After Real Madrid lifted Ol’ Big Ears, aka the Champions League trophy, for the third year in succession, its superstars Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale were ambivalent in victory.
Bale, coming off the bench, scored a bicycle kick to put Real 2-1 up with the sort of astonishing fast twitch reflex that serves as a reminder of why he cost around 100 million euros and why you’re sitting on the sofa watching, with, if you’re lucky, the consolation of shami kebabs and beer for company. Ronaldo, far and away Real’s top goalscorer with an incredible 450 goals in just 438 games, spoke in the past tense about his “beautiful” silver-alloyed years in the Spanish capital. Bale, for his part, said how disappointed he was not to start and how he would have to speak to his agent over the summer about a potential return to the English Premier League. After the game, Bale, reportedly, spent more time in the Liverpool dressing room, with English-speaking players from his Southampton days, than with his Madrid teammates.
Despite being crowned European champions for a 13th time, nearly twice as many times as their closest challengers AC Milan, Real Madrid’s players and manager were having to answer questions about Cristiano Ronaldo. Real’s captain Sergio Ramos remonstrated with Ronaldo for being selfish and narcissistic — a little like remonstrating with the sea for being wet. But Ronaldo got it, appearing much more conciliatory in Madrid the next day, as the team celebrated with the fans at the Cibeles fountain. Ramos, of course, had been involved in arguably the game’s key moment: tussling with Liverpool’s talisman, Mohamed Salah, about half an hour into what had been a competitive final, with Real just about keeping their effervescent opponents at bay. Salah, dragged down by Ramos, fell awkwardly on his shoulder and was helped off the field in tears.
Liverpool’s confidence sagged like rotting wood, typified by the two most comical goalkeeping errors ever seen at the top level of European football.
Real Madrid’s manager, the magnificent Zinedine Zidane, a player as illustrious as any to have played the game, and the winner of an unprecedented hat-trick of Champions League titles as coach, was also peppered with questions about Ronaldo and Bale. He was phlegmatic. Ronaldo, he said, must stay. As for Bale’s frustration at not being picked for the first team — well, said the manager who picked the first team, he understood. But Bale and Ronaldo, grumbling aside, are still at Real Madrid. Zidane, just a week after winning the Champions League, is not.
He quit. A move almost as sudden and shocking as the headbutt, the coup de boule, he landed on Marco Matterazzi’s chest in the 2006 World Cup final, the last act of a glorious playing career. Then, as now, his pride came before cloying sentimentality. He will not stick to the script that others would write for him.
In less than three full seasons at Real, Zidane won the Champions League thrice in a row, when no other club or manager has managed two. He also won the league with Real last year, only the second time in 10 seasons in what has been Barcelona’s era. He has won the glorified exhibitions, the Club World Cup and European Super Cup, that pad out the football calendar. It is an unimaginable record. And, still, there were murmurings this season that Zidane was facing the sack.
Real has been bad in the league and has ridden its luck in Europe, but the supposed dissatisfaction of the board and even some fans is emblematic of the decayed, decadent culture of football on this rarefied plane. So distorted has the European game become by money that for clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus, a season without a trophy is an occasion for spoilt tantrum-throwing, the sturm und drang of a toddler pitching himself face forward in the toy shop because Mummy took his toy away. And he really, really, really wants his toy.
Zidane is above this game. Above the pettiness of contemporary football, in which the only fan that matters is the glory-hunting global fan (us) watching on TV. He was clever enough to know when and how to get out, his dignity intact. Next stop, the French national team? Surely lifting the World Cup with France as a coach, as he once did as a player, will be the final pinnacle of a charmed career. Franz Beckenbauer did it. And that is the pantheon to which Zidane belongs — the gods who play the game, who make us feel like children again, even if the game itself is mired in the excrement of adult corruption.
But then again, he doesn’t stick to the script that others would write for him.