No ifs and no buts, this Real Madrid stands next to Di Stéfano as the best team ever

<span><een klas=Luka Modric has his moment with the Champions League trophy. Only Modric, Dani CarvajalNacho Fernandez, Toni Kroos and Paco Gento have won the European Cup six times.Photo: Tom Jenkins/The Observer” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 67795bf6a” data src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 7795bf6a”/>

Dani Carvajal laid the first stone and applied the final brushstroke. In May 2004, when he was a twelve-year-old boy with floppy blond hair and his whole life ahead of him, he placed the white shirt of Real Madrid on the foundations of their training ground, a new home for an institution that, according to legend, that granite slab said: “respects its past, learns from its present and believes in its future”. On the first day of June 2024, now a 32-year-old man with a graying beard and a history behind him, he stood in the colors of Madrid at Wembley and lunged for the goal that helped secure their greatest work of all.

Almost twenty years had passed, almost to the day, and it had happened. How long before anyone witnesses this again, if so? That day Carvajal, one infantile in the academy, standing next to a 77-year-old Alfredo Di Stéfano, the most important player club football has ever had, a symbol of everything; the man whose arrival in 1953 changed Madrid and the game forever and forged their legend, an identity. Now when it comes to the European Cup, the competition in which they did that and which feels like their own competition, Carvajal is above him. Even saying it sounds absurd, a glimpse of what just happened.

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No one has won this competition more often. A small, select group has won just as much. Five men have won the European Cup six times and three of them are Carvajal’s teammates: on Saturday he, Luka Modric, Nacho Fernández and Toni Kroos joined Paco Gento, whose seemingly impossible feat has taken 58 years and a miraculous decade to match . Carvajal is the only one of this generation to have started all six finals, although he had to leave early in the two finals. His tears there added poignancy to the goal that brought them here.

“I came as a kid and now I’m here,” he said. “It will be very difficult for this [record] be taken from us.”

There were many images, words and moments to hold on to at the end of Real Madrid’s 15th edition. fifteenth – European Cup. Kroos is happy to leave That. Vinícius Júnior scored the final goal of the Champions League again at the age of 23: “Ballon d’Or, undoubtedly,” said Carlo Ancelotti, Madrid’s manager. Jude Bellingham, who first won the trophy at the age of 20, said he held it together until he saw the faces of his mother and father. Ancelotti intervened again, with calm clarity. “He knows what he’s doing,” Bellingham had said. There was the way they did it, and that’s their way, a story we’ve seen before. They had been released alive, Ancelotti admitted, but they had done it.

You didn’t seriously think they wouldn’t do that, did you? They have not lost a final in the competition since 1981: played nine, won nine. “It seems like we can’t lose in these games,” Kroos said. “To be on par with Gento is crazy, something I never thought I would achieve.”

Through all those images, those little vignettes, there was that fundamental fact, upon which it was all built, that expresses the enormity of this: Real Madrid had just won their 15th European Cup. Now they will ask for the 16th, Ancelotti was told, and he started laughing. When he finally stopped, he replied, “That’s how it is.” As if to prove the point, President Florentino Pérez said just that and this week he will announce the arrival of Kylian Mbappé. But it’s a standard sentence. That is tomorrow and this is now, and always. Forget the next one, at least for a while. Stop. Take it in. Don’t look ahead, but look back.

Because this is about imitating the eternal, even surpassing it, perhaps less about the 15th than about the fact that it is Madrid’s sixth in 10 years: from Lisbon to London, 2014 to 2024. No one has ever done this, except she. Four of this team have won as many European Cups as Liverpool, let alone Gento, the only Madrid player to win his first five European Cups, from 1956 to 1960, and their sixth in 1966.

The ’66 team, known as the Madrid of the Ye-Ye, a transliteration of the Beatles’ chorus She loves you, stood apart, an outlier. Madrid were eliminated for the first time in 1960 – by Barcelona – and lost the finals in 1962 and 1964. Di Stéfano had left and they were not in good economic health. The team that defeated Partizan in the 1966 final was composed entirely of Spaniards.

