THREE EVENTS OCCURRED in perfect synchronicity in order to facilitate Florentino Pérez’s second attempt at managing the global superpower that is Real Madrid. The first was on 10 March 2009 as Real Madrid appeared on the pitch at Anfield against Liverpool, attempting to overturn a 1-0 deficit in the first leg of the round of 16 in the UEFA Champions League.
What happened was an absolute destruction of the nine-time European Cup winners, with a glorious Fernando Torres tormenting his old Madrid adversaries and a rambunctious Steven Gerrard ably supporting – perhaps even eclipsing – his Iberian partner. As if it wasn’t bad enough, Andrea Dossena completed the humiliating 4-0 rout.
The second was on 2 May 2009. Even 17 victories in 18 unbeaten league matches were not enough; in the 19th match, Barcelona, the last side to beat Real, arrived at the Bernabéu and beat them again. They destroyed them, in fact.
It was not just that Barcelona’s 6-2 victory, secured with two each from Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi, plus one apiece from Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué, carried them seven points clear with four matches remaining, it was that they left their rivals in tatters, turning the Santiago Bernabéu’s battle cry, briefly revived in the second half, into a murmur of impotence.
The final event cemented Pérez’s return to the helm. On 14 May 2009, Pérez announced his candidacy for president of Real Madrid in a press conference at the Hotel Ritz Madrid. On 1 June 2009, given that he was the only candidate able to provide the €57,389,000 guarantee necessary to run for the presidency, Pérez was announced as the new president of Real Madrid – again.
In the following months, he engaged in probably the most ambitious spending spree in footballing history, uniting the dreams of fantasy football enthusiasts and stadium-goers alike, and exploding the ceiling on transfer fees. Within a week of his re-election, he bought Kaká from AC Milan for just under £60 million, while on 11 June, Manchester United accepted an £80 million offer for Cristiano Ronaldo, which would once again break the world record.
On 25 June, Real Madrid announced the signing of Valencia centre-back Raúl Albiol for €15 million, while they further added Karim Benzema from Lyon for a fee of at least £30 million, which would rise to £35 million, and Xabi Alonso from Liverpool for £30 million. Alonso became the second Liverpool player to join Real Madrid in the same transfer window after full-back Álvaro Arbeloa’s £3.5 million switch to the Bernabéu in July.
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The signing of Xabi Alonso signalled a clear shift in philosophy, from foolhardy ambition towards pragmatism. In his first regime, the Real Madrid squad was severely unbalanced by Pérez’s tendency to underpay the defensive players, instead preferring to pay over the odds for the catch of the day. In particular, Claude Makélélé, considered one of the best defensive midfielders at the time and a key component to Real’s successes, decided to ask for an improved contract with the support of team-mates Zinedine Zidane, Raúl, Steve McManaman and Fernando Morientes.
Until this time, Makélélé was also one of Madrid’s least-paid players, earning a fraction of what was given to the Galácticos, but Pérez flatly refused to consider Makélélé’s request. Upset, Makélélé handed in a transfer request, whereupon he was promptly dispatched to Chelsea. Pérez infamously poured scorn on Makélélé’s footballing abilities and proclaimed: “We will not miss Makélélé. His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and 90 percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways.”
Contrast this with his second regime, where the purchase of defensively able footballers like Luka Modric, Xabi Alonso, Raphaël Varane, Xabi Alonso, Danilo, Mateo Kovačić, and probably the most important cog of Madrid’s Unadecima (11th European Cup), Casemiro, has been the glue that has helped this team stick together. The ugly work, the underrated performances of these players that help create a platform that allows the famed attacking constellations of Real Madrid function, has been recognised by Perez, and his improved footballing nous has paid rich dividends for the club, at least on the European front.
Indeed, the current Real Madrid team is an absolute idiosyncrasy when compared to the other star-studded teams of the Pérez eras. Coached by a former player-turned Castilla coach and the World Cup-winning legend, Zinedine Zidane, for the first time there is a tangible team ethos and a definitive work ethic coursing through the team.
