That’s the phrase that came bellowing out of an otherwise inconspicuous café and onto the sleepy streets of Polença, Spain last Sunday afternoon, a steeply assembled Mallorcan village just a short drive from some of the island’s most postcard-worthy virgin beaches. I’d just happened to be meandering past as Fran Rico had opened the scoring after six minutes at the Santiago Bernabéu. It was goal Real Madrid would equalize but fail to better.
Five nights before, I’d been on my way home from dinner in Barcelona, zig-zagging my way through the Gothic Quarter in a persistent drizzle. But the rain hadn’t deterred the street vendors. They’d been camped out late into the night with the mock official jerseys of local heroes like Lionel Messi and Andrés Iniesta on the racks as well as the yellow and black striped kits of Borussia Dortmund, the team Real Madrid had conceded late on against earlier that evening to ultimately draw 2-2 in the Champions League.
Three nights prior, just beyond the walls of the capital’s famed Plaza Mayor, I found myself crammed into a tiny pub, no more than six stools at the bar and an Atlético de Madrid clock hung proud in the corner next to the lone television. The old barman grinned as he dropped off a small dish of olives with my last beer of the evening. He’d looked up just in time to watch Real Madrid give up an equalizer to Las Palmas in the 88th minute on their visit to the Canaries.
And finally, three days before that, I was at the Bernabéu. Leaning up against the third tier railing after 94 frustrating minutes, I peered up into the stadium’s uppermost northeast corner to watch a small patch of yellow-clad fans in raptures. Real Madrid 1, Villarreal 1.
So there you have it, Real Madrid’s media-proclaimed “crisis” in reverse chronological order through my very own eyes. Four draws on the bounce.
Now before you get the wrong idea about what I experienced, it’s not that everyone in Spain hates Real Madrid. It’s just that everyone else does, and those happened to be people I mostly encountered due to my geographical significance while on vacation. However, Real Madrid supporters do make up just under half of football fans in Spain; Barça claims the majority of the remainder. But you have to understand that the Spanish have a unique dynamic of supportership. Let me explain.
For the most part, outside of Real Madrid and Barcelona, the public supports their local clubs, but also has a preference when it comes down to the big two. The places I happened to be visiting, apart from the Bernabéu (Barcelona, Mallorca, and an Atleti-favoring bar), obviously possess an inclination to dislike Real Madrid for a tiresome, complicated, but still relevant political history. Real is also traditionally uber-successful. They are hated the way the New York Yankees are hated in American baseball; there’s no middle ground. It can be compared to the British’s relationship with marmite - you love it or you hate. You’re either for Real Madrid, or you’re for Barcelona on some level. There’s no overlap.
Yet the Spanish can be a sadistic bunch at times. Rather than see the club(s) of their own allegiance triumph, they more often than not would rather revel in the failure or misfortune of their rival. Before the international break, when Real Madrid was amidst the darkest hour of their mayday, succumbing to unthinkable draw at home to Eibar, the madridista heart rejoiced as Barcelona coughed up four goals away at Celta Vigo for the second season in a row, losing 4-3 despite coming back from 3-0 down. It was jarring result after a fluke loss to Alavés already at home this season. They say misery loves company, do they not? The word “crisis” had just become plural in the Spanish media because instead of going first, Barcelona are now fourth.
All that aside, where Barcelona’s problem can be rather simply identified – be less careless in the defensive third while in possession – Real Madrid’s is more complex. Zinedine Zidane’s midfield core is maimed now that both Casemiro and Luka Modrić are scheduled to miss another month each. But Cristiano Ronaldo, in light of scoring four against Andorra with Portugal yesterday, doesn’t look to have 100% regained his fitness from the knee injury that forced him to be substituted in the Euro 2016 final against France. Meanwhile, Zizou has been forced to balance recovering Karim Benzema’s best form after his own early season niggle and keeping Álvaro Morata fresh and happy. The lack of continuity in los blancos’ attack has correlated with a lack of direction and invention. The go-to method of penetration has been relegated to whipping balls into the box from wide areas and hoping the arrow hits the bullseye, an elementary approach by Madrid’s own standards that has been halved in production by Marcelo’s muscular problem. The Brazilian left back should be recovered by the time La Liga resumes again this upcoming weekend but, like last season, he’s without a natural replacement until Fabio Coentrão recovers from his mystery injury.
That’s not to say Barcelona don’t have the fitness concerns of their own. Lionel Messi heads the casualty list but many expect that two-thirds of the MSN is still good enough to get the job done as it has in the past. Furthermore, the “FIFA virus” has also struck again; Sergi Roberto and Jasper Cillessen are amongst the smited this round.
On my flight from Madrid to Paris to make a tight connection back to Chicago, I perused the headlines of an elderly man’s copy of AS peeking through the crack between the seats in front of me . It read in Spanish “Zidane: The team’s problem is psychological.” Unable to read the fine print due to the worsening condition of my eyesight forced me to ponder what aspect of mentality the manager was identifying. If he was referring to the pressure that’s amounting because of the poor results, he’d at least be the mentor to the young players who are still learning to cope. The veterans will already know. After all, the elegant Frenchman has admitted that he himself nearly buckled under the heavy expectations of the club when he first arrived as a player in 2001. Only he didn’t – he just scored a banger and eventual winner in the Champions League final that season. But my mind paired his statement more with Real’s concentration. The stats are worrisome. In five of the last eight halves Real Madrid has played, they’ve conceded equalizers within seven minutes of the end of the half. If they aren’t going to win games by three and four, they need to be able to grind out results – an attribute not usually associated with Real Madrid.
Curiously and on a closing note, what’s most troubling about the current state of La Liga is that the big stories are Real Madrid and Barcelona’s struggles rather than the leader, Atlético de Madrid. It’s almost as if after several years of contending for the title, winning it in 2014, and reaching two Champions League finals in three seasons isn’t enough to validate their campaign to be legitimate contenders, as if they can’t possibly keep up the charade for another season. However, they continue to be relevant in major competitions. I know it’s still early days but other than Real, they’re still the only other unbeaten team in the league. It’s amazing to think what they’ve done up until this point hasn’t been enough to break the mold and make the big two the big three. Maybe it’s because they don’t of an el clásico of their own or perhaps it comes down to money, but I think they’ve proven their real worth on the pitch. Ya know, where it should matter.