If that contributes to this current side perhaps not being seen as a copy of Madrid’s golden generation, epitomized by winning the first five European Cups instead of six in the first decade, there are other elements too. That team built Madrid’s identity and has an aura of invincibility, of dominance, an imperious march to the title, that this generation may not be able to match. Instead, there is the improbability of these successes: the miracles, the fortunes, the goalkeepers suddenly going mad, the downright folly of some of their victories. Even they agreed that 2022 was pretty ridiculous. When they were defeated 4–0 by Manchester City in the second leg of the semi-final the following year, some saw it as justice and the end.

“There is always a ‘but’,” Ancelotti has said. Rodrygo recently admitted that Manchester City were “better” than them. In this final they had to suffer again. The 2014 series started in the season in which Atlético Madrid became league champions, and in the final it took a 93rd-minute equalizer and extra-time fire to beat them. In two of the three victories they won in a row between 2016 and 2018, Barcelona became La Liga champions and that, Real Madrid’s then coach Zinedine Zidane admitted, was the most objective test, the title he valued most.

And yet, after that elimination in Manchester, Kroos presciently said: “It is not normal to always win the Champions League. The last time I heard this was the end of an era was in 2019, so all is well.” He was right, they were fine; better than that, better than anyone. No problem, this is inevitable: six European Cups in ten years, an achievement that no one can match, even that one, untouchable in black and white. Sometimes you have to step back from the history you’re writing to see that you’re actually making it. Time changes perception, of this era and that; the past is seen differently and one day this will be the past and it will be glorious.

That Madrid of the 1950s and 1960s were not unbeatable either, but nothing is taken away from their achievements, nor should they be. Ferenc Puskas once recalled that Barcelona’s Hungarians would liquidate him because they seemed capable of “helping us whenever they wanted”. During Madrid’s first five years of winning the European Cup, they became Spanish champions twice; Athletic and Barcelona won the competition three times together. When they won the sixth, Atlético won the league. Five teams – Athletic, Barcelona, ​​Atlético, Deportivo and Valencia – have been champions of Spain, while Madrid have been champions of Europe.

But what then? Six in ten years, for God’s sake. And actually this Madrid has one better competition record than the golden generation. Madrid: European champions. It starts to seem obvious and feel inevitable, when it isn’t. After 1966, Madrid did not win the trophy that earned them for 32 years. They won it again in 2000 and 2002, although from seventh to ninth they were different looking teams and different eras, only Roberto Carlos, Raúl and Fernando Morientes started all three finals, with Zidane scoring That iconic volley at the end of his debut season.

The galactic had come, glory assured. But they got stuck. The 10th tortured them; the decima it became an obsession and it withstood them for more than a decade. Six years in a row they failed to win a knockout match. They waited for twelve years, which felt like an eternity, and finally reached the final in 2014. With the clock at 92.48 they were losing, and for Atlético of all teams, that Sergio Ramos header is undoubtedly the most sliding door moment of their career . history. “Every morning when he comes in, I feel like kissing him,” said Paul Clement, Ancelotti’s assistant. The most traumatic end awaited them, everything was about to be torn apart.

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Instead, it was the beginning. Madrid had 10th. Two years later they had the 11th, then the 12th and the 13th in a row, which was extraordinary enough. That cycle seemed closed. Players went – ​​Cristiano Ronaldo, Ramos, Gareth Bale, Casemiro, Raphaël Varane – and so did the coaches. Ancelotti was sacked within a year and then Zidane – who had started as his assistant and was now the league’s most successful manager – left.

Madrid struggled to find a replacement. One day, José Ángel Sánchez, the director general, received a call from Ancelotti about the possibility of Everton loaning Madrid players. At one point the Italian asked him how the search was going. Not good, he was told. To which Ancelotti joked: there is one obvious candidate: the best coach in the world.

It was ready within a day; within three years Madrid lifted the decimocuarta and the decimoquinta, the best decade the greatest club has ever had, starting and ending with the league’s most successful manager on the bench and four of the five most successful players on the pitch. The little boy who had laid the foundation stone twenty years earlier added the finishing touches and their work was completed.

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