During the early 2000′s, Real Madrid’s owner Fiorentino Perez changed soccer forever when he adopted a transfer policy that included large spending sprees on the biggest stars that money could buy. The result brought the world a team so good, so talented and so magnificent the only name people could come up with for them was the ‘Galacticos’. Better than anything this galaxy could produce, Real Madrid reigned supreme during this time and gloated their success mightily. After years of work to attempt to duplicate the squad, many believed this year was the year that Real Madrid had finally pieced together a modern version of the ‘Galaticos’…that is until the season actually started.
Madrid, Spain- August 19th, 2012 5 p.m.: It’s a near full capacity showing at the Santiago Bernabeu for Real Madrid’s opening night game against Valencia. 78,000 fans march through the stadium gates in high spirits, dreaming of the season ahead. The crowd seems to have an unexplainable energy in it and not just because it’s day one in the La Liga season. This season is different, the dreamers are dreaming bigger, the expectations haven’t been higher and for a club that holds nine (the most all-time) European Championship Trophies (includes Champions League), anything less than triumph will be unacceptable. The optimism can be heard beaming from all corners of the stadium and to be honest why shouldn’t it? After all this is essentially the same Real Madrid who stole the crown back from Barcelona in what I must say was rather easy fashion.
Madrid, Spain – August 19th, 2012 12 a.m.: The empty shell of the legendary Bernabeu was all that remained; the lights had been shut off, maintenance crews had done their work and the optimism had vanished with each fan who left the stadium just a few hours earlier. Outside the stadium, on Paseo de la Castellana (the main street), the cheering and celebration can usually be heard ringing following a match for several hours around the area. On this evening however, the scoreboard read 1-1. For a team that has the second highest average salary per player of any team in the world (6.33 million dollars) behind only the New York Yankees, while being led by a coach known as “The Chosen One”, and a player flashier, more flamboyant and more spectacular than almost anyone the past twenty years had seen; it’s easy to see why 1-1 just wasn’t good enough on this night.
Madrid, Spain- August 30th, 2012 8 a.m.: The early morning risers awoke in such happiness one would almost call them giddy. After all, their beloved Real Madrid did just come back in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup to defeat rivals Barcelona, 2-1 (4-4 Aggregate – victory on away goals). Even the thought of the embarrassing loss to tiny little Getafe just four days earlier, the draw to Valencia on opening night or the fact that Barcelona already stood five points clear of Real Madrid after just two weeks of the season would be unable to break these fans spirits. The optimism was back, floating around each and every street of the Spanish capital. A club this prestigious and this decorated was behaving a level below their classes status level. Teams like Real Madrid don’t celebrate such small trophies like George Mason knocking off Uconn in the NCAA tournament; teams such as Real Madrid walk off the pitch calm as if the victory were nothing more than a formality. But these fans had been damaged, hurt from prior seasons when their Catalan brothers were finally able to overthrow Real Madrid’s monarch like rule over Spanish soccer. So on this August day, Real Madrid fans ignored all the warning signs, instead paraded around gleefully, fantasizing of the glorious season ahead.
Earth, Solar System- September 3rd, 2012: News has just broken that Cristiano Ronaldo, star forward, prolific scorer and Real Madrid’s savior is quoted as being “sad”. A moment like this doesn’t happen often in sports, when a man of Ronaldo’s stature becomes restless the world stops and takes notice. His sadness had been stemming from what most would call feeling unappreciated; unappreciated in his contract, by the fans, and in the media. After scoring over 60 goals the previous season, Ronaldo had the ability to hold Madrid to almost any ransom of his choosing, but this isn’t American Football and the best players don’t “hold out”. The rumblings of trouble began storming through the city of Madrid, as the gleeful optimism was once again gone. Clubs around the world were quietly eyeing Madrid like a Lion in hunt waiting for their chance to pounce, anticipating the ‘Los Blancos’ implosion that was soon to occur.
Madrid, Spain- September 18th, 2012 7 p.m.: Children, parents and grandparents sit down for what is to be one of the most highly anticipated matchups of the early Champions League season, English champions vs. Spanish champions, Manchester City vs. Real Madrid. Aleksander Kolorov’s free kick goal in the 85th minute has the blue side of Manchester singing songs of victory, as the crowd in Madrid looks on in disbelief. Fans begin looking to the heavens wondering where the optimism of less than three weeks ago has gone, for now it seems the ground beneath the Santiago Bernabeu is crumbling before their very eyes. As reality sets in, panic, anger and displeasure begin to take over the crowd. The fans finally realize that Real Madrid has been anything but good so far; coming off a loss to Sevilla on the weekend, Madrid’s four points in four league games put them eight points back of Barcelona (a number almost insurmountable in La Liga even at this stage). But in a flash thoughts of reality are gone. Karim Benzema’s goal has energized the stadium who for a second, had almost turned on their side. As the seconds tick down, each fan begins to calculate if a tie is satisfying enough to mask their pain. But those thoughts end when Ronaldo’s blast rejuvenates a city and a man’s love for a team as everyone now realizes that they should have never questioned. Optimism is back dancing through the Madrid air for the climactic ending has blinded the crowd well.
