The Galactico Project

The Galactico Project

There’s an eery sense of deja vu surrounding Real Madrid this summer. Ten years ago, they had a change of coach, pushed one of the less high-profile but better players out the back door – with whispers that they weren’t that good anyway – and brought in a British star they didn’t really need to tap into Anglo-Saxon markets. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

When Florentino Perez set about restarting the Galactico project in the summer of 2009, there was a sense that he had realised his mistakes. While it had been a success off the pitch, the marketing brilliance of Real’s policy had eroded little by little their play on it, and this time around, with Barcelona stronger than ever before, there would have to be a stronger focus on building a cohesive team rather than the “Disneyfication” Steve McManaman said of Perez’s first term. One of the Galacticos of the second term was a manager, Jose Mourinho, who was given far more power than a Madrid coach would typically have. The polarisation and overall failure in Mourinho’s tenure has left Carlo Ancelotti with a strong but moody squad and, ultimately, Perez’s first term remains his best.

Although he stood unopposed for his second term, Perez would have to work magic to wrestle the Real presidential seat away from Lorenzo Sanz, setting the tone for the ridiculousness of the club with him at the helm. Afters years of working with the club, Sanz had become president in 1995 with the club in a poor all-round state and, using his own money, made a considerable effort to turn them around. They were still a financial mess, but Sanz had put an end to the club’s long wait for another European Cup – 1998’s victory their first since 1966 – and added another weeks before the 2000 election. However, Perez had a trick up his sleeve: he publicly promised to bring in Luis Figo from Barcelona. It was laughed off – Barcelona were never going to give their greatest rivals one of the world’s best players – but Perez planned to force their hand. The buyout clause in Figo’s contract was £38m – all he had to do was pay that world record sum and Barcelona wouldn’t get a say in the matter. Figo was unhappy with Barcelona as it was, later saying “I didn’t feel recognised for what I was giving the club. I felt I was giving my all and I didn’t feel from the directors the recognition that I felt I should have had. I told them that – I was clear about it – and they took no notice. They thought I was bluffing”, and a hefty salary increase was enough to convince him to make the switch. Logic should have dictated that Sanz was re-elected but, well, Figo. Perez won the election on the back of his promise and in came the Portuguese who would win the Ballon d’Or by the end of the year.

They reclaimed the league that year, but the Galactico project was still in its infancy. Luis Figo was brought in, yet the other newcomers were less spectacular: Claude Makelele to steady the midfield after Fernando Redondo’s ill-fated move to AC Milan, the solid Cesar Sanchez as goalkeeper, and the hard-working Santiago Solari and Flavio Conceicao. It was broadly the same side that had success under Sanz, with one major addition.

With each passing season came a new major addition, however. Not long after Figo’s arrival, Perez found himself at a dinner with Zinedine Zidane and scribbled “Do you want to play for Real Madrid?” onto a napkin, to which Zidane replied “yes”. As the star of the Juventus side who kept losing in Champions League finals, Madrid had to break their own world transfer record to get him, but the most talented player of his generation would be lining up in Real’s gleaming white for their centenary year.

At this point the team’s overall formula was starting to take shape: Cesar Sanchez took a teenage Iker Casillas’ spot in goal after some poor form early on, while captain Fernando Hierro, who mixed concrete defending with wonderful, raking cross-field balls, partnered Ivan Helguera in front of him. This was somewhat problematic, as the two were very similar: both big and tall with good technical ability, yet also slow and immobile, although the galacticos were never really about defending. To their right was the solid Michel Salgado, never a galactico but never in danger of losing his spot, perhaps because no one wanted to face his wrath after telling him. On the other side was Roberto Carlos, one of the galacticos who turned up before the project had begun, his freakish T-Rex legs scampering down the left side.

