Forty years before Sergio Ramos glanced a header home in the dying minutes of the Champions League final, there was a Bayern Munich centre-back who broke Atletico Madrid’s hearts in much the same way. As the Spanish side prepared to celebrate its first ever European Cup trophy in 1974, Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck ignored his teammates and gave the ball some leather from 25 yards.
It landed in the back of the net; the apocryphal tale goes that the Atletico goalie Manuel Reina — Pepe Reina’s father — was engaged in conversation with a photographer behind his goal, which distracted him. Thanks to Schwarzenbeck’s goal, though, Bayern earned a replay. Two days later, the German club thumped Atletico 4-0 in Brussels. By 2014, a replayed final was an anachronism. So, Ramos’ equaliser was followed by Real Madrid’s extra-time onslaught.
Although the Spanish giants did not win the Champions League the following season, Zinedine Zidane’s side now stands on the brink of the first three-peat in Europe’s premier competition since the Bayern side of the mid-70s. This possibility presents an opportunity to us for an assessment of the current Madrid side’s place among great European teams.
Let us name the obvious entrants into the list. Real Madrid from the 1955-60s were a veritable powerhouse, so were Ajax Amsterdam in the early 1970s. The group would be incomplete without Arrigo Sacchi’s consecutive European Cup-winning AC Milan side in 1989 and ’90, and Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona from 2008-11 is still widely considered to be the best team in the 21st century.
There are more great teams, like Benfica under Bela Guttmann or Bob Paisley’s Liverpool, but the allure of a three-peat must remain strong. Only three clubs have accomplished it in history, with Madrid being one of them. However, the current team managed by Zidane is closer in spirit to the Bayern side which won the competition thrice from 1974-76. Their similarities go beyond last-minute equalisers.
Public perception determines much that is common between these two sides. Although the three consecutive European Cups did plenty to build Bayern’s aura, it did not lead to a fond appreciation of the team. The Bavarians’ iconic midfielder Uli Hoeness referred to the issue a few years ago when he said, “We were never seen as on the same level as Ajax or Madrid because we didn't win those Cups playing beautiful football.”
While it is a matter of intense debate whether Zinedine Zidane’s team plays beautiful football, it is the single-minded pursuit of victory which pales every other attribute of the current bunch at Madrid. That was the case with that hallowed group of Bayern Munich players too, their continental fortunes kept shining even as their league form faltered. Madrid’s dip in domestic fortunes this season was of a similar nature, although the current dynamics of football at the elite level ensure that Zidane’s men will never finish in the bottom half like Bayern did in 1975.
Furthermore, while one should be wary of attaching too much weight to the dominant narrative, it is worth reflecting upon the nature of opponents defeated by both Madrid and Bayern in their respective finals. The runs to the summit clash by Atletico and St Etienne in 1974 and ’76, respectively, have greater vitality in public memory than their conqueror’s triumph — although in the case of the former, history might have been determined by the present as Bayern were not really a part of the European royalty before it won the Cup. Madrid’s defeats of Atletico (twice) and Juventus were also met with mixed feelings, with plenty of sympathy still going around for the losing finalists.
Of course, this is not to claim that either Bayern or Madrid were unworthy winners. In fact, as midfielder Franz Roth, who scored crucial goals for the Bavarians in the 1975 and 1976 final, remarked to The Guardian, their success was an endorsement for continuity and familiarity — attributes which are often associated with Zidane’s team. “There was no particular secret to our success, playing with an unchanged side for five, six years meant that we had an instinctive understanding.”
The same could certainly be said of Real Madrid now, who can go one step further than Bayern by winning its fourth Champions League title in five seasons on Saturday. If they do so, Cristiano Ronaldo can further cement his place as the deadliest striker in Europe — a tag once reserved for a German goal machine. In the famed Bayern team’s first two conquests, Gerd Muller finished as the European Cup’s top-scorer; Der Bomber was still finding the net about 30 times per season, even though his best years were behind him. Ronaldo, of course, continues to break goal-scoring numbers with abandon, like Muller in his heydays, even as age takes hold of him.
However, as much as Zidane’s Madrid is similar to the Bayern team of the mid-70s, it remains imperative to state that the competition itself has undergone a significant change. It is longer now, with more potential for slip-ups. The Champions League final in Kiev will be Madrid’s 39th match in the competition over the past three seasons; Bayern played only 25 during the course of their three-peat.
But this is not to say that it was easier to win the European Cup in the 1970s. In fact, away ties no longer hold fears for visiting teams and the enlarging financial gap means that group stage fixtures are cakewalks for the football elite. Still, Real Madrid’s star will be undimmed if they lift the Champions League silverware for the third time running on Saturday. The 13th trophy will feel sweet, sweeter still because it will come at the expense of another club with great European pedigree — five-time champion Liverpool.
Updated Date: May 25, 2018 14:26:59 IST