The poison of blame, recrimination and scapegoating was already flowing through the veins of Madridismo — the collective noun encompassing the hefty slice of humanity that swears loyalty to that other White House, on La Castellana avenue in the Spanish capital — before they even stepped on the pitch for what would be Real Madrid’s darkest night in Champions League history.
Two defeats — at home in the past week — to archrival Barcelona, the yin to their yang, had meant Real Madrid were out of the Spanish Cup and, barring divine intervention, out of the race for the Spanish title. The Champions League was all they had left. It is the biggest prize in the club game and a competition they had won four times in the past five years. Making it five out of six seemed unthinkable, but then, so did winning three straight, and they had managed that feat the year before. In a season when there is no dominant European club, Real Madrid had reason to hope despite their struggles elsewhere.
Real’s European dreams were bolstered by the unlikeliest of opponents in this round of 16. Ajax is a historical giant of football — only five teams have won more European Cups — albeit in the way General Electric is a historical giant of industry: the game has evolved, the revenues that grease the machines flow to the big clubs in the big leagues.
Ajax hadn’t even qualified for the Champions League for the past four seasons, and the last time they even reached the round of 16 of the competition was 13 years ago, when more than half of their starting lineup was in elementary school. More importantly, the first leg, in Amsterdam, had finished with a 2-1 Real Madrid victory — they hadn’t played well, but they had won because, well, that’s what winners do — and that meant that Madrid could win, draw or even lose the game 1-0 and still advance to the quarterfinals.
Instead the bottom fell out. The game kicked off and within 20 minutes Ajax were 2-0 up. By the 62nd minute, Real Madrid trailed by three goals, meaning (because of the away goals rule) they would have to score three to advance. When they pulled one back to narrow the deficit, Ajax immediately hit back with an improbable looping free kick to make it 4-1. Which is how it ended, though by that point much of Europe’s largest stadium had emptied, expelling sullen, white-clad Madridistas into the night.
As upsets go, this wasn’t Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson in Tokyo. This was more like the quiet, scrawny young buck challenging the Alpha Male and forcing him out of the pack. Partly through his fresh legs and fearlessness, partly because his opponent doesn’t realize he’s a little less quick and less fierce and a little too arrogant.
Exhibit A in the arrogance file is captain Sergio Ramos. He picked up a yellow card in the first leg — his third of the tournament, meaning he was suspended for this game — and later boasted that he had done it intentionally. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t force [them to give me a yellow],” Ramos said, knowing he’d serve his suspension in the second leg against Ajax and therefore be available for the quarterfinal. Ramos later retracted his comments, but UEFA, the game’s governing body, wasn’t impressed and slapped him with an additional one-game suspension.
That sort of attitude — from your longtime club captain no less — percolates throughout a side. But it’s only a small part of the picture.
The stock explanation is that Real Madrid’s early exit — the first time they’ve failed to reach the quarterfinals in nine years — is partly due to the summer departures of coach Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo, who decamped to Juventus. But that’s simplistic. Ronaldo is staring down the barrel of an early Champions League exit, too, with Juve trailing Atletico Madrid by two goals. As for Zidane, the reality is that last season’s Champions League crown was a smoke-and-mirrors affair.
Real Madrid finished the 2017-18 season third in La Liga, a whopping 17 points off the pace. In the Champions League, they suffered through the knockout stage, particularly at home, at the Bernabeu, a place where the crowd are quick to turn. “They are like the crowd at the Opera. They have very high standards, and they will gladly boo if you don’t meet them … regardless of whether you win, draw or lose” said Carlo Ancelotti, who won the Champions League with Real Madrid in 2013-14, kicking off this cycle of success.
Real Madrid were outplayed for long stretches at home by Paris Saint-Germain, they lost 3-1 to Juventus (and only advanced thanks to a last-ditch penalty) and in the semifinals against Bayern, they were the beneficiaries of major a goalkeeping blunder. In fact, they have now lost three of their last 10 home games in the Champions League and the last four straight in all competitions. You wonder if, for all the experience out there, performance anxiety played a part too.
Truth be told, the club did realize that a rebuild was necessary after last season. It’s just that, as so often happens in every sport, if you do it cautiously, try to reload instead and put your faith in the wrong players, you pay a price. Julen Lopetegui, the “system” manager chosen to replace the more orthodox Zidane, had a poor start to the season and was fired after 14 games. Rising stars like Isco, Marco Asensio and Dani Ceballos did not immediately go to the next level, for a variety of reasons. Veterans like Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale, who were meant to blossom now that they were out of Ronaldo’s shadow, wilted instead, particularly the Welshman: Once the most expensive player in the world, now Bale is a figure of scorn at the Bernabeu.
This is the end of a cycle that, probably, should have ended a year ago but was extended thanks to the unique combination of talent and experience, spit and gravel. With nothing left to play for, Real Madrid now embark on their longest offseason in 42 years. That’s the last time they were out of the running in every competition in early March. As defender Dani Carvajal said after the match, Real’s “s— season” is over.