‘Hasta el final’ or ‘Until the end’: So goes the slogan proudly displayed by the Santiago Bernabeu faithful after every match. This slogan may be slightly puzzling, and even seems contradictory, for other football fans who view the “Bernabow” faithful as a notoriously fickle bunch, the kind who tend to boo their own players when things are not going their way.
To understand Madrid, a certain historical perspective is required along with a certain sprinkling of Spanish culture. The Madristas can be broadly classified as ‘Ultras’ and the ‘prawn sandwich brigade’. The former still look upon the Franco era nostalgically whereas the latter come there to be entertained. The Bernabeu, often referred to as the ‘White Coliseum’, is exactly that. It is an arena, where the fans are spectators and the players like gladiators who are there to entertain the crowds. Winning is regarded as a divine right and the players better deliver it. But, the spectators don’t just demand a victory, they demand a spectacle.
Despised by some, worshipped by others
Football in Spain can take on extremely political overtones and victories aren’t forgotten and defeats aren’t forgiven. One only needs to look across the city at Atletico Madrid to get a perspective of the gulf between the two sides, or at arch-enemy Barcelona’s youth academy (La Masia) and their policy of playing the beautiful game that Madridistas scorn. By even the most moderate of accounts, ‘hatred’ is what is used to describe the feelings of Madristas towards the Catalan outfit.
Despite the ‘hatred’, Madridistas can also be good sports. They seem to love and appreciate good football and they know a special player when they see one. Ask Del Piero, their arch-nemesis or Ronaldinho who was given a standing ovation by Bernabeu after he had single handedly destroyed Madrid’s dreams. One thing is for certain: It is very difficult to win the affection of the Madristas, especially if you play for a rival, but once you get it there’s no turning back.
The last 8 years have been a roller-coaster for the Madrid side. This era can be deemed the “Perez” era, even though the man himself presided over only for a relatively short time. Still, his shadow looms large. From outlandish election promises to merry-go-round of coaches to continuous influx of new players, everything took place was constantly under Perez’s shadow. Everyone struggled to live up to the larger than life persona of Perez and so did the players themselves. Even when he wasn’t there, he was still making decisions for the club.
Zidane was well worth his transfer fee
From sacking UCL winning coaches to allegedly rigging presidential elections, everything associated with Real is dramatic. One does suspect that Del Bosque did not fit into Perez’s grander scheme of marketing where it was equally important for the coach to create an atmosphere of a carnival around the club. Everything was supposed to show off the club’s vibrancy and legacy. Some believe Pellegrini was sacked even before the season had begun. His lackadaisical and calm persona was remarkably similar to that of the unassuming Del Bosque. Now, with the arrival of the suave Mourinho, the club finally has a manager who reflects their status and the media have their own Prince Charming who hands them one sound bite after another.
The infamous ‘Galactico’ era has been analyzed and broken down by every pundit worth his salt. All of them agree that it truly remained an era of paradoxes. An era where Real Madrid climbed to the top of money charts despite winning nothing. Where every single day a new superstar was supposed to flaunt his skills at the Bernabeu and every new coach was supposed to be the ‘the chosen one’. And yet, year after year, Real came home empty handed, in serious danger of obliterating their entire legacy.
A former Real Madrid and Portugal coach, Quieroz once insisted “A Ferrari can’t run without tires.” But the tires had been sold off to pay for the spoiler. To Queiroz’s credit, he did note that his brilliant forwards notwithstanding, there were serious problems at the back.
Arrigo Sacchi, a legendary manager in AC Milan, once revealed: “One day, I said to the president Florentino Perez: ‘What would your ideal starting 11 be?’ He put Beckham at right back and Zidane at centre back because he had so many attackers.” Sacchi claimed that he walked away because he didn’t want to keep on “stealing” from the club, getting paid handsomely for performing an irrelevant role. “The president never let himself to be advised by anyone,” he said.
Whatever went wrong was supposed to be the coach’s fault. “If a player turned up drunk, it was the coach’s fault. If a plane went down in Colombia, it was the coach’s fault,” Sacchi said. Yet, as any reasonable man will concede, the coach couldn’t control the plane – or, more importantly, the player.
The Galactico model was non-negotiable and demanded that the players be seen as untouchable Greek gods. The players were the stars — in Perez’s own words, they were “investments,” necessary for the financial success of the whole project. They were to be seen as Madrid’s patrimony. The model demanded style as well as success, glamour as well as guts. Perez talked about winning converts, about the “evangelization” and “universalism” of the club. They were a fantasy football team.
Often, fantasy was the buzz word but for the coach it could often leave a bitter after taste. There was little the coach could do to prevent that attitude because the players had a direct line to the president. He didn’t. When one superstar player snapped during training “Who are you to tell me what to do?” the conclusion was inescapable: the coach was no one. “I am just an employee”.
But sometimes, even the greatest have to climb down from the crumbling edifice of their pedestals and accept their fallibility. They have to accept and do certain things that were deemed unthinkable a few years back. They have to re-build from the scratch and labor like a common man rather than float about like a millionaire.
This brings us to the present era of Perez, and a look at him in his newest avatar is all that’s needed to see Perez seems to have turned over a new leaf. When he announced Mourinho’s arrival Pérez said simply, quite accurately: “Madrid’s identity is winning”. That is what Madrid must do now and to do that it must allow for a new approach. Mourinho is all about results. Perez bought the best players in the world, now he has bought the best coach. And that coach comes with conditions. During his presentation this week, he announced, in the third person: “Jose Mourinho will always be Jose Mourinho.” That means getting his way. And that is the crux of the issue.
Has Perez finally met his match?
Madrid has turned to Mourinho as it turned to many coaches in the past, but this time something is different. This time, the coach will be able to do things his way. This time he will have the authority. This time, it is all about the coach. The first thing the director general Jorge Valdano did when he presented Mourinho was to offer a very public apology for having once likened some of Mourinho’s football to “s**t on a stick”.
How long this new found humility at the helm of the club will last is anyone’s guess. As long as Mourinho brings in the silverware, Perez and his henchmen might well have to continue to swallow their pride and resist the urge to control the club. If Mourinho fails to work his magic at some point in the future, he might also find himself falling prey to the power games that characterize Madrid. But whether he, the eternal journey-man that he is, stays long enough at the club to become a villain is anybody’s guess.
– Prakhar Deep Gupta