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Levels of Losing: The Bernabeu Game

Ranking how brutal, this Champions League elimination is, with a hat-tip to Bill Simmons.

Real Madrid v Juventus - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Back in 2002 one of my favorite sports writers, Bill Simmons, wrote an article called “The 13 Levels of Losing. That piece is one of my favorites, mostly because it is one of the first pieces of his I read. But also, because I had never seen a writer explain, in words, the general feeling of what a truly devastating loss feels like.

I have revisited that article every time a team of mine suffers a bad loss, to see if I could fit the loss into one of the “Levels of Losing” and I generally can.

(There’s a bunch of levels that I will not talk about here, so if you want to check out the full piece, here it is. It’s worth a few minutes)

When my Denver Broncos got blown out, 43-8, in Super Bowl XLVIII, that was a classic “Level VI: Full Fledged Butt Kicking.” Which he describes as:

“Sometimes you can tell right away when it isn’t your team’s day ... and that’s the worst part, not just the epiphany but everything that follows -- every botched play, every turnover, every instance where someone on your team quits, every “deer in the headlights” look, every time an announcer says, “They can’t get anything going,” every shot of the opponents celebrating, [...] it’s the sports fan’s equivalent to a three-hour torture session”

Or when the Mexico national team got ousted in the Round of 16 in the 2014 World Cup by the Netherlands, on a last-minute dive by Arjen Robben? That was a “Level VII: Monkey Wrench” game:

“Any situation where either A) the manager/coach of your team made an idiotic game decision, or B) a referee/umpire robbed your team of impending victory ... the Monkey Wrench game gains steam as the days and months roll along”

Thankfully, when it comes to Juventus, I have only really had to check the list twice. And I’m guessing you guys already know what those two instances were.

In 2015, Juventus was facing a Barcelona juggernaut in the UEFA Champions League final. Expectations were fairly low, Juve faithful believed that the team was good, but they were universally considered a big underdog.

And, yet...

Juventus were holding tough, tying the game on an Alvaro Morata goal and putting pressure on Barcelona, leading to the fans believing that maybe the miracle could happen.

Of course, they ended up losing the game, 3-1. Making it a “Level XII: The Princeton Principle” loss.

“When a Cinderella team hangs tough against a heavy favorite, but the favorite somehow prevails in the end [...] this one stings because you had low expectations, but those gritty underdogs raised your hopes”

That leads us to the other recent UCL final loss, the 4-1 loss against Real Madrid last year. This time, Juventus were not underdogs, in fact a lot of people had them as the favorites. Despite a bicycle kick goal by Mario Manduzikic, and going into halftime tied 1-1, Juventus got railroaded in the second half and ended up with a Level IV: Broken Axle game.

“When the wheels come flying off in a big game, leading to a complete collapse down the stretch [...] you know when it’s happening because A) the […] crowd pushes their team to another level, and B) the team that’s collapsing becomes afflicted with Deer-In-The-Headlitis […]”

The point being, all those losses hurt. I still have trouble looking at highlights from that Broncos season, I will forever hate Arjen Robben with a passion and both Berlin and Cardiff are banned from my “Places I want to visit” list.

And yet, I don’t remember the last time, that looking at the list, a loss was so devastating that I couldn’t place it in just one level.

To set the stage, Juventus walked into Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday without much of a chance. After getting beat 3-0 at home a comeback, against the defending UCL champs, was wishful thinking at best. ESPN Power Index predictor gave them a 2 percent chance to advance. And that felt right.

And suddenly, there they were, Mario Mandzukic scored in the second minute to get them going. And a little hope started to rise for Juventini everywhere, they were hanging tough, playing with all the heart and grinta you could expect from them.

Real Madrid had their chances but couldn’t break through when the much-maligned Stephan Lichsteiner placed an absolutely perfect cross to Mandzukic who scored again, all in the first half.

This could happen.

Second half, Real Madrid brought in a couple of youngsters in Lucas Vasquez and Marco Asensio to have more attacking options. But the resilient Juve defense still held tough, fighting every single Madrid attack. In the 60th minute, Keylor Navas, who had played a great tie up until that point bobbled a ball and Blaise Matuidi was at the right place and the right time to pounce.

The impossible had happened.

They tease, they wink, they beckon.

But you knew, there was a catch, this could possibly not happen. Real Madrid does not get blanked at home. This was too good, you could feel a “Level III: Guillotine” loss.

“ […] your team’s hanging tough (hell, they might even be winning), but you can feel the inevitable breakdown coming, and you keep waiting for the guillotine to drop, and you just know it’s coming -- you know it -- and when it finally comes, you’re angry that it happened and you’re angry at yourself for contributing to the debilitating karma […]”

So, of course.

Of course, Real Madrid get a penalty on the last minute, this was absolutely going to happen. Sure, Gianluigi Buffon gets red carded for protesting said penalty. Naturally, Cristiano Ronaldo, the all-conquering superstar scored it.

Did you ever think this was going to end any differently?

So, let’s recapitulate.

A loss where your team is a massive underdog but scrapes and claws to make it a game? Check.

A loss where even though you were ahead, you kept having that nagging feeling that it was all going to break down at the end? Check.

A loss where a questionable referee call at the very last minute ends the game? Check.

Add to that, the fact that the lifelong captain of the team gets red carded in the last minute, in quite possibly his last game in European competition ever and your ultimate nemesis scoring the goal to kill your season.

The memory is still fresh, so it’s hard to put it into perspective, but I think this may be the worst loss I have personally suffered as a Juventus fan.

Sorry, Bill, but since there is not just one level I can put this loss in, I’m going to have to come up with a whole new level.

Level XIV: The Bernabeu game.