It isn’t difficult to understand why there are times when Real Madrid, with all their haughty self‑importance and the inescapable sense that they always seem to get their way, leave some of the other clubs at the higher end of the sport filled with moments of insecurity.
There are plenty of other great clubs who regard European domination as a legitimate ambition. Yet none, perhaps – not even Barcelona – have the same kind of magnetic attraction for the game’s superstars. None of the other superpowers seem so sure of themselves, bordering on a superiority complex, when it comes to luring their targets. No other club take more pleasure from flexing their muscles and reminding everyone about the order of merit that exists among the elite.
“Madrid paid £80m in cash, and do you know why,” Sir Alex Ferguson writes of Cristiano Ronaldo in his last autobiography. “It was a way for Florentino Pérez, their president, to say to the world: ‘We are Real Madrid, we are the biggest of the lot.’ It was a clever move.”
Ferguson, you might recall, was so incensed by Madrid’s pursuit of Ronaldo throughout the preceding year that he brought up the fascist dictatorship of General Franco to argue his point that one of the great sporting institutions was, in fact, morally bankrupt. Ferguson’s press conferences around that time presented the image of a man who refused to be cowed, leaning forward in his chair and promising he would “not sell a virus” to “that mob”. Ferguson, perhaps the greatest actor football has ever produced, struck a pose that day that Al Pacino would have been proud of. But it was all for show. Secretly, there was a gentleman’s agreement with Ronaldo, he just didn’t admit it until a few years later. “I knew full well that if they produced the £80m he would have to go. We could not block his fervent wish to return to Iberia and wear the famous white shirt of Di Stéfano or Zidane.” And Madrid, once again, got their man.
This is the problem for United now the relevant people at the Bernabéu have realigned their sights on David de Gea, even if it is also true the goalkeeper spent his early football years at the Vicente Calderón, home of Atlético Madrid, where the tribuna lateral held up thousands of red and white cards before their latest encounter with Real to make its point in a huge, defiant mosaic: Orgulloso De No Ser Como Vosotros. Translation: Proud of not being like you.
It was a nice put-down and that kaleidoscope of color, with the Almudena cathedral on the skyline, was a wonderful reminder why the old place will be missed when Atlético upgrade this summer to their new stadium out by the airport.
The bottom line, however, is that it was Zinedine Zidane’s players who finished the night doing knee-slides on the rain-soaked pitch. The club where Jorge Valdano once said you could never have too many stars even have a galáctico managing them now. They have won the European Cup 11 times, four more than Milan and six ahead of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Liverpool on the next rung down, and los blancos could add another when they meet Juventus in Cardiff on 3 June. If so, it will be the third time in four years that Madrid’s ribbons have adorned that 17lb hulk of silver. Of course De Gea must be intrigued. Of course there are temptations. How, possibly, could anyone think there are not?
That must be an alarming prospect for United if the club are serious about re-establishing themselves among the elite and Chelsea are probably entitled to a few concerns of their own when Madrid have also been fluttering their eyelashes in Eden Hazard’s direction.
Madrid might be a chaotic place sometimes – six managers and more crises than they will probably care to remember during David Beckham’s four years at the Bernabéu – but this is still the nearest football has to the Harlem Globetrotters. Or as the headline in USA Today once put it: the Yankees of Soccer. It isn’t easy for any player to say no.
There is, however, no rule in place that dictates other clubs must dance to their tune and it would be a pity if United and Chelsea do not have the will to stand up to Madrid at a time when the Premier League needs this kind of players and Match of the Day, a show with natural urges to make the sport feel exciting, had a debate recently about whether England’s top division had lost its stardust.
Chelsea, to give them their due, have already made their intentions clear. Hazard might have finished behind N’Golo Kanté when it comes to the season’s individual honors but the Belgian would have been a worthy recipient of the footballer-of-the-year awards. He would be an ideal wearer of Madrid’s colors and it makes perfect sense that Chelsea, with high ambitions of their own, have already initiated talks about replacing his existing contract, which runs until 2020, with a longer one that would reinforce his position as the club’s highest‑paid player.
