Destiny? Magic? A miracle? Real Madrid won UCL the hard way
5: 52 AM ET
Sid LoweSpain writer
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. Ancelotti had admitted earlier that there is a point during the buildup to games where the heart rate and sweats increase. This usually ends when the whistle blows. Even worse was this time. It’s not that anyone can see it, Ancelotti seems to glide through it all, the coolest man in the world. It’s not like he would want anyone else to see it.
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 didn’t need to worry, as he 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. He said, “Worry is defeated once I see their faces.”
They had been there 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 set to begin his fifth overall after having previously had one with Bayern. Gareth Bale and Marcelo had been here before too, and Nacho. They knew what it was all 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. He had stated, “Now I’m right side of history.”
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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.
There was no guarantee. That confidence did not mean Real Madrid would always win, even though it helps. Faith is not enough, no matter how many mountains you climb. It is easy to overrate the value of experience, which it often is. Winning is something that can be broken or thrown out. Madrid is not the only team capable of doing extraordinary things. Ancelotti has seen it firsthand. There isn’t always a reason, or at the very least, a convincing explanation. Sometimes, however, you find yourself at the most basic, if not the most satisfying, of all: It’s an act by God. Although destiny is not preordained it can sometimes look like it. Magic, miracles, and the metaphysical.
” It is easier to win Europe Cup with Real Madrid,” Ancelotti stated.
This was with them winning it the hard-way; with any other team, even with better, it would have been impossible. This was not supposed to happen. It could have happened like this if it was going to. Madrid needed a last-minute goal in order to win their first game back in September. They had been shot by (the) Sheriff (Tiraspol), but not by Paris Saint-Germain. It is almost impossible to have a tougher run to the final than Real Madrid in this season’s championship. What would you change? Perhaps the order of the knockout games, not letting them return 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 were first in their group, beating Inter, the Italian champions. They defeated the French champions, PSG. They defeated Man City, the English champions. They defeated Chelsea, the European champions. They faced Liverpool in their final match, who many consider the best team on the continent. They beat the Premier League’s top three teams.
Does a ranking of Europe’s strongest teams. They faced what? Four of the top five sides. They weren’t included, but they were there, and no one did. Real Madrid were not favourites this season, and maybe that was right. They kept on winning, however, each miracle (if that’s the right word) was greater than the previous. Take the knockout rounds and, extra time apart, they played 14 halves of football. How many of them were the better side? Perhaps one? The first half at Stamford Bridge. They are the first team to win the title by losing three times in the knockout phase.
In every round, there was a comeback. It was a moment when it should have ended and it wasn’t. They resisted, scored, and resisted until the final, which Jorge Valdano, former Madrid general manager, described as a “comeback-in-reverse”. Liverpool had 23 shots, Madrid three. It was 9-1 in shots to target. Yet, they were there at the end, celebrating the most remarkable European Cup victory, without doubt. 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. It might have something to it, but it wasn’t really that. The full-back said that it was more an incredulity.
“We’re still patidifuso [Gobsmacked],” he insisted. “We still don’t believe it. This is amazing, 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 an amazing era with Madrid winning the fifth European Cup in nine seasons. But it was an era that was supposed be over. 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 not to have left this stage. Perhaps this was the last dance, a final rebellion, a chance that was not expected. Or so it seems. It’s possible to talk about Vinicius but this season began with Hazard and Bale. It was definitely supposed to be a transitional year. 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 Tchouameni and the potential of other deals to come. They couldn’t have done it without Mbappe and it was the best season ever. This was their best season in their history. In any history, there has never been a European Cup like it.
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“At the start of the season, we had a new coach, few new arrivals and people didn’t expect much,” Carvajal said. “We put our fist in front of the desk and showed what this badge meant. This shirt turns you into an “Incredible Hulk”-sized mini, as Michel used to say. 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. Sometimes football players seem to feed off the idea of disrespect, which fuels their fight. However, there was no real recrimination in his remarks because Madrid’s players didn’t really expect this. It was self-perpetuating, with momentum growing with each round.
