Real Madrid are the only team to win back to back Champions League titles. In the modern era, AC Milan, Ajax, Juventus and Manchester United have all reached the final as defending champions, but none managed to retain the trophy.
But if any team had to, you just knew it would be Madrid.
In 1955, when French sports newspaper L’Equipe had the idea to bring the best teams in Europe together to play each other in competitive games, the best two teams in the world were Real Madrid and Barcelona. As the first European Cup invited only league champions, and Madrid got their foot in the door at exactly the right time: Madrid were league champions and assured of a place.
Madrid’s title victory shut the European Cup door on their rivals from Catalonia, and they made the most of it, winning the competition six times between 1956 and 1966, including the first five in a row. But despite their power and prestige in the 1950s, they wouldn’t win the competition until 1998.
It was the glamour injected by Real Madrid that ensured the tournament’s future, and after the formative years of Spanish dominance, it became the continental affair we know today.
Between victory in 1966 and 1998, Madrid had to wait 32 years to triumph in the European Cup again. But if there is some sort of spiritual attraction between Real Madrid and the European Cup, the only English club who can claim a similar pull is surely Liverpool. The club sides linked together by Steve McManaman.
Winners of the competition five times – more than any other English club – Liverpool produced Steve McManaman, who never won the Champions League with his hometown club. But he did win it with Real Madrid.
Indeed, McManaman did more than just take part in a team that won the title. He starred in it.
This wasn’t a team who fluked their way to the final, nor was it a team who played soft sides from weak nations. En route to the final, the Englishman’s Madrid beat reigning champions Manchester United 3-2 at Old Trafford in the quarter-final and in the semi-final they beat the previous season’s runners-up Bayern Munich.
But in the final, they met compatriots Valencia, a side who would go on to contest the next season’s Champions League final as well as win the La Liga title in 2002. They were no pushovers, but Madrid pushed them over. 3-0. But it was the crucial second goal which decided the tie.
With 65 minutes on the clock and Madrid holding a precarious 1-0 lead, a throw-in from the left-hand side was lumped into the box in a thoroughly un-continental style. It’s not what you expect from Real Madrid, who also wore an unfamiliar orange kit on the night, seemingly freeing Los Blancos from their glamour, and a pragmatic performance proved it.
It was a move made in true British fashion, a ball thrown into the box in hope rather than expectation, a chance to cause confusion and wreak havoc, not a precise move to cut through the opponent like butter.
It’s only fitting, then, that the ball would fall to the only British player on the pitch, McManaman, who caught a scissor-kick perfectly finding the bottom corner of the net with an unexpected quality. 2-0. Game over. A third goal ten minutes later from Raul served no purpose in the game, but it was Raul’s 10th of the competition, allowing him to end the competition as joint-top scorer.
A scissor-kick volley is something of a McManaman special, in fact. The next season, in a 4-0 victory over Real Oviedo, McManaman was on the end of a Roberto Carlos cross-field pass – one of the Brazilian’s own specialities – and it was caught perfectly by the Liverpudlian as it swerved into the goal.
By that stage, though, the Liverpudlian’s game time in the Spanish capital was beginning to decline. Before the game against Oviedo in 2001, Luis Figo was presented with the Ballon d’Or, but not for his performances in a Real Madrid shirt. The previous season, the Portuguese midfielder was starring for El Clasico rivals Barcelona, crossing the unspeakable divide just a month after McManaman’s goal had helped Madrid to yet another Champions League title. It was to be a turning point.
The Galactico policy made it tougher for the former Liverpool star to get into the team, and when Ronaldo was signed from Inter Milan, McManaman turned down the chance to move to the San Siro as part of the deal, hoping to stay and fight for his place. It’s his determination that endeared him to the Real Madrid fans before he finally did move back the Premier League in 2003, joining Manchester City.
Two years after beating Valencia, though, Madrid reached the final again, facing Bayer Leverkusen. And this time it was Figo who started on the right side of midfield in a team that now featured Zinedine Zidane, too.
The final will always be remembered for Zidane’s volley in a game which Madrid won, but again it wasn’t the final where the hard work was done. In order to qualify for the Hampden Park final, Real Madrid once again faced the reigning champions in the quarter-final, this time Bayern Munich.
In the semi-final, though, they faced Barcelona. The first leg was at the Camp Nou, and it’s here McManaman had one of his greatest moments in a Madrid shirt. Already winning 1-0, the tie was still finely balanced. A one away-goal lead would have been a nice lead to take into the home leg, but McManaman was played clean through in the second minute of added-on time and lobbed the ball beautifully over the goalkeeper, Roberto Bonano.
It was a swansong. It didn’t help McManaman fight his way back into the team, and his next season was his last in Spain. Whereas he made 47 appearances in his first season at the Bernabeu, he made just 25 in his final year when Madrid’s side was being filled with superstar after superstar.
As Madrid come to Wembley to face Tottenham, they will once again wear an unfamiliar away kit. And for those Spurs stars like Dele Alli, Harry Kane and manager Mauricio Pochettino – all three often linked with the Bernabeu club – McManaman’s story should act as a warning. The Bernabeu is a place where stars often fade quickly and the next superstar comes along as quickly as the last.
But this Tottenham team are sampling their first real success in the Champions League after last season’s group stage exit. And if they’re to go on and make it a memorable campaign, Real Madrid are the face of the competition, and after two in a row, they’re the team to beat.