The sentence has all the cliché, these hollow mantras of positive thought that we listen to with an incredulous smile. But you have to know who pronounces it and what it resonates with him. “Real Madrid never stops believing in winning,” said José Emilio Santamaria. At 92, the man awaits with childish excitement the final of the Champions League football between Liverpool and his “Madrid”, Saturday May 28 at the Stade de France, in Saint-Denis.

Uruguayan naturalized Spanish, the former defender adopted Madrid and wrote a piece of his legend with three victories in the European Cup of champion clubs (1958, 1959, 1960). The competition has been called the Champions League since a makeover in the early 1990s, but Real still covet it with that mixture of aristocratic self-assurance and a will to win. “All the players in the Madrid dressing room of my time, like those of today, have won trophies, and when they talk together it’s to talk about victory. Loser talk has no place in this club,” warns Santamaria.

Proud and proud institution, the “Casa blanca” (“white house”) has already forgotten the end of inadmissibility of Kylian Mbappé, who has signed up for three additional seasons with Paris-Saint-Germain. Saturday, it is still her name that will be displayed on the poster, not those of these intriguers perceived as the new rich that are PSG, Chelsea and Manchester City. This season, all have been dismissed along the way by the people of Madrid in circumstances as incredible as they are romantic, thanks to the combination of the clinical genius of striker Karim Benzema and this absolute refusal of defeat.

Which other club could have overthrown Manchester City in the semi-finals (first leg: 3-4, second leg: 3-1), perfect football mechanics, but disordered in less than two minutes, while a few hurried defeatists had left the stands? Madrid’s Santiago-Bernabeu stadium? “If we have to play against history, we have no chance”, warned before the second leg, Pep Guardiola, the manager of the Citizens. Because his career as a player, then as a coach with FC Barcelona was built in opposition to Madrid, Guardiola measures better than anyone the permanence of the hated rival. This way of going into battle regardless of eras and modes: “What I like most is that in difficulty, the players do not hide”, he once admitted.

The spirit of “Juanito”

A football shirt is never more than a piece of cloth weighing a hundred grams, but that of Real weighs more than the others. Everything except a problem, to listen to Carlo Ancelotti. “This story, which has grown over all these years, helps players feel the weight of this shirt. It’s positive, not negative,” assures the coach of the recent Spanish champions. The expectation is great. Players must prove themselves worthy of slipping into the same garment as Di Stefano, Gento, Puskas, Zidane, Raul or Juanito. The last is not the best known on the list for a layman. But for a “Madridista”, this big-tempered attacker (died in 1992, aged 37, in a car accident) still embodies a certain house spirit.

In the 1980s, the remontada was a Madrid specialty not yet revisited by Barça with some success. “Ninety minutes at the Bernabeu is really very long,” Juanito told Inter Milan players, who came overconfident to the Bernabeu after a big first-leg victory in 1985.

Ninety minutes and more if affinity with additional time, it’s a long time against Real. Ask Atlético Madrid instead. In 2014, the neighbor had both hands on the “big ears” Cup before Sergio Ramos equalized in the 93rd minute and three more goals in extra time (4-1). That evening in Lisbon, during this Champions League final, Carlo Ancelotti let an overexcited assistant named Zinédine Zidane call for revolt along the bench. Eight years and three clubs later, the Italian still has the expressive eyebrow and this intelligence specific to very great technicians to read the match and change its destiny by a tactical adjustment or a substitution.

Against PSG, in the round of 16 second leg, on March 9, the entry of Eduardo Camavinga changed the balance of the midfield. More spectacularly, Rodrygo scored the famous double against “City” in less than 120 seconds, shortly after entering the field.

“A very big rival”

For its opponents and their supporters, Real has taken success very far this spring. Thus, the Mancuniens still do not explain this recovery of the head, almost blind, of Rodrygo; the Parisians see again the dumpling of Gianluigi Donnarumma – goalkeeper suddenly angry with his feet -, while the Londoners of Chelsea believe that the best of the Madrilenians was called Szymon Marciniak… the Polish referee on the return (3-2).

José Emilio Santamaria refutes the concept of luck over the long term and also sweeps away this old moon, according to him, of a “Casa blanca” accustomed to happier whistles than for other teams. “I do not believe that referees can voluntarily help a club,” breathes the nonagenarian.

Sure, “Liverpool are a very big rival” in talent and European pedigree, but Santamaria can’t help but travel back in time. He sees the 1960 final against an Eintracht Frankfurt presented as younger, more powerful, against a Real considered declining by the press. “Sometimes we conceded goals. But as long as we also scored, we stayed in the race and we were convinced that after a while, our opponents would end up giving in, he summarizes. This mentality of never giving up has always existed at Real, which is why I identify with the current course of the team. »

On May 18, 1960, in Glasgow, the Germans had cracked in the great widths (7-3) during the most prolific final in the history of the Champions League. A record among others, for a club like no other.