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Where Has Real Madrid’s Mystique Gone?

They’ve won four Champions League titles in the past seven years while barely leaving a trace of their identity—no tactical revolution or lasting ideas. How did the club so identified by extravagance become so mundane?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Maybe, when Real Madrid chose their all-white football uniform, they were giving us a hint, because for most of the last decade, they have been ghosts. They have consistently drifted to the summit of world football during this time, never doing anything as tiresome as launching new sporting projects or inspiring tactical revolutions. Instead, while other clubs have run around trying to redefine the game, they have merely mastered the art of winning without leaving a trace. In the same 10-year period that produced, by the estimation of many critics, the greatest football team of all time—Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona—Real Madrid quietly broke one of the most coveted of records, becoming the first side to claim the UEFA Champions League three times in a row from 2016 to 2018. While there is no doubt about Guardiola’s genius, Real manager Zinedine Zidane won those trophies and still had to endure significant doubt about whether he was, well, actually any good.

Over the years, there has been a great deal of discussion about Real Madrid’s identity, and what precisely it is that they stand for on a football field. Many have tried and failed to find a common thread throughout this successful period. The only satisfactory answer has been to point to the overflowing contents of their trophy cabinet. If there is any dominant theme, then it is simply the remarkable endurance of their core of key players: Raphaël Varane, Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Karim Benzema, Marcelo, and Sergio Ramos. Each has won at least three Champions Leagues with Real Madrid, and the latter three have each played at least 500 games for them. While the few other teams of comparative wealth have built and dismantled teams at startling cost and speed, Real have remained constant, even after Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure in 2018. In the modern game—particularly at a club as heavily scrutinized as Real—that is an astonishing level of emotional and physical resilience.

It was unthinkable upon Marcelo’s arrival in Madrid as an 18-year-old in 2007 that he might one day have as great a career at Real as his Brazilian compatriot Roberto Carlos; yet here we are. If someone had suggested when Karim Benzema signed with Real in 2009 that he would surpass Ferenc Puskás on the club’s all-time scoring list, there would have been laughter, yet here we are. Meanwhile, Ramos has been at the Santiago Bernabéu so long that only two players—Iker Casillas and Raúl—have made more appearances for the club. And here is the contradiction about this institution: For all of its associations with royalty and grandeur, its greatest players are renowned for their effort. They are a gold-collar outfit with a blue-collar work ethic. Ramos, more than anyone, seems to have embraced this duality: Though he does his day job in opulent surroundings, his beard makes him look like the Wolverine after a couple of months on the run.

It has been strange watching Real this season because they have been supremely unlike themselves and thus, somehow, more themselves than ever. Their mystique was built upon the flair of their great teams of the 1950s and 1960s, which claimed five successive European cups; their manager is probably the most elegant playmaker the game has ever seen; yet their most recent incarnation is unfussy, pragmatic, precise. Even their shape seems to change almost from game to game, with Zidane far more concerned with outputs than aesthetics.

However, their lust for victory remains undimmed, and in its pursuit, they are keen to leave the entertainment to others. In their most notable results this season, they have been by far the less interesting of the two teams, playing the best supporting actor to the lead drama of their opponents. They were overwhelmed by the intensity of Shakhtar Donetsk and Cádiz, and they held on against a brilliant Borussia Mönchengladbach and contained an effervescent Real Betis, who came at them relentlessly but succumbed 3-2 in September. They left their signature performance for El Clásico two weeks ago, coming up against a hugely talented Barcelona side suffering from the same dysfunction that Real were famed for a generation ago, and they dispatched them with minimal fuss: In other words, they ghosted them. In that 3-1 win, it made sense that one of their star players was Kroos, a midfielder with a style so unhurried that his kit never seems to acquire sweat or grass stains: His street must have the least busy laundromat in world football.

So far, their uniquely spectral style of play is suiting them well. Following last year’s campaign, when they were at their most minimal—scoring only 70 goals in the league but conceding just 25 on their way to becoming champions—they have been unpretty but effective this year. They are relying on attrition and the odd dash of invention, and though they may not grace the highlight film most weeks, they are a good bet to claim at least one major trophy in the next few months. In an oddly formless season, perhaps a triumph by this oddly formless team would be the most fitting of tributes.