Ahead of them was Claude Makelele, a player who has since been recognised as the key to Real Madrid’s success. Estimations of his abilities have perhaps been flung too far in the opposite direction, but his importance to that team has not. With world class attackers ahead of him who were a little unenthusiastic with their defending, Roberto Carlos and Salgado bombing on either side of him and Helguera and Hierro a good but not water-tight defensive partnership behind him, it was Makelele who gave some semblance of balance to the team. Salgado claimed “We did more or less what we wanted; he was the one that allowed us to”, Figo that “Makelele was the only one who ran backwards towards his own goal”, Zidane that “Makelele was the only one who always, always, kept his position. He never went forward. Never. He knew what he was doing. He was the reference point for the team” and Hierro that “Claude has this kind of gift – he’s been the best player in the team for years but people just don’t notice him, don’t notice what he does. But you ask anyone at Real Madrid during the years we were talking about and they will tell you he was the best player at Real. We all knew, the players all knew he was the most important” – every time the topic comes up, the team universally credit their victories to him.

The midfield spot next to him was the only one really up for grabs, but its best incumbent was probably Steve McManaman. Whoever was chosen was tasked with playing as a less rigid partner to Makelele, linking the defence to attack but more importantly giving a bit of energy to the midfield. Frequently it simply came down to shoehorning Guti into the team – the homegrown Madridista’s playmaker spot had been usurped by Zidane so, his striking spot also taken, he was simply having to make do.

Figo’s job was to roam down the right flank, while Zidane lined up on the left, yet was free to roam as he pleased, allowing Roberto Carlos the space to storm down the outside. They were to supply strike partners Raul Gonzalez and Fernando Morientes, whose mutual understanding was so great it inspired some rather homoerotic YouTube videos – Morientes leading the line while Raul floated around behind him.

For all their talent, the team seemed to heading to a miserable year: Zidane was struggling to deal with the pressure and Figo had a recurring problem with his ankle, Madrid finished third behind Valencia and Deportivo La Coruna and lost the Copa Del Rey 2-1 in a final the RFEF had moved especially to coincide with the club’s 100th birthday – Deportivo fans gleefully serenading the galacticos with a rendition of “happy birthday to you” as Diego Tristan wrapped things up. Their saving grace was in Europe, where they faced off against a horrendously unlucky Bayer Leverkusen side and Zidane quite literally plucked a goal out of the sky to bring them a ninth European Cup. Although everyone’s memory is of Zidane, it was Casillas who ensured Real Madrid’s victory, replacing the injured Cesar in the 68th minute then pulling off a string of spectacular saves to stop Leverkusen from equalising and win back his place in the side.

The next galactico to join was Ronaldo, fresh from scoring 8 goals to win the World Cup for Brazil. A string of horrific knee injuries had cut into the quick, powerful, dribbling player widely considered to be the best in the world and left him notably chubbier, but the Brazilian adapted his game to suit his new limitations, changing from a one man wrecking ball into the perfect man to sit on the defender’s shoulder. He was already an idol at Internazionale yet it wasn’t difficult to convince him to join Madrid: with each new galactico they added, the easier it became to talk the next one into coming.

With Ronaldo replacing Morientes, the 2002-03 side was the greatest version of Real Madrid in the Galactico era. They won La Liga, sneaking ahead of Real Sociedad in the penultimate game, and dropped out of the Champions League in the semi-finals against Juventus, which could have been so different had Figo not missed his penalty. There was more to them than just a glut of world class footballers: they were a smart team too, drawing the opposition onto them with short passing deep in their half, opening up space elsewhere for someone to pick out a through ball for the already racing Ronaldo to hit first time – a move they would repeat throughout the season.

Real Madrid players (white) pass the ball deep between themselves…
…drawing the opposition towards them
They continue to do this so the opposition seem to be cornering them
This drags several opposition players (red) into one area of the field…
…allowing Guti (blue) the space to pick out a pass for Ronaldo (yellow) who has already started his run
He hits it first time – not giving the defender the chance to get the ball, slow him down and wait for cover, or the goalkeeper to ready himself

The good times didn’t stay for long though. Just as Figo had felt under-appreciated, the very thing that allowed Perez to get elected in the first place, Makelele wanted a pay rise to reflect his importance to the team. He had been on less than €1m a year – a fraction of his galactico teammates’ wages – yet Perez didn’t want to pay any more to a defensive player. Figo and Zidane earned some of their wages back in shirt sales, but there weren’t many kids running around in Makelele’s number 24. The Frenchman departed to Chelsea, with Perez publicly rubbishing him: “We will not miss Makélelé. His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and ninety percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways. He wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres.”

