If you were lucky enough to spend your teenage years in Madrid during the 1980s, you could have done much worse than rooting for Real Madrid.
The stadium was bigger than any other in the city (it still is); tickets were available and cheaper than their neighbours' (not so anymore); and the fans were in full voice every Sunday (nowadays they only show up en masse for big matches.) So all that meant that, in a golden era for the club, you didn't need much money or connections to spend a fun weekend afternoon watching Real Madrid play at home.
However, the most obvious advantage of supporting the Merengues came in the shape of silverware. The club had won more titles, domestic or international, than any other Spanish competitor and that gave the fans the final word in any argument -- face to face then, of course, not online -- about whose team was bigger when faced with Atleticos or Barcelonistas.
The main point in the argument would be that, not only were both lagging behind Real Madrid's impressive La Liga record, but neither had ever won THE cup: the one and only European Cup -- known since 1992 as the UEFA Champions League and the favourite competition for all Madrid fans.
Real's nine-trophy history in the European Cup is simply unrivalled; only AC Milan come close with seven; Bayern next in line with five. The domination of the tournament in its early stages saw titles claimed for five years straight between 1956 and 1960, then another in 1966. In the 80s that gave rise to a decent comeback from rival fans, namely: "You won your six Cups in black and white!"
While Real Madrid's European success had happened in an era with no colour TV, Spanish clubs saw few reasons to celebrate on the continental stage. Atletico reached the final in 1974 but were hammered by 'FC Hollywood' Bayern Munich 4-0, while Real were denied in the 1981 final by a late goal from Liverpool's Alan Kennedy. Not even with the amazing Quinta del Buitre [a nickname derived from a five-strong group of homegrown players: Emilio Butragueno, whose nickname was El Buitre; Manolo Sanchis, Martin Vazquez, Michel and Miguel Pardeza] which dominated Spain for five consecutive years between 1985 and 1990, could the Madridistas win in Europe.
In fact, the drought from 1966 onwards became all the more apparent as the pressure increased when Barcelona won their first Champions League trophy in 1992 [also the first Spanish victory in full colour.] But La Septima arrived -- 32 years after the fifth -- as the rebuilding process in the late 90s saw the likes of Roberto Carlos, Predrag Mijatovic brought in to complement a squad already consisting of Raul and Fernando Hierro. Indeed, it was the Yugoslavian Mijatovic who offside goal sealed a 1-0 win in 1998 against Juventus to bring the trophy home again.
The spell had been broken and the Merengues won the title again in 2000 -- with Raul playing a starring role in a 3-0 win over Valencia in Paris -- before the club's desire to usher in a new era of dominance saw the Galacticos of Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo arrive to seal the ninth in 2002: memories of that marvellous volley from Zidane defeating Bayer Leverkusen 2-1 in Hampden Park never to be forgotten.
Those three wins in five years took Real Madrid's tally to within one of La Decima. With the Galactico era in full steam and players like David Beckham and Fabio Cannavaro arriving through the Bernabeu gates, it looked as if the next would come with ease, but since Zidane's moment of magic, there have been no more European trophies.
During the past 12 years, Real Madrid cemented their status as the world's richest club and managed to spend an astonishing 1.19 billion euros in players, but only got in return moderate domestic success, a couple of unexpected exits off Europe -- AC Monaco in 2004 for instance -- and a more recent sequence of Champions League semifinal eliminations under Jose Mourinho.
Indeed, the ghost of La Decima has grown with each passing season, as top-level players, sporting directors and the best coaches arrived at the Bernabeu and left empty-handed in Champions League terms. Rivals Barcelona, of course, added insult to injury with three more titles for their trophy cabinet as they built one of the greatest teams to have ever graced the game.
But, 12 years after their last final appearance, Real Madrid are back. For all their wealth and expensive array of players such as Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, manager Carlo Ancelotti has had to tinker with his starting line-ups and formations constantly during the season to try and find the elusive balance: from 4-2-3-1, to 4-3-3, to 4-4-2, the Italian has built a competitive team, even though their performances (especially as the domestic season wore to a close) may not be as consistent as he would have wished.
Having beaten a triple German threat of Schalke, Dortmund and Bayern in the knockouts to get there, the 2014 Lisbon final against Atletico Madrid spells a new challenge for Carlo and his players. Real Madrid's lynchpin, defensive midfielder Xabi Alonso, is suspended, which means that the balance between attack and defence will suffer; the alternatives -- Sami Khedira or Asier Illarramendi -- appear not to be in either physical or mental shape. Real Madrid have injury doubts over centre-back Pepe and centre forward Karim Benzema, while Champions League top-scorer Cristiano Ronaldo and flying winger Bale have been rested to recover from a groin problem recently and won't be at 100 percent.
However, on this occasion, Real Madrid's biggest challenge comes from the opposition. In order to win La Decima, the side have to defeat neighbours Atletico Madrid who, under Argentinean manager Diego Simeone, have overcome their traditional lack of belief in themselves to become an astoundingly confident squad -- as they showed by claiming the La Liga title with a 1-1 draw at the Camp Nou with their best two offensive players, Arda Turan and Diego Costa, injured.
Having also won the Copa del Rey in 2013, the Rojiblancos have recovered their taste for silverware in recent years, but since Simeone took over in December 2011, both players and their supporters have developed an unprecedented swagger. They carry themselves as if, no matter what the circumstances are, they know they can win. And for any final, that type of attitude is key.
The thus far Champions League-less Atletico appear hungrier and more motivated than Real, at least on paper. That is slightly odd though, given what's at stake at the Bernabeu. In the chase for La Decima, only goalkeeper Iker Casillas remains from the squad that won the 2002 title, so there should be plenty of desire around, and the pressure on the side is immense given President Florentino Perez's investment. Perez desperately needs the Champions League trophy to validate his approach as, out of the world's top five richest clubs, Real Madrid are the only ones who have not lifted the trophy in the last 10 years.
La Decima has become about more than just an unprecedented 10th European trophy for Real, but only Ronaldo and his teammates can show how important it is to the club with their performances on Saturday night.