In the current transfer market, they have splashed out the cash to activate the buy-back clause of their former youth prodigy, Álvaro Morata. Apart from that, they have been extremely judicious in the market, prudently choosing to pull out when Juventus named their colossal price for Paul Pogba, thus paving the way for Manchester United.
Instead, they have chosen to bolster their squad from within, with promotions from the Castilla providing the requisite squad depth. Lucas Vázquez, Marco Asensio and Borja Mayoral are the most exciting prospects amongst the youth products, and most importantly, seem to have Zidane’s faith – a far cry from the José Mourinho era, when the talented Jesé, Morata, José Callejón were given a few minutes to prove their worth.
Central to this uncharacteristic and refreshing austerity is Pérez’s decision to hand over much of the footballing reins to Zidane, and not imbue sporting decisions with political motivations. For too long, Pérez served as the Spanish counterpart to AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi, who insisted that his team play in the formation and follow the tactics of his choice.
For example, Zidane’s apparent rejection of James Rodríguez is accepted by Pérez, with the president trusting the instincts of his manager instead of forcing him to play a footballer who cost approximately €80 million. This is in stark contrast to Pérez’s relationship with Rafa Benítez, with the latter succumbing to the former’s pressure to shoehorn James, Benzema, Ronaldo and Bale in the same starting line-up during an El Clásico. The result, a shameful 4-0 rout, hastened Benítez’s departure.
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It is inevitable that a transfer policy focused on big-money impact signings will produce some winners but, more often than not, a large number of losers. Similarly, there was a large exodus of players once Pérez was re-elected, with disappointing transfers and Castilla products who weren’t given a fair chance making up the bulk of the departures. Among them were Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Álvaro Negredo and Roberto Soldado, who all went on to have solid spells with Schalke, Bayern Munich, Internazionale, Sevilla and Villareal respectively.
However, what rankled most with the fans was how Ruud van Nistelrooy, the Pichichi winner in 2006-07, and whose 25 goals propelled them to the La Liga title, was forced out to Hamburg. Even more hurt arrived via the subsequent transfer of the Spanish hero and Real Madrid product, Raúl.
That said, departures in recent times have not been fuelled by political motivation, and indeed none of the big departures can be said to have been disappointing. Mesut Özil was offloaded to Arsenal to free up space for Gareth Bale, the world’s costliest player, while Ángel Di María departed for Manchester United because the arrival of James threatened his starting place.
Both thrilled and wowed the Santiago Bernabeu when they were in favour, notably in Jose Mourinho’s title-winning season, which set records for most games won in a La Liga season (32), most away wins (16), most points obtained in any of the top European leagues (100), improving the most goals-scored record they already had set earlier (121) and finishing the season with the highest goal difference (+89). Real Madrid topped the league nine points clear of the great Barcelona of Pep Guardiola.
On paper, it may be safely surmised that Florentino Pérez, the egomaniac construction magnate in charge of Real Madrid, has rectified his myopic handling of the football affairs of this behemoth. The combined spend on players during his two reigns has been a mind-boggling £797.8 million. Indeed, the extravagant spending of Real Madrid has become firmly embedded in footballing culture and lore, and a Real Madrid that doesn’t overspend and obtain expensive success and expensive failures would create a considerable void in modern football culture.
However, the new direction of Real Madrid, with financial austerity and pragmatism coupled with a youth-centric approach to the structure of first team has rekindled the passion of the Madrid-based fans and helped them forge an identity based on the team, which some felt was lost in the chaotic reign of Benítez and the acrimonious departure of Carlo Ancelotti.
This humble approach is incredibly refreshing at Real Madrid, in an era when agents’ pockets are lined by clubs, and when the transfer market defies all logic and rationale under the influence of the obscene wealth of the Premier League. He may not be to everyone’s liking, but the second coming of Florentino Pérez at Real Madrid has proved to be a more stable, intelligent and sustainable time.
By Dibyajyoti Basak