It has become a sign of spring: as swallows crowd the sky over Madrid, Real is eliminated at the knock-out stage of the European Champions League. Yet again, the richest club in the world has spent obscene amounts of money with the sole intention of winning the most important club competition in the world, but on March 10, they were knocked out from the last 16 for the sixth year in a row (in 2003, they were eliminated from the last eight). This time, they were brought low by Olympic Lyon, who beat them at home and tied them in Madrid. Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo, the FIFA World Players of the Year 2007 and 2008 respectively, who cost Real $205 milliion last summer, exited the Champions League with barely a whimper. Florentino Perez, president of Real Madrid, orchestrated the purchase, making Ronaldo the most expensive signing at the price of $105 for a six year contract, with a $1 billion buy-out clause. The spending spree eventually amounted to $350 million. Perez had already served a tour as Real’s President from 2000-2006, masterminding the galacticos approach to club management—buying the world’s best players at any price, regardless of the team’s actual needs, which is why Real always had a surplus of forwards and a shortage of defenders. Recently reelected (unopposed) on the platform of assembling a new galacticos team, Perez promised winning the decima—the tenth European Champions title for Real—to his Madridista constituency ever tormented by the mismatch between their delusions of greatness and Real’s seasonal failures. This spring, Real was eliminated with a goal by Miralem Pjanic, a nineteen-year old Bosnian who grew up in Luxembourg and probably cost Lyon less than Real’s starting line-up annually spends on hair care.
So, swallows twitter over Madrid, the air is full of vernal fragrances, and the local newspapers are viciously demanding the head of Real’s coach. This time around, the unfortunate head belongs to Manuel Pellegrini, a capable Chilean who was pried away from Villareal, which he had turned from a small-town club to a European contender—in 2006 they lost in the Champions League semifinals against Arsenal. To think that Pellegrini is to blame for this year’s debacle you have to be a habitually delusional Madridista, or live and feed inside Perez’s colon, or have failed to see the game against Lyon. After producing some chances in the first half—a few of them missed by Gonzalo Higuaín who wastes at least two for every goal he scores—Real was adrift in the second half, apparently expecting Lyon players to lie down and die before galactic greatness, and was promptly outrun and outperformed by the disciplined, committed Lyon team. Visible was the deflation of Real’s desire, embarrassing the lack of tactical discipline, palpable the absence of the team spirit. While Lyon made necessary strategic adjustments in the second half, playing like a re-tuned orchestra, Real’s galacticos indulged in tedious, off-key solos. Even the midfielder Guti (a divinity among Madridistas because of his fanatical club loyalty and meticulous hair care) noted afterwards the shortage of “team ethic.” And when Pellegrini, in an attempt to change the game dynamic, withdrew the ineffectual Kaka (whose season has been widely deemed as disappointing), Kaka’s agent pretty much instantly declared Pellegrini “a coward” in a tweet.
A non-delusional non-Madridista would expect that, after seven successive years of disappointment, some useful lessons could be sucked out of the sucking experience. Say, this: defenders matter because defending matters, so investing a chunk in a serious, rather than a cut-rate (Garay? Arbeola?), defender might be a good idea. Or this: managerial stability might be conducive to team spirit. In the twenty-four years during which Sir Alex Ferguson has been at the helm of Manchester United, Real Madrid has appointed 24 coaches, a few of them fired only to be hired again a few years later. Or this: hair care is vastly overrated. Witness Cris, the hairless Lyon defender who in the Madrid game put Ronaldo and Higuaín in his combless pocket.
There are so many lessons from the spring humiliation that could be learned by Señor Perez and Real, but learned they will be not. The galacticos approach always reminded me of what I read once about the ways they catch monkeys in some parts of Africa: a piece of juicy fruit is placed in a jug with a narrow opening, which is then left near the monkey feeding ground. The sucker monkey smells the fruit, finds the jug, puts the hand in it and grabs the fruit, but then cannot take the fruit out. Incapable of letting the fruit go, the monkey cannot run with a jug and is easily captured. Even if the monkey breaks the jug and escapes, it is likely to forget the experience and return for another piece of fruit, as do Perez and Real. For years now, one of the joys of following European soccer has been watching Real stick its hand in the jug, over and over again.
But this spring might be the last one for my seasonal schadenfreude. Real’s monkey business approach might be a model, alas, for the bleak future of European soccer. Many clubs, including a few big ones, are tottering under the weight of immense debt. When money was cheap, huge loans were taken out to finance the purchase of players at prices insanely inflated by the likes of Real and Chelsea. In England clubs took to courting investors, many of whom would borrow the money to buy the club and then transfer the debt onto it. The Glazer family thus purchased Manchester United which is now burdened with a billion dollar debt. Liverpool FC, now owned by Hicks and Gillette (not a Vegas comedy duo, actually), needs to find more than $100 million by July to service the loan they took out to buy the club. If they don’t find the money, which they probably won’t, there might by a fire sale of players—Chelsea is already sniffing around Fernando Torres, and Real might be interested in Steven Gerrard.
After the collapse of the global financial market, the flow of cheap—or any money—has dried up and insolvency is rampant among European soccer clubs. Many bubbles are bursting, and after the suds have dried there will be only a few big boys left standing, with the majority of valuable soccer talent on their books. The big Euro clubs might form something along the lines of the G14 group—an association of the wealthiest clubs that a few years ago threatened to form its own Euro league but was dismantled under the UEFA pressure. The big boys would form their own Euro league everyone would have to buy into, akin to the American sports franchise leagues (NBA, NFL, NHL), and then make exclusive TV and sponsorship deals, sucking the money out of the diminished market. Countless clubs with history and tradition but no access to money or TV would whither in oblivion. The same set of players and coaches would rotate through the limited number of clubs year after year, no club would ever be relegated, there would be few shock eliminations, and the sport of soccer would become entirely reliant on spectacle, celebrity, and hair care.
Thus Perez and Real might be in a very good position. Real is loaded with player assets, it is too big to fail, and even if the shaky Spanish economy collapses, Real’s monkey business might well outlive it, as the club is the biggest global brand name in soccer, not least because of the galactic fame of its stars. Perez’s consistent ignoring of the spring lessons might thus turn out to be visionary consistency. Real Madrid might just be on the verge of eternal summer: a juicy fruit on every branch, all the jugs broken, moneyed monkeys ruling the world.
Aleksandar Hemon is the author of The Lazarus Project and Love and Obstacles. He will be writing many more soccer columns for The New Republic and will participate in our upcoming World Cup blog.