They weren’t supposed to be here. They weren’t supposed to make it this far.
And yet, against all odds, against all statistics and finances and holy shits how are they even still walking?!, they were.
Some of them, anyway.
When the starting XI for the Champions League final were announced for both teams, there was no mention of Atletico Madrid’s Arda Turan. He wasn’t even on the bench, not fit enough to make it to the final 18.
However, Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo were available. As was Atletico’s Diego Costa, fresh off of an injury treatment using horse placenta. He wouldn’t make it past the ninth minute of play, though.
Yet, his teammates soldiered on without him, their bodies aching and breaking with every passing minute. Improbably, they even took the lead when a Godin header caught Iker Casillas off his line.
It looked like Atletico Madrid were gonna do it. They were going to win the Champions League, prolonging their city rivals’ long wait for it.
Then the second best striker in the world, (behind Lord Nicklas Bendtner) Sergio Ramos gave them the lead, almost two minutes from time.
We were going to extra time.
During extra time, Real Madrid took over. A Gareth Bale header off a Angel Di Maria cross gave Madrid the lead. Atletico Madrid finally wilted. A Marcelo strike and a Cristiano penalty sealed the win for Real and gave the game a misleading scoreline.
Real Madrid was back on top of Europe after a wait of 10 years and a spending spree of almost a billion euros. Since 2002, when they won after a Zinedine Zidane golaso (Zidane was on the bench for Madrid, an assistant to three time Champions League winning manager Carlo Ancelotti), they have broken transfer records, first for Cristiano Ronaldo and then for Gareth Bale. They have gone through a score of managers, as well. Heck, even Fiorentino Perez, who was perhaps enchanted with La Decima more than anyone at the club, left for a while.
In the end, though, he’d say it was all worth it.
The most expensive player in the world, who announced at his presentation in August that he was here to win the Champions League, had done just that. The player who many Real Madrid fans say is the greatest ever player in their history had sealed it.
On the other side of the pitch was a team that defied the odds all season. They were the least expensive side to be in a final since Jose Mourinho’s Porto side in 2004. Most of them would probably not be there next season.
Diego Costa is going to Chelsea, perhaps along with Thibaut Courtois, himself a Chelsea loanee. There will also not be a shortage of suitors for the services of Koke and Arda Turan, the engines of this Atleti team.
The biggest question is that of their manager’s future. Diego Simeone has proven himself a charismatic manager, not unlike the Jose Mourinho of Porto. He has admirers all over the world, and was rumored to be first choice at a lot of the biggest clubs in Europe. How long will it be before he leaves?
How long will it be before this Atletico Madrid side becomes a memory, a footnote in the overall bigger story of Real Madrid’s quest for La Decima?
That is another thing this season has proved. Ultimately, the “small clubs” will always fail to compete with the behemoths, for purely financial reasons. While the notion of the underdog is very romantic, the fact of the matter is, if you’re willing to spend money and you’re willing to wait long enough for a return on your investment, you will get results in football. As Miguel Delaney put it in his match report, “As the margins lessened, the true gaps were revealed.”
Real Madrid were able to call on players that Atletico simply could not. Carlo Ancelotti, who it has to be said was masterful in his game plan, can call on a player of Isco’s caliber, a luxury Diego Simeone does not have. (Which is perhaps something he looks at when he feels his time at Atletico is over.)
And that is perhaps why dreams like Atletico’s – dreams of footballing success independent of wages and transfer fees – is always bound to be crushed.
And that is exactly why dreams like Real Madrid’s – a dream ten years and a billion euros in the making – can be realized.