearances he made to defend the Super League.

Would Real Madrid’s first Super League victory — it was never questioned that Real Madrid would win the Super League, which is telling in itself — be the club’s first victory in that competition, or would it be its 14th European Cup? “It might be the 15th,” he answered. “The 14th might arrive this season.”

Pérez had to be oblique, to swat the issue away. He cherishes winning the Champions League more than anyone else; in that trophy is, in his eyes, all the justification, all the answer, he ever needs. Even as he concocted the Super League, he would have known that to diminish the Champions League would, by proxy, serve to diminish Madrid’s history, and his own.

Why he was prepared to do that can, in part, be gleaned from Real Madrid’s balance sheet. The club is drowning in debt, behind on its salary bill — another six-monthly installment of player salaries is due on June 30 — and hamstrung by the costs of renovations to its stadium, the Bernabéu. There is a loan from Providence, an American hedge fund, to pay back. There are transfer fees outstanding. Real Madrid, put simply, needed the money.

But Pérez’s rationale can be seen, too, in the identity of those teams hoping to beat Real Madrid to the Champions League trophy in Istanbul next month: Chelsea, underwritten by the private wealth of a Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich; Manchester City, turned into a contender by its state backers in Abu Dhabi; Paris St.-Germain, the team that bought Neymar, financed by Qatar.

This is the new world order that Pérez has long feared, coming to pass. He knows that Real Madrid cannot compete for resources with these teams, no matter how often the Spanish government agrees to buy its training facility. It has only so many training facilities to sell, after all, and besides, in a world in which PSG can pay $258 million for Neymar — a fee paid, to some extent, with the specific aim of distorting the transfer market — even that may not be enough.

It is hard to have too much sympathy. “They have to control costs, not increase income,” Javier Tebas, the president of La Liga, said last week. It was a sensible sentiment; if Real Madrid, like Barcelona, cannot pay the salaries or the transfer fees of Europe’s rising powers, then they should cut their cloth accordingly.

Both clubs have frittered away hundreds of millions of euros on poor signings and inflated salaries; neither has the sort of coherent vision for their future that Manchester City, say, has carefully (and expensively) nurtured. Their crisis is in no small part of their own making. They could start again, trust in youth, run themselves more sustainably, and still enjoy the vast advantages conferred on them by their revenue.

But that, at Real Madrid, is easier said than done. It is not a club that will accept second best. Pérez knows that the continued popularity of his presidency rests on his ability to deliver “a time of total glory,” as he said in the aftermath of the club’s 13th Champions League trophy, now three years past.

It is a club, instead, that knows by heart the route of its own valedictory tour, and that expects to make the journey every year. For years, it has felt as if the Champions League has belonged to Real Madrid, and yet here it is, slipping away, that familiar path becoming more and more arduous every year.

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