Real Madrid, Hard to Define, Firms Its Stamp on Champions League


This Real Madrid did not need to win another Champions League to have its place in history. It had already won two of the last three editions of the competition, beating its fierce rival, Atlético Madrid, in Lisbon in 2014 and again, on penalties, in Milan last year.

But in sweeping past Juventus, 4-1, on Saturday, thanks to two goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and one each from Casemiro and Marco Asensio, the team turned its recent primacy into something more lasting, something approaching hegemony. In time, this will be remembered as Real Madrid’s era.

The nature of the era, though, seems harder to discern. Those teams that live longest in soccer’s communal memory tend to define, or be defined by, something — their legacy endures partly because of what they come to represent. They offer a blueprint that others might, in their own way, follow. They do not simply conquer the game. They change it, too.

Trying to pinpoint the meaning of this Real Madrid team, though, is to grasp at smoke. Recently, the academic Steven G. Mandis published a book called “The Real Madrid Way.” It purported to extrapolate the values that led to the team’s relentless success.

It caught many in Europe, particularly within soccer, by surprise. There appears, after all, to be no overarching philosophy deployed by Florentino Pérez, the club’s president, to build a team, and no style of play that Zinedine Zidane, its coach, has instilled in his players. On the surface, its success offers no lessons.

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Gonzalo Higuaín of Juventus and Casemiro of Real Madrid battled for possession during Saturday’s title match.

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Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Indeed, it can seem to be quite the opposite. Real Madrid is the antithesis of much of modern soccer’s dominant thinking. This is an age in which concept is king. Soccer craves those coaches who see themselves as representatives of some higher idea, and it lionizes teams that claim to have discovered a revolutionary system, whether on the field or in the transfer market.

Real — almost alone now — scorns it all. The best example is the player who scored the crucial second goal in Cardiff, the one that broke Juventus’s spirit and drained its resolve: Casemiro, a generally unspectacular Brazilian defensive midfielder, but the sort beloved of coaches searching for balance on a team.

If Pérez had his way, Casemiro would not play. The Real president, in fact, once advised Rafael Benítez, Zidane’s predecessor, to exclude him from a vital Clásico against Barcelona. His thinking was simple: Casemiro does not sell enough jerseys and rarely brings the fans to their feet, so he cannot be especially important. Real was duly beaten, and Benítez eventually fired. One of Zidane’s first acts was to bring Casemiro back to the team.

At first glance, then, it would be easy to assume that Real Madrid’s victories do not stand for something more, do not represent some greater truth. They are not victories for a belief or a system. They are simply victories for Real Madrid, and that is all that Real Madrid cares about.

That is not to say they are unwarranted. Juventus started with a blistering urgency on Saturday, but over the course of the match, Real’s superiority shone through. Ronaldo’s first goal came against the run of play and was canceled out by Mario Mandzukic’s wonderful overhead kick.

The three that followed in a flurry in the second half, though, were a fair reflection of Real’s dominance, Zidane’s team flicking through the gears, finding an acceleration and a ruthlessness that Juventus, the Italian champion, could not match. Juventus’s defense, its pride and joy, a grizzled, hard-boiled unit that had seemed able to stifle any opponent, was torn apart, time and again, almost at will.

It would be inaccurate, and foolhardy, to pretend that this was the product of nothing more than good fortune, or to dismiss all that Real has achieved since 2014 as some sort of oddity, one that defies logic and explanation. This is not a team that should be denied credit for the greatness it has earned simply because it does not fit within today’s narrow definition of what greatness looks like.

This Real Madrid does stand for something. It stands for a simplicity that jars at a time when soccer is in thrall to complexity; for the cold truth that if you put 11 extremely talented players on a field, they are capable of remarkable things; that if you gather enough excellence together, it concentrates, ferments, becomes exponentially more potent — capable of overcoming any hurdle at all. It represents the fact that at heart, when the miasma of theorizing and extrapolating and intellectualizing clears, soccer is a simple equation, one in which the team with the best players generally wins.

It is not something another team can replicate, a lesson that can be learned or a pattern that can be mimicked, which is why it is so often ignored. It is something that is really only available to a team of the wealth, power and history of Real Madrid.

But that does not make it any less valid, or any less worthy of praise. There is a Real Madrid way, which does not need a book to define it. The Real Madrid way is to win. That is how this era will be defined, in hindsight: as the era in which Real Madrid won, and won again, and won again. There is no way it would rather be remembered.

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