For almost a century, money and soccer lived an uneasy relationship. Teams scraped by on modest sponsorships and reliable but not cosmic TV deals. They competed for players, but dollars and cents arms races were rare. Then came the Galácticos.
If the Bosman ruling allowed the snake of commerce into Football’s Garden of Eden, then Florentino Perez swallowed an entire barrel of apples without thought. Looking back, a Madrid fan doesn’t feel vindicated by the trophies. Rather, he or she wonders how they won anything at all.
First, the money. Where did it come from? Yes, Real Madrid is a juggernaut of profit by soccer standards, but when one major club buys star players from another major club, they need a quick cash injection. Enter shady real estate dealings. Recently elected Florentino Perez decided to sell Real Madrid’s training ground, Ciudad Deportiva, to the local Madrid government. A few eyebrows were raised for various reasons. First, Perez claimed to sell the ground for a €480m profit. This led Bayern Munich and Manchester United to file a formal complaint and demand an investigation.
The European Commission considered the transaction so opaque, that they sent a formal letter to Spanish authorities requesting more information. However, as with most letter-writing campaigns, it amounted to little and was not worth the postage. Madrid kept the cash and began to buy star players in the hope of a glorious centenary season in 2002.
Who was bought with all that cash?. The first and most controversial Galáctico was Luis Figo. Why? Well, he was a star player for Real’s eternal rival, FC Barcelona. Much gossip still surrounds this move, including unsupported claims by Luis’ agent that a dubious “pre-agreement agreement” with a “penalty clause” forced Figo into moving. Nobody has ever seen one of these pre-agreement agreements, but every time a club snatches a prized asset, they materialise into thin air, like the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot. Regardless, Barcelona fans did not take kindly to Figo’s betrayal. At his first game in the Nou Camp as a merengue, fans tossed a severed pigs head at him while he prepared to take a corner kick.
Each year, Perez bought another big player. In 2001, he bought Zinedine Zidane, fresh off a European Championships triumph with France, from Juventus. A year later, Real acquired the rejuvenated Brazilian wonder Ronaldo. Lastly, in 2003, he purchased Miss Spice – David Beckham, from Manchester United. In total, Perez managed to spend over £139.7m on those four players. From a business perspective, Perez has always claimed that “name players” pay for their own transfers in endorsement deals and jersey sales, but, from a playing perspective, would there be too many chefs in the kitchen?
Enter the perpetually under-appreciated Vicente Del Bosque. Perez was a master of creative finance with a nose for commercially viable products err players, but Del Bosque had the demeanour, calm, and subtly strong hand to forge a team from disparate parts. Del Bosque could be categorized as a “players’ coach”, if that term wasn’t so maligned. On paper, his side played a simple 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield. However, Solari often played centrally to help out Makélélé, allowing Roberto Carlos to overlap and add width on the left. On the right of the field, Luis Figo provided trickery and pace. The Galácticos of Del Bosque won two La Liga titles and the 2002 Champions League trophy with the sweetest of volleys by Zidane.
Eventually, though, profiteering trumped sporting considerations. In a dispute over wages, Del Bosque sided with defensive player such as Hierro and Makélélé. It was suicide. Perez sacked the coach and eventually sold quality “no-name” players like Makélélé and Esteban Cambiasso to other teams. He bought Beckham from under Barcelona’s nose, but this proved the beginning of the end. Becks’ declining abilities clogged the right of the midfield, angering Luis Figo, And the carousel of inexperienced coaches couldn’t keep a handle on the locker room. There were too many chefs and not enough spices, or talent.
The great irony is that Perez’s capture of Beckham inadvertently led Barcelona to sign Ronaldinho. The bucktoothed Brazilian’s talent won the Catalan’s many trophies and also earned a few endorsements, proving a crucial counterpoint to the Perez philosophy. Sometimes, sporting considerations drive profit, not vice versa.