Of all the great Real Madrid moments, what is the biggest?
Muscling out Barcelona to sign Alfredo di Stefano? The 7-3 destruction of Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup final? The day they won the Spanish title in 1968, their seventh in eight years? Or the side that one five straight in the late 1980s? La Decima, perhaps?
According to Manolo Sanchis, club captain for 13 years, the answer is none of them.
"The 1998 Champions League final was possibly the most important game in Real Madrid's history," Sanchis said a few years ago. "That's not to say the others 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."
In their 115-year history, there probably haven't been too many times when Real have been the overwhelming underdogs. Particularly in the European Cup, the trophy that some Madridistas regard as their own, and on the occasions when it doesn't sit in the Bernabeu it's merely on temporary loan, like a painting borrowed by a gallery from a philanthropic owner.
"It was different with Real, because it was almost a duty to win the competition," said Clarence Seedorf, who lifted the trophy three other times with Ajax and AC Milan and remains the only player to win it with three different clubs. "The club had been built with that purpose in mind."
But by the time they reached the 1998 final in Amsterdam, Real hadn't won Europe's biggest prize since 1966, an almost unthinkable barren spell for the club that dominated the early years of the competition. They faced a Juventus side that had just won their third Serie A title in four years, and were appearing in their third straight final. Their side was stuffed with the best Italian and European football had; Alessandro Del Piero and Filippo Inzaghi up front, Zinedine Zidane just behind them and Edgar Davids partnering Didier Deschamps in midfield.
Real were in something of a mess. Manager Jupp Heynckes (who would be unceremoniously sacked shortly after the final) wasn't the first and won't be the last Real boss to encounter problems with the dressing room, but in the words of president Lorenzo Sanz, the players "ate him alive." Despite the combined talents of Raul, Fernando Morientes, Pedrag Mijatovic (Ballon d'Or runner-up and declared "better than Ronaldo" by Sanz) and Fernando Redondo, plus club icons Fernando Hierro and Sanchis, Real finished a distant fourth in the league, 11 points behind Barcelona, and had been knocked out of the Copa del Rey by second division Alaves.
Thus, Juventus were clear favourites and the game started off that way. The Italians dominated the early stages, going close through Davids, Deschamps and a Zidane effort that whistled just wide of the near post, after which the now-Real manager howled in frustration. Zidane was a menace, tricking and probing and playing those passes from angles that wouldn't even occur to anyone below genius level, but that he pulled off with ease.
Still, it was Real who arguably missed the best chance of the first half as Mijatovic slid a slide-rule cross to the near-post where Raul, only half-marked 6 yards out, scuffed wide. He sank to his knees, almost as if he thought that miss would mean another 32 years without the biggest prize.
The opening stages of the second half followed a similar theme: Mark Iuliano stabbed a shot over a semi-open goal, Real keeper Bodo Illgner tipped over an Inzaghi volley. But gradually, Real started to gain a little more control largely because Redondo and Christian Karembeu began to keep a closer eye on Zidane, stifling his effectiveness and cutting off the supply line to the forwards.
After 67 minutes, the game was decided. The ball broke to Roberto Carlos on the left edge of the area. He put the full force of that hammer left foot through a cross-shot that was half-blocked and fell into Mijatovic's path. The Montenegro international, who hadn't scored in the competition to that point, nudged the ball wide of a scrambling Angelo Peruzzi and with a sense of calm that suggested liquid nitrogen ran through his veins, he clipped it into the net, over Paulo Montero, who was desperately racing back to save his side.
"Those few seconds after scoring," Mijatovic said straight after the game, "were sheer happiness. I have never felt such a feeling in my life."
The moment was particularly poignant for him; at the time, his son Andrea required constant medical care for a condition that caused excessive fluid buildup on his brain. "The goal and the cup are for my son," Mijatovic said. Andrea died in 2009.
"I watched it back and realised what I hadn't properly appreciated at the time," Mijatovic said years later, in Sid Lowe's book "Fear And Loathing In La Liga."
"Montero was coming across and I had to lift it to make sure that he didn't stop it. That kind of decision happens so fast that you're not even really aware that you're taking it in, computing the possibilities. But when I watched it again, I realised that the gap the ball went into was tiny."
Mijatovic ran over to celebrate with Fernando Sanz, the defender on the bench who'd had a dream the previous night that the forward, who had a calf injury and probably shouldn't have played, would score.
"It was a beautiful, unique thing personally for me to score the goal to win the European Cup," Mijatovic said recently. "Imagine how happy I was then [and] that I am still happy about it now. That goal was the most beautiful and important I scored as a professional player. They are moments that I can't explain with words."
Juventus spent the remaining 20 or so minutes chipping away, desperately trying to find their way back into the game, but to no avail.
"It must have felt like an eternity for people commentating or watching the game," Sanchis said, "but for me, it ended in a heartbeat. After we scored, the time flew by. There was a look among all of us that was very conspiratorial. It said 'this match is over.'"
At one stage the referee tried to send Seedorf off for a second yellow card, flourishing a red, but was persuaded by the Dutch midfielder to check his notebook, which revealed it was his first booking instead.
Real held out and the prevailing emotion at the final whistle was relief as much as anything. Perhaps as an indication of the pregame confidence levels of both teams, Juventus had brought plenty of celebratory champagne with them, but Real hadn't. "They were very generous and gave us a couple of bottles to celebrate," Mijatovic said.
For Sanchis, the win was particularly special. Quite apart from being captain and part of the Real furniture, having made his debut in 1983, his father had been in the last Real side to win the trophy, 32 years earlier.
"Heynckes put the clock back to zero," Sanchis said.
From there, Real would win the trophy twice more in 2000 and 2002 as the first "galactico" era bore fruit. But it might not have happened without that night in Amsterdam.