As Cristiano Ronaldo left the Principality Stadium in Cardiff last June, a couple of hours after helping Real Madrid win its third Champions League trophy in four years — and La Duodecima, the 12th in its history — he walked past a black town car, idling by an exit.
Ronaldo peered into its tinted window, smiled and rapped his knuckles on the glass. A moment later, a door opened, and out stepped Florentino Perez, Real Madrid’s president.
The two had seen one another only minutes earlier, in Real’s locker room, where Pérez had introduced King Juan Carlos of Spain to his jubilant players. Ronaldo, though, clearly wanted to exult just a little more in victory. “How do you like winning Champions Leagues?” he asked his president.
Pérez, buttoning his jacket, smiled back. “I could say the same to you,” he said. As the men embraced, Pérez spoke again. He sounded almost solemn.
“What we are achieving,” he whispered, “is not normal, you know.”
Real Madrid’s last four years have been anything but normal: not just because of those three Champions League triumphs, in Lisbon, Milan and Cardiff, but because of the manner in which they were achieved. Real was a club — and Pérez a president — that seemed to defy too many of soccer’s accepted wisdoms to succeed.
The team was too imbalanced and the squad, loaded up on attacking talent, too thin; managers came and went too frequently, and the latest incumbent, Zinedine Zidane, was regarded cruelly by some of his contemporaries as an “entrenador de palmas”: a coach who did nothing more than clap.
And yet it all worked, spectacularly. That night in Cardiff, Real completed what Pérez would later describe as “the best season, in terms of title triumphs, in our 115-year history.” To the European Super Cup, the World Club Championship and the Spanish title was added a second consecutive Champions League crown. Real Madrid became the first team in the modern era to retain the trophy. To Pérez, it was “the latest symbol of our legendary status: achieving something that had previously seemed impossible.”
Quite how abnormal that season was has been laid bare in the months since. When Real Madrid returns to Champions League action on Wednesday, it will do so with its season in ruins: Zidane’s team sits fourth in La Liga, 17 points adrift of Barcelona. A spokesman for the Asociación de Socios de Real Madrid (SRM) — an advocacy group representing the 100,000 member-owners of the club — described it as “possibly the worst season in the club’s history, an absolute failure of monumental proportions.”
This time, Europe, as it so often has under Pérez, provides no balm. Real’s whole season may hinge on its Round of 16 tie against a surging Paris Saint-Germain and the usual bulletproof confidence that Ronaldo and the rest will deliver in the Champions League has melted away. Defeat, and elimination, is a real possibility.
Even if it does not, Martínez Bravo fears what will happen to Real Madrid when Pérez, 70, decides to retire, since there is no evidence of a succession plan. None of Pérez’s opponents hold out any great hope for immediate change, however: no elections are scheduled until 2021.
“We have spoken to big businesses, to banks, to see if they would back a candidate to run against him,” Martínez Bravo said. “But they all said the same thing: he is too powerful.”
A glance at the directors’ box at the Bernabeu at almost any game bears that out: the seats are filled by owners and editors of news media outlets and television stations, politicians, captains of industry. One newspaper has described it as “the Court of King Florentino.”
Just how widespread the disaffection actually is may be hard to assess. Movimiento Ambar claims to speak for “thousands” of fans, but Martinez Bravo, for one, admits that the pressure for change has eased in recent years, thanks to all those Champions League victories.
He knows — though he takes no pleasure in saying it; he is a Real Madrid fan, after all — that losing to P.S.G. might change that. Early elimination from the Champions League, and failure on the domestic front, might draw more rebels to his cause.
“This year may be a turning point,” he said. Pérez has retained his power by achieving things that are simply not normal. Whether he can do so when Real looks very ordinary is a different question.