Their manager also agreed with it — “It’s the magic of Bernabeu,” they said. This was in keeping with his usual style of not making it all about him when so much of it is. Ancelotti joined almost by accident. 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. He was told that it was going badly. Allegri had refused to listen, and he wasn’t the only one. That’s 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 temporary solution. It was comforting but not long-term. The second chance, the chance to return to a city and club he loved and a level he thought was lost, gave him a sense of gratitude, enthusiasm, and ease. It was evident in the dressing room: Ancelotti insists on how great it is and that those are not just words. It is not just luck: He makes it happen.
See how he consults with them, talks to them and treats them like “friends”. Modric leapt into Ancelotti’s arms when the whistle went. He asked Marcelo and Kroos what they thought he should be doing in the semifinal. He listens, that often overlooked quality. He may not be a hero by accident, but he is a true hero. He won the league, complete the set: a champion of Europe’s five largest leagues. He won the Champions League: No manager has won more. He has won the European Cup as a player or manager in five different decades, for goodness sake. He could simply walk away, football over.
There is something there. Talent, and lots of it. All of them. This is the thing, the reason the word “better”, is often used in speech marks. What does it mean? What does it mean? Better? Modric? Kroos? Than Vinicius? Benzema is the best player right now. This has felt illogical at times and has been for a long time. But, look at the quality and skill of the move that won it, Modric’s pass for Rodrygo against Chelsea and Benzema’s magnificence. Rodrygo almost scored a hat trick in just three minutes. Camavinga, Valverde, the man who has 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. Regardless of how stubborn you are, things must still happen or be made happen. It still has to happen for you. You still have to force it to come down. It is possible to refuse to give up and still win, but the margins may still be acceptable. It has to begin. The whistles were blown against PSG. It was over against Man City. The spark suddenly appeared.
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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 funny to see Madrid being repackaged as an underdog, portrayed as David against Goliath. This is the largest club in football, afterall. It is the most entitled club, with its chest constantly puffed out. Confidence can sometimes be interpreted as arrogance. There is an assuredness. But it has been (how do you 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. It is also important to have a survival instinct as well as a hunting instinct. Ancelotti said it best: To be pessimistic if you’re a defender is a quality, to expect and take 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. You may need to wait for your moment and that you may have times when you have to hold on. Yes, you might be lucky at times, but you must wait. You must also remember that you have the talent, the temperament, and the will to make it count. Accept the qualities of your opponent and believe you can defeat them. But, you must also accept that sometimes you will have to resist them. We’re Real Madrid, but you? You are PSG, Chelsea, City, Liverpool, and other top-level players.
And so it goes back to the beginning: They know. Courtois knows. He has felt it: In 2014, he let in the 93rd-minute goal that saw Atletico defeated. It is possible that history could have been different, but it felt like it was. He said that he had crossed to the right side. Some saw it as an insult to Atletico. It wasn’t. It was about a sense o destiny, about giving himself a chance at winning this, which was what he wanted to do. It was about making himself invincible. Not pushing against his weight or past, but feeling it pushes him. He could be told by his teammates who were playing cards. As Ancelotti stated, it’s easier to win against Madrid.
Madrid can also win with Courtois. He saved nine times in the final, more than any other player. Alisson made none. Carvajal called it “Madness.” “He made saves which… well, made me champion.” 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. Is it luck or a great goalkeeper Is it a chance? Is it not talent and work, ambition, merit, and hard work? Is he not a part of the team? Madrid might have players whose ceilings are higher than others’. His could be the highest.
In the final, Courtois seemed to be in a trance. He said that he felt no one could beat him, and he was correct. Ancelotti admitted to Courtois that he had said to Courtois “I’ll take your to the final and win it for you.” It was the same except that he had also taken them there. He made 58 saves in the tournament: That’s 43 more than Alisson. He was the resistance throughout the season. He was the resistance, not by himself. He was the miracle, the impossible. He was the only goalkeeper to make more saves in LaLiga than Ederson. His Champions League total was only one less than Ederson’s Premier League total, in a fraction of the games. He said, “When I was needed, I was there to support the team.”
They needed him to be there a lot and they were there too. It was impossible, however unlikely it seemed. In fact, this group doesn’t do impossible in Europe. Benzema stated, “We showed the entire world that we are alive.” They had risen again. They rose again. They were back at their previous position at the end. Real Madrid had won another European Cup final. This is exactly what they do.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.