Atlético Madrid almost pulled it off.
They had already won La Liga in a manner most closely resembling the psyche of their squad, facing adversity at the Camp Nou to a Barcelona squad desperate to send off its golden generation of players with one last title. Falling behind early in its final league match, Atlético seemed to grow looser as the match progressed, dominating the proceedings before finally seizing the equalizing goal on a set piece, winning the league with an intense 1-1 draw against the reigning champions in their own stadium.
Then, in the UEFA Champions League final, they faced (arguably) the most expensive team ever assembled in Real Madrid — their intra-city rivals, a team with the two most expensive players in the history of the world leading its attack, a team whose bench could potentially win the World Cup. Los Colchoneros — ‘The Mattresses’ in Spanish, in homage to the team’s striped kit, which apparently evokes images of old mattresses — played aggressive, flowing, and tactically rigid soccer and seized an early lead through a combination of tenacious attacking play and a small but not insignificant error from Iker Casillas.
Casillas, the patron saint of Spanish soccer as the longtime captain of both Real Madrid and the Spanish national team, failed to claim a ball that trickled back into his penalty box. He could only watch in horror as Diego Godín pounced on the mistake and knocked the ball into the back of the net.
With the lead secure, Atlético was thoroughly content to play on the counter, letting Real Madrid dictate proceedings with the hope that a single bad giveaway would lead to a fruitful counterattack. Desperately chasing the equalizing goal, and with a shot at winning La Décima (the 10th European championship in Read Madrid history), Los Blancos — Real Madrid plays in all-white jerseys, hence their nickname — literally laid siege to Thibault Courtois and the Atlético goal, accumulating 20 total shots on goal and a number of great chances.
And yet, as time ticked slowly forward, they could not summon the killer instinct needed to finish off a single one of these chances. Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Luka Modric, Angel Di María, Isco — the star-studded Real Madrid lineup, for all of its purported quality — could not find that elusive equalizer. Ronaldo looked injured and Bale looked panic-stricken; neither was able to put his customary stamp on the proceedings.
Deep, deep, deep into added time — nearly the fourth minute out of the five that were to be added — Real was still trailing, watching their hopes of La Décima slip away again as Atlético were on the verge of the unlikeliest double in recent memory.
Ironically, it was a defender — Sergio Ramos — who stepped up to the plate to deliver one of the clutchest goals you will ever see, his kick arching high above the fatigued, injured and exhausted Atlético defense to head home a corner goal that saved Real’s collective bacon. Ramos, known for his physical defense, has now scored six goals in seven Champions League appearances this year, which would be an impressive tally even for a striker.
Backs broken after the heartbreak of being less than a minute from the greatest of victories, Atlético went down meekly in extra time. Having already lost Arda Turán, Diego Costa and Filipe Luís to injuries and with the wear and tear of a very long football season catching up to the regulars on their squad, Atlético could only watch in stunned silence as first Bale, then Marcelo, then finally Ronaldo from the penalty spot piled home the deciding goals, leaving the final score deceptively set at 4-1 in favor of Real.
It is easy to write this one off as deep pockets trumping the underdog, but that would be unfair to both squads. Atlético managed to dominate the three-legged race in La Liga and absolutely torched Barcelona, Chelsea and everyone else they came up against in the Champions League, while Real Madrid, too, was beset by injuries and had to overcome major adversity (and Bayern Munich) to win both the Copa del Rey and the Champions League. In the end, all that separated Atlético from the title — and the margin of Real Madrid’s victory — was a scant few inches and 30 seconds. The pure drama of this game was truly spellbinding.
Unfortunately for Atlético, it looks like this team, in the truest sense of the word ‘team’, will not be spending much time as an ensemble. From Diego Costa, their star striker, to the rest of their list of stars, every single one has been linked with a move elsewhere. At the very least, this team will need to lose a few key contributors to cut into the massive debt the club is trying to work off. And that, truly, is the saddest result of this Champions League outcome: the sense of finality — that this team will never be given the opportunity to avenge their loss on the same stage.
Meanwhile, for Real, the future looks rosy. With another five years, at least, of Ronaldo and Bale thundering down the flanks, with Ramos and Varane and Carvajal and Marcelo turning away opposing attackers, with Modric, Illaramendi, Khedira and company manning the midfield, this team will continue to compete for trophies well into the future. With the rest of European club football unsettled, to say the least, la undécima beckons.
Vignesh Venkataraman is still mourning Atlético’s loss and has been dressed in all black since Saturday. Send your condolences to viggy ‘at’ stanford.edu.