Isco, Benzema inspire Real Madrid into the UCL final with street football nous
MADRID -- Albeit that this Madrid derby was in the most lucrative and aristocratic tournament in the history of the club game, the 2016-17 Champions League semifinal second leg was neverthless a triumph for "street footballers" and their values.
Football at its richest, won by football at its most basic. A red-carpet night, decided by skills honed on black tarmac -- and all the more healthy for that.
And something I'm thrilled to report to you. Not because of any preference for Madrid over Atletico, but because of a love for the kind of mentality, attitude, decisions and skills that saw the reigning European champions through to a June 3 date vs. Juventus in Cardiff, in the face of what, initially, seemed like overwhelming traffic pouring towards Keylor Navas' goal.
An alien, who just arrived on our planet, could tell you that Isco was, by light years, the best player on the pitch. Far more than his goal, it was his ebullient love of the ball that turned this match back in Madrid's favour and ensured that the tie was won.
Atletico, for all that their flame burned brilliant bright in the first quarter of an hour, didn't have a remedy. Often, they resorted to fouling him, barging him, kicking him. But, to the great delight of purists everywhere, Isco would jink away, then twist and turn and tie his pursuers in a variety of reef, hitch, shank and double-loop knots.
This was Isco's greatest Madrid match -- among an increasingly long list -- and came just when, at 2-0 down, his club needed it most.
With 16 minutes gone, you might have believed that anything was feasible. Atleti were reminiscent of that day, just over two years ago, when the score between these teams was a four-goal win in the red-and-white favour.
Two goals down, Madrid were shaken. Atleti had scored with yet another header against them, Raphael Varane had committed an error and the pace of the game seemed beyond Zinedine Zidane's side; just one more good shot to the ribs or the jaw and we might have seen a giant begin to stagger. Even topple.
What happened next, though, was that Isco -- not alone, but the lead soloist -- began to dance to some internal music only he could hear. You'd be a liar if you claimed that he did anything less than repeatedly spring up in about five different positions: Left, central and right midfield, second striker and, crucially when a goal needed to be scored, centre-forward.
But back to the truth about red carpets and black tarmac. At the heart of football's soul is the kid with the ball, who wants dribble past every opponent, who makes the entry fee worthwhile and who commands that you fall in love with the sport.
Zidane is -- not was -- a street footballer; you never lose that mentality. He's said that everything he is now is owed to that upbringing: Learn to be first, to be tough, to own the ball, to avoid skinning your knees. And don't let anyone bully you. Fight in a metaphorical sense, literally if it's absolutely required.
When Zidane played for Juventus, he was a vastly expensive resource for the Turin club, yet his manager Marcello Lippi had to ban his superstar from joining in games with local kids. Teammate Edgar Davids, another brilliantly-skilled street footballer, would persuade Zidane to join in -- something that was expressly forbidden by both their contracts -- with the words "You've changed!" if the Frenchman showed any hesitation about joining an informal neighbourhood kickabout.
What Zidane believes -- what made him great -- is in front-foot, playground football: "We'll be better than you, we'll attack more, we'll have more quality on the ball, we'll score more than you." He learned on the mean streets of northern Marseille and it conditions his thinking to this day.
It explains Isco's selection on Wednesday, when there were copious other options, and also why Zidane was instrumental in the player's signing in 2013. President Florentino Perez said publicly that his reticence to do the deal was based on the fact that Isco would never get in the Madrid team, only for the club's then-principal football advisor to persuade him otherwise.
"All I want when I play is to be on the ball," said Isco just before he joined Los Blancos. "As a kid in my neighborhood of Las Flores the locals knew me as 'the kid who always has a ball at his feet.' I learned everything I know playing street football. The local square, playing against the big lads, getting kicked, learning how to trick them and to keep possession; that was my school."
Transport all those values forward 20 years to the Estadio Vicente Calderon and you get our man of the match. The more he got on the ball, the more Atleti's threat dampened; when Isco took possession, the temperature went down. As he dribbled past two or three, the rest of his team breathed out that sigh of: "We're not on the back foot anymore."
Lately there are those who have argued that, because you can win without dominating possession, either a) you should abandon the idea of controlling the ball throughout the game, or b) having too much of it is actually a bad thing.
(I know, they should be outlawed from football and made to play Pétanque or reenact medieval battles.)
So to see Madrid wrest control of Wednesday's game back into their own hands by dominating possession 62-38 at half-time -- in enemy territory, no less -- was uplifting. But Zidane's street-footballing mentality and Isco's "I learned on concrete" skills weren't alone.
Karim Benzema always idolized Ronaldo. No, not that one, though they get on brilliantly.
It was the Brazilian Ronaldo upon whom this elegant, clever, technically exquisite footballer modelled himself. Ronaldo learned to play on rock-hard, sun-cemented earth; bumps, bangs and all. To him, without money to pay for his bus fare to go and train with Flamengo, playing on concrete or tarmac would have been a luxury.
Now Benzema most certainly is not Ronaldo's equal, but what he copied from his idol most certainly makes his games worth watching.
The goal that ended this tie, that put Madrid in with a chance of their first Liga and European Cup double since 1958, that maintains their chance of being the only club to retain the Champions League title; well, it was just sublime.
Benzema dragged of a gaggle of Atleti players with him as he turned and ran. The Fred Astaire-feet, which seemed to bend space and time by looping the ball past Stefan Savic without going over the white painted line for a goal kick? Genius.
What Benzema produced was straight out of street football, the way that you slip and skip between parked cars, the kerb of the pavement, a big lump of an opponent, a lamp post.
And who was sharp? Who was the only player, who believed Benzema would or could produce a magic trick?
Isco, of course: One man with sleight of foot, recognizing another. And so the midfielder, who stepped upon every single blade of grass in the same way he used to dance across cobblestones, was the only player to make a run toward the six-yard box. When Toni Kroos' shot was parried by goalkeeper Jan Oblak, there was the man of the moment.
As for the home side, when the bulldozers and diggers and cranes and drills move in to smash the Calderon to the ground, you won't be able to hear a decibel of the industrial noise over the primeval roar of "Atleti, Atleti, Atletico de Madrid" that will still echo around that hallowed football site.
It will never go away. Nor, I hope, will those who play like Isco and Benzema or who think like Zidane.
The street rules.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.