La Liga title looms for Real Madrid but the 'Tenerife' factor provides a warning
On a stiflingly hot day in June 1993, Real Madrid's players squeezed into two tiny, cramped planes and flew southwest across the sea to their island of the damned. The league was in their own hands, but they were terrified. They had been here before, a year earlier, and the unthinkable had happened then, so somehow they knew it would happen again; fatalism's grip was firm.
For the second successive season, they went to Tenerife and lost the title, giving it to Barcelona. Tenerife manager Jorge Valdano was a former Madrid player, who admitted he "didn't know what face to wear." Madrid's players had no such doubts: They wore a haunted look.
Back then, Tenerife assistant coach Angel Cappa described it as a "thousand-year coincidence." Now, everyone is wondering if it could be repeated, 24 years on. "What if it happens again?" ran the headline on the front of Sport. It's not actually Tenerife that Madrid face this time, sure, but Tenerife is shorthand for miracles and that tiny hint of hope is what they cling to in Catalonia.
At 8 p.m. on Sunday, the final day of the league season in Spain, Barcelona face Eibar at the Camp Nou. At the same time, Madrid travel to Malaga needing a draw -- a solitary point -- to win the league for the first time in five years; the second in nine. Four goals against Sevilla and four more against Celta Vigo brought them to this point. They are close now, even if Zinedine Zidane did insist: "It's not done."
But, Tenerife. The sports paper Marca ran a full page Friday, explaining why this time is not like that time. The island is present in people's thoughts, that's for sure.
Perhaps the most emblematic picture from the events of those days a quarter of a century ago shows Michel Gonzalez looking absolutely lost, comforted by the Tenerife player Quique Estebaranz. Michel was a Madid midfielder of touch and talent who came through the youth system and played for the first team for 14 years. Now, he is the Malaga manager, the man who turned their season round. He has also become, to use the title preferred by the press in Spain, the "judge of the league."
When it was put to Michel a few weeks ago that he could end up like Valdano 24 years ago, he insisted: "I am more Madridista than Valdano. I would rather give Madrid a guard of honour than screw it up for them."
Inevitably, the conspiracy theories have begun: Michel wants Madrid to win the league, they say. Then there's the fact that Malaga's president called some in Catalonia "scum" and insisted that Barca "won't even get a sniff of the league." Plus, if Madrid take the title, Malaga will make €1 million. When they sold Isco to the Bernabeu club, his price was €27m, plus €3m more in objectives; one of those was winning the league. Oh, and there are five ex-Madrid players among the Malaga ranks. "Malaga smells white," read one headline in Barcelona.
The bandage is going on before the wound, as they say. They're getting their complaints and excuses in early. Conspiracy and mistrust, those staples of the sporting diet, are back on the table. So too are third-party bonuses, they always say. This is that time of the season when teams get accused of not trying. Worse, it is that time of the season when teams get accused for trying. How dare they want to win a football match, the cheats?
There is something more significant that is mostly being forgotten, something more basic: The actual football. Barcelona need to win against Eibar, who Michel's son Adrian plays for. Even if that happens, Madrid still only need a single point. For them to lose the title, the team that has been beaten just three times all season -- and only once in the past 15 games -- must lose again. They must lose, when they know a draw will be enough, against a team that can't possibly have the motivation they have and, put bluntly, isn't as good. They must lose at a time when they are producing their best form of a campaign during which there were often doubts -- but there aren't anymore.
Madrid have scored four goals in each of their past three games. Cristiano Ronaldo has been protected, his appearances prioritised, and that is paying off for both player and team. He has missed 14 games this season, more than in any other, injury-hit years apart. As a result, at 32 he looks sharper and faster than before -- statistics show that his stop speed has increased by 2 kilometres per hour, in fact -- and he is being more decisive than ever.
Even without him, Madrid kept on winning: The story of this season is, in part, the story of their strength in depth. Ronaldo had played just one of the past six away league games until Wednesday's trip to Vigo -- Madrid won them all and their "B team" made a case to be the "A team." But then, on the biggest nights, the first-choice lineup was there, Ronaldo especially. He belted in the opener at Celta and added a second after half-time. Afterward, he said: "I have held back a little more this year because everything is decided in the final games."
He had just decided one of those, having also scored twice, three days earlier, against Sevilla. Ronaldo has 13 goals in eight games, and few would bet against him not carrying on that run on Sunday. Madrid fans are scrambling for tickets to be inside the 30,000-capacity Rosaleda, where 23,000 are season-ticket holders, desperate for the chance to see their team claim the title.
Not that it will necessarily be easy, despite the accusations. There is a contradiction inherent in implying that Malaga won't try because of Michel's madridismo and then clinging to the hope that he might "do a Valdano." While it is an inescapable reality, for Michel -- for anyone not at Madrid or Barcelona, in fact -- it must be supremely irritating that everyone only really wants a piece of you when the big two come along, like only Madrid and Barcelona exist. It must be infuriating to be treated as if their interests matter more.
And it must be outright offensive to feel them questioning your professionalism, which is exactly what prompted president Abdullah Al-Thani's rant last month in defence of his manager. Michel has recovered Malaga after the disastrous spell in the charge of Clever Marcelo Romero Silva -- "Mr. Cat," as Al-Thani called him. Six of the past eight games have been won, with just one defeat, and 13 points from the past 15 available underline how well the team have played recently; it is a pity that Michel's March arrival came too late to complete for a European place.
And speaking of club connections, Malaga also have Sandro Ramirez. Let go by Barcelona for free last summer, he has been a revelation this season. No one wanted him then; now, after a 14-goal season and with a price of just €6m, there is a queue. Everton have made an offer and Atletico are also after him, but Malaga would like him to stay: "I'd pay some of the money myself," Michel said.
Sandro would also like to stay, so happy has he been, so well looked after and so successful, but the opportunities are almost certainly too good to ignore. Sunday, then, will probably be his last game for the club. At the risk of following that trend of making everything about Madrid and Barcelona, in Catalonia they cling to what he might be able to do to help his old club.
"As a kid I had the chance to go to Madrid, but I like Barcelona more; I was always a Barcelona fan and so was my dad," Sandro said this week. "At that time, the club trusted in its youth team players a lot, as well. Hopefully, it can be the day you dream of. I owe Barcelona everything. If I score and that gives them the league... let's hope so."
Among his goals this season was one that Sandro scored -- and celebrated -- against Barcelona last month. Malaga's 2-0 win was a major factor in putting the Camp Nou club in their current position: Going into the final day reliant upon a former player and a Madrid idol to help produce a 21st-century Tenerife.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.