Galácticos 2.0: A Florentino renaissance?

By Online Editorial

Spanish-football connoisseur Tobias Gourlay has cast his eye over the regime change at Real Madrid, and is not sure that he likes everything he sees.

The English Premier League has a well-established Big Four these days. The Spanish Primera División only has a Big Two, but, boy, are they big clubs. At the turn of the millennium, Real Madrid were named as the team of the 20th century by Fifa. And for good reasons too: 29 league titles; nine European Cups; and sundry other pots and pans. Barcelona are simply ‘Més que un club’ (‘more than a club’).

At the end of any season in England, there are always three of the Big Four that have not won the league title, who then share the spotlight of failure. Sometimes the teams that haven’t won are allowed to consider their campaigns as having been relatively successful. This season, for example, Liverpool improved from fourth to second, while Chelsea consoled themselves and placated their fans with the FA Cup.

In Spain, however, the Big Two play a zero-sum game. With few exceptions, either you win the title and your rival does not, or vice versa. One team’s gain or loss is exactly balanced by the loss or gain of the other. If, for example, Barcelona have been brilliant, then Real Madrid cannot have had an average or unremarkable season; they must have been terrible, or hideous, or stinking.

And that’s what happened in the season just gone. Barça won everything, while Real spent the league season winning unspectacularly and losing spectacularly, embarrassed themselves against Liverpool in the Champions League, and lost at the first possible opportunity in the Copa Del Rey to third-tier Real Unión.

These are the on-field circumstances that have allowed Florentino Pérez to return for a second spell as Los Blancos’ club president. The white knight, apparently untarnished by having previously presided over the longest trophy drought in the history of Real, rode into town without even having to win a vote (why bother when the previous incumbent is accused of vote-rigging?).

That previous incumbent, Ramon Calderón, won election in 2006 on the strength of pledges to sign Cesc Fàbregas from Arsenal and Kaká from AC Milan. In the end, he managed Arjen Robben from Chelsea.

The appeal of Pérez, begetter of Los Galácticos, lies in his record of delivering on promises to bring high-profile players to the club. First time around, there was Luís Figo in 2000; Zinedine Zidane came the next season; and Ronaldo followed after that. In those early years, two league titles and a ninth European Cup were won. But, in the aftermath of the second league title, coach Vicente Del Bosque was sacked.

To repair the dressing-room split around Del Bosque’s departure, the players held to be loyal to Del Bosque were sold, Claude Makélélé and Fernando Hierro among them. Without the long-serving defender and the man who gave his name to a new kind of defensive midfield role, the trophy drought began.

This time around, Pérez has appointed his own manager, Manuel Pellegrini from Villarreal. The Chilean made his name taking a club with an average attendance of 17,000 into Europe again and again. Earlier, he won a league title with River Plate in Argentina, and this might turn out to be the more relevant experience for dealing with a bloated power structure (Zidane has a new role as Advisor to the President – is that really necessary?), an interfering backroom staff, and the unhealthily influential Raúl. Pellegrini’s success is in some doubt.

Kaká has been signed for a world-record transfer fee, but, starting from so far behind Barça, the Brazilian alone will not be enough, and Pérez knows there is a lot more horse-trading to be done. The conclusion of Cristiano Ronaldo’s world-record signing will be crucial.

Álvaro Negredo, the former B-team striker who did very well to score 19 goals for Almería this season, can be re-signed cheaply and used as a bargaining chip in a deal with either Liverpool (Pérez likes Xabi Alonso), Valencia (David Silva, David Villa, take your pick) or Villarreal (Pérez likes the idea of not having to pay the €4m buyout clause in his new manager’s old contract). Then there is Cristiano Ronaldo, originally a target of Calderón, whose legacy is apparently an agreement to sign the Portuguese this summer that will cost €30m to break.

Although Pérez has a lot of moves still to play in the transfer market, it is not yet clear that he has learnt the full value of sound defensive players. He has recognised the importance of Lassana Diarra – the successor to Makélélé, whose contract Pérez always refused to improve – and will not sell him, but, with Fabio Cannavaro having gone back to Juventus, a new central defender should be of prime importance, and there has been no mention of one so far, bar a fanciful suggestion that Nemanja Vidić might be prised from Manchester United.

That said, it is not obvious why a world-class defender would want to go to Real. Has any recent signing in that position enhanced his reputation at the club? Ezequiel Garay has returned from a year-long loan at Racing Santander, but reliance upon him would hardly show that Perez’s estimation of the value of defensive players had sky-rocketed in his time away from the Santiago Bernabéu.

When Pérez arrived for the first time, Real Madrid improved. They also improved when he left for the first time. Pérez himself has a lot to prove this time around, and at this stage it is hard to be confident he will avoid all of the mistakes he has already made once.

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