Money isn't everything

IT'S good to reflect that perhaps, after all, money isn't quite everything in today's polarised football.

GLANVILLEGlanville Col.

Real Madrid by spending a fortune on strikers, Ronaldo and Luis Figo, has been neglecting its defence. — Pic. FIRTO FOTO/GETTY IMAGES-

IT'S good to reflect that perhaps, after all, money isn't quite everything in today's polarised football. When Real Madrid easily beat a negative Manchester United in the first leg quarter-final at the Bernabeu, too many people grovelled at their feet. Yet only a few days later Real went down with a bang 4-2 in San Sebastian to Real Sociedad. Since when they have lost 4-3 at Old Trafford in the return leg to Manchester United, 5-1, always incredibly, at home to modest Real Mallorca and, after winning 2-1 in Madrid, 3-1 away to Juventus in Turin. It should also be said that like Manchester United, Juve were far too cautious and respectful in Madrid.

The point is that Real in recent years have spent the best or worst part of a staggering �100 million on three players, all of whom are attackers: Luis Figo of Portugal, Zinedine Zidane of France and Ronaldo of Brazil. Yet with a defence which sometimes seems as porous as a colander, Real have signally failed to win what they won last year; the European Cup, not even getting to the Final. Nor, for all the praise poured on them at times, have they remotely matched the European dominance of the club when Alfredo Di Stefano was supreme and the first five European Cups from 1950 on were won in a row, the final reached again in 1962.

The fact is that spending such fortunes on attack, Real had grotesquely neglected their defence. Not only were they manifestly vulnerable on their right flank but perhaps more embarrassingly still where once there had been such solidity there was now a great big hole appearing in the middle where the veteran skipper Fernando Hierro, back after months out with injury, was now not a bulwark but a manifest liability. Something which seems to have been wantonly ignored.

So for all their vast expenditure, Real were knocked out with something to spare by Juventus, themselves a club which have spent fortunes over the years — look now at Pavel Nedved, the midfielder who alas missed the European final — David Trezeguet, Lilian Thuram and Edgar Davids. Not to mention Zinedine Zidane on whom however they made such a healthy profit when they sold him to Real.

Polarity, alas, rules. The gap between the rich and the lesser clubs has never been so great and it is increasing all the time. But the superb season of Real Sociedad in the Primera Liga shows how an intelligent transfer policy and shrewd tactics can count for so much. Ranald Denoueix, the French former manager of Nantes who gave him the boot even though he had won them the Championship, has worked wonders in San Sebastian, where for much of the season they have been top of the table. Shrewd signing such as the Turkish striker Nihat and the Yugoslav Darko Kovacevic, once shown the door by Sheffield Wednesday, plus home grown stars such as the Spanish international left flanker Javier De Pedro show that it still can be done, that club as modestly provided as Real Sociedad can still flourish.

At the expense not just of Real but of Barcelona whose colossal spending, whose glittering array of stars, has not prevented them from slipping into the lower reaches of the Primera Liga. Just look at the talent they can call on, and which to be fair did enable them on a long unbeaten European run to reach the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup. They have the Dutchmen, Marc Overmars, Patrick Kluivert, Frank De Boer and the rest. They have the dazzling young Argentine attackers, Javier Saviola and Juan Riquelme. They have the ever durable and influential Spanish international, Luiz Enrique, not to mention such others, younger men, as Gerard, Mendieta and Puyol. Yet so poorly have they done in their own Championship that for once, catastrophically, European football will be denied them this coming season. In the quarter-finals they even lost in extra time to a Juventus team reduced to 10 men.

In England, the controversial birth of what is now called the Premiership was a colossal blow to the less wealthy clubs. I instantly named it the Greed Is Good League, and that is still how I see it. The huge amounts of Sky television money which poured into the Premier league meant that those clubs which managed to stay in it would become rich beyond the dreams of avarice, while those unlucky enough to slip out of it would lose millions of pounds. Thus the penalties for relegation, the prize for promotion, have become astronomical.

When a club slips out of the Premiership, it is faced by the dismal prospect that either it must release its top players or continue to pay them the vast sums they were already making, although television money is now negligible by comparison with what it was. All these exacerbated by the fact that ITV Digital Television, which had paid insanely over the odds for the rights to screen football from the lower, Nationwide, divisions, collapsed ignominiously and would pay no compensation to clubs which had somewhat recklessly relied on it.

So it is that we have had for years the dominance in the Premiership of just two clubs, Manchester United and Arsenal. Though Arsenal for all the money they have spent on their French stars, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira and Sylvain Wiltord, have signally and wretchedly failed to make any kind of impact in Europe, surely the ultimate criterion. And Manchester United this season, though spent hugely on such as Ruud Nistelrooy — with spectacular goal scoring results — couldn't in the end get beyond the European quarter-finals.

Go lower down the Premiership and you find London's Fulham, a club on which the Egyptian millionaire Mohamed Fayed has spent �100 million of which no less than �43 million went on transfer fees splashed out by the now dismissed manager, Jean Tigana.

Yet at the end of the season, the best Fulham could show for this and their expensive foreign stars — Steed Malbranque, Steve Marlet, Sylvain Legwiski, Louis Saha — was escape from relegation. And, significantly, the manager who saw they avoided it was not an expensive foreign import, but 32-year-old Chris Coleman, their former Welsh international centre half, who has now saved them money as well as relegation by changing his mind and accepting the job on a permanent basis.

You only have to look at what the veteran Guy Roux has achieved in France with Auxerre who humbled Arsenal in the Champions Cup at Highbury — to know that money still indeed isn't everything even if such clubs are perpetually forced to sell gifted players they have developed in order to survive. As indeed the Argentine clubs must continually and desperately do.