Fede Valverde kept going to the toilet — “more times today,” he said, “than in my whole life,” Dani Ceballos couldn’t sleep and even coach Carlo Ancelotti was nervous. Earlier that week, Ancelotti admitted that there’s a point in the buildup to games when the heart rate increases and the sweats start, a process that usually ends when the first whistle blows. This time was even worse. Not that anyone can see it with Ancelotti: He seemingly glides through it all, the coolest man on the planet. Not that he would want anyone to see it, either.
And so, in Auberge du Jeu de Paume, the luxury hotel where the team were staying, during the hours before the Champions League final, Real Madrid‘s manager hid in his room, away from his players, lest the concern become contagious. He needn’t have worried, which he already knew.
Unable to take a siesta, Ceballos saw teammates playing cards as if this were just another game; it was then, he said, that he realised that this was different, that they were. That’s confidence, he thought — and that really is contagious.
Ancelotti had suggested something similar the day before. Never mind him trying to calm his players; they were the ones that would calm him. “Worry is defeated when I see their faces,” he said.
They had been here before, after all.
Ceballos hadn’t, nor had Valverde. Or Vinicius Junior, Eduardo Camavinga, Eder Militao and Rodrygo. But Luka Modric, Dani Carvajal, Casemiro and Karim Benzema were about to start their fifth Champions League final with Madrid. Kroos was also about to start his fifth overall, having had one with Bayern. Gareth Bale and Marcelo had been here before too, and Nacho. They knew what it was about.
So did Thibaut Courtois, from the other side when with Atletico Madrid. Beaten by the side that were never beaten in 2014, he trusted that it would be different now that he had joined them, something he had witnessed round by round, miracle by miracle, step by step and save by save all season. “Now I’m on the right side of history,” he had said, and so it was.
Around 11:30 p.m. that Saturday night, Real Madrid were European champions again. It was their 14th time. They had won their past eight finals, not defeated in 41 years.
No, there had not been any guarantee: That confidence didn’t mean Real Madrid were always going to win, although it helps. Faith is not everything, no matter how many mountains it moves. Experience can be overrated, and frequently is. Winning is a habit that can be kicked, or one that can be kicked out of you. Madrid are not the only team that can do extraordinary things, as Ancelotti for one has experienced. And there isn’t always an explanation, or at least not a convincing one, which sometimes leads you to the simplest if most unsatisfactory of all: It’s an act of God. Destiny is not preordained, but it sometimes looks like it. Magic, a miracle, something metaphysical.
“It is easier to win the European Cup with Real Madrid,” Ancelotti said.
And this was with them winning it the hard way; maybe with anyone else, even with “better” teams, it would have been just impossible. This wasn’t supposed to happen — not this time. If it was going to, though, maybe it had to happen like this. Madrid had needed a last-minute goal to win their opening game, way back in September. They had been shot by (the) Sheriff (Tiraspol), but not by Paris Saint-Germain.
It is almost impossible to have a harder run to the final than Real Madrid this season. What could you change? Maybe the order of the games in the knockout phase, not letting them come back at the Bernabeu? Maybe you’d stick Bayern Munich in there somewhere? But for who?
Maybe. But they got Benfica, and then the draw was undone and they got Paris Saint-Germain instead. To go with Inter Milan, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool. They finished first in their group, ahead of the Italian champions, Inter. They knocked out the French champions, PSG. They beat the English champions, Man City. They eliminated the European champions, Chelsea. They faced Liverpool in the final, the team many said are the best in the continent. They beat the top three from the Premier League.
Do a ranking of Europe’s strongest teams and they faced, what — four of the best five sides? Not including them, mind you, and no one really did. Real Madrid were not favourites ever this season and sure, maybe that was right. Somehow they kept coming through, though, each miracle (if that is the word) greater than the last. Take the knockout rounds and, extra time apart, they played 14 halves of football. In how many were they the better side? One maybe? The first half at Stamford Bridge? They are the first team to lose three times in the knockout phase and win the title.
