JONATHAN WOODGATE has no doubts about the pecking order in football’s elite hierarchy.
“There’s obviously Manchester United, Liverpool, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus,” he tells SunSport.
“But Real Madrid are at the top. Even bigger than United.”
The 42-year-old would say so after playing for the Spanish giants during an illustrious if injury-plagued career.
But Woody insists there is documented proof his former club are the best of the very best.
He adds: “The fact that if they beat Liverpool they could become European champions for the 14th time says it all.
“There is something unique about this football club. It has an aura.
“They are kings of football and around the world it’s a big event when Real Madrid is in town.
“Remember, when you were a kid and went to grandma and grandpa’s for Sunday dinner, you always dressed smartly. It’s a bit like that at Real.”
And that perhaps explains why Woodgate, then a cornerstone of a high-flying Newcastle side, broke Sir Bobby Robson’s heart 18 years ago by swapping the Toon for Madrid.
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The Geordies were chasing Champions League qualification and – with Alan Shearer slamming in on one side and Shay Given, Woodgate and company stopping them on the other – the prospects for Tyneside were good.
But when Real called there was no dilemma in the player’s mind.
He says: “I remember Sir Bobby telling me they wanted to sign me.
“I can’t forget what happened next. He looked at me and said “I don’t want you to go son”.
“But it was a piece of cake. You don’t reject Real Madrid. I don’t think any footballer in the world would do that.
“So I said, ‘I know you want me to stay, gaffer, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’ As a footballer, he understood.”
Woodgate arrived in the Spanish capital with an injury, the centre-back didn’t play for the next 12 months and when he finally made his debut, he scored an own goal and was sent off.
Despite a brief stint in which he was lauded for his first-class performances alongside Sergio Ramos, fitness issues continued to dog the player and he eventually joined hometown club Middlesbrough on loan before sealing a permanent deal at the Riverside.
Woodgate knows he has played too few games for Real and a chronic injury record has meant his entire senior career has remained largely unfulfilled.
But nothing can take away the magic of having played alongside Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and David Beckham.
He adds: “They felt special playing for this club.
“I know Atletico Madrid are big themselves, but living there you feel like the whole city is behind Real.
“The two sports newspapers devoted the first 15 pages to what was happening and – apart from closed sessions – more than 50 cameras came to training every day.
“Everyone talks about the Galacticos and it’s true that Real had some superstars in that dressing room, but when you met them they were just regular, everyday guys.”
However, what wasn’t normal was the unique pressure to put on this flawless Madrid shirt.
Woodgate adds: “When I was at Leeds I found out that Don Revie had changed the shirt to an all white one to make the team look like Real Madrid.
“But there’s something about the original, isn’t there? The badge, the trim and it seems to have a white all of its own.
“There is probably no more well-known football shirt in the world. But carrying it carries responsibility.
“Winning is everything at this club, in training and of course on match days. Second is nowhere. That was hammered into us from the moment we arrived. There aren’t too many clubs in sport where winning is such an obsession.”
Woodgate watched Real Madrid beat Paris Saint-Germain this season and was also there to watch his former club shatter Manchester City’s dream of a first Champions League crown.
And he believes it was that winning mentality that came out in the final minutes of all those duels.
He says: “There’s no denying City should have been out of sight after the first leg and then in the second they controlled the first 85 minutes.
“But this competition does something for Real Madrid. I’ve been lucky enough to play at the Bernabeu on European nights and it’s really quite an extraordinary experience.
“We saw that in that dramatic final against City. No one but Real could have done what they did that night.”
Which brings us to this year’s final between Real and Liverpool, where Woodgate briefly joined the scouting team after hanging up his boots.
He says: “A meeting of two glorious teams. Both European aristocrats.
“There are wonderful players on every side, but I believe the result depends on one person.
“If Virgil van Dijk is 100 per cent fit then Liverpool win, if he’s not they lose. As simple as that.
“The guy is world class, probably the best central defender in the world. No disrespect to others but his fitness is key.”
https://www.the-sun.com/sport/football/premier-league/5439635/van-dijk-real-madrid-liverpool-woodgate/ I’ve seen firsthand why Real Madrid are kings of Europe… but there’s a reason I believe Liverpool will win, says Woodgate