Real Madrid Plays Itself

Real Madrid won its first, and the first, European Cup in 1956. Those Blancos were the brainchild of visionary president Santiago Bernabéu, who in 1943 took over an undistinguished team, one still struggling to emerge from under the rubble of the Spanish Civil War, and turned it into the most famous, winningest club on the planet. Bernabéu’s far-seeing plan for success was simple but ambitious: build for this modest club the biggest stadium in Europe, sign the best players from around the world, and by doing so create a virtuous cycle of on-field success: more asses in seats, more money into the coffers, more big signings, more on-field success, etc. Bernabéu built his stadium in 1947, signed the lynchpin of the team, Argentine superstar Alfredo Di Stéfano, in 1953, helped create what would become the club game’s most popular and prestigious tournament in 1955, and watched his virtuous circle spin on and on and on as Real Madrid, powered by stars like Di Stéfano and Puskas and Gento and Rial and Kopa and Santamaría, dominated La Liga and won the first five European Cups, a project designed and then executed to perfection. That era laid the groundwork for the unmatched popularity and success the club enjoys to this day.

Like millions of soccer-obsessed children in Spain and around the world back in the ’50s and ’60s, Florentino Pérez, who was nine years old when the Blancos won that first continental title in 1956, was smitten with Real Madrid, its success and its glamor. Unlike his peers, however, Pérez eventually became rich and powerful enough in his own right to attain the same position as Bernabéu, winning his beloved club’s presidential election in 2000 and serving in that role ever since, outside of a three-year stretch after he resigned in 2006 before assuming the position again in 2009. More than any president since the club’s true progenitor, Pérez has remained fanatically faithful to Bernabéu’s blueprint. Pérez has expanded and renovated the stadium, has maintained an insatiable appetite for Europe’s greatest trophy, and, probably more so than even Bernabéu himself, has obsessed about ensuring that all the biggest and best players of the times eventually dress in white.

All of that work reached its apotheosis over the last few days. On Saturday, Real Madrid defeated Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League final. The win marked the 15th time the Blancos have lifted Europe’s premier trophy. It was also the sixth time they’ve won the cup with the big ears in the past 11 years, which equaled Bernabéu’s Blancos‘ run from 1955 to 1966, and officially gave Pérez, who also oversaw a UCL victory in 2002, one more European title than Bernabéu. Then, before the post-celebration hangovers had passed, Real one-upped itself by announcing on Monday that it had signed Kylian Mbappé, bringing an end to the club’s long, messy, at times humiliating, but ultimately successful pursuit of the sport’s crown jewel. After Saturday’s win, Pérez now stands alone in history, and Real Madrid, which already stood alone, now has an even higher vantage point from which it looks down upon everyone else. After Monday’s announcement, Real also won the future, and possession of the hope and excitement for what is to come is just as critical to the club’s self-conception as what it has won in the past. By winning the Champions League and then signing Mbappé, you could say that Real Madrid has never before been more itself than it is right now.

The unique difficulties of achieving the feat in this particular point in time are part of what’s so remarkable about this week’s full realization of madridismo. Soccer’s hierarchy is today, as it has always been, primarily (though not entirely) based on money. And Real Madrid can no longer count itself among that highest of tiers when it comes to economic might. The money that the oligarchic interests from the Middle East, Russia, and the U.S. have injected into the game, coupled with the Premier League’s TV broadcast–driven economic boom, have reshaped the old order and increased the competition for the only resource that really matters: great players. This reality, plus the lingering effects of the COVID economy and the costs of the recently concluded stadium renovations, means Real isn’t the only or even the biggest shark prowling the international player market anymore. Indeed, over the last decade the club has found itself priced out of the Galácticos acquisition model Pérez’s Madrid was once synonymous with, watching instead as Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City and Chelsea sign players on whom in previous times Real would’ve had first dibs.

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This post-Galáctico era, which began in earnest when the last true Galáctico, Cristiano Ronaldo, left Madrid in 2018, has been constructed much differently than previous Pérez teams. Instead of snatching up top players in their primes, Real went hunting for younger players who had the potential to become the stars of tomorrow. Not all of those bets paid off (Reinier). Some of them did pay off, but for another team’s benefit (Martin Odegaard). But the eyes of Madrid’s scouts have proven exceptionally keen, and so the club has been rewarded handsomely when many of the fliers the club took on expensive but still developing youngsters came good. Rodrygo, Éder Militão, Federico Valverde, Eduardo Camavinga, and Aurélien Tchouaméni all joined the club in their early 20s at the latest, and all have already grown into great players. And in Vinícius, Real found and cultivated for itself a real-deal superstar.

As a team-building strategy, Real’s focus on young guys with big futures, proven veterans available for cheap/free, and squeezing every last drop out of the remaining pieces left over from the CR7 era was smart, responsible, and effective. Nevertheless, it wasn’t quite Real Madrid, not in the sense that Pérez has always sought to embody. It’s long felt to me like the team’s intelligent maneuvering on the future studs market was mostly a consolation, where Pérez would chase after his Galácticos and, once he struck out, eagle-eyed chief scout Juni Calafat would swoop in and sign a couple big-money teenagers. In fact, I don’t believe that Pérez himself really believed all that much in the present value of the squads he’d built over the past few years.

Most of Real’s transfer moves in recent seasons have seemed first and foremost aimed at either trying to sign, or keeping its powder dry for a future attempt at signing, a Galáctico from the outside. It just so happened that Luka Modric and Toni Kroos are ageless, that Karim Benzema went Super Saiyan after Ronaldo left, that Thibaut Courtois is unbeatable, that Vinícius went from budding bust to superstar almost overnight, that Carlo Ancelotti was around to fill in after manager Zinedine Zidane unexpectedly stepped down, and that, together, the extant, Galáctico-free Blancos had learned enough from their recent past to know how to continue dominating the Champions League even without big new additions. If the team’s unique relationship with luck can be seen in its uncanny ability to escape death in the Champions League, you could say something similar about the squad-building tactics that allowed Pérez to put together a two-time UCL winner almost on accident.

