Real Madrid, whose riches and fame and consistent, historic success as a club are unmatched in soccer’s long history, just capped off one of their greatest seasons ever—and it was just the latest of a string of triumphant years that by all rights should indelibly brand this era as their own. They pulled off maybe the most difficult feat there is in soccer—winning La Liga against Lionel Messi’s Barcelona—by building arguably the greatest top-to-bottom squad ever assembled. Just this weekend, they conquered Europe by beating Juventus in the Champions League final, and in doing so became the first club in 27 years to win the continent’s biggest prize in back-to-back seasons, which on top of that made for their third UCL trophy in four years. When laid out like this, it is impossible to argue against the prospect that what we’ve witnessed these past few years in Madrid hasn’t been one of the greatest stretches of all time, and it doesn’t look like it will soon end. And yet I’m entirely uncertain if it meant anything at all.
Real Madrid this season have been something of a tautology. How do we know this team is good? Because they win. Why do they win? Because they are good. There is no grand tactical idea driving the team to victory, no overarching philosophy of play or development or construction guiding them; there is nothing more than a big and rich club bringing together an astonishing number of great players—Real’s squad is truly wild; comparing the starting lineups from the Champions League final, not a single Juventus player would crack Madrid’s starting XI, while Real had players on the bench and even in the stands who would probably be the star man for Juve—and those great players going on to win everything.
This is, of course, nothing for Real to apologize for or feel anything but overjoyed about. Soccer is first and foremost a game of players, and their great-player-stuffed team was greater and deeper than every other great-player-stuffed team in the world, and they proved just how much better theirs is by winning soccer’s preeminent trophy three times in four tries. Nonetheless, it’s hard to place these achievements in context. In this era of tactical innovation and ideological devotion—when José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola made their respective styles of impenetrable defenses and free-flowing attacks the sport’s dominant paradigms; when Diego Simeone perfected a hellishly intense defense-and-counters gameplan that won Atlético Madrid La Liga, brought them to the brink of two Champions League trophies, and laid the groundwork for the similarly astounding underdog success of Leicester and Monaco; when Jürgen Klopp and his German contemporaries proved that high and hard defending can be just as creatively fruitful as attacking—it’s a little odd that Real Madrid, the club of undefinable greatness, the masters of crosses and headers, have won the biggest trophy the most often.
No one should be surprised that a team with the most great players has won a lot. From both the present and future perspectives, though, it’s difficult to know how to feel about Real, other than to be impressed by the sheer magnitude of their success.
For a team that has won so much, Real don’t really dominate the passages of games. The Champions League final was a good example of Real’s typical big-game performance. Juve actually looked like the better team for the majority of the first half, with Real only crafting one or two sustained stretches where they had the ball and looked consistently threatening with it. One such stretch culminated in Cristiano Ronaldo’s match-opening goal. Other than those brief moments when Real looked like they might score (and admitting that while Juventus, for all their intensity and attack-mindedness, only rarely managed to get the ball into the most dangerous areas of the pitch even during their spells of ascendance), the first half of the match felt decidedly in Juventus’s favor.
Immediately following the break, Real took over. With a confidence that their assembled talent could and would reverse the flow of the match, and bursting with urgency to make it so, Real were much better in the second half and got two quick goals just 20 minutes in. Still, despite Real’s improved performance during the period just after halftime up to their third goal, it wasn’t until after that third goal had essentially killed Juve’s spirit that Real really controlled the match in a way you’d imagine a match that ended 4-1 had been controlled. It was backwards in a kind of bizarre way; Real didn’t score through their dominance of the game, but by scoring three times, they became the dominating force that eventually matched the scoreline.
Again, this is indicative of the team’s general style in the Carlo Ancelotti-Zinedine Zidane era. Real don’t usually do anything flashy and yet they score anyway, then do it again and again and win, and by the end of it all you’re left in a strange state, impressed by the accomplishments but not quite remembering or understanding how they came about. It’s sort of like finishing a long book and coming away with the feeling that you liked it, but failing to recall many of the specific plot threads.
It was a season that created countless records for the history books, but not that many moments for the pages of one’s memory. It’s hard to imagine anyone talking about this team in 10 of 15 years outside the context of a simple recitation of their achievements. Even less clear is what influence the team will have going forward. The only lesson appears to be that it’s a good idea to buy a whole bunch of inordinately talented players, keep them happy and fresh and engaged all year long, and otherwise let them do their thing.
