When They Mattered: The irreversible fall of Real Madrid

Editor’s note: We never thought this day would come, but in the wake of a crushing season, the departure of a legend and the septic malaise that’s followed, it’s only right to turn our When They Mattered series toward a club the latest great club to embrace irrelevance.

Real Madrid was a great club once. No, really.

Before that wretched 2014-15 season, in which it didn’t extended its Champions League reign to a full year – A FULL YEAR – and only managed to reach the semifinals for a fifth straight time, it was a club other teams were scared of. Once, before it finished a sad second place in La Liga – plummeting from a third-place finish the season before – it was a side that other teams didn’t enjoy playing. It used to win games on the regular. Trophies, too. Truly, the stench of mediocrity wafting off them now — after a season with a meager 92 points, a paltry 118 goals scored, and an indifferent +80 goal difference — wasn’t always so pungent.

It’s hard to imagine it today, as you peer incredulously at the spectacle of human flotsam stumbling and ambling around the Bernabéu. But, once upon a time, back in 2014, El Real was a club to be reckoned with.

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 25: Gareth Bale (2nd L) celebrates with teammates Fabio Coentrao (L), Angel Di Maria (R) and Nacho Fernandez (2nd R) during the Real Madrid celebration the day after winning the UEFA Champions League Final at Santiago Bernabeu stadium on May 25, 2014 in Madrid, Spain. Real Madrid CF achieves their 10th European Cup at Lisbon 12 years later.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)Getty/Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno

Real Madrid players waving scarves, back when the club mattered. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)

Remember 2014? Barack Obama was president. Jon Snow was but a humble grunt in the Night’s Watch. Apple was about to put out a watch. California was in a terrible drought. People inexplicably ate a lot of kale. The Republican field for the presidential nomination still had fewer than a dozen candidates. Sepp Blatter was FIFA president-for-life. The Bachelorette hadn’t yet mindfucked everybody by putting TWO BACHELERETTES ON THE SHOW.

Go to your local library, and yellowed scientific journals and dusty quarterlies that have long-since ceased publication will tell tall tales of a glory long gone. Madrid, they claim, had won the first five editions of the old European Cup from 1956 through 1960. It had won it again in 1966. It had demolished Europe, led by Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás. It had known a second golden era in the 1980s, when it won La Liga five years consecutively and lifted the UEFA Cup twice. This time, Emilio Butragueño and Hugo Sánchez starred.

KUNMING, CHINA - JULY 30:  David Beckham, Raul and Zinedine Zidane of Real Madrid during an adidas shoot on July 30, 2003 at the at the Harbour Plaza Hotel in Kunming, China.(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images for adidas)Getty/Alex Livesey

Cosmos legend Raul also once played for Real Madrid.

In the 1990s, El Real won the league twice more and lifted a seventh European title as one Raúl – yes, the same Raúl who would go on to find great fame with Al Sadd and the New York Cosmos – starred. In 2000, Florentino Pérez was voted club president. By then, the club was saddled with towering debt. Things got so bad they had to offload Clarence Seedorf to Inter Milan just so they could make payroll. But Pérez managed to sell the club’s downtown practice facility to the city and raise enough money to clear the debt and buy a trio of Galactícos: Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, and Ronaldo. Also: David Beckham. In 2000 and 2002, Madrid won the Champions League twice in three years.

Madrid, once again buoyed by a litany of superstars, won La Liga again in 2001, 2003, 2007, 2008, and 2012. In 2014, it won the Champions League for a 10th time, becoming the first club to do so.

during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF at Camp Nou on March 22, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain.Getty/David Ramos

Cristiano Ronaldo scored a mere 61 goals last season.

But during the 2014-15 season, the whole thing collapsed. Madrid careened from crisis to crisis, only leading La Liga for 16 match-days and ultimately falling a gargantuan two points short of arch rival Barcelona, winning a deplorable 30 of 38 league games. Juventus hammered it in the Champions League semifinals, advancing by a whole goal on aggregate. All El Real won was the Club World Cup.

What’s worse, the since-forgotten manager of that team, Carlo Ancelotti – he was last seen drinking wine out of a box outside of Silvio Berlusconi’s shuttered headquarters in Milan – couldn’t get his star player Cristiano Ronaldo to score. With playmakers Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria replaced by little-known bottom-of-the-barrel signings James Rodríguez and Toni Kroos, who cost a mere 105 million euros – COMBINED! – Ronaldo staggered and lumbered to just six hat tricks over the course of the season. Starved of service, he scored a mere 61 goals, including only 48 in La Liga. Pathetically, that was only the second-highest tally of all-time. After all, Lionel Messi had bagged 50 in 2011-12 while making two more appearances.

MADRID, SPAIN - JUNE 26:  Real Madrid president Florentino Perez (R) presents Carlo Ancelotti as Real's new head coach at Estadio Bernabeu on June 26, 2013 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)Getty/Denis Doyle

Carlo Ancelotti won only one Champions League in two seasons at Real Madrid before getting shitcanned.

Naturally, Pérez decided that he had to ditch Ancelotti, who had overseen all this decay and failed to stop the rot. He had only managed to win the club’s first European title in a dozen years in his first season in charge and become the rare Madrid manager who figured out how to unite the factions in the locker room and be beloved by all his players. In his stead, Pérez hired a high-flyer in Rafa Benítez, who is totally with the times and will represent the club’s last chance of recapturing all that faded glory. Given the two options, what choice did Pérez have?

It’s probably too late for El Real, though. Its fall from grace is eerily reminiscent of that of Leeds United. Rampant mismanagement saw that club sink like a stone from the UEFA Champions League semifinals to England’s third-tier in just six years from 2001 to 2007. Madrid should be so lucky that their downward spiral should bottom out at second place in La Liga.

If the history of teams we’ve profiled in When They Mattered tells us anything, it’s that once you’ve fallen, it’s just about impossible to get back up. If Madrid manages to do it at all, it could take weeks for them to scramble back to respectability. In all likelihood, though, the club won’t matter again, ever.