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While not the only Galáctico candidate Pérez has pursued in recent years, the apple of his eye, and the main object of his plotting, has always been Mbappé. The obsession has always made sense, of course. Mbappé, not unlike the young Pérez, was smitten with the great Real Madrid teams of his youth, led by his two idols Zinedine Zidane and later Cristiano Ronaldo. Much more important than that past as a Real fan was Mbappé’s explosive entry onto the world soccer scene as a teen at Monaco, when he immediately became his generation’s presumptive heir to the twin throne then occupied by Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Still, his talent, his fandom, and his enormous marketing appeal made him pretty much the exact player Pérez would design himself if he could hand craft the ideal Real player.

Mbappé toyed with the Blancos for years, giving them all the signs that he was on the verge of coming to them only to reverse tack and accept more of Qatar’s money to join and then stay at PSG. Had he been an even slightly less gifted player, Pérez probably would’ve closed Madrid’s doors to him out of spite. Instead, Pérez kept coming back year after year, eating up Mbappé’s flirtations, selling on that hope and excitement to Real fans via conspicuous leaks about his supposedly impending signing to the Spanish media, avoiding adding too many encumbrances to the club’s budget to make room for the potentially colossal financial undertaking, being embarrassed when Mbappé chose Paris all over again, but then a few months later starting back at the beginning of this inverted version of Bernabéu’s virtuous circle.

In the end, though, Pérez got his man. It’s hard to imagine it not being worth it. There is a strange notion going around that Real Madrid’s success over the past decade is hard to explain. But the reason for it is the simplest one there is: Real has many of the world’s best players, more than practically every other team in the sport, and that group of world-elite players are better at doing the most difficult and important things in the game than any of their less talented, less experienced opponents are. To that point, this past season’s Real roster had assassins all over the pitch, with the lone exception being at the center forward position, a gaping hole left by Benzema’s exit and which Pérez sought to fill on the cheap by signing a journeyman striker like Joselu, most likely so that he could make his umpteenth run at Mbappé this summer. Well, into that sole weak point in the squad, the team will now place the best player in the world. Good luck to the rest of Europe!

As natural a union as this may look on paper, though, nothing is guaranteed in soccer. Teams are delicate things, and even the most sensible and fitting additions to the most successful of teams don’t always work out. Yes, the world’s best team just signed the world’s best player, but it’s not hard to see potential points of friction, both tactical (how exactly do you play with both Vinícius and Mbappé when both prefer to play in essentially the same position?) and cultural (how do you prevent a potential war of egos when Mbappé, Vinícius, and Jude Bellingham are all contending to be the face of the team and the biggest star of their generation?).

In fact, you don’t even need to go very far to see an analogous situation that ended in disappointment. In 2002 Real Madrid was crowned champions of Europe, Pérez’s first Champion League–winning team. Just a couple months later, the Blancos broke the world transfer record by spending €45 million to sign Ronaldo (the real/Brazilian one) from Inter. The Champions League victory may have been the proof of concept, but the concept itself, the one Pérez ran on to win the club’s presidency, was about signing all the world’s stars. Ronaldo was Pérez’s latest Galáctico, and it was in stars, even ahead of trophies, that Pérez wanted to define his version of the club.

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Famously, the Galácticos era was underwhelming—though the reasons often given for that are a little off. It’s usually said that Real failed to build on the success of that 2002 UCL win because Pérez bought too many flashy attackers, creating a top-heavy team that couldn’t fashion a balanced, defensively sound whole. But the real problem with the Zidanes and Pavones policy wasn’t with the Zidanes, but rather with the Pavones. Put another way, it wasn’t the fault of the attackers that Real Madrid couldn’t repeat its feat in 2002, but instead because the players tasked with covering for those attackers weren’t good enough. Had Real also seen fit to invest in defensive-minded players as good at their jobs as Zidane and Ronaldo and Figo and Roberto Carlos and Beckham were at theirs, then there’s no reason those Galácticos couldn’t have won more than they did.

The good news for Real Madrid fans today is that it doesn’t look like this Real will have the same issues as the old Galácticos. In Militão, Antonio Rüdiger, Ferland Mendy, David Alaba, Nacho, Dani Carvajal, Valverde, Tchouaméni, and Camavinga, the Blancos should have plenty of complementary pieces to balance out an attack that features up to four of Mbappé, Vinícius, Bellingham, Rodrygo, and Endrick. Plus, there’s no coach better at finding synergies between, maximizing the talents, and massaging the egos of his charges than Ancelotti.

But no matter how things turn out on the field, this week will go down in history as a defining, indelible demonstration of Real’s power. I can’t even imagine a better demonstration of what it means to be Real Madrid than winning the Champions League, celebrating the triumph while also immediately talking about winning the next one, and less than 48 hours later announcing the signing of the biggest star in Europe. Arsène Wenger once said that the problem with Real was that the club and its fans celebrate signings more than they do trophies. He meant it as an insult, but it doesn’t have to be seen that way. Real Madrid is the club of the past, the one with a history no other comes close to matching, but also the club of the future, a status it earns during those glorious summer days when it brings in a brand new titanic talent and allows fans to dream about what’s to come. But as Bernabéu once and Pérez today have taught us, celebrations for trophies or signings aren’t actually at odds. And the scariest, most uniquely madridista thing is when the club can celebrate both at the same time.

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