Why does Real Madrid’s success feel so curiously underwhelming? The only explanation that feels even sort of satisfactory hinges on the nature of the sport itself. Soccer is, more than any of the other major sports, designed to be nearly impossible. Eleven players must navigate an enormous expanse of field, using their least dexterous appendages to coax a ball down the length of the playing surface and into a goal while being contested at every step by eleven opponents who, by managing the slightest touch on the ball, can ruin everything.
Football is relatively easy, if you have the body and athleticism for it; Antonio Gates skipped out on the most formative years of football instruction by not playing a single game in college, rejoined the sport at the professional level, and became one of the best ever at his position. Basketball is tough and skill-based, but to a much less extent than soccer; Joel Embid first picked up a basketball at the age of 15 and today, only 8 years later, boasts an array of talents that are nearly unmatched by any of his peers. Meanwhile, in soccer, if you haven’t spent a solid four years with the ball at your feet all day, every day by the time you’re 12, you have no shot of becoming anything of note. The mere act of making a soccer ball do what your feet tell it to is so incredibly difficult that it damn near mandates you to learn how to dribble and pass at the same time as you learn how to walk in order to master the sport’s subtleties to the extent required at the game’s highest levels.
Soccer is chaos, and beauty in soccer is an individual and/or a team conquering this chaos by imposing their own order on it. It’s why attackers get all the money and glory, and why the most iconic players in the game’s history are those whose relationship with the ball wasn’t that of a beleaguered farmhand scrambling after an ornery pig that won’t get into the damn pen already but instead of a hypnotist controlling the mind of an impressionable subject, the ball at all times obeying every order without even needing to be told; stopping someone is good, but being unstoppable is harder and better. It is a marriage of aesthetics and effectiveness, as achieving victory depends both on the most viscerally pleasing and the most important thing to do in soccer, which is to take the ball and create something with it.
The best players expand the parameters of what is possible with the ball, their brilliance and self-expression serving as a template for the next generation. The tradition involves a youngster looking up to and copying an old great, putting their own spin on things, and eventually developing something new and unique that surpasses what came before, inspiring the next group of youngsters who continue the cycle.
Likewise, the best teams offer a roadmap, a framework in which the chaos inherent to the game can best be tamed and the team with the ball can use their best players to create things while simultaneously preventing the opponent from doing so. This is the main point of, by my reckoning, the best book about soccer, Inverting the Pyramid. Someone does something tactically new in one place, which offers the innovators a decided advantage on their opponents, causing someone later to take those stylistic ideas and tweak and improve upon them, and on and on the process goes as the game’s strategies grow and adapt and advance over the years.
In a way, then, though obviously the immediate goal of any single game or league or tournament is to win, every individual player, every strategy implemented in furtherance of the goal of winning, is in conversation with the history of the game itself. From the widest vantage point, the games are the gradual accretion of knowledge and innovation that, at their best, move the sport forward.
When looked at through this lens, it makes a little more sense why this recent-vintage Real Madrid group don’t feel like the era-defining bunch their titles would seem to imply. Their strategy of signing great players and letting them play well doesn’t appear to add much to our understanding of what soccer can be. The only principle Real’s success stands for is that incalculable (and to all but four or five top-top-top clubs, impossibly expensive) greatness of talent begets great success. Which is a fine and self-evidently true principle, but it doesn’t point one way or the other to where the sport might advance. Real aren’t in conversation with the sport, they are a statement on it, and the statement is tautological: being good means you win, and winning means you’re good.
Now, none of this probably does or should matter to Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos and Florentino Pérez and the rest of the club’s players and those who root for them. Real Madrid, as has been their remit since the club was founded, set out to fulfill a singular task—to win—and they accomplished it. That they have done so to such a historic extent is worthy of every last plaudit they’ve received in the aftermath of the trophies they’ve won this year and in the past few. And yet that hard-to-describe feeling their feats have left me with do seem indicative of something. The best way I can think to put it is that Real Madrid did beat all their opponents on the pitch, but they didn’t overcome the limitations of the game itself, and it’s the act of doing both at the same time that is the hallmark of true, lasting, legendary greatness.