Milan rises again
Rivaldo, for four years football’s best player and recent World Cup-winning lynchpin, immediately vanished from world football because he tried a transfer to Milan and got lost among the myriad talent already on the books.
From Milan’s first up 4-0 victory in La Coruña against one of Europe’s standard bearers, it was clear that a run at the trophy was on. Milan had from night to day risen from its decade-long mediocrity, immediately ascending to the top seemingly without rhyme or reason.
Andrii Shevchenko – previously mentioned playing for Dynamo Kyiv in 1999 – proved all but unstoppable, assuming Raul’s mantle as Europe’s best forward. His style was European rather than dynamic: strong in the air, displaying confident and powerful finishing when given a sniff and able to create his own chances if marked. He was Milan’s spearhead whose final penalty kick that year would make him famous for the club, but other leaders – one who would become one of Italy’s greatest new champions – were beginning to emerge from closer to home.
Andrea Pirlo had begun his career at Inter as a standard attacking central mid, young and inconsistent. He had been transformed before crossing to Milan by the inspired brainwave of playing him as a passer behind the other midfielders, just in front of the defence, of which there were very few examples at the time. His coach had to give the new position a name other than ‘defensive shield’ in order to get Pirlo interested, and told him to give it a try for two games. Pirlo would play on and on and on in this position, not only one of Italy’s men of the tournament when they won the World Cup in 2006 but also perhaps (let’s say before the 0-4 final) the overall player of the tournament as Italy’s grand old man at Euro 2012.
Pirlo’s technically defensive positioning allowed him to slot behind a plethora of other attacking mids, making Milan a kind of more balanced version of Real Madrid’s all-star fantasy team, a more practical galácticos. All of Rui Costa, Seedorf, Pirlo, Shevchenko and Inzaghi were able to be shoehorned into the same team, with Kaka being inserted one year later. Milan, behind the scenes the most organised club in the world, were now entrenched as Europe’s premier team on field.
Their progress to this exalted state was not nearly as grandiose after the 2003 new year as before it. They had begun the 2002-3 Champions League by beating all of the old guard easily, thrashing Deportivo La Coruña, beating Bayern twice, and on a November evening hosting the only real showdown we would see between Milan, the new power, and Real Madrid, the ancien régime. Shevchenko’s goal on halftime decided it and proved that there was now a club more powerful than the galácticos. But it wasn’t a knockout tie, and it was expected the two would meet in the final to truly define the passing of an era.
Milan took it easy after that, advancing to the final in minimalist fashion. In a glitch that benefitted them greatly, they beat Internazionale 1-1 on “away” goals in the semi-final after two draws at the same San Siro, because the listing was “Milan vs. Inter” rather than “Inter vs. Milan”, an oddity whose consequences were typical of both clubs’ usual fortunes. Milan, whose Champions League progress had been so measured and controlled, were rocking in the last ten minutes, overcome by youthful African substitutes Obafemi Martins (who scored) and Mohammed Kallon (who missed a one-on-one at the end to win the match). Milan’s defence completely dematerialised. But they held on, although their unusual shakiness when pressed would bite them in the coming years.
The legendary match
The drama occurred in the other half of the draw, where Real Madrid’s often neglected defence came apart at the seams. There was a showdown with Manchester United who as always were overawed when confronted by Europe’s genuine bigwigs. Raul’s last moment of greatness (and perhaps Figo’s too, at least at club level) occurred in the first leg, with two typical all-round Raul-type goals in a 3-1 romp.
The reverse match has been acclaimed as the high point of that decade’s Champions League, although the gloss was dulled by the understanding that it was more an exhibition match that United were never actually going to win. They did win the game, 4-3, but Ronaldo’s classic hat-trick sealed it for an exuberant but a defensively unreliable and at the end reeling Real, who scored two own goals.
Ronaldo’s goals were breathtaking: a first-up counterattacking bullet of a strike to the near post; a tap-in after a multiple pass build-up, supplied by his Brazilian mate Roberto Carlos; and the ‘perfect’ goal, the shot from twenty-five metres away whose perfect parabolic arc bent over keeper Fabien Barthez. It was a moment that confirmed the greatness of the evening and of his performance. Real’s players knew it; there was something different in the way that cacophony of stars – who give me chills even now, thinking about that much quality all being on the same team, however unbalanced it all was – huddled together after that third goal. Ronaldo had finally come of age in the Champions League.
He continued to blaze to begin the next round with a standard finish rolled into the corner at the start of the semi-final against Juventus, but had to come off hurt soon afterward. Real thereafter recorded a shaky 2-1 win thanks to one of Roberto Carlos’ thunderbolt long shots.
