MADRID -- Jose Mourinho was fighting a losing battle Wednesday night. Not on the pitch, but off it. Real Madrid finally won a knockout tie in the Champions League, the competition that it likes to think it has a hold of and the one that certainly has a hold over it. After six years of failure, it finally reached the quarterfinal, a huge roar greeting the final whistle as it defeated Lyon 3-0. By its own measure -- and the European Cup is the team's measure -- the biggest club of all had stopped being a big club at all. Now, at last, it is back.
"I have spoken to the president [Florentino Pérez]," Mourinho said when he finally appeared in the press room at the Santiago Bernabéu late Wednesday. "And he is happy. But I have told him to calm down, not to be too euphoric. This is normal. This club is too big and these players are too good not to reach the quarterfinals of this competition. This is normal; what was not normal was what happened before. What was not normal was not getting here."
He was quite right. Madrid's recent record in Europe is a resounding, crushing failure. And because it has been treated as such, it has become even more resounding, even more crushing. It is not the kind of failure that can be waved away as a blip; it had come to feel like a curse. For this club, for a team that cost what this one did -- and Wednesday's starting XI alone cost €288 million ($403 million) -- the quarterfinals has to be the absolute minimum.
Getting knocked out early one year is fine but was never treated as such; falling at the first knockout hurdle six years in a row is not. That, as Mourinho said, is not normal.
And yet, the abnormal had become worryingly normal, like a recurring nightmare, each more terrifying than the last -- the cumulative effects gripping at the team's frayed nerves and squeezing, grip getting tighter and tighter. On Wednesday, it let go; Madrid woke up. The European Cup's most successful, most historic team, the nine-time winner, will be in the draw on Friday -- for the first time in seven years.
Mourinho's message was an important one. As indeed was the message he delivered the day before the game, in which he insisted that Madrid should not become obsessed with the European Cup. "It will come naturally, not because we get obsessed with it," he said. "We have to have hope, not obsession. If we don't win it this year, fine, we'll win it next year." He didn't actually mean that Madrid would win it next season, although he probably thinks the club will, but that it would compete for the crown.
It was an important point, precisely because Madrid has allowed itself to get so obsessed with success -- and, by extension, failure. It was an important message precisely because there has been no normalization of the discourse. It has lived permanently on a knife-edge, utterly refusing to accept that fundamental maxim in sport: You don't always win.
Every defeat has been met with a hysterical reaction; every victory has been met as a prelude to inevitable success. It is not enough to compete; there is no honor in reaching the line in second. When that assumed success does not arrive, the impact is greater, the anger almost uncontrollable, the pressure, the desire to seek excuses and people to blame. Madrid has been unable to assimilate defeat, the political and social pressure proving unbearable. That has made the failure appear even greater than it is: It has made the consequences of failure all the more severe and, in turn, increased the likelihood of future failure. Stability has been a chimera.
Since Madrid last won the competition (a 2-1 victory over Bayer Leverkusen in 2002), it has had 10 coaches. Pérez, the president, has spent more money than any president at any club in history and yet has completed four successive seasons without winning anything -- three at the end of his last regime, during which he went through six coaches, and the first year of his current regime, having returned to "rescue" the club. At the end of his first year back, he sacked Manuel Pellegrini and turned to the man who can guarantee success -- insofar as anyone can. Winning had become an obligation, not an aspiration.
In a way, it always was: Vicente del Bosque had been sacked despite winning two leagues and two European Cups in four years. Winning was taken as read; you had to win in style. Humility did not come into it. But as soon as it was taken as read, as soon as the basic tenets of sport were perverted and ditched, it stopped happening. It then became a desperate need, and that made it harder too. With every passing year, the pressure grew. And then winning, at all costs and in any way, became all the mattered.
If going empty-handed hurts, in Europe the pain is even greater. The European stage is the stage that obsesses Madrid. That attitude has been both cause and consequence of its failure. With each year, Madrid slipped further back in the competition. Now, success has been redefined as reaching the quarterfinals. Now, at last, Madrid have broken that barrier -- an emotional, psychological and practical one. Better still, they have done so comfortably, far too strong for the opposition. The way Madrid is supposed to. Supposed to, but didn't.
So it is not surprising that victory has met with a huge reaction. And, inevitably, with the belief that, curse broken, this is Madrid's year now.
"IN THE QUARTERS!" screams the cover of Marca. "Real Madrid are back," runs the headline above the match report. Marca's cover dares "TO DREAM!" AS' most rabid columnist, Tomás Roncero, talked of the "reconciliation of Madrid's sanctuary with its heroes, the enthroning of its coach." Madrid, he wrote, "presented their candidacy with humility and pride: This imperial Madrid can only be matched by Barcelona -- the rest are clearly inferior. Everyone fears Madrid again." As for Marca, its editorial lauded a team that is "finally commensurate with the history of the club."
Defeating Lyon was a huge victory for a club that needed it. The roar at the end spoke of relief as well as delight. Of a club that was resuscitated. But the risk is that it is taken as more than it really is. That it becomes yet again proof that Madrid is unstoppable, that rather than hope it creates yet more unmanageable expectations. That was what Mourinho was mitigating against. Winning on Wednesday was a prelude to success; it was not a prelude to inevitable success.
"This was a small step," Mourinho insisted. It was, in fact, a huge one because of what went before, yet the coach was quite correct. Reaching the quarterfinal should not be unusual. Madrid is back to life. It must also get back to normality.