Real Madrid deserves its place in history, and its most recent generation merits its reputation as a dynasty team, one perfectly calibrated in talent and temperament to excel on soccer’s most exalted stage. But that history does not need to be airbrushed, to have all trace of blemish surgically removed.
It has been tempting, these last few years, to see all of Real Madrid’s close shaves, its flirtations with disaster, as proof of inherent greatness: a team that knows exactly what to do to win, that always finds something more when it is required, a group of players whose gifts can guide them out of any situation.
That is true, too, though it is not the whole truth. What Wolfsburg and Juventus and Ulreich and the rest prove is that Real Madrid’s grip on the competition was not as viselike as it seemed. It was, at times, only the bounce of a ball away from being loosened entirely. What Ajax did on Tuesday Juventus might have achieved a year ago, but for one moment, one slip, one whistle.
Those blemishes matter, not because they can be deployed as false harbingers of what was to come against Ajax, or because they serve to diminish Real Madrid’s status, but because they act as proof that all those trophies were achieved not because of destiny but because of the players, and coaches, involved.
Real Madrid does not have a divine right to win the Champions League. It was not carried to Lisbon and Milan and Cardiff and Kiev, and to constant glory, by its reputation or its aura or its history. It was carried by Ronaldo, his significance only highlighted by his absence, and his own refusal to countenance defeat, his desperate quest for greatness; and by Zidane; and before him by Carlo Ancelotti, and his subtle, shrewd, unspoken ability to elicit the best from the best.
Real Madrid could easily not have won four of the last five Champions Leagues. At times, it has been hard to explain — particularly in an age when soccer is enthralled by complexity, by philosophies and systems — quite how it has done so. Perhaps that is why it has been so easy to revert to thoughts of a special bond between this club and this competition, to start to believe in destiny. How easily it might all have come apart was illustrated perfectly on Tuesday, how fragile even the supreme can be. That it did not, for so long, is what this team will be remembered for; the picture will not be complete, though, without the pockmarks, the blemishes, the edges, ragged and rough.