Barcelona, Spain- October 7th, 2012 8:45 p.m.: It’s all over at the Camp Nou, Barcelona-2, Real Madrid-2. Lionel Messi’s free kick provides the seal for Barcelona’s faithful as they hold down the fort and maintain their eight point lead on ‘Los Blancos’, a golden opportunity has passed and all of Madrid knows it. Barcelona fans know it too, and although this day marks the first time ‘La Blaugrana’ have dropped points, the supporters know that this is not an issue in comparison to the one brewing in Madrid.
Dortmund, Germany- October 24th, 2012 7 p.m.: No country causes more problems for Real Madrid than Germany. Maybe it’s the style of play, the raucous crowds, German accents, or maybe it’s the bratwursts the players eat before the game, but each and every player, coach and fan remembers the turmoil they felt in Munich last April after slipping up against Bayern Munich in the semi-finals of Champions League. As the clock moved forward the teams warmed up, the whistle blew, the crowd roared in excitement and then the whistle blew again. It was all over, Borussia Dortmund’s 2-1 win was a statement, but one that most misinterpreted. As many praised Dortmund’s excellence and rise to an elite status in world football, few and far between recounted the struggles and failures that plagued Madrid on this evening, the same ones that had plagued them time and time again already this season. Now second in their group, Madrid had played themselves out of the pole position and into a place that would only make their early season dreams of glory even harder to accomplish.
Valencia, Spain- November 11th, 2012 9:30 p.m.: Having just tied Dortmund at home in front of a packed house at the Bernabeu, Real had officially lost control of their Champions League group. Still eight points behind rivals Barcelona in League, not much seemed right in the Capital. A rainy trip to Valencia on a soaked pitch against Levante had the makings of a collapse written all over it. Passes were caught in puddles on the pitch, dribbling was challenging at best, guys slipped on every play and any ball into the box was a dangerous one. The talent of Madrid would have no impact on the game, as the field neutralized the tables for Levante. The Champions battled, appearing to come up short as most predicted, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned about this Real Madrid team it’s that they do a great job of reminding you how good they are, once in awhile. Young Morata’s late winner, erased Xabi Alonso’s missed penalty and sent Madrid into jubilation once more. The goal was massive and most felt probably saved their season, but even this moment couldn’t bring optimism back to the roads in Madrid.
Sevilla, Spain- November 24th, 2012 10 p.m.: A trip to the south of Spain results in a sluggish start, a 17th minute goal from young star Beñat, is enough to defeat a desperate Madrid 1-0 in front of 20,000 fans.
Barcelona’s lead: 11 Points
Vigo, Spain- December 12th, 2012 10 p.m.: A trip to Vigo, Spain to face Celta Vigo in Copa Del Rey should be nothing more than a formality. When the 90 minutes are up, Vigo stands tallest stunning Madrid 2-1 in the Round of 16.
Madrid, Spain- December 16th, 2012 7 p.m.: Failure in front of the home fans once more, as Espanyol escapes with a late equalizer leaving the Bernabeu with a 2-2 tie.
Barcelona’s lead: 13 Points
Nyon, Switzerland- December 20th, 2012 7 p.m.: The club’s second place finish puts them in the runner up spot, pitting them against a group winner. Madrid’s deficiencies in Champions League created this messy predicament; in the most fitting of ways fate would be unkind to Real Madrid on this day as it had previously on six occasions in La Liga and three times in Champions League, bringing non other than Manchester United to town for a vaunted Round of 16 match up.
Malaga, Spain – December 22nd, 2012 8 p.m.: A trip to the beach island of Malaga for most people means a little R & R on the beach. I guess the players forgot they made the trip to play a crucial match tonight. The Malaga supporters were in full flight as the teams entered the pitch. Malaga hasn’t had a season this good in Spain and Europe in years, but for Real to allow a Roque Santa Cruz double to occur with in a ten minute window of the second half sums up Madrid’s season in a nut shell. To make matters worse Barcelona again.
Barcelona’s lead: 16 Points
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania- December 23rd, 2012 3:30 p.m.: No matter the city, date or time, Real Madrid’s play has not been to the standard that any of us have come to expect from the most prestigious of clubs. They just haven’t met the quality that the fans, coaches or players expect and demand from themselves each week. A team that once aspired to win the treble this season now has a dark future ahead in 2013. Sitting an unacceptable third place in La Liga, 16 points back of undefeated Barcelona and seven back of crosstown rivals Atletico Madrid, their chances of winning the league are looking quite slim. In Champions League a pair of dates with the best team in England loom on the horizon. Even if they get through this test it would take defeating two more tough opponents just to reach the finals. While in Copa Del Rey, the “easiest” of their competitions, Madrid faces elimination down 2-1 on aggregate to Celta Vigo in the Round of 16. Since day one the ship has been running off course; Casillas, Ramos, Pepe, Alonso, Khedira, Arbeloa, Coentrao, Ozil, Modric, Essien, Ronaldo, Di Maria, Callejon, Benzema, Higuain and Marcelo are too talented a group to let injuries, tactics, weather, opponents or off field issues be excuses that undermine all the progress this club has been making in the past three seasons. While the side may have to concede their league crown to Barcelona (and their unstoppable streak in La Liga to this point), Champions League and Copa Del Rey are still very real possibilities. It is time for Real Madrid to become the team everyone expected them to be, the team everyone saw them becoming last spring, a team that will hoist multiple trophies this season. But then again maybe our expectations were too high, maybe the analysts misjudged the situation, maybe this is all the Real Madrid team of 2012-13 is, and nothing more.