When the final whistle went, the bar erupted. Through the raised fists, the smoke and the bodies hugging each other, you could just about make out the television screen as Inter manager Jose Mourinho sprinted across the Camp Nou, celebrating what he would later describe as "the most beautiful defeat of my life."
Immediately, the volume of the TV was turned down and the club's anthem burst out from the speakers, to a huge cheer. Soon, everyone was singing along; the perfect relief from the tension. It had all been worthwhile. A mile down the road, fans were spilling into the city's central square, waving flags and diving into the fountain. Passing cars and mopeds tooted their horns.
But this was not Milan; this was Madrid. The song booming out was not C'e solo l'Inter and the square filling with fans was not Piazza del Duomo. The song was Real Madrid's anthem, Las Mocitas Madrilenas, and the square was Cibeles, Real Madrid's spiritual home -- the fountain where they celebrate their triumphs. The fan busy telling TV cameras it was the happiest day of his life -- "Well, after the birth of my kids" -- was a Real Madrid supporter. And he wasn't alone. The newspaper declaring "Thank You, Mourinho" the following morning was not Gazetta dello Sport but Marca, whose cover, like that of its competitor AS, splashed with Mourinho's victory dance.
On Tuesday, Mourinho insisted that for Inter Milan reaching the Champions League final was a dream while for Barcelona it was something completely different -- an "obsession." There was a simple reason: This year's final will be at Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu Stadium and Barcelona fans couldn't imagine anything better than winning the European Cup at their rivals' home. As far as Mourinho was concerned, it was the where rather than the what that motivated them, obsessed them. "It is," Mourinho concluded, "anti-Madridismo."
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In the Spanish capital, they applauded Mourinho for hitting a nerve -- for introducing Mr. Nail to Mr. Head. With the aid of a sledgehammer. The truth hurts, they laughed. Mourinho had hit Barcelona right where it smarts most -- just as he did by playing in Madrid-style all-white and having Judas himself, Luis Figo,the former Barcelona idol who joined Real Madrid, sitting alongside him on the bench. Mourinho knew how to really get under their skin. After all, he had spent a year at Barcelona in 1996 as Bobby Robson's translator. He knew what made them tick. Better still, he knew what made them sick.
And, they said, what makes Barcelona sick is Real Madrid. They call it Madriditis. For years Madrid fans have claimed that Madriditis revealed Barcelona's inferiority. They claimed that Barcelona fans were more obsessed with Madrid losing than their own team winning. Madrid would never do that, they said; Madrid only cared about winning: the hatred, the bitterness, the anger, was all one way. Madrid just laughed at Barca and their pitiful ways. You just can't help being terrified of us! They were, above all, anti-Madridistas, the ultimate proof of an incontrovertible truth: Barcelona was a small, petty-minded club carrying a colossal chip on its shoulder.
Maybe so. But Wednesday night showed that so is Madrid. Rivalry cuts both ways. The moral high ground is built on sand, quick to crumble. "I'd like to think our fans will return to Cibeles to celebrate our successes," Real midfielder Xabi Alonso said the following morning. In his normal calm manner, Alonso had nailed it -- even if he didn't mean to. He'd like to think that way -- and with a solitary point separating Real and Barcelona at the top of the La Liga table, it could yet happen -- but for now celebrating Barcelona's failure would have to do. For now, fans of the team eliminated at the first knockout round of the Champions League would have to gloat over Barca's semifinal exit.
The obsession that surrounded the final was felt on both sides of the divide: If Barcelona was obsessed with getting to the Bernabeu, Madrid was similarly obsessed with the fear of Barca doing just that. The final had been set to be the ultimate humiliation. Some newspapers started to attack former Real Madrid president Ramon Calderon for requesting the chance to host it in the first place. More than ever, Madrid fans were desperate for Barcelona to lose and here they were celebrating their failure like it was a triumph of their own.
Wednesday night was a relief. As one newspaper cover put it: "Cibeles can sleep easy." Madrid has avoided the shame, the horrible prospect of watching Barcelona celebrate in its stadium, defaming its temple. Now, Madrid can wallow in someone else's success -- now, it can make Inter's its own.
Quite literally. Because while the presence in the final of the outstanding stars of this year's Champions League, Bayern's Arjen Robben and Inter's Wesley Sneijder -- both ditched by Madrid last summer -- remains a little embarrassing, at least Barcelona isn't there. Better still, Madrid's man is. For much of the Madrid-based media, the last week has not been about Inter or Barcelona, but about Madrid, the center of the footballing universe. For them, this wasn't a Champions League semifinal; this was an audition.
And Mourinho has passed with flying colors. The headline on the front of Marca could not have put it more clearly. "Mou, you have earned it," the cover said. "Your place in the final. And your signing for Madrid."
If Madrid does sign Mourinho and, better still, if it can either announce the signing or strategically leak it before May 22, it will be the perfect PR coup. Suddenly, it will have bought its way back into the final. If Inter then win it, Madrid will have won it too. Mourinho will be the perfect man for the job: He won the European Cup and he beat Barcelona. Something Real Madrid couldn't do for themselves.