Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Superior Being Falls To Earth

Having gotten through four directors of football and seven first team coaches, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez finally turned his pistol on himself last night, and resigned his position. The progenitor of the 'Galacticos' concept, staring at the prospect of a third trophyless season for the world's richest club, admitted the need for a "change of direction" at the club, his mind having been made up by Real's latest humbling at the hands of Real Mallorca at the weekend. So how did it go so wrong for the man referred to by Emilio Butragueno as a "superior being"?

It is very easy to forget how right it went in the first three years of Perez's stewardship. By the end of the 2003 season Real had notched up two Primera Division titles and a Champions League success. In many ways, however, his success off the field was even greater.

Perez masterminded the shady deal which saw the club's vast EUR 200m debt wiped out by the sale of their training ground to the Madrid Regional Council for a hugely inflated fee of around EUR 350m. In addition the council provided land in the north-east of the city on which the club were able to build a new training complex and, if this largesse was not enough, allowed Real to manage two of the four office blocks constructed on the club's old training ground.

Real's privileged position in Spanish society was clearly evident in this deal, and opposition political parties and rival clubs were understandably hugely critical of what was, in effect, the use of public monies to bail Real out of their self-induced financial mess.

The club's immediate financial difficulties sorted out, Perez began to implement the policies that would culminate in Real overhauling Manchester United as the world's richest club - but would, with heavy irony, lead to their downfall in footballing terms. The practice was often referred to as 'Zidanes and Pavons' - where the regular recruitment of global superstars would be augmented by graduates of the clubs own youth system to full out the less glamourous squad numbers.

Real's global popularity and marketability soared, but their initial on-field success depended on a delicate balance. While the Champions League winning team of 2002 included the bountiful talents of Zidane, Figo, Raul and Roberto Carlos, it was stiffened by the experience of Fernando Hierro, Claude Makalele and Ivan Helguera. The unassuming presence of coach Vicente del Bosque allowed the team to flourish and Perez's vision looked complete. It was the abondonment of this balance which led to Real's downfall, and to that of Perez.

In 2003 Real allowed Makalele, Hierro and Del Bosque to leave, and signed David Beckham. While the Englishman has generally performed well at the Bernabeu, and is highly regarded in Spain, his signature was symbolic as the full embodiment of the Galactico policy, in which a player's commercial value was as relevant, if not more so, as his footballing value. It was around this time that Perez uttered this telling quote: "Just look how handsome Beckham is, the class he has, the image. The whole of Asia has fallen in love with us because of Beckham. Between Ronaldinho and Beckham, I'd go for Beckham a hundred times. Ronaldinho was too ugly to play for Madrid."

With footballing considerations sidelined more and more in favour of commercial imperatives, the reality of the president's vision began to infect Real Madrid. The unprecedented collection of egos that gathered at the Bernabeu - Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo, Beckham, Raul, Roberto Carlos - proved unmanageable for a succession of coaches and the lack of defensive midfielders and experienced defenders made them consistently vulnerable.

The complicity of the Spanish press and the sychophancy of his Bernabeu minions, meanwhile, kept Perez invulnerable, as the players and coaches were subjected to the criticism which his bloated, malfunctioning empire had created. The success of Madrid's bitter rivals, Barcelona, under Frank Rijkaard, crystallized Real's woes, specifically in the form of several humiliating defeats. The need for drastic reform of Real's onfield fortunes was underlined in recent weeks with the 6-1 loss to Real Zaragoza in the Copa del Rey being followed by the defeats to Arsenal and Mallorca last week.

It seems therefore fitting that, as Real look to haul themselves back to their customary position of footballing eminence, it should be without the man whose flawed vision has left them in the state in which they now find themselves.


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