First came the goal. Then came the kiss. Then came the big-money man securing the biggest win of his life.
When it was over, Gareth Bale put his hands to his face, as if in disbelief. He was surely not alone — the twists and curves at the Estadio da Luz on Saturday night were maddening and magical, as Bale’s goal in the 120th minute capped Real Madrid’s rally from the precipice of defeat as it beat its city rivals, Atlético Madrid, to claim La Decima, the club’s 10th European title.
The final score was 4-1 after extra time, but the swollen margin belied the drama of the evening. Atlético, the scrappy second team of the Spanish capital, was just minutes away from winning its first Champions League trophy, only to have it ripped away in the final seconds when Sergio Ramos’s desperate header found the corner of the net in the 93rd minute. After the referee blew his whistle to signal the end of regulation moments later, Real goalkeeper Iker Casillas — whose mistake helped Atlético take a first-half lead — wrapped his arms around Ramos and kissed his defender’s sweaty cheek.
Atlético Coach Diego Simeone tried to rally his players after the letdown, screaming at them in the huddle before extra time. But without its top attacker, Diego Costa, who was substituted after just eight minutes because of an injured hamstring, there was no way back for the red-and-white striped Rojiblancos. Real dominated the extra periods and, fittingly, it was Bale — who went to Real for a record $124 million transfer fee last summer — who sealed the victory for soccer’s richest club when he headed in a rebound and sent the Real fans behind the goal into hysterics.
Real’s victory capped off a fevered few weeks in Madrid, where the match was, not surprisingly, a citywide obsession. Marca, one of two sports newspapers based in Madrid, proclaimed the game to be an “eternal” battle and produced a charming front page on Saturday depicting the top players from each team as foosball players. Inside, the paper had reams of coverage previewing the match from every angle, including articles about the teams’ flights to Lisbon; it was only after more than 50 pages on soccer that a story about the Spanish tennis star Rafael Nadal, who is competing at the French Open, finally appeared.
Fans of Atlético and Real bantered with each other at home in the days leading up to the match before descending upon Lisbon en masse, turning the city a mixture of stripes and solids by Friday night. It was estimated that some 15,000 cars and 600 buses — carrying as many as 90,000 people — made the 385-mile drive between the Iberian capitals.
By Saturday morning, Avenida da Liberdade, which cuts through the historic city center, was packed with visitors idly browsing the wares laid out by jewelry and knick-knack vendors. Several radio stations broadcast from various points along the pedestrian paths and fans mingled — mostly without rancor — when they weren’t intermittently breaking into song.
The Atlético fans were surely going to enjoy themselves. This was only the club’s second appearance in a European Cup final and the last one, in 1974, was largely forgettable as they were blasted by Bayern Munich, 4-0, after blowing a one-goal lead with six minutes to play. The shock of losing the title in such a wrenching way led Atlético fans to give themselves the downcast nickname of Pupas, or jinxed ones. After Saturday’s finish, that name figures to stick for a little while longer.
Real, unlike its upstart opponents, has had a fascination — some would call it a damaging obsession — with the Champions League ever since the club won three titles in five years from 1998 to 2002. That run sent the so-called Galactico Era at Real into its first full bloom as spending on superstars ballooned and a cast of soccer icons, from Zinedine Zidane to David Beckham to the Brazilian Ronaldo, cycled through as the club chased its elusive 10th European title.
Over the course of that first stretch and then the second Galactico Era — prompted by rival Barcelona’s success in the late 2000s — Real became the game’s richest club, spending well over $1 billion on players (and ripping through 11 coaches since 2002) even as they failed to reach another European final until this year.
This season, however, Ancelotti — who won two previous Champions League titles with A. C. Milan — mixed and matched his lineups enough to overcome inconsistency in the league and push Real back to the title game behind Ronaldo’s 16 European goals (before the final), a record in the competition.
On Saturday though, Atlético’s stout — or borderline violent, depending on your point of view — defending kept Ronaldo from asserting himself. The Portuguese star did not seem bothered by a leg injury that had hampered him at the end of the season, yet he did not make an impact, continually bottled up (or hacked down) by Atlético defenders.
Bale had Real’s best chance of the first half when he took off on a blistering 35-yard run, but he skewed his shot badly, missing wide after 32 minutes. The close call energized the Real fans, but they were quickly silenced when Casillas was caught in no-man’s land — neither too far out nor on his line — after an Atlético corner kick and Godin’s header looped over him before bouncing so, so, so slowly over the goal line.
Real pushed hard in the second half but seemed destined to come up short before Ramos came to the rescue. Then, after Bale’s goal, Atlético seemed entirely deflated and Marcelo scored Real’s third before Ronaldo scored from the penalty spot just before the final whistle.
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