The longest season had ended with Madrid’s third league in 12 years, just as the coach had hoped it would

Just before 11pm on Thursday night, two months after the title race was supposed to finish and a few seconds after it actually had, two men working for the local council climbed up the statue of the goddess Cibeles, tied a Real Madrid scarf around her neck, draped a flag over her shoulders and climbed back down. Wearing hi-vis shirts, wellies and waders, they were the only ones who got close. Cars passed by beeping but on the street there were more police than people. Usually the scene of celebration, thousands gathering, this time fans had been asked to stay away and the men who had won the league weren’t coming either.

They were 15km north-east. “We would have liked be there at Cibeles with the fans, but there will be time for that and they’ll be happy watching at home,” Zinedine Zidane said. Around him, the floor was soon covered in confetti and his players wore commemorative T-shirts. We Are The Champions boomed around and a celebratory banquet was prepared, burger and chips the dinner of champions. But this was their training ground, not the Santiago Bernabéu, and when Sergio Ramos lifted the trophy only a couple of hundred people were there to see it: staff, ballboys, six reporters and Villarreal standing politely to applaud. It was, the manager said: “Strange for everyone.” It had been that kind of season.

Yet if there had been no wild celebration, no open-topped bus on the day that Spain paid tribute to almost 30,000 victims of coronavirus and figures brought fears of a more outbreaks and renewed restrictions, there was nothing empty in the embraces. Madrid’s manager felt fulfilled, more than ever before. “I don’t have the words; I feel huge emotion,” he said. He also described it as one of the most significant days of his life. For the man who has won a trophy every 19 games, the day he won La Liga stood above all those European Cups, not last because of how far they had come. The longest season had ended with Madrid’s third league in 12 years, just as he had hoped it would.

“Our season will be good, I’m convinced,” Zidane had said almost exactly a year ago. Which might sound standard enough, the usual pre-season optimism soon bitten by reality, but that was in New York where his side had just let in seven against Atlético Madrid. “One great team and one set of ruins,” judged one front cover; there was “no football, no fight, no plan.” Only there was, and from the rubble came the champions, the hint of a new culture emerging at a club where Europe had eclipsed all else. “Zidane built the plan; the league was our objective from the start,” said Thibaut Courtois on Thursday night.

It wasn’t smooth and it wasn’t always sparkling, but slowly something was building even if it wasn’t with the tools Zidane had in mind. Paul Pogba hadn’t arrived, while James Rodríguez and Gareth Bale hadn’t gone, their moves blocked after the defeat to Atlético. They were destined to play minor roles – unlike the men in whom Zidane trusted when others didn’t, club included. This is not a new side, at least not when it comes to the names. Eight players have started more than 20 league games and all of them were there already. Sergio Ramos and Luka Modric are 34, Marcelo and Karim Benzema 32, Kroos 30. Between them, they have 54 seasons at the club; some didn’t want them to have any more. If earlier in the season it so often felt like Madrid relied on the dynamic presence of Fede Valverde, and while Vinicius was decisive in the clásico, ultimately this feels like the success of the old guard, trusted and revived by Zidane. Continue reading

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