La Decima. It was one of the first phrases Gareth Bale had to learn when he arrived in the Spanish capital. Sami Khedira has spoken of how that tenth European crown is "everything" to Real Madrid. By the time the 2014 final comes around next May, it will have been a dozen years since the club lifted the title for the ninth time. But the visit of Juventus on Wednesday is a reminder that waits do come longer. Real had to wait 32 years before beating the Bianconeri in the 1998 Champions League final.
For the team's captain that day, Manuel Sanchis, the victory was the culmination of an entire career of trying to win the tournament that has come to define the club. "The final was possibly the most important game in Real Madrid's history," said Sanchis. "That's not to say the other eight weren't but the club had been waiting for 32 years. In all that time the hunger had been growing among the fans, the players and the club, and you can imagine the desire we had when the day came. There was tremendous pressure. It was enormous."
Not many players know more about winning the European Cup than Clarence Seedorf, a team-mate of Sanchis in 1998. The Dutch midfielder lifted Old Big Ears with Ajax as a teenager and twice with AC Milan. But even he acknowledges that there was something a little different about the second of his four wins. "It was different winning the trophy with Real because it was almost a duty to win the competition," said Seedorf. "The club had been built with that purpose in mind."
Despite the expectation that constantly surrounds Real, the landscape was rather different back then. Juventus will travel to Madrid as underdogs this week, but that was not the case 15 years ago. In the mid-to-late 1990s, Juventus were regarded as the best team in Europe. They travelled to Amsterdam as not only the Serie A champions for the past two seasons but also the 1996 Champions League winners and 1997 runners-up. Future Galactico Zinedine Zidane wore a Juventus shirt that night.
Real, on the other hand, were at a relatively low ebb. Having been eliminated from the Copa del Rey by third-tier opposition, the team had only been able to finish fourth in La Liga. As such they needed to beat Juventus in the Champions League final just to qualify for the following season's competition. The mood amongst the players was not great. "We were all a bit worried, I have to say, because in the league that year we hadn't really played well," admits Predrag Mijatovic, the former Yugoslavia international who had signed from Valencia two years previously.
"So we travelled to Amsterdam and everybody was thinking Juventus would win 3-0 or 3-1 - all the predictions by pundits and former players said Juventus were clear favourites and would certainly win. But we heard all those comments and we said to ourselves: 'Boys, we are here and we don't know if any of us will get to a final again, so let's go out there and play a great match - we have to do everything possible to win.' And we did it."
More specifically, Mijatovic did it. The experienced forward pounced to score the only goal of the game midway through the first half. Roberto Carlos had attempted a typically ambitious cross-shot from a wide angle but his miscued effort deflected off Juve defender Mark Iuliano into Mijatovic's path. The first touch was instant. The second took his away from the sprawling goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi. And the third found the roof of the net. Suggestions of offside were waved away.
Mijatovic doubtless felt justice was done given that he'd had a convincing penalty shout ignored earlier in the game. But the majority of the chances came at the other end. Juventus went close twice in the opening minutes, while Zidane blazed wide when well placed soon after. After the break, Iuliano fired over from a Zidane free-kick and Edgar Davids should have scored only to find the arms of Bodo Illgner with 15 minutes remaining.
It was a determined defensive performance from Real. Italy international Alessandro Del Piero was coming off the back of his best goalscoring season, having netted 32 goals in all competition and formed a famous partnership with Filippo Inzaghi. But Fernando Hierro, who was later embarrassed by Del Piero in a semi-final between the teams five years later, produced one of the great games of his career by marking Juve's star man out of the game.
Hierro's centre-back partner feels the credit must go to Jupp Heynckes, the Real Madrid coach who had come in for such criticism that season. "He was the person who made all the tactical decisions," added Sanchis. "He also had to make sure the squad was mentally prepared. It was a complicated year. But he succeeded in getting us into a mental state, whereby we forgot about our league woes and gave our best in Europe."
It didn't save Heynckes from the sack. The German was understandably prickly in his post-match press conference when asked about his future but the speculation was not without substance. "I can't allow that one match and one goal to change the future of Real Madrid," explained club president Lorenzo Sanz in seeking to justify his decision. "If we hadn't won that title, this would have been one of the worst seasons in our history, not even qualifying for the Champions League. Heynckes had a lot of pressure from outside and he couldn't handle it."
Heynckes saw things rather differently, citing the extraordinary circumstances under which a coach has to work at the Bernabeu. "If I had told the president during pre-season that we would win the Champions League, he would have extended my contract for five years," he argued. "I have not been backed by the board. In the last four months I have worked under conditions that any other coach would have been unable to cope with. I was able to overcome it thanks to my experience."
Heynckes did overcome it. While Real were playing second fiddle to Barcelona in La Liga, he was the Bayern Munich coach masterminding a 7-0 aggregate demolition of the acclaimed Catalan outfit in the spring. Bayern went on to win the treble last season... And Heynckes was promptly replaced once again.
As for Sanz, he was partially vindicated as Real won the trophy again in 2000 but within weeks he found himself usurped by Florentino Perez. The new president had promised the signing of Luis Figo and followed it up with the acquisition of Zidane - from Juventus - the next summer. While Zidane helped Real win their ninth European title in 2002, the Galactico project failed to deliver the anticipated success on the field. And the wait for La Decima continues.