United’s position with De Gea is not quite so clear but surely this is a time when they have to shut the door on Madrid if they have serious thoughts about returning to a position where their idea of success is something far more elegant than huffing and puffing through the Thursday-night-Sunday-afternoon churn of the Europa League.
De Gea has won his club’s player-of-the-season award for each of the three previous years. He is 26, which is still relatively young in goalkeeping terms, and approaching what should be the best years of his career. Most important, he has a contract until 2019 and there is an option his club surely should take to extend that by another year. United had to wait a long time before they found someone who did not make them pine for Peter Schmeichel; now they have that man it makes little sense that they would contemplate losing him.
Putting up those barriers will clearly not be straightforward if De Gea makes it clear that he wants to go and, unfortunately for United, he could be forgiven for wondering what adventures might have been possible had his proposed move to the Bernabéu in 2015 not fallen through at the last minute.
Hazard might have grown up with Zidane as his football hero and he might have made it clear that one day he would like to play in Spain, but his current club have just won the league and could turn that into a Double when they meet Arsenal in the FA Cup final a week next Saturday. He is the player, more than anyone, who opponents worry about the most. Chelsea have the Champions League in their thoughts again and even, hypothetically, if he asked to leave, the Premier League’s newly crowned champions should do everything they can to stop it happening.
The encouraging part for Chelsea is that there has been nothing to indicate that is in Hazard’s mind. United, however, are on the next rung down and, though the attractions of playing for England’s biggest club are obvious, De Gea is part of a team that have finished, in order, seventh, fourth and fifth over the previous three seasons and now look like coming in sixth.
The process of recovery, post‑Ferguson, has been slow and Roy Keane has described United’s league position, 22 points from the top, as an embarrassment for his old club. United are trailing one of the worst Arsenal sides of the past 20 years and are about to finish behind Manchester City for the fourth consecutive season, the first time that has happened since the early 1970s. Keane may have an old grievance against José Mourinho – and United as a whole – but that doesn’t make what he says wrong.
The one thing United have never lost, however, is their desire to get back to the top. This is a time when they, and Chelsea, need to dig in their heels because the alternative would not only undermine their chances of future success, it would also look like a white flag. This is what enraged Ferguson so much during the Ronaldo standoff: that Madrid were making them look weak. That one was a world record transfer fee. In another sense, it was one of the worst pieces of business United have ever pulled off.
Wolves look at risk of misdirection
Arsène Wenger sounded peculiarly out of touch with the modern sport when he said there was no place for a director of football at Arsenal and declared he did not even know what the position was supposed to entail. “Is it somebody who stands in the road and directs play right and left?” Wenger asked. “I don’t understand and I never did understand what it means.”
It’s quite straightforward, really – as Wenger probably knows – and it can actually be a useful role when managers at a lot of top clubs are simply too busy working with their teams to be flying around the world on scouting missions, negotiating transfer business, dealing with agents and a multitude of other tasks.
Wenger seemed to think it would mean signing players he didn’t necessarily want but the secret, generally, is to find someone who works alongside the manager, rather than against him, and when it happens that way there is plenty of evidence that it is something clubs should embrace rather than be afraid of.
Unfortunately it is easier to understand Wenger’s misgivings when there are so many clubs that cannot get the balance right and managers are marginalized when it comes to identifying the players that might just keep them in a job.
The latest is Wolves, where Paul Lambert has apparently been informed that Jorge Mendes – a football agent, last time I checked – will take control of the club’s transfer activity this summer.
Mendes does not have an official title at Molineux but that clearly does not matter when the man who represents Cristiano Ronaldo, among others, has an “in” with the club’s Chinese owners. How that qualifies him to pick the right players for a season in the Championship is anyone’s guess but that appears to be the plan and Lambert has duly found out that his own targets will probably be scrubbed because Mendes has an entirely different wishlist.
This includes a number of foreign players Lambert has never heard of and, not surprisingly, he is now considering whether this is a club where he wants to be employed. Keep an eye on Wolves next season: amid some stiff competition they seem utterly determined to be thought of among the Championship’s more harebrained operations.