La Liga

Real Madrid have fashioned a world to suit themselves – but is it harming the rest of football?

Real Madrid have fashioned a world to suit themselves – but is it harming the rest of football?

Jude Bellingham is a central part of Real Madrid’s future (Getty Images)

Florentino Perez couldn’t have it any other way. On Monday, after a Spanish court gave the latest ruling on the Super League case, those in the Real Madrid president’s circle were very quick to insist to everyone that the judgment actually represented a victory for the project. This was despite virtually every legal expert considering the outcome meaningless.

Uefa currently sees no real threat from this iteration of the Super League. You just wouldn’t have guessed that from the response in Spain, where it was roundly portrayed as yet another victory for Perez. This is what he has become used to, his ambitions almost willed into existence.

You only have to look at European football’s current landscape, one that now looks set to be dominated by Real Madrid for a decade. It makes it all the more of a wonder why Perez is seeking to destroy it through the Super League.

This Saturday, Madrid expect to win their 15th Champions League. That would be more than double AC Milan’s seven, the next most successful club, who have been left for dust by the greater winds of football history.

The fear of a similar fate was one of the main factors that drove the Super League in the first place. Perez was scared that the world he had created was growing beyond his control, particularly due to the power of state-owned clubs. Neymar’s move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain had shocked him, as he feared similar for Real Madrid’s stars. He had been spooked by how much it cost in wages to keep the 2013-18 Champions League-winning squad together. Some of that was a little rich since Perez had initiated this era with a similar move for Luis Figo in 2000, while Madrid had dictated the size of the transfer market for years.

Real knocked out Man City and Bayern Munich to reach the final (Getty)

There were more legitimate frustrations with the outcomes of a series of financial fair play cases involving PSG and Manchester City, where the two clubs were perceived as getting off lightly on four different occasions. The Super League was fundamentally an attempt to co-opt and control the state-owned clubs, but one that is now widely viewed as “an act of desperation” rather than power. It duly ended in humiliating defeat.

That emotion didn’t last, and that wasn’t only because Perez is so brazen he doesn’t feel embarrassment. Madrid have instead turned that desperate defeat into a position of maximum strength.

The rich history from their 1950s dominance has been evoked throughout this modern period, as they have almost cast themselves as the anti-City. The two clubs certainly represent a duopoly that forms twin peaks at the top of the modern game, as illustrated by how their quarter-final was seen as the “true final”. Borussia Dortmund may have something to say about that on Saturday, but it won’t change the direction that football is going.

By the same token, there are two sides to Madrid’s return to prominence. One poses new concerns, the other a new admiration.

For all Perez’s obsession with galacticos, he had the foresight to relinquish some of this power. The realisation that Madrid couldn’t quite compete with mega-wages saw a move towards younger talent, especially from Brazil. Juni Calafat knew that market better than anyone, and was appointed as head of international recruitment, but has outgrown even that to become one of the most important figures at the modern Madrid.

New Brazil starlet Endrick will join Vinicius at Madrid soon (Getty)

The Brazilian has perfected this new philosophy where Madrid don’t buy stars but develop them. Five of the main starters – Federico Valverde, Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo, Eduardo Camavinga and Jude Bellingham – were signed as teenagers. Another two, in Eder Militao and Aurelien Tchouameni, were signed at 21 and 22, respectively.

Madrid essentially rebuilt the club by signing one player of high potential every summer. They have become a super-deluxe Dortmund. They’ve even got Endrick ready to rise.

Surprisingly for modern football, none of this is a result of any sophisticated structures or advanced analytics. Those who work with Madrid say it is instead almost a high-end simplicity. Calafat works off a small scouting network that he profoundly trusts and is willing to plan years in advance.

In the first team, Carlo Ancelotti brings everything down to the same simplicity.

The Italian isn’t interested in the ideologies that dominate the modern game, although staff like his son Davide focus on more modern principles such as when to press. From that, Ancelotti has an exceptional instinct for how a game is going and what to change, while being viewed as the last of an era in terms of man-management.

All of this has come together for a record-breaking team, and what might be another record-breaking season. It looks certain to produce that 15th Champions League; a fifth Spanish league and Champions League double; a fifth personal Champions League for Ancelotti as a manager.

Ancelotti led Real to the European Cup two years ago (Getty)

And yet excitement about Madrid’s return has been tempered by concern about what comes next. This season’s Champions League run hasn’t had the emotional defiance of 2021-22, where a transitional team’s victory was a surprise.

A 15th Champions League would be impressive but almost to the point that it’s just another number. It would be too far ahead of the rest of Europe to have any greater significance, partly rendering the changing of records meaningless. This is just more of the same, a common problem in football.

They’ve certainly been responsible for other numbers with even greater influence. Madrid have long been one of the biggest influences in pushing for more money to increasingly go to the biggest clubs. They were central to the drastic reforms of 2016 when the idea of Champions League “royalties” – prize money for past performance – was introduced. Madrid have naturally been among the main beneficiaries while persistently fighting for Spain’s domestic media rights to remain hugely imbalanced.

Perez, in the words of many who have sat in meetings with him, will never accept anything that isn’t guaranteed to keep Madrid at the top.

He has now overseen a shift where the club are back where he wants. Madrid are looking like repeat European champions, and about to pay a huge wage to the world’s best player in Kylian Mbappe. He will play in a refurbished Bernabeu, one that now looks like an NFL stadium inside. It has been overhauled in part thanks to American money, after a €380m deal with Sixth Street for 30 per cent of stadium operations.

The Champions League trophy in the Santiago Bernabeu (Getty)

This isn’t necessarily healthy for the game, since it allows indirect influence of this extreme form of capitalism on a club that is supposed to be member-owned. The reality is that the political structure has allowed Perez to act almost like an owner rather than an elected custodian. Madrid don’t even have elections now. Barcelona have descended from crisis to crisis.

From that, Madrid now look set up to turn LaLiga into Ligue 1 or the Bundesliga. A duopoly may well become a monopoly. Madrid are back to being the great white shark of European football. You just wouldn’t hear much debate about this in Spain because of the media-industrial complex around Perez and Madrid. This is the way he wants it. He has power across a range of areas in Spanish society, through football and into construction, politics and the media. “God wears a white shirt,” they are prone to saying. Perez’s word goes.

It makes the discussion around the Super League even more ironic. Perez complains that young fans may not want to watch in the future but that is in part because of the world he created. Unpredictability is being eroded.

We may see similar if Real Madrid win their sixth Champions League in 11 years. It starts to remove that excitement, the ilusion, as Perez puts it. The competition could certainly do with more varied winners. It could probably do with a Dortmund victory on Saturday.

That is unlikely because of the world Perez has refashioned. He has forged a new way. History is integral to what Madrid are as an institution, but it has also allowed them to own the future.


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