It all came down to a man on the post, or the lack thereof.
With 92 minutes gone in Lisbon, Atletico Madrid had defended with characteristic diligence, proving formidably unyielding—as they have done almost all season—as Real Madrid desperately searched for an equaliser to cancel out Diego Godin’s headed opener.
Then, at almost the last possible moment, it arrived. In the 93rd minute, Sergio Ramos again rose highest to meet Luka Modric’s corner, sending it low to Atletico goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois’ right and into the net.
If there had been a man on the post, right now it would be Atletico’s players and staff being vaunted for perhaps the most remarkable season of the modern era.
As it is, their hopes effectively died with Ramos’ intervention; their defence, breached and unable to repair the damage, conceding three further times in extra time as their archrivals romped to glory once more.
Here’s Sergio Ramos’ late equalizer to send the Champions League final into extra time: https://t.co/g7JAeOY6eD— SB Nation (@SBNation) May 24, 2014
On the face of it, Saturday was not a day for the football purist.
Hours after, QPR—a collection of experienced, underachieving mercenaries combining to run up a wage bill larger than Atletico’s—defeated the youthful, ambitious and adventurous Derby County in brutal, last-minute fashion in the richest game in football, earning a £125 million promotion to the Premier League without which the club would perhaps have struggled to survive.
Then, at the Estadio da Luz hours later, a side that has spent over a billion pounds in the 12 years since their last European glory finally clinched the vaunted Decima, at the expense of the club that has almost always lived in their shadows—a team that was forged rather than bought, nurtured rather than compiled.
Even manager Diego Simeone’s meltdown just before the final whistle, the Argentine invading the pitch to confront Raphael Varane after the young defender had kicked the ball toward the Atleti dugout in celebration, should not detract from the club’s achievements this season.
"The supporters should be proud of an excellent season; they shouldn't waste a single second being sad," Simeone told reporters afterward. "Once you've given your all, you can't go around licking your wounds."
To win the Spanish title, considering the duopoly enjoyed by Real and Barcelona, was remarkable and will rightly be remembered and revered for many years to come. Simeone was integral to that, the fire and passion so misdirected in the final moments of the final nevertheless giving us insight into the personality traits that have helped produce such an impressive team.
Yet, in the end, it was all not quite enough for a first XI that cost half as much in its entirety as the scorer of Real’s crucial second goal, Gareth Bale.
That isn't to say Real's victory was not warranted, or somehow cheapened by the manner in which it was achieved. After all, Atletico's team might not have cost much, but perhaps only time will tell exactly how much creative financing and third-party involvement was needed to keep the squad together this long.
"For sure, in part [this season’s success was] due to our support," as Nelio Lucas, chief executive of the sports arm of investment group Doyen, told The Times' Matt Dickinson (subscription required) only this week. "Because Atletico was able to keep the best players through alternative financing by us."
Koke, Diego Costa and Filipe Luis may all leave this summer, along with several others. The club have vast debts that must be paid at some point, even if they were accrued, to some extent, by the desperate desire to match up to their rivals from Chamartin.
"Now we'll do the same thing we always do," Simeone acknowledged. "On Monday we'll start preparing for next season, see who's coming in and who's leaving and see the options for new players.
"Once we've done the work with the club's sporting management, we'll have a break with our families, watch the World Cup and then excitedly begin again."
Real exist in the same city but a different atmosphere, where they can finance the most extravagant of purchases themselves but have to cope with the stratospheric pressure that comes with it.
After winning the first five editions of the European Cup from 1956-60, success has always been expected at the Santiago Bernabeu. That it took 12 years between the ninth and 10th continental crowns was a source of embarrassment in the boardroom. Many of the Galacticos bought—David Beckham, Ronaldo, Kaka—came and went without delivering a crowning glory. If anything, their example proved that you cannot simply "buy" success.
Real went through 11 managers in that period, ditching many despite league titles because they failed to conquer the continent too. Jose Mourinho, Fabio Capello and Vicente del Bosque all failed where Carlo Ancelotti has now succeeded.
"On my first day, when I went to the Santiago Bernabeu trophy room, I said to the president that there was one cup missing and that we should try to get it this season," Ancelotti told reporters on Saturday, after players had gatecrashed the obligation. "We've managed to do that."
