The transaction to end all transactions
Real Madrid bought Zinedine Zidane from Juventus in the 2001 offseason, he supposedly writing the English word “yes” on a napkin while lunching with Perez. At the end of that season he scored the winning goal of the 2002 Champions League with that magnificent left-footed volley from an airball on the edge of the penalty area. It was a straight economic cause-and-effect. Action: Buy Zidane. Result: He wins the Champions League (the first and only time he would win this trophy).
Bayer Leverkusen chase the treble
There were slight signs, however, that the patterns of 1999-2001 were coming to an end. A dynamic new team arrived on the scene: Bayer Leverkusen. They would not win any trophies but by the end of the season they were the best team of Germany and Europe in everything but mathematics, and the red hot form of their individuals would naturally translate over into the 2002 World Cup.
Their attack was a welcome antidote to Bayern’s stultifying game. The main man was Michael Ballack, without doubt the decade’s cursed figure. He was a powerful midfield presence who was also the main goal scorer of both Leverkusen and Germany at Korea/Japan 2002, bullocking through the ranks, showing confident touches as a finisher and a powerful presence in the air. He was born to lead, lifting a series of mediocre players into finals they had no business making, but he would just fall short of ever winning an international trophy. By the time the exciting new Mullers and Ozils reinforced Germany it was too late for him.
The other fascinating player of that year for Bayer Leverkusen and Germany was Oliver Neuville, a small, delicate, tricky forward, an Argentinian type of player that German cliché would never have produced. He had a superlative 2002, which fortunately for his career included both scoring the key Champions League goals for Leverkusen (a beautiful quick dribble and long shot defeated Manchester United in the semi-final) and featuring heavily for Germany at the following month’s Asian World Cup. He was seldom seen again, but his timing was immaculate.
Zidane and the perfect goal
Ballack and “Neverkusen’s” curse would strike in the Champions League final against Real Madrid, a match in which Leverkusen largely outplayed the Real all-stars, revealing that Real’s central defence of the aged Fernando Hierro and Ivan Helguera were mostly relying on luck (and in 2003 would collapse completely). Hype, however, would tiredly win the day again, Real prevailing 2-1 on the isolated attack of Zidane’s volley. Snarky critics would delight that Ballack was seen in the background appearing a fraction too late to stop Zidane’s wheeling shot.
For me, after seeing it years later, the first Real goal revealed Raul’s genius in the same manner that Zidane revealed his own 36 minutes later. I had always considered the goal a very soft one (Leverkusen lets Raul run free onto a long throw-in; he slides it under an unprepared keeper), but the way Raul was able to twist to work the ball’s angle away from himself while running at full speed in the opposite direction appears quite impossible. He knew his goals, that boy; until 2004 at least, when he lost his quality but his dressing-room status maintained him as Real’s pet and an overrated man-child. Perhaps once Ronaldo became the focal point of the team up front Raul lost his raison d’être.