In every round, there was a comeback, a moment when it should have been over and it wasn’t. Until the final, which former Madrid general manager Jorge Valdano described as a “comeback in reverse,” they resisted, scored and resisted again. Liverpool had 23 shots, Madrid three. It was 9-1 in shots on target. And yet there they were at the end of it all, the most incredible European Cup success, surely ever. At full-time, Dani Carvajal was asked why they seemed so calm, and whether it was because they had won so many that they just took it in their stride now. There might be something in it but it wasn’t really that. It was more a kind of incredulity, the full-back said.
“We’re still patidifuso [Gobsmacked],” he insisted. “We still don’t believe it. This is incredible, magical.” The weirdness of it all, the silliness, the wild nature of this campaign, is summed up in that symbol of it: David Alaba‘s chair.
This is part of an incredible era, with Madrid’s fifth European Cup in nine seasons, but it is an era that was supposed to be over, or almost. This was the last for Marcelo, Bale, Isco. Modric is 36, Benzema 34, Kroos 32, Casemiro 30. Ronaldo is long gone. Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane left last summer. Even Ancelotti seemed to have left this stage. Maybe this was the last dance, one final rebellion, an unexpected chance seized. The new generation wasn’t quite ready yet, or so it goes. You can talk about Vinicius, sure, but this season started with Hazard and Bale.
It was certainly supposed to be a transitional season. Maybe even more than a transitional season, it was a kind of “gap year,” a waiting room for Kylian Mbappe. The awareness of that is illustrated by the second attempt for Mbappe, even if it failed, and by the other parts of a new project: Eduardo Camavinga last summer, Antonio Rudiger now, the pursuit of Aurelien Tchouaméni and the potential of other deals to come. And yet without Mbappe, they couldn’t have been better without him and it ended up as the best of seasons. Possibly the very best in their entire history. Anyone’s history: there has never, ever been a European Cup like this, and there probably never will be either.
“At the start of the season, we had a new coach, few new arrivals and people didn’t expect much,” Carvajal said. “We put a fist in the desk, showed what this badge means.”
This is the shirt that turns you into a mini “Incredible Hulk,” the former winger Michel once said. Carvajal, the kid who laid the first stone at Valdebebas, Real Madrid’s training ground, has five European Cups and only one man ahead of him now (Paco Gento), and naturally there were records all over the place, over 100 winners’ medals between the players on the pitch at the end. Football players sometimes seem to feed on the idea of disrespect, which provides fuel for their fight, but there was no real recrimination in his words because Madrid’s players hadn’t truly expected this either, at least not to begin with. It became self-perpetuating somehow, momentum growing with each round.
Their manager went with it, too — “It’s the magic of the Bernabeu,” he said, which suited his usual thing of not making it about himself when so much of it is about him. Ancelotti joined almost by chance. During a conversation about something else entirely — a bit of a catch-up, an enquiry about possible signings for Everton — he asked how Madrid’s search for a manager was going. Badly, he was told. Allegri had said no, and he wasn’t the only one. Which is when their worlds collided. What about me?
“Everton weren’t happy, but they are now because we beat Liverpool,” he said on Saturday. Ancelotti had been a solution: comforting, but short-term. That second chance, the opportunity to go back to a city he loves and club and a level he thought he’d left behind created a gratitude, an enthusiasm, an ease. The dressing room did too: Ancelotti has insisted on how good it is, and those are not just words. Nor is it just chance: He makes it so.
See how he consults, talks and treats them as “friends,” in his words. When the whistle went, Modric leapt into Ancelotti’s arms. In the semifinal, he asked Kroos and Marcelo what they thought he should do. He listens, that often overlooked quality. He may be an accidental hero, but what a hero. He won the league, completing the set: a champion in Europe’s five biggest leagues. He won the Champions League: No manager has more. He has won the European Cup as a player or manager in five different decades, for goodness sake. He could just walk away now, football completed.
