There was a time when the Galáctico tag had positive connotations in football. Spanish for superstar, a Galáctico was an exciting, all-conquering player that played their part in the construction of a world-class, attacking side. At Real Madrid, club president Florentino Pérez in his first term at the helm was hell-bent on creating his own Galácticos side at the turn of the century, but it did not go entirely to plan.
It is commonly accepted that the Galácticos era began in the summer of 2000 with the world-record transfer of Luís Figo from arch-rivals Barcelona. The deal showed exactly how daring and bold Los Blancos were prepared to be in the transfer market. The following season, Zinedine Zidane arrived from Juventus in their second record-breaking transfer in as many years. Ronaldo and David Beckham were signed in 2002 and 2003 respectively to finish a complete forward line that already boasted the talents of the great Raúl.
Pérez also invested in Michael Owen, who was often assigned to the substitutes’ bench with the attacking power already at manager Vicente del Bosque’s disposal. It was evident that Pérez put a large focus on signing attacking players during this period; he even promised to sign a world-class superstar per season during his presidency, which was a major factor in Lorenzo Sanz’s loss to Pérez in his presidential re-election campaign, despite two Champions League victories in 1998 and 2000.
Under Pérez’s reign at the Santiago Bernabéu, there was initial success. Real won La Liga in 2000/01 and 2002/03 and won the 2002 Champions League title. The club was widely expected to carry on its domination of Spanish and European football for the coming years, but cracks were beginning to emerge in Pérez’s policies.
Francisco Pavón, an unfashionable, versatile and often underrated defender, was a primary victim of Pérez’s interference and influence over Del Bosque and his replacement Carlos Quieroz when it came to tactics and player selection.
Pavón played for Tendillo, Real’s youth squad, before making the step up to the B-team, Castilla. He made his first-team debut in October 2001 against Athletic Club, replacing Aitor Karanka in defence. Pavón made 27 appearances in all competitions but was an unused substitute in Real’s 2-1 Champions League final success against Bayer Leverkusen. However, his good form did not go entirely unnoticed; he was awarded a seven-year contract in 2002 to stay at the Bernabéu. In theory, Pavón was to enjoy the best years of his career as part of an all-conquering, star-studded Real side.
Read | Remembering Florentino Pérez’s Pavones, the players Real Madrid forgot
However, the club began to dwindle as rivals Barcelona dominated the noughties. The Galácticos policy was aided by Real’s lucrative financial success, based on the exploitation of the club’s marketing potential, particularly in Asia. As a result, Pérez began to make baffling decisions that jeopardised the team’s fortunes on the pitch in favour of incredible profits off it, which in 2003 resulted in a gruelling pre-season schedule that included exhibition matches in Beijing, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Bangkok immediately before the La Liga season began.
At the various media events put on by the club, very little interest was shown in the likes of Pavón and fellow youth team star Javier Portillo. Bizarrely, this seemed to mean there was rarely a place for either of them in the side ahead of the competitive season.
Pavón’s career began brightly; in fact, Pérez declared that during his reign he wanted to assemble a team of ‘Pavóns y Zidanes’. In other words, the side he aimed to create would feature the world’s best attacking talent alongside dependable, hard-working and unfashionable players that were often graduates of the club’s youth setup.
Pavón played 51 league games in the two seasons that followed Real’s Champions League success in 2002, but his impact and involvement was beginning to decline. The following seasons saw limited success, with Real failing to win any trophy in next three campaigns after their 2003 league title. In the Champions League, elimination in the 2004 quarter-finals preceded six consecutive exits at the last-16 stage. In the same period, rivals Barcelona won successive La Liga titles in 2005 and 2006, along with the 2006 Champions League.
Real’s poor form despite the wealth of attacking firepower at the club’s disposal was attributed to a number of reasons that eventually led back to Pérez. It was often argued that some of the more expensive signings, particularly David Beckham, were signed for marketing reasons instead of their ability on the pitch. Sure, Beckham was at the peak of his powers and had starred for Manchester United, but Real already had Figo. Beckham often was used as a defensive central midfielder as a result, which was a position foreign to him, and it rendered the Englishman ineffective. The use of Beckham as a central midfielder meant that there was no room in the side for Claude Makélélé.
Ahead of the 2003/04 season, all was not well behind the scenes at the Bernabéu. Pavón, along with a few of his teammates including the club captain Fernando Hierro, had been on one side of a political split over the harsh treatment of Makélélé, who left for Chelsea, and Hierro also moved on to Al Rayyan soon after the row.
There were allegations that players were picked on their celebrity status in Spain and beyond instead of their footballing ability; that explains why Portillo, who scored a record 150 goals in seven seasons for Real’s youth teams, was restricted to only 31 league games between 2002 and 2006 despite Pérez’s promise to encourage that his managers should look to promote from within.
