Why Real Madrid never win the Champions League
Real Madrid have won the Champions League in three of the last four seasons. However, if the competition were organised slightly differently, it’s not impossible that we would be reading headlines as the one above.
Imagine the Champions League were contested every four years, like the World Cup is. The narratives that would emerge would be radically different. To better understand this, we charted the finals that would be expected under each of four different scenarios.
For instance, if the Champions League were contested only during World Cup years, Manchester United and Milan would’ve not reached any finals in the past 20 years. They’ve been to the final a combined seven times during this time period, but it is easy to imagine a narrative developing to post-rationalise Manchester United’s supposed failures, probably centered around Ferguson’s hypothetical ‘lack of leadership’ and the inadequacy of his methods at the highest level.
If instead the Champions League were held in the same year as the Euros, the narrative would be that Barcelona always fail, notwithstanding that Barcelona have won the Champions League four times in the intervening years – they’ve just never won it specifically during that four-year cycle. Meanwhile, the casual observer would interpret Chelsea’s presence in back-to-back finals as indicative of a stable strategy and uninterrupted success over that time period.
Likewise, if the Champions League were held in the seasons after the World Cup, Real Madrid would be held as perpetual underachievers. Real Madrid have won three Champions Leagues in the past four seasons, and seven in the past twenty, but they have never won it in the year after the World Cup, or even reached the final. It is likely that if the Champions League actually followed this structure, much virtual ink would be wasted to detail all the supposed reasons they fail. The Galáctico model would receive intense criticism, and they would be negatively compared against rivals Barcelona, who under this scenario would be touted as an undefeatable team.
It is worth bearing this in mind for this World Cup, because if past events are at all representative, overarching narratives will inevitably develop. If Germany win, we will hear a lot about how Germany has started a new dynasty at the top of the game. If Argentina lose the final, much will be written about Lionel Messi’s lack of confidence in crucial matches. If Brazil get knocked out, it will be said that they have been permanently scarred by their crushing defeat to Germany last time around. If England don’t reach the final, we will again listen to explanations of what is wrong with talent development in the Premier League.
However, as the Champions League counterfactual above indicates, most of these narratives would be wrong. The nature of knockout tournaments is such that the noise usually overwhelms the underlying signal. We recognise, for instance, that the FA Cup winners are usually not the best team in England; why should the World Cup winners necessarily be the best team in the world? Drawing conclusions from these tournaments is a perilous exercise. When we read the conclusions arising from this World Cup, we should be asking ourselves: do we know what would happen in the other three scenarios?