Now a step away from their third consecutive Champions League final, the Real Madrid led by Cristiano Ronaldo has created a new hegemony in Europe to match that of Alfredo Di Stefano’s era, that of the five European Cups.
Everything changed in 1953. That year, Real Madrid signed Di Stefano, who for many is the best player of all time. Los Blancos won a tough fight against Barcelona, which three years before had struck the first blow with the signing of Laszlo Kubala.
Madrid achieved the Argentine’s signing in an era of hegemony for Barcelona, with their famous five cups of 1952. Santiago Bernabeu was not satisfied with the status quo of a club that had not won a league title since 1933, in the Second Republic.
With Di Stefano, the club regained the title in the 1953/54 season. At the same time, Europe was debating the creation of a European Cup as proposed by L’Equipe, to officially crown the best team on the continent.
The initiative was welcomed with enthusiasm by Santiago Bernabeu, who developed a very simple rationale: the more games, the more income generated, allowing for the signing of better players and attract more fans to a larger stadium. This all would lead to more money, making it the simple and obvious position.
Finally, the European Cup kicked off in 1955/1956. Madrid, who had won the league again, were invited to participate.
They played their first game against Servette on 8 September 1955 and won 2-0 with goals from Miguel Munoz and Hector Rial. Di Stefano guided them to the final, where they would face the Stade de Reims and another star of the era, Raymond Kopa. Madrid fought back to win, 4-3.
That title was the first of a series of five, a feat unmatched so far. Fiorentina (1957), AC Milan (1958), again Reims (1959) and Eintracht Frankfurt (1960) were their victims in the final.
Di Stefano was the team leader, the alpha and omega of a group that was incorporating stars; Paco Gento, Ferenc Puskas, Jose Santamaria, the aforementioned Kopa and Didi also wore white in those glorious years, although the position of leader was never up for negotiation.
Di Stefano’s cycle could not have been more productive; Los Blancos reached two more finals in 1962 and 1964, but they lost to Benfica and Inter.
After the defeat to the Italians came his separation with coach Munoz, and with Bernabeu. Despite this, his legacy survived until Real’s sixth European Cup arrived in 1966.
“He gave Madrid the winning gene that is still around to this day,” said Amancio Amaro of the iconic forward.
The Renaissance in the Champions League is a European football moment being lead by Real Madrid, who have again peaked in these early stages of the 21st century. It is characterised by a renewed interest in the competition that made the club great in its first golden age.
Cristiano Ronaldo embodies the ideal Renaissance man. Under his leadership, Madrid have managed to create a new hegemony in the continental competition.
Obviously, it is not as overwhelming as the first led by Di Stefano, but it is a different authority that is difficult to master in a format that changed from those early years.
As the talisman before him, Ronaldo has played in nine editions of the continental tournament with Madrid. This includes three titles, five semi-finals and a last-16 exit in his first season with the club. It has been a spectacular and incomparable trajectory that began at the club with the European competition’s inception.
Madrid have won three Champions Leagues in the last four seasons and have not failed to reach at least the semi-finals since 2011.
After the victory in Munich against Bayern, the team is one step away from reaching the final for a third consecutive year, a feat never seen in the modern format and amounting to the icing on the cake of a new golden age for Madrid in the European Cup.
And all this, as with Di Stefano, is led by Ronaldo, who is the great architect of the current continental success of Los Blancos.
His goals, season after season, have built a glorious new era for Real in Europe, whose next stop could be Kiev. It is the white Renaissance.