The team was less confident. Vicente del Bosque was also inexplicably sacked that summer and it has been suggested that the likely cause was a rift with his higher-ups over Makelele, with loyalists Hierro, Morientes and McManaman, who had all backed an improved contract for Makelele, soon following him. The relaxed Del Bosque had been one of few coaches able to mould the Galacticos into a cohesive team and Makelele was the glue that held it together.

David Beckham was to be that season’s incoming galactico, but from a footballing viewpoint he didn’t make sense. Figo played on the right, where Beckham had made his name, and would either be forced onto the left or, more often than not, Beckham would go in the middle. Meanwhile, rivals Barcelona had brought in Ronaldinho – a player deemed to ugly to play for marketing powerhouses Real Madrid, but a better player than the much prettier Beckham. Perez didn’t even bother with a replacement for Makelele, Zidane, still in mourning, remarking “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?”

They went the season trophyless for the first time under Perez, haemorrhaging goals as a midfield duo of Beckham and Guti picked out some spectacular passes but offered little defensive security in front of an already questionable defence, a maturing Casillas overworked. Rafa Benitez’s crushing Valencia machine bested them in the league and Monaco, spearheaded by the on-loan Morientes, knocked them out of the Champions League.

Perez acknowledged the need to bolster the defence, bringing in the disastrously unlucky Jonathan Woodgate and granite-carved Walter Samuel, who, although a superb defender, was unsuited to being the leading organisational voice in the backline. There was also an attempt to bring in Patrick Vieira that was foiled by Perez’s unwillingness to pay substantial amounts for defensive players, eventually rather embarrassingly getting Thomas Gravesen in his place in January, although the Dane did reasonably well. They also brought in yet another Ballon d’Or winner when Michael Owen joined from Liverpool.

Again Madrid finished the season trophyless, and, on top of their continuing but declining defensive woes, Owen’s success gave a good indication to why. The Englishman had one of the best goals-to-minutes ratios in the league, but he was rarely played, stuck behind Ronaldo and Raul in the pecking order. Being behind Ronaldo was reasonable but Raul, now captain after Hierro left, was looking less and less like a galactico. The brilliant chipped finishes from the emerging years of his career made him probably the best Spanish player in history until their recent dominance of the game, but he didn’t even make that Euro 2008 squad that started it all despite being at an age where he should be in his prime, such was his rapid decline. Based on their form, there was no way Raul should have been starting over Owen, but he was the bigger name and Owen moved back to England after a year.

It was a frequent issue for each of Madrid’s coaches over the period. Despite being the most talented player of his generation, Zidane actually very rarely showed it, saving his brilliance for the big occasion, which left him making up the numbers for large chunks of his time in Madrid. Fine in isolation, but when they were all doing it Madrid were left missing half a first eleven. McManaman spoke of discussing the possibility of more playing time with Del Bosque, only for the Spaniard to say his hands were tied – he only picked the team to a certain extent, and he wouldn’t be allowed to play one of the smaller names at the expense of the money-makers. You were in the team on reputation, not on merit, and much of Perez’s success had been from making sure they knew it: the Zidanes were only able to have such high salaries because the Pavones who fleshed out the squad got so little.

They finished without a trophy the next year too, as bitter rivals Barcelona swept up a La Liga and Champions League double, but the Galactico project was pretty much dead as Perez gave way to Ramon Calderon. Figo had left on a free transfer to Internazionale the season before, Zidane was to retire after the World Cup, and big name signings gave way to lower key promising players such as Sergio Ramos, Julio Baptista and Robinho. The dream was dead. Perez had pulled Madrid out of their financial quagmire, but pushed them into a footballing one. Fabio Capello would offer a brief respite, yet to really sort themselves out they needed Perez to return with another round of galacticos. Whether he has really learnt from his mistakes this time around remains to be seen.

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