Perhaps the dominant player in the world at both club and international level for almost a decade, it would be churlish of me not to mention him at some length. Roberto Carlos was a little fuse of a player, sprinting up and down the left wing with abandon, pulling out unusual moves like volleyed first-time crosses at full speed, long shots at goal, a constant presence on the attacking left of Brazil and Real Madrid despite being a nominal defender. He had scored one of the most preposterous bending free kicks in the game’s history in 1997 and carried himself with a sort of arrogance that one couldn’t begrudge him too much, as he certainly backed it up on the field. He would only come undone with two high-profile mistakes at the end of his career (in 2007 his error for Real Madrid conceded a crucial goal 10 seconds into the match, a Champions League record), which didn’t nullify the rest of it.
Things fall apart
Juventus would wind the clock back to the glory days of the mid 90s, methodically whipping Real and old boy Zidane 3-1 to win the tie at home. Even original Juve golden boy Alessandro Del Piero finally delivered again, after years of frustration. But Juve’s performance (after a mediocre campaign) was in effect a one-off, orchestrated by Czech midfielder Pavel Nedved. He was cursed to be both suspended for the final against Milan and go down injured in the semi-final of Euro 2004 in a tournament where his Czech Republic were completely re-writing the book. (Without him the Czechs would fall to a team whose game pre-dated literacy.)
Ronaldo, perhaps still hampered, wriggled free once and was brought down, giving Real an out-of-the-blue chance to draw level. But Figo missed that vital penalty, saved by Juve’s Gianluigi Buffon. He had exasperatingly taken it over penalty experts Zidane and Ronaldo. (Pecking order can be a funny thing. Rivaldo, the world’s undoubted free-kick expert, had to defer to Roberto Carlos for years of watching them bounce off the wall.)
Falling exhausted over the line
Italy regarded the Milan vs. Juventus final as a type of reconquest of Europe after three consecutive years in which Italy’s clubs had faded without trace. This final was like a reunion of mates from the Italian national team, all suddenly appearing in the most high-profile game of them all in which they were confusingly supposed to be competing against each other. Juve’s Buffon, Cannavaro and Zambrotta and Milan’s Nesta and Maldini had all worked the same defensive line at the previous year’s World Cup.
The result was almost certainly decided by Nedved’s suspension, leaving Juve with three blown Champions League finals to inferior opposition in seven years. Paolo Maldini, the long-standing Milan and Italy defender and captain, Milan’s handsome face of integrity for two decades (and five Champions League titles), would describe the final against Juventus as a game in which Milan executed everything right, a type of perfect symphony. It was an interesting opinion, probably true from a player’s perspective. From a spectator’s perspective the game would go nowhere, two Italian powers unable to breach the other in any way, although Milan gave it a shot in the first half with an offside goal and a blinding save from Juve keeper Buffon.
After a laughable penalty shootout in which four consecutive penalties were missed, the key one, the unexpected conversion, was from the famous pure defender with no goal pedigree to speak of, Milan’s Alessandro Nesta beating his usual Italy defensive partner Buffon in this most crucial of situations. Did they mention it to each other ever afterwards? Did they look at each other in knowledge at the next Italy reunion? Buffon recalled that penalty as the beginnings of a year-long depression: “I was convinced that I’d saved it and instead it went in. I was certain he’d shoot the ball to the left and I dived there. But too early with respect to the ball, which instead had a strange trajectory and surprised me. When Shevchenko arrived at the spot for the last penalty, I was already in the dressing room, the adrenaline that had accompanied me until that moment had abandoned me.”
Then Del Piero and Shevchenko did what was expected of them, and Milan won the Champions League. It felt right, even though they’d technically won only one of their last seven Champions League matches.
The Real Madrid empire self-destructs
There was real/Real drama aplenty in the off-season. Real Madrid’s board, which has always operated in a comically amateurish manner despite being in charge of one of Europe’s most iconic institutions, got rid of those who found themselves in the wrong faction of the never-ending dressing room intrigue. These included peacemaking coach Vicente del Bosque and the face of Real Madrid himself, Fernando Hierro (who had admittedly lost it as a player, terrible against Manchester United and Juventus). Del Bosque had taken over in crisis in 2000, quelled the discord and delivered two Champions Leagues and two Spanish titles, the second one in 2003 on the very same day that he was canned at a restaurant as the players were celebrating. He would go on to further amazing success with the golden Spain generation years later.
Real Madrid had cut out its heart and identity, its link to its more authentic self, becoming merely a collection of random players thereafter. They were not a very balanced collection either, President Perez also not considering defensive mid Claude Makelele worth keeping and stocking up with ever more glamour players up front.
The sight of Real celebrating their third Champions League in five years in 2002 had been a tiring one and the vibe had been that these players’ dominance would continue for years and years, like the Roman empire. Zidane and Ronaldo led the charge for another half-year in 2003-4, not least thanks to Spain’s infamous penalti político awarded in stoppage time to Real in its showdown with rival Valencia (that year a phenomenon of a team), but in the 2004 calendar year it all fell apart. Real Madrid would not win a single Champions League knockout tie for six seasons between 2005 and 2010, most astonishingly when the aged, out-of-date stars lost at home to an unknown, transitioning bunch of Arsenal kids in 2006. That was Zidane’s and Ronaldo’s last time around with Real, their era having petered out over their final three years there.