With his third Champions League as a manager (five including his two as a player), Ancelotti joins Liverpool great Bob Paisley as the most successful manager in the competition’s history.
The Italian continues to have his critics as a tactician—indeed, for much of Saturday’s game, he was out-thought by Simeone—but he clearly has a special talent for uniting a group of players more likely to be divided by ego, by money, by fame.
Just as he did at Chelsea, where he came into a fractured dressing room in 2009-10 and shepherded them toward one of the most emphatic campaigns in Premier League history, Ancelotti has delivered the Champions League to his president, Florentino Perez, by easing the tensions in a dressing room that was left divided by the dictatorial reign of Jose Mourinho.
"I've felt a lot of trust in me from the whole of the club, and we've had the composure to win games," the man who won the competition with AC Milan in 2003 and 2007 added. "All finals are very difficult and this was the same.
"The whole season was very tricky, but it's been very good. It's our first year, we've tried to change our style and the group of players have been fantastic: always professional, always very willing."
Ancelotti, 54, may remain in Mourinho's shadow as a tactician in many minds (and both of them behind Pep Guardiola), but he now has more European titles to his credit.
He has delivered success wherever he has been, winning league titles in Italy, France and England. He failed in that regard in Spain this term, but victory in Europe forgives that and ensures he will get a second chance next season.
The victory is also significant for Cristiano Ronaldo, who, for all his many goals and individual achievements, can now truly be said to have reached the place in football’s pantheon occupied by Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Raul and Zinedine Zidane.
It takes a special player to play for Real Madrid and an incredible player to command a world-record transfer fee from them. At a club where the bar is so high, it takes more to cement your legacy.
That is why Steve McManaman, who won the Champions League in 2000 and 2002, is more revered around Spain’s capital than David Beckham, who "only" helped the club win a league title in his time.
Ronaldo may have won everything else at Madrid—goalscoring records, the Ballon d’Or—but until Saturday he did not have a European title. Now he will forever be synonymous with La Decima, even if Bale (the man who replaced him as the world’s most expensive player) and Ramos were more important to the actual matter of delivering victory on the night.
This is not Ronaldo’s first European title. In 2008, when Manchester United won on penalties against Chelsea, the Portuguese famously lay face-down on the Moscow turf as the rest of his team-mates rushed to celebrate with Edwin van der Sar after the Dutchman’s decisive save, guaranteeing that many of the cameras would remain fixated solely on him.
Six years on, little had changed, the No. 7 stripped off his shirt and flexing his muscles to celebrate a converted penalty in the last minute of a game that had already been decided.
It seemed an overreaction, perhaps even an unsporting one, but it can be guaranteed that it produced pictures and videos that will dominate social media and newspapers for days to come.
You wouldn’t expect that reaction from Di Stefano, nor Zidane for that matter, but Ronaldo is the modern footballer, one who needs the ball fed to him and his ego just fed.
Some might not like it, but it does not detract from his ability as a footballer.
He was not at his best in Lisbon, hampered by a hamstring injury that has plagued the last few weeks of Real’s season, but he was by far and away the best player over the competition’s course.
From Istanbul, where he scored a breathtaking hat-trick against Galatasaray, to Gelsenkirchen, where he ravaged Schalke, and almost everywhere in between, Ronaldo powered his side to Lisbon, to the site of perhaps his most disappointing career moment—the 2004 European Championships final.
Again, he was not at his best inside the Estadio da Luz, but this time Ramos and Bale eventually bailed him out.
"I came to the club to play in the big competitions and win trophies," Bale said afterward, per the Champions League Twitter account. "Now we want to win more."
"The goal is not for me, it is for the people of Madrid," Ramos added. "We've been waiting for this moment for years."
Others played their parts: Luka Modric tortured his opponents, then Angel di Maria tore them apart.
All those players cost fortunes, but they still had to deliver on the pitch. With all the pressure on their shoulders, that they did so should not be taken for granted.
As a result, Ancelotti and Ronaldo enhanced their already grand status among football’s greatest.
Saturday may not have been a day for footballing romantics, but it is hard to argue that the right individuals won out in the end.
"You have to respect a team that doesn't win but fights all the time," Ancelotti said, signing off. "But I think in the end we deserved to win."