The Real Madrid Era Is Over
Last night, European football's bloated kings were scythed down by a younger, hungrier side.
The edges of eras aren't always easy to find. In most cases, the start and end points of periods of prolonged cultural dominance are obvious only in retrospect, as years tick by and eras gradually gather the guts to reveal themselves.
This isn't the case in football. In football, eras hogtie each other to radiators and then batter one another to death, tramping blood and viscera all through the house in a way that leaves a horrifying Bayeux tapestry of era-murder smeared into the carpet. In football, every dying era is a Times Square sailor's kiss or a falling Berlin Wall; it's how the game is designed, casting each new challenger as a welcome threat to the status quo.
Last night, the Santiago Bernabéu was the site of a footballing era's live execution, as Real Madrid – champions of Europe for more than a thousand days, winners of four of the last five Champions Leagues, trophy-gobbling black hole of state-funded preeminence – woke up screaming in front of an audience of millions in their own backyard, roused from bloated complacency by a gang of young cutthroats determined to leave forensic chalk all over the croquet lawn.
Even if you were somehow able to tear Ajax's exhilarating 4-1 victory loose from the grasping narrative threads, last night's match would've been canonical. It had everything: showboating, pratfalls, on-pitch ego-deaths, joyous attacking football, brilliant goals, at least two howling, viral, gilt-edged misses, some desperate last-man defending and, at the end, a hilarious, toy-throwing tantrum of a red card that made Nacho – drafted in for AWOL captain Sergio Ramos – look like a pathetic, sobbing school bully in front of an entire watching world.
As a spectacle, it took you hostage, but it was an occasion that always seemed to be gesturing at something greater than itself, attempting to express more than could ever really be expressed by 22 men gyrating their way across a painted green grass oblong. The stage had been set by the first leg, which Ajax dominated and would have won comfortably but for some overexcited finishing from their young charges.
There wasn’t much sign of the insurgency to come in the first seven minutes, though. Karim Benzema was out there, doing what Karim Benzema seems to have been doing for the last seven or eight years, waddling about, winning corners, trying to rally a flaccid home crowd that had seen their team beaten by Barcelona here twice in the last six days. Suddenly, Raphaël Varane was thumping a free header off the bar from four yards. Ajax were defending deep and a little desperately, Vinícius Júnior – Real Madrid’s own glimmering prodigy – lurking with constant menace, feet thump-thumping the ground in that distinctive sprinting style of his that makes it seem as though he’s trying to run down into the turf like a human drill but that sends him hurtling across it instead, a heat-seeking wide forward who always seems to be playing the match as if it were his own Japanese arcade dance mat game. Not that he would have enjoyed himself hugely last night. By the time the teenager was leaving the pitch – in tears, having picked up a calf injury – Real were 2-0 down. Or should we say that it was Ajax, moving across the pitch like electricity through water, who were 2-0 up?
Whichever way you angle it, only 35 minutes had passed when it became apparent that this was going to be a big night at the Bernabéu, and not for any of the right reasons as far as the hosts were concerned. This Madrid is done: a squad able to mask its deficits for years with Cristiano Ronaldo's goals and star wattage finally left blinking in the dark as the footballing world moved on without them. Ramos, for so long the dark heart of this side, could only gaze agog from his seat in the stands, having deliberately picked up a suspension in the previous leg, an act of astonishing hubris that will be fuelling thousands of office chats about the habits of karma this morning. Without him holding things together, Europe's most unlikeable imperial side in recent memory collapsed in on themselves, Marcelo, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Nacho, Dani Carvajal, Benzema and Gareth Bale all suddenly resembling deadweights in a squad in dire need of rejuvenation.
Poor old Real Madrid. Who would've thought that trying to paper over the cracks by winning the Champions League every year wasn’t a viable long-term strategy?
In a sense, it was their tough luck to have the closing bell rung so loudly by a team just starting out on their journey, and a club that seems to represent the polar opposite of all that Real stand for. Goalkeeper Andre Onana is 22. Right back Noussair Mazraoui, midfielders Frenkie de Jong, Donny van de Beek and Dani de Wit and striker Kasper Dolberg are all 21, the latter two coming off the bench in the second half to ease the victory over the line. Up front, the Brazilian David Neres – scorer of Ajax's crucial second goal – celebrated his 22nd birthday just four days ago, while Matthijs de Ligt, captaining the side last night and leading the way with a display that fused otherworldly nous with zeal, power and poise, is just 19 years old. If it feels easy and obvious to suggest that this iteration of Real is a busted flush, it's infinitely harder to put into words just how impressive it is to go to club football's grandest stage and enact high octane regicide with a group of lads who are too young to understand this deleted Inbetweeners joke.
At the centre of it all, just as he was during the first leg, was Dušan Tadić, the 30-year-old false 9 who this time last year was enduring a three-month spell in the Premier League without a single goal or assist. Tadić was everywhere, and best of all he seemed to be locked constantly in a never-ending Marseille roulette, the spinning double drag-back turn that was – cruelly, for Real – the favourite dance of the Spanish giants' three-time Champions League-winning coach Zinedine Zidane. It was one such pirouette that enabled Neres to get on the scoresheet, Tadić spanking a third into the top corner himself just past the hour to effectively seal both the result and his own 10/10 rating from L’Equipe, the French magazine that has now awarded perfect marks only ten times since they started ranking individuals in the 1980s.
Perhaps more than anyone else, it was the player who was labouring forlornly at the fringes of a dismal Southampton side a mere 12 months ago who embodied the night's intoxicating spirit of cut and flux, a night that even as it was unfolding begged to be remembered, and that in consigning an era to the past might just have revealed a fleeting glimpse of the new one to come.