Pavón fell afoul of Pérez’s decision to sack Del Bosque. The experienced manager was on Makélélé’s side and believed that he deserved a new contract, but Pérez declined. The Frenchman was pivotal to Del Bosque’s way of fielding a side with a perfect balance between the Galácticos and the ‘Pavóns’, as labelled by Pérez himself. Without him, under Carlos Queiroz, Real struggled.
Pérez’s big-money signings, without the stewardship of Del Bosque, failed to form a cohesive footballing unit, and it seemed clear to everyone – apart from the president, who controlled the transfers and begrudgingly to Del Bosque had a say in the team’s tactics – that a team full of individuals would not be successful.
After Del Bosque’s departure, Pavón’s chances in the first team diminished. Pérez failed to see the error in his ways and in the summer of 2004 invested heavily once again in big names in the hope of buying success. This time, he decided to buy more defenders, a position that did not need addressing at the time. Real came an embarrassing fourth at the end of the 2003/04 season, but this was by no means the fault of the defence; despite the money thrown at the forward line, only top-scorer Ronaldo and club hero Raúl eclipsed the 10 goal mark in the league season, with the latter only snaring 11.
Walter Samuel and Jonathan Woodgate arrived at the Bernabéu in a €44 million shake up of the defence. Amazingly, the pair’s combined league appearances in Spain (39) was less than their transfer fee; their impact in La Liga, particularly in Woodgate’s case, was almost laughable, but the damage was done to Pavón’s career.
Both signings departed almost as quickly as they had arrived, and at that point it looked as though Pavón would find a way back into the side having been a spectator for much of the 2004/05 season – but it was not to be. Pérez signed Sergio Ramos from Sevilla, and had already signed Brazilian full-back Cicinho the previous winter. He proved to be another defensive signing that underwhelmed for Real, despite a glowing reputation as a young prospect in his homeland.
Such was Pérez’s blatant mistrust in the club’s academy graduates like Pavón, he also sanctioned the transfer of Uruguayan right-back Carlos Diogo from River Plate towards the end of the 2005 summer transfer window. Like the South American defenders before him that were signed under Pérez’s reign, he struggled in Spain and was restricted to only 11 club appearances. Despite Diogo and Cicinho’s ineptitude, Pavón was at this point fifth choice in the pecking order and was rarely given a chance at either centre-back or on the right.
Despite an improvement in league form, which saw a runners-up finish, the 2005/06 season was a miserable one for Real. Rivals Barcelona lifted the La Liga trophy and won the Champions League with a 2-1 victory over Arsenal in the final. Even the great Ronaldo struggled, but shockingly his mere 15 goals in all competitions proved enough to see him finish as the club’s top scorer for the season.
Not only were Real’s fortunes on the pitch proving far from prosperous, but Pérez’s reign as president had led to disillusion and political disarray off it. He resigned before the season came to a close in 2006 after a loss to Real Mallorca, and was replaced by Ramón Calderón.
Ahead of the 2006/07 season, the new president was given the unenviable task of restoring the glory days to the Bernabéu, which seemed a distant memory as the noughties came to an end. Fabio Capello was employed as manager to replace Juan Ramón López Caro, and Calderón sanctioned the signing of eight new players that included the experience of Fabio Cannavaro, Emerson, Ruud van Nistelrooy and defensive midfielder Mahamadou Diarra.
Though they were not cheap, with all of the deals being worth eight figures excluding the transfer of Marcelo and loan signing of José Antonio Reyes, Capello’s acquisitions ended the Galácticos era as Real finished the season as champions.
But Real’s success came at a price for Pavón. The arrival of Cannavaro meant that there was no place for the Spaniard in Capello’s new look Real side and he made zero competitive appearances in the whole of the 2006/07 season. He was sold to Real Zaragoza the following summer but featured only eight times during the campaign as the Aragonese were relegated.
In five years, Pavón had gone from being lauded as a future stalwart and legend at Real Madrid by the club’s president to struggling for a place in the team of one of La Liga’s relegated clubs. Amidst years of trying to regain Real’s birth at the top of European and indeed world football, President Pérez season after season ignored one of the players who was a major part of the club’s success at the turn of the century.
Francisco Pavón’s career started brightly but he was a victim of the Galácticos era and was never given a chance when perhaps he could have been at the peak of his career, stagnating and failing to live up to his promise. Having never played for Spain either, it is a case of what could have been. Two years after leaving French side Arles-Avignon, one of the finest Real Madrid youth prospects of his generation became eligible for unemployment benefits at the age of 33.
By Ryan Plant @ryanplant1998