Raising a toast to ruddy Spanish soccer

Gareth Bale symbolises Real's drive in extra-time!-AP

Real Madrid was obsessed about the la decima. And it fulfilled its burning dream recently at the expense of city-mate Atletico. That two Spanish sides contested the final of the European Cup speaks volumes about quality of the coaching system in the country. The proliferation of home-grown talent is also heartening. By Shreedutta Chidananda.

Hours after Zinedine Zidane’s volley at Hampden Park had delivered Real Madrid its ninth European Cup, Florentino Perez offered the team his congratulations in his own way. “We have won the novena and next year we will go for the decima,” he told the players at their Glasgow hotel, “and then the undecima and the duodecima.” If Perez, a construction magnate and the club president, sounded casual — or even arrogant — it didn’t matter; for everyone knew what Real Madrid was about.

That was 2002 and in the years that followed, the burden of winning la decima would grow steadily heavier. “Anyone who plays for or manages Real is left in no doubt about the top priority every season, and if you are unsure about what is expected upon moving to the Bernabeu it is made clear to you very quickly,” Michael Owen wrote in The Telegraph recently. “On the day I signed for Real in 2004, I was given a club and stadium tour, where every iconic image put the European Cup centre-stage. I recall being taken to the club museum and seeing nine replica European Cups lined up in a row. The whole place was like a living, breathing tribute to the competition, Real’s pride at their record number of wins was matched only by their passion for adding to the tally.”

In the club’s Christmas greeting last year, Perez admitted that “maybe we are a little bit obsessed with ‘La Décima’ but it is what we want the most.” A ‘little bit’ was one way of putting it. Fabio Capello and Bernd Schuster were sacked even after winning the league as Real went through nine managers in seven years till Jose Mourinho arrived. Even the Portuguese was sent on his way after three appearances in the semifinals (and increasingly untenable relationships with his players).

It ultimately took 12 years, a billion euros, and extra-time for Real Madrid to fulfil its burning ambition. The 10th European Cup (UEFA Champions League) arrived in a final of great drama and immeasurable heartbreak. In the first ever instance of two clubs from the same city contesting the decider, Sergio Ramos stunned Atletico Madrid with an equaliser deep into stoppage-time before Real ran a shattered opponent ragged.

Gareth Bale capped off a great debut season to put Real ahead before Marcelo — who had a great impact as a substitute — sealed victory. There was still time for Cristiano Ronaldo, that monument to egotism, to win and score a desperate penalty and rip his shirt off in another graceless display of self-importance.

Much credit must go to Carlo Ancelotti, who alongside Bob Paisley became the only manager to win the European Cup thrice. The Italian must now be recognised as one of the greats of the game; where the likes of Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola have been beholden to a system, Ancelotti has been flexible, evolving and finding the most efficient path for his resources. Besides, he has handled teams of superstars everywhere, his serenity rubbing off on his players.

However, there is no disguising the fact that had Real lost — which it was two minutes away from doing — Ancelotti would likely have been relieved of his duties. But such are the demands of the managerial hot-seat at the Bernabeu.

There is no shame in defeat though for Atletico, the Spanish league champion and a team greater than the sum of its parts. With a fifth of the annual budget of its neighbour to the north and a starting 11 that cost under 40 million Euros to put together, this has been a remarkable effort. Such things can often sound patronising, but Atletico’s run this season has been miraculous. The team’s most expensive signing is the left-back Filipe Luis — and he cost only 12 million Euros.

“We tried to make history for this club, more for the club than for our own careers,” the Brazilian said after the final. “It wasn’t possible but our names will live forever in the hearts of our fans.” It is not the sort of sentiment Ronaldo will ever be heard expressing.

The legendary Zinedine Zidane is the assistant manager now. He was the key player when Real last won the European Cup in 2002.-AP

Diego Simeone, despite losing his rag at the end with his reaction to Rafael Varane’s conduct, has shown himself to be a splendid leader of men. The Argentine has turned Atletico’s fortunes around, starting with the Copa del Rey win last season. “For us, for all the club, he is like a god. What he says to us comes true and we would follow him. If he asked us to go and jump off a bridge, we would jump,” the midfielder Tiago Mendes said, on the eve of the match.

That the final became a Madrid derby also highlights the strength of the Spanish system. In the last four years, half of the clubs in the quarterfinals of the Champions League have been Spanish. In the Champions League era (since 1992-93), 13 different Spanish clubs have taken part in Europe’s premier club competition — more than those from any other country. The Europa league offers a better illustration: six of its 11 winners have come from Spain, as also two runners-up.

But this must not be mistaken as an appreciation of the Liga, which enriches Barcelona and Real Madrid over everyone else. Unlike in England and elsewhere in Europe, TV rights are sold individually by clubs in Spain and Portugal. It has meant a disproportionate distribution of revenue, with Real and Barcelona earning close to 150 million Euros last season while Atletico, in third place, made 47. Lowly Rayo Vallecano, meanwhile, managed 14. It is not a healthy situation and after prolonged debate, the Spanish government said last year that it intended to push through a new sports law that would help address this imbalance.

So, the likes of Atletico, Malaga and Sevilla have done well in Europe in recent years not because of the Liga but despite it.

Last year, the CIES Football Observatory in Switzerland stated in a detailed report (‘A Demographic Study of European Football’) that only 35.3% of the players in Spain were foreign. That figure was 46 in the Bundesliga, 52.2 in the Serie A, and (to no one’s surprise) 55.1 in the Premier League. While it is true that the Liga has the greatest percentage of home-grown players among Europe’s major leagues, this could simply be a reflection on the economic state of the clubs outside the big two. After all, it hasn’t stopped Spanish players from going to the Premier League or overseas stars from signing for Real or Barca.

That mid-table clubs have still produced world-class talent is due to the youth development programmes in Spanish clubs and the quality of the coaching, which is a detail often overlooked. It is why the likes of Asier Illarramendi (Real Sociedad), Isco (Valencia) and Koke (Atletico Madrid) have emerged from academies. It is no coincidence that Spanish national teams have won over 20 major age-group tournaments (World Cups and European championships).

Weighing into the old debate on whether foreigners helped young English players by raising the standard of the Premier League or harmed them by denying them opportunity, Arsene Wenger had this to say last year. “For me the competition has too much importance, and the training too little,” he told the BBC. “I have seen too many kids come to the age of 17 or 18 and they cannot head the ball, they have no left foot, because they have not practised enough. The real question for English football is whether it can produce the players with the needed quality.”

Spanish clubs will continue to churn out good players from their academies simply because their coaches are excellent and the talent exists. In the meantime, Real Madrid will embark on another season brimming with the anticipation of silverware. “From the first day, I went to the trophy room with the president and said, ‘There's one missing.’ Now, we’ve won the most important competition in the world,” Ancelotti said after victory in Lisbon. Already, it’s time to prepare for the eleventh.