There is no precedent. No historical equivalent for Real Madrid’s reign. The most successful club in European soccer history held off Bayern Munich on Tuesday to advance to its third consecutive Champions League final, and its fourth in five years. It has won 17 of 18 knockout round matchups in that time, and could soon win a fourth title. Never before has Europe’s top club competition, in its current form, seen this level of unrelenting dominance.
And as a result, never before has European success been this elusive for others. Never before have failure and disappointment been this widespread.
Nor has the Champions League ever been as highly regarded or valued as it is today. Madrid has supplemented its continental crowns with just one domestic league title, meaning there are still trophies to win. And the likes of Bayern Munich, Barcelona, PSG and Juventus have won plenty of them.
But the widening gap between superclubs and muggles has placed increased import on intra-elite battles. Outside of England, it has devalued domestic success. It has heaped esteem into the continental competition, onto one prize – a prize that only one team can claim. And a prize that only two clubs have claimed over the past half-decade.
That’s why thoroughly impressive season seasons get deemed failures. Titles aren’t sufficient. Bayern Munich and PSG could win a combined seven trophies this year. And yet a few days after Bayern lifts the last of the seven, in the DFB Pokal final, both fan bases will look back on the past nine months with dissatisfaction.
And the culprit, as it so often has been over the past five years, will be Real Madrid.
Madrid has been the source of a sensational amount of Champions League heartbreak, and by extension an extraordinary amount of disappointment. It has on three occasions left Bayern bereft, and once left PSG peeved. It has taken out four Italian teams in three years, and could yet topple a fifth.
It is the primary reason Bayern will soon move on to its fourth manager in four seasons, and PSG its third. It has exacerbated PSG’s flirtations with Financial Fair Play. It has twice killed off Gianluigi Buffon’s Champions League dreams, and almost singlehandedly kept Serie A as a second-rate league. It has ended Manchester City’s deepest European run, and watched as other English clubs around it self-destruct.
Real’s unabating success on the continent has even wreaked havoc at Barcelona, despite the Catalans’ superiority in head-to-head matchups between the two. Barca’s 2017-18 season, by almost any objective measure, has been excellent. It has won its third La Liga title in four years. It lifted the Copa Del Rey. It could become the first team in Spanish history to complete an entire 38-game league season unbeaten.
It has achieved all of this, however, in the shadow of Madrid’s European dominance.
So despite it, first-year manager Ernesto Valverde is under pressure. The double is insufficient, just like PSG’s soon-to-be 18 French trophies over the past five years, or Bayern’s 10 (and counting) in Germany, or, to a lesser degree, Juventus’ nine (and counting) in Italy.
On one hand, the concentration of European success at one central location in the Spanish capital has exposed the absurdity of expectations elsewhere. When a single trophy, and oftentimes a single game, defines success or failure, virulent frustration and displeasure are inevitable. Such is the nature of zero-sum games, though those experiencing the displeasure refuse to admit it.
But when zero-sum games are repeatedly won by the same contestant, expectations don’t change; the frustration simply intensifies. Pressure heightens. Failure, because of its recurrent nature, becomes all the more crushing.
And Real Madrid, by monopolizing success in a competition previously impervious to this type of exclusivity, continues to flatten the souls of its superclub brethren around Europe.
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