There is something there, for sure. Talent and loads of it. In all of them. And that’s the thing here, the reason why the word “better” is often speech marks. How to define it? What does it mean? Better? Than Modric? Than Kroos? Than Vinicius? There is no player better than Benzema right now. Yes, this has often felt illogical and often has been — it’s one of the things that makes football fun — and luck does exist, always and for everyone, but look at the quality of the move that won the final, the pass from Modric for Rodrygo against Chelsea, Benzema’s magnificence, Rodrygo almost scoring a hat trick in three minutes. Look at Camavinga and Valverde, the man with four lungs. These guys can play, their ceiling higher than others, their moments better even if they are “only” moments.
But you have to make sure they still matter, can still matter. However much you refuse to give in, things still have to happen, or be made to happen. Somehow, it still has to fall for you; somehow, you still have to force it to fall. You can refuse to give in and still be beaten, and the margins can still be fine. Something has to start it. Against PSG, there were whistles, the game done. Against Man City, it was over. And then suddenly, one spark.
Look too at the attitude. No, not the never say die thing, exactly, although that is there as it is in most professionals. It’s also kind of funny to see Madrid repackaged as the underdogs, projected as David against Goliath, to listen to the talk of sacrifice and upsetting the odds or fighting to the last. This is the biggest club in football, after all. The most entitled, its chest permanently puffed out, and confidence can sometimes be seen as arrogance. There is an assuredness. But there has been (how to describe it?) a kind of humility, maybe a respect behind this success too, a willingness to adapt, to sacrifice, to “suffer”, as they always say. To have a survival instinct and a hunting instinct, too. As Ancelotti has put it: To be pessimistic is a quality if you’re a defender, to expect and accept the worst.
To be this huge club, the biggest of all, and to recognise that you might not always be better, but there will be a moment when you can be better and then you must. That you — great players and you are great players — will defend. That you may have to wait for your moment, that you will have to hang on at times. And yes, that you might get lucky sometimes, but that you will wait, that you have the talent and the temperament to do so and then make it count, that it’s not over yet. To embrace the qualities of the opponent, to believe you can attack them and go for them, but accept that you must resist them at times too. Yeah, we’re freaking Real Madrid; but you? You’re PSG, and Chelsea, and City and Liverpool and you’re good at this!
And so back to the start: They know. Courtois knows. He has felt it: In 2014, he let in the 93rd-minute goal that saw Atletico defeated. How different history might have been written, but somehow it felt like it already was. He crossed to the right side of history, he said. Some took that as an insult against Atletico; it wasn’t. It was about a sense of destiny, about giving himself a chance to win this, which he was desperate to do. About making himself invincible. About not pushing against the weight or history, but feeling it push him. Those teammates playing cards, they could tell him. As Ancelotti said: It’s easier to win with Madrid.
It’s easier for Madrid to win with Courtois, too. He made nine saves in the final, more than anyone else ever. Alisson made none. “Madness,” Carvajal called it. “He made saves that … well, made us champions.” Lucky, some said, and that’s understandable — and there’s always something separate about it when it’s the men between the posts who play the key role, something that’s not about the way a team plays exactly. Look at those stats again: 23 shots to three, nine on target to one. But is it lucky or a great goalkeeper? Is that chance? Is it not talent, and work, and ambition, and merit? Is he not part of the team too? If Madrid have players whose ceiling is higher than others’, his might be the highest of them all.
In the final, it was like Courtois was in a trance. “I felt no one could beat me,” he said, and ultimately he was right. Ancelotti admitted that he had said to Courtois, “I’ll take you to the final and you win it for us.” And so it was, except that he had taken them there too. He made 58 saves in the tournament: That’s 43 more than Alisson. He was the resistance all season. Not on his own, but he was. He was the magic, the impossible. Only five goalkeepers made more saves in LaLiga than him. His Champions League total was only one less than Ederson’s Premier League total, in a fraction of the games. “When I needed to be there, I was there for the team,” he said.
It turns out they needed him to be there a lot, and they were there too. However unlikely it had seemed: Impossible, in fact, only this lot don’t do impossible, not in Europe. “We showed the whole world we’re alive,” Benzema said. They had risen again. And again, and again, and again. And somehow still they were standing at the end, back where they had been before. Real Madrid had won another European Cup final, which is just what they do.