Real Madrid was once the greatest club in the world.
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It is no more.
The world’s richest club has become, in the words of its hallowed legend, Alfredo Di Stefano, "a mouse to Barcelona’s lion."
How those words must sting.
Yet how true they ring.
How it came to be this way is a tale of two clubs with radically different philosophies: one determined to do it the right way and breed success, and one that has tried to buy its trophies.
Barcelona won its much-hyped Champions League ‘Classico’ semifinal not just because their players were better — though they were — or their tactics were superior — though they were — but because of what happened in the moments after the final whistle at the Camp Nou stadium.
While Real Madrid’s stars were whining about the referee and conspiracies, those in the Blaugrana surrounded their teammate, Eric Abidal, who’d been brought on for the final seconds in a moving gesture by coach Pep Guardiola.
They raised the French fullback into the air.
Abidal had just returned to training after having a cancerous tumor removed from his liver, and that joyous mosh pit said everything about the brotherhood at FC Barcelona.
It’s an unbreakable fraternity born from the club’s famous La Masia (The Farmhouse) youth academy. Eight of Barca’s players on the field Tuesday learned about football — and what it means to be part of a team — when they were boys at La Masia, as did Guardiola.
In contrast, only Iker Casillas, the Madrid goalkeeper, came straight from the Real’s Cantera youth setup. (Alvaro Arbeloa and Esteban Granero are also products of the Cantera, but they were sold and later bought back).
If Madrid’s players, most bought for big dollars, went out to dinner, I get the feeling 11 taxis would be called.
And that elan vital is what separates the teams.
Or at least it’s one separation.
The other albatross around Madrid’s neck is, perversely, its best player, Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Portuguese star is freakishly talented, but he’s selfish. Just as the Lakers can go only so far if Kobe Bryant tries to go it alone, this Madrid team can go no further than Ronaldo takes them.
When he gets the ball, his teammates stand around and watch him try to beat entire defenses. Whenever there’s a free kick, no matter how far out, he steps up to take it and, again, his teammates stand around like extras on a movie set.
When he loses the ball — as he inevitably has done against Barcelona — he throws up his arms in disgust, either because the referee didn’t blow for a foul or because one of his teammates wasn’t there to receive a pass.
CR7 doesn’t chase and tackle and harry in the way any of Barcelona’s stars — from Lionel Messi to Xavi to Andres Iniesta — will as a matter of routine: the way they were taught to play, not coincidentally, at La Masia.
And he doesn’t make anyone around him better in the way Barcelona’s stars do.
Kaka was one of the best players in the world until he got to Madrid.
But he’s a mellow kind of man. He’s not one to demand the ball like Ronaldo, and he has become lost, wandering around the field and never receiving a pass, as possession is dominated by either Ronaldo or the Argentine, Angel Di Maria — another player who puts his head down like a greyhound and only has eyes for the goal.
Ronaldo can be brilliant; but he rarely is going to beat a team by himself.
What he can do, however, is pout.
After Tuesday’s game he launched a vitriolic attack on Barcelona’s Javier Mascherano — and the culture of his new club — by claiming that while the Argentine didn’t fall to the ground at every opportunity when he was at Liverpool, "he’s picked up that bad habit like everyone else here."
It’s a laughable accusation given Ronaldo’s penchant for theatrical falls throughout his career.
But then came the piece de resistance: Rather than acknowledge that the better team had won the two-legged tie, Ronaldo blamed a cabal within the sport’s governing body that wanted Barcelona in the Champions League final.
"This isn’t good for football," he said, "If things don’t improve, we should just stay home and let Barcelona play by themselves. Next year they should just give the cup directly to Barcelona."
And where did he learn this?
From the man at the heart of Madrid’s problem: Jose Mourinho, who is the real reason Madrid will be playing for second place in Spain for the foreseeable future.
Mourinho was once the best coach in the world.
Winning the 2004 Champions League with unfashionable Porto was an astonishing feat. Winning the English Premiership with Chelsea in ’05 and ’06 and then following that with successes at Inter Milan meant he’d deserved his preferred call sign, The Special One.
His defensive strangling of opponents — he is football’s Lord Voldemort, master of the dark arts — was necessary at Porto because the team didn’t have great talent. It was accepted at Chelsea because the team won, and it was lauded in Italy because they play the game with cynicism there.
But how long will it fly at Real Madrid?
The club is supposed to be the greatest in the world. The expectations are not just to win, but to be the best while winning.
It was telling to hear Madrid’s past president, Jose Calderon, say Mourinho’s antics don’t "match with Real Madrid’s history."
There will be many voices emanating from Madrid in the coming weeks reiterating that Mourinho’s position is safe, but remember this is a club that twice in the past eight seasons has fired managers after winning the Spanish title.
And don’t think the words of Alfredo Di Stefano won’t echo.
"It’s clear Barca are superior to Madrid, who are a team with no personality," he wrote. "Their approach was clearly wrong."