Gary Keown, Sports Writer, Daily Express
Genius presents itself in a multitude of guises, inflicting nightmarish visions from the pits of hell, or raising you so high you can almost touch heaven.
Wednesday, November 22, 1995 was the blessed day in which the city birthplace of some of the darkest representations of the human condition celebrated an exhibition so pure, so flawless, it barely belonged in the mortal realm.
It was the day hours spent hypnotised by the bleak fall-out from one man’s disappearing faith would be given clear perspective by the brilliant sight of another’s unshakeable belief in a collective concept reaching its apex.
That 90-minute rhapsody, played out in the unlikely surroundings of a football stadium, was something beyond mere athletic prowess or entertainment.
It was sure proof and a necessary reminder that, for all our inherent failings, an ambitious dream, immaculate philosophy and firm trust in others can still create something perfect and beautiful enough to melt even the hearts of enemies.
Having just had my own piddling intentions of a passable career interrupted by the abrupt closure of the ‘Today’ newspaper, it seemed only natural to hightail it to Madrid with a considerate chum for a suitable period of self-healing through art, sport and brandy.
Peerless recommendations from a mutual mentor set us straight on the right companions from the gantry and art was hardly difficult to source with the Museo del Prado on the doorstep.
Every visitor will have their own favourites in that vast treasure trove of inspiration, but it is impossible not to be profoundly affected by its crown-jewel collection of Goya’s work, conventional and otherwise.
‘The Disasters Of War’, that well-travelled series of prints reflecting the violence and horror of the Franco-Spanish conflicts of the early 1800s, project the great man’s damning view on the limitless potential our species has for diabolical viciousness on the battlefield and beyond.
But it is the ‘Black Paintings’, originally applied to the walls of a house Goya retreated to on the outskirts of the Spanish capital as his mind became as fragile as his 72-year-old body, that truly steal your breath like a dull thump in the gut.
These spellbindingly threatening depictions of witches, devils, cannibalism, isolation and madness reflect the understandable desolation born of war and Inquisition and the sense of forthcoming battles for the future of a nation rumbling in the air.
Already harbouring private worries over the trajectory of my own jobless existence, this suffocating terror on the canvas left me shaken and in no real mood for the closing act of a sojourn meant to mark some form of optimistic new beginning.
Reigning European champions Ajax of Amsterdam were in town to meet Real Madrid in the group stage of the Champions League, but the anticipation that had accompanied the rigmarole of securing tickets was fading.
It’s not quite that football didn’t seem to matter anymore. More that time spent with Goya requires a lie down in a dark room afterwards rather than a noisy night under the floodlights with 75,000 others.
It says something that the ephemeral masterpiece about to be delivered by a modern Dutch master called Louis van Gaal and his students now burns even brighter in my memory than the sensory overload of the Prado.
What lay ahead was, quite honestly, a bewildering display of performance art and synergy from 11 men bonded together by a system built on noble principles and the most civilised relentlessness.
The avaricious and destructive Bosman ruling was yet to come into being.
It was still possible for the best team on the planet to emerge from a relatively small nation with a core of indigenous talent raised and nurtured through the shared values of its world-renowned academy.
One graduate, a 19-year-old Patrick Kluivert, aided by the flashing speed of Marc Overmars and Finidi George out wide and a youthful Edgar Davids pulling the strings in midfield, went on the rampage against older and wiser professionals and simply broke their resolve with his strength and skill.
Not even two wrongly disallowed goals in the first half were ever going to prevent this slick-moving collection of telepaths, who could easily have played blindfolded, from subjecting a home side featuring the likes of Raul and Michael Laudrup to death by a thousand passes.
Each pass inevitably found its man, each display of audacity brought a meaningful result and self-expression extinguished self-doubt as the ball zipped across the turf within the magnetic hold of an unbreakable forcefield.
Fear, the fear already poisoning the game with its negativity and preoccupation with preventing goals rather than actually scoring them, was an unthinkable notion.
When the gifted Finn Jari Litmanen finally finished off a glorious second half move that circulated around every sector of the park, the faintly grubby business of actually tying up the three points could be forgotten about.
Kluivert swiftly doubled the advantage from another passage of play sparked by the imperturbable captain Danny Blind at the other end of the field and paved the way for post-match scenes surely still discussed on occasion in the streets and bars around the Bernabeu.
From the middle-class families in the pricier seats to the bare-chested sangria-swillers of the Ultras Sur, that footballing cathedral towering over the Chamartin district rose as one in rapturous applause for the victors.
All rivalries set aside. Just heartfelt admiration, respect and thanks, noted and returned by head coach Van Gaal’s virtuosos during a triumphant lap of honour.
It has since been reported that Real’s own youth department went on to use a recording of the masterclass as a source of guidance and instruction for their coming generations.
Followers of Goya attest that he first gave hints of his descent towards darkness in 11 downbeat creations entitled ‘Of Fantasy And Invention’, executed during a period of convalescence in 1793.
Followers of Ajax and Real, however, will always be able to recall the evening they watched 11 upbeat creatives use their own fantasies and invention to take the Beautiful Game to a shimmering new level.
Ajax did much more than open up a helpless defence that night.
They opened up doors and minds. They showed us all exactly what is possible when we move towards the light.