Bernabeu shooting stars

ON March 11, 2004, residents of the City of Madrid were angry and hurt.

N. U. Abilash

Michael Owen... a real talent wasted.-

ON March 11, 2004, residents of the City of Madrid were angry and hurt. A train bomb had gone off in the nerve centre of the city, killing 191 people and injuring many. They are the targets of their own countrymen in the north, the Basque separatists, the then President Jose Maria Aznar, had told them. Truth soon came to light that their President was wide off the mark — that they were actually caught in the middle of a grotesquely violent exchange going on in many parts of the world between an invisible terrorist network and a ubiquitous Superpower State, which controlled their President. Exactly a year after the tragedy, a team of gifted individuals, who strut the globe claiming to represent the city, expressed their emotions thus on their Website about the tragic event: "We will not forget... "

It is certainly doubtful whether Beckham, Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo, Raul, Roberto Carlos and Owen have read high-brow literature. But, the narrative strategy made famous by novelist Salman Rushdie — the telling of political history as an allegory of personal lives — is fairly obvious in the players' reaction. The club's superstars will certainly have nightmarish memories of March 9, almost akin to the way March 11 has been registered by the residents of the city.

Many ageing Real Madrid superstars knew that the moment of downturn for their plush careers had come with three minutes of extra time remaining in their European Champions League clash with Juventus on the night of March 9, 2005, when a strike from Juventus Marcelo Zalayeta eliminated their club from the Champions League. Juventus's blow came when Real Madrid's arch-rival and symbol of Catalan pride, Barcelona FC, had a runaway lead in the La Liga which, for all practical purposes now, is too huge for the second-placed club to bridge.

With the club, thus, going without any silverware for the second successive season, the recruitment policy of the club President Florentino Perez has come under attack from the club's fan base across the world, the Spanish press and Madridians.

Florentino Perez, president of the club from 2000, still defends his signing policy, widely referred to as the `Galacticos Policy' by the English press and rather derisively referred to as `Zidane y Pavones' by the Spanish press after the best and the worst aspects of the Real Madrid side after Perez became the club top dog. (Pavones was a defender in the first-team who came through the club's junior programme — the underlying implication being that the club either had superstars or players just out of the junior ranks.) "I defend to death my policy of the Galacticos," said Perez, after the defeat to Juventus. "It is the only possible economic and sporting model for the club. We have higher revenue than expenses and it's an achievement... now all our players are paid for at the right time. Very rich Russian and Arab people have come here wanting to buy clubs. This model allows us to be independent. We have the best players and the best image in the world."

With Barcelona likely to emerge La Liga winners, Perez is soon going to face the music from stakeholders in the club as well, which includes the Madrid administration which pulled the club out of the brink of financial collapse in pre-Perez days in 2000 by buying its training ground and its famous Bernabeu Stadium.

In the age of television takeover of European football, emergence of global football brands, the Bosman Ruling et al, Perez may indeed have struck on the best economic model. But, the question that will resound in Madrid over the coming months is whether it is any longer a good sporting model. To be fair to Perez, there was a period in 2001 and 2002, climaxing in Zidane's wonder goal in the 2002 Champion's League final against Bayer Leverkeusen, which was hailed as the apotheosis of the Galacticos model, which Perez described as the policy to bring one superstar a season to the club. (Figo joined in 2000, Zidane in 2001 and Ronaldo in 2002.)

But, with Perez's decision to sign David Beckham in 2003, it was evident that the crucial element of team balance was given the go-by in favour of global business. A team that had Figo, Europe's best player on the right of the midfield, actually signed the continent's second best player on the right of the midfield saying they will find a less familiar role for the English superstar in the centre of the midfield!

If that was not enough, Perez signed the second biggest name in English football in 2004, Michael Owen, when the club had two performing strikers in Raul and Ronaldo! Though Raul has had a disappointing season and Ronaldo a pretty average season by his high standards (though he is the club top-scorer with 12 La Liga goals and three European goals), Owen has played just 1,200 minutes of football this season and it has been a colossal waste of talent considering the nine goals he has scored whenever he has had chances coming off the bench.

The repeated use of Zidane in the left of the midfield this season has also confounded many considering that he has been the star of Real's campaigns in previous seasons as an offensive central midfielder. Though the ageing Frenchman has not been in good form this year, he has been pursued in his unfamiliar role when he has failed to combine well with Roberto Carlos, the defender on the left who has failed to come up with his surging runs consistently down the left flank as is his wont. It is said that in the process of negotiating positions with the superstars (not just contracts are negotiated with them), the three different coaches this season for the club have given a raw deal to players such as Santiago Solari and Guti, who have been described as "middle class players" in the club set-up.

Solari, a left-winger by choice, has only been sparingly used in his position this season, and Guti has mostly been relegated to the bench even though many thought he was the best player of the team in the few occasions he played in the central midfield. This is in contrast to the last two seasons when Guti has been used just behind Ronaldo and Raul. It must be recalled that one "middle-class" player, Claude Makelele, who got a rough deal at Madrid, is now a vital player in the central midfield of Chelsea.

Three coaches, rampant racism by fans at the Bernabeu, ageing injury-prone superstars on long contracts, clashes with the two former coaches and a rebellion against general manager Arrigo Sacchi's training programme believed to have been masterminded by the superstars, an open admission by Perez that Ronaldo "may have some vices"... it has been a long haul for Real Madrid this season.

It is widely speculated that a frustrated Owen will be back in the Premiership next season. Zidane has said he will hang up his boots "at the latest by 2007", when his contract expires, and it is likely that he would bring the date forward if he finds himself to be in Real's transfer list before that. Club long-timers Roberto Carlos and Raul are most likely to be on their way out (though they still have three and five years of their contract left), and it is even speculated that Ronaldo may be sold for disciplinary reasons. On top of all this, Beckham has admitted to a threat perception that he will be on the transfer list come May though it is unlikely that it may be so because Figo has only a year left of his contract and the club would want to put him up for sale before he becomes a free agent. Even if Real does not put up the England captain for sale, it is now likely that Beckham may want to leave Madrid because of his children being stalked by the paparazzi.

At the end of the season, Perez may have to take a leaf out of the books of the people of his city, who with quiet resolution helped the rest of the country vote out President Aznar within a month of the disaster. For Perez, the solution will not be in firing coach Wanderlei Luxemburgo but in giving up his pet policy once and for all.