Real Madrid vs. Atletico Madrid

In Postwar, his masterpiece about Europe since 1945, Tony Judt acknowledged the persistence among most Europeans of a “largely un-European mental universe,” but observed that there was “one ubiquitous exception: sport,” and one game in particular: “What really united Europe was football.” Le foot, der fussball, el fútbol—all meaning what Americans call soccer—is a passion linking the continent from Atlantic to Urals, though its appeal stretches far beyond.

On Saturday, May 24, the final of the inter-European club competition first played fifty-eight years ago as the European Cup and known since 1992 as the Champions League will be played for the first time ever by two teams from the same city, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, which might be the equivalent of an a American “subway series” except that the final is in Lisbon.

It should be an enthralling game, but in any case it will be watched by hundreds of millions in Europe and across the world. In the immediate postwar years the game was still national or even parochial, with very few clubs fielding players from outside their own shores, or playing clubs from other countries. That was changed by the advent of the European Cup, and by one team. For its first five years from 1956 the Cup was won by Real Madrid, whose two greatest players were a Hungarian and an Argentine, Ferenc Puskás and Alfredo Di Stéfano. Along with Pelé’s Brazilians, they introduced a generation to the idea that football could truly be, in what became a somewhat hackneyed phrase, a beautiful game.

But football was plainly not part of the great postwar project of rebuilding European democracy: Spain was a dictatorship, and Real (“Royal”) Madrid was the favourite club of General Franco, who detested the rival Barcelona club, with its overtones of the Catalan nationalism he tried to crush for good. He failed there—an independent Catalonia before very long is by no means unthinkable—and from his grave he couldn’t stop “Barça” becoming for a time the greatest, and for neutrals the most exhilarating, club in Spain, where they have been pennant winners in six of the last nine seasons, and in Europe, where they have won two out of the last five Champions finals, although their dominance has notably ground to a halt this year. Barcelona were knocked out of the Champions cup by Atletico, who then, a week before the Lisbon final, held Barcelona to a draw at their home stadium and thereby took the pennant in the Spanish domestic league. In a rare display of sportsmanship, the Barça fans cheered Atletico from the field.

Throughout Europe, soccer is now not only international but mercenary, the English Premier League being the extreme case: over the past season, fewer than one player in four taking the field in that league was English, and few of the clubs have an English owner. That’s less true in Spain. Madrid may have an heir to Puskás in its star player, the Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo, but most players in Spanish teams are still Spanish. And that’s one reason why Spain are among the favourites for the World Cup which begins in Brazil less than three weeks after the Madrid teams face one another in Lisbon, while England are distant outsiders.

Category: Television
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