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“Stand out of my light.” So goes the punchline in Plutarch’s retelling of the one and only meeting between Alexander the Great and Diogenes of Sinope, the Cynic philosopher, the latter of whom had only the preceding request for the Macedonian king. To take the tale at face value, there couldn’t have been too many duos less alike in ancient Greece around 336 BCE. As powerful as almost any human being ever, Alexander is infamous for having wept at the notion that he had no worlds left to conquer. Diogenes sought out poverty, thriving in destitution and sleeping in a ceramic jar.

As cavernous as the gap between Diogenes and Alexander was, so, too, is that between the teams meeting in Saturday’s UEFA Champions League Final. With a cursory glance, one may suspect that the teams share few similarities. Part of that, of course, comes with comparing any team to Real Madrid in the European Cup; having won ten of them, more than any other club, gives you an air of esteem and pomp without parallel. Their opponents in this case, however, are achingly familiar with flying close to the sun as their wings start to melt. Like Alexander after meeting Diogenes, Real may leave San Siro stunningly impressed with the exploits of Atlético Madrid.

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Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may, old Time is still a-flying: And this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.

Robert Harrick, “To The Virgins, To Make Much of Time”

For the better part of the last five years, at least since Euro 2008 signaled the dawn of a Spanish renaissance in the sport, the Spanish men’s national football team has ridden a possession-heavy, triangular passing-based game to great success and historic heights, and not only by Spanish standards. The style they have made their own, affectionately dubbed tiki-taka for its quick passing, had its roots in the Ajax/Netherlands “total football” system of the 1970s. When the greatest Dutch player ever, Johann Cruyff, became FC Barcelona’s manager in 1988, he brought the total football mentality with him and placed the greatest burden in the field on his most talented midfielder, Josep Guardiola. Guardiola ascended to the throne at Barcelona in June 2008 and left it four years later having put together perhaps the greatest list of accomplishments in any four-year span in the history of club soccer.

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