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What the UCL means to Real Madrid

What the UCL means to Real Madrid
From ESPN - September 13, 2017

Growing up at Liverpool, Steve McManaman knew what it was to have success expected. The Anfield club had won 18 English league titles and four European Cups, after all. But when the midfielder moved to Real Madrid in 1999 -- seven-time winners at the time -- things went up a notch.

"The expectation of winning the European Cup was almost as if it was a done deal every year," McManaman tells ESPN FC. "You'd walk around the stadium and there'd be pictures of [Alfredo] Di Stefano, Gento, that great team in the white who won it five years on the trot and it was almost in your face all the time that this is what we did in the past and this is what we need to do in the future and the fact that I joined them in '99 and they'd won it in '98; again, it was sort of 'right, we have won it for the first time in a while, we need to win it again.'"

And it was not just framed photos on the wall; the players were reminded of the club's history in other ways.

"We all got given a booklet -- the 'libro' of Madrid -- with the values of how Real Madrid should be," says McManaman. "If we lose we shake hands, we do not berate the referee, that sort of thing. And in each package there was a white Di Stefano shirt."

McManaman joined a team managed by Vicente del Bosque, who played for Los Blancos in their 1981 European Cup final loss to Liverpool, and walked into a dressing room full of players, who had won the competition the previous year. History was all around.

"They all knew what it meant and how important it was," says McManaman. "If anything, winning the league was secondary; it was winning the Champions League and showing how powerful Real Madrid was in the history of all football."

The 1999-2000 season saw Madrid finish a lowly fifth in La Liga and go out of the Copa del Rey and FIFA Club World Championship at the semifinal stage. But they found form in the Champions League, knocking out 1999 winners Manchester United and finalists Bayern Munich en route to a Paris showdown with Valencia.

"You join the likes of Madrid to play in these big games and to play against the best teams in the world and test yourself in the best competitions so there was never any pressure," says McManaman. "The pressure was always reaching that stage; once you got there it was just about finishing the job off. When people asked me last year who I thought would win out of Madrid and Juventus I said that I thought Madrid would win it because they know how to win the trophy in the end; they have got that experience to get over the finishing line and that counts for so much. And we felt that at the time."

Madrid beat Valencia 3-0, with McManaman scoring the second goal in an impressive individual display that capped his first season at the club.

"People were saying I was man of the match so they'd go ballistic about you in the papers," he says. "You scored in the first year you'd been there, you win this coveted trophy and you go back to millions of fans on the streets so you sort of feel justified in most things you have done."

Madrid lifted the trophy again two years later by beating Bayer Leverkusen at Hampden Park. Meanwhile, either side of their Champions League triumphs, they claimed Liga titles but fell at the semifinal stage in Europe; McManaman admits the feeling of domestic success was a little different.

"(In 2003) we got knocked out in the semifinals to Juventus but we should have beaten them and won the Champions League," he says. "We had loads of injuries and missed a penalty. We won the league quite comfortably but it was not the same; the Champions League was seen as more important at the time, even though the league is right across the whole season. We sort of expected to win the league every year."

Little did anyone know at the time that the 2002-03 season, McManaman's last in Spain, was the first of 12 years without a European Cup for the competition's most successful club. As it went on, he says, the barren run had a negative impact upon the ways things were done at the club.

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