Thursday, January 18, 2007

Real Madrid, Beckham and Mourinho: the Merengue soul

Sid Lowe's article speculating about the Real Madrid elections and the possibility of Jose Mourinho making his way over to Spain got me thinking. The comments on that article are well worth reading, by the way. Lots of good analysis, and some laughs too.

There are quite a few classy, astute comments from Madridistas, pointing out what they see as a loss of the club's 'soul' - the current decline in the dearly held values of not just a club, but an institution; because that's the position Real hold in world football. They have reason to feel unique and to be proud of a tradition of style, dignity and great success.

current situation

I won't go over the problems of the galactico project - absurdly small squad, no proper defensive midfielder, player power gone mad and so on, except to write a bit about a couple of things which happened after Florentino Perez resigned that has, according to my observations of comments made by the fans of clubs in the Italian and English leagues, affected Real's reputation aversely.

The two things I have in mind are of a fairly similar nature. The first was a massive mistake in both PR and practical terms by former president Fernando Martin, who stepped in after Perez resigned and who is thankfully no longer in charge. He famously announced to the press a short-list of seven candidates Real were considering to coach them in the 06-07 season. Leaving aside the effect this has on the stand-in coach and his squad, most of those on the list were already contracted to either a club or country job at the time (e.g. Ancelotti, Lippi, Eriksson, Wenger, Capello etc).

To put it bluntly, this was not smart. This amounted to tapping up coaches of important clubs and of national teams in a World Cup year en masse - and that's only for the audition process, persumably. Some of the clubs in question, especially, were not very happy. Martin's moment of madness was roundly condemned by the Madrid press.

The antics of the presidential candidates during the election were an extension of this. Admittedly, every club that holds elections features canddidates promising the sun and the moon - or at least superstar signings and a famous coach. The now-infamous Becks to Barcelona promise by Barca president Laporta when he was seeking election is one such example. But at least he had papers from Man Utd promising Beckham - it was the player himself, in this case, who didn't want to budge.

On the other hand, Arsenal weren't too happy about current president Calderon promised to sign Cesc Fabregas, while other candidates claimed they had made contact with Wenger. (After the Henry to Barca saga, they must be getting a bit paranoid about Spanish clubs.) Relations between AC Milan and Real were damaged by Calderon's continued insistence that he would sign Kaka, despite Milan's refusal to contemplate selling the player. Now Milan don't even want to deal with Real directly.

It also appears that this policy has not only alienated other clubs, but their fans as well. Ask any Arsenal fan how they feel about the whole saga with Arsene Wenger and Cesc, despite public and repeated denials from both. (I have to mention the Thierry Henry to Barca saga here least I sound like a hypocrite, but it does serve to demonstrate that presidents should just keep their trap shut. Laporta was the one going 'I'd love it if Henry played for us, but...' to anyone who would listen, while the technical director frantically issued denial after denial to anyone who asked. That, combined with the tendency of British tabloids to confuse speculation in the local papers to direct statements from the club itself (which they've also done with Real, although not in the election cases), led to a lot of annoyed Arsenal fans. Fair enough, although I have to say Henry didn't cover himself in glory with his dithering.)

My general point here is that doing your transfers this way just doesn't seem prudent. I much prefer the slightly more discreet approach taken to the South American mid-season signings, drawn out as some of the transfers were. This policy of just announcing who you're going to sign regardless of their avaliability simply - seems to me, anyway - lacks dignity.

Besides that, I wanted to touch on the ill-adviced squad policy sprawned by the galactico era. The first is illustrated by a great article someone once wrote in which they made a pretty respectable team out of players Real had discarded in the last 4 or 5 years. I realize that this exercise can be done with pretty much any other big club, but where else would you get an attack force of Morientes and Michael Owen (okay, Liverpool, but that's a different story), and a defensive midfield of Cambiasso and Makelele? Santiago Solari in midfield, Santi Canizares in goal (not that there's anything wrong with poor Iker Casillas)...I could go on.

Compounding that, loaning out the youth team's best player, Ruben De la Red, who if track record is anything to go by will not be coming back is in my opinion an example of the management's mishandling of the cantera. (More on this in my post about the cantera at Real and Barca in relation to other clubs around Europe. It'll be even longer than this post, I think.) The assertion that the current Real squad is 'brimming with Spanish talent' is a rather amusing one. (Do the likes of Raul Bravo, Pavon and Meija count as 'talent'?) In my opinion, the only team in Spain that description can properly be applied to is Valencia, who regularly field 8 or more Spaniards.

Awesome former coach Vicente Del Bosque - who was infamously sacked right after winning the league title - says that Real's current problem is a lack of leadership on the pitch, which causes a lack of direction and desire from the rest of the players. Now, whether that's an implied dig at the captains (Raul, Guti and Roberto Carlos) - but especialy flagship figure Raul - or not, he's got a point. (Del Bosque was also the guy who rightly pointed out that endless official proclamations of Real as the best team in the world is perhaps not a good idea. Especially when you're not perhaps convincing neutrals of that.)

Calderon's current squabbling with Florentino Perez over what he allegedly said to Berlusconi about Kaka can't be good, either. After all, Calderon was a member of the board during Perez's presidency, despite his denouncement of the galactico policy later. If this verbal war goes on (as it has with Perez both denying the charges and hitting back at Calderon), more dirty linen is going to be aired, and that's never good for image. Now Calderon's had to apologize, especially since his rant also contained a dig at the fans and the players. Just a suggestion, man: you want the fans on your side. (It also featured yet another promise to sign Kaka, but I think we're all used to that by now.)

Reportedly the players aren't happy, especially Guti, who was referred to in the rant as having been a 'promising' player forever (without ever making it into a full blown successs), which while true isn't the sort of thing you want to say in public, and Casillas, whose salary he revealed as an example of the disparity within the squad by comparing it with what the back-up 'keeper earns. I think the latter is slightly unfair. Iker Casillas is worth every cent paid for him, even if some of the other players aren't. How many times has he single-handedly saved Real's ass?

I know Calderon's comments were meant to be off the record, but for God's sake I've been to 'off the record' lectures by politicans (since I am exactly the type of student he might have been lecturing to, were I studying in Madrid, which I am not), and they never say anything they wouldn't normally say on the record. Is it not beyond him to think before he rants?

it's hard being David Beckham (really?)

Speaking of player treatment, I'll go over the current Beckham saga, but only briefly since so many others have covered it already. From the excellent Real blog All In White, Gonzalo's take is well worth reading.

Let's be clear here - the club had pretty much made it clear that Beckham was one of the players they wanted to get rid of before he announced his deal with the LA Galaxy. I don't see how he's wronged them there. So on an club management level Calderon's anger seems irrational and only serves to make himself and Real look, in the words of Owen Hargreaves, 'spiteful'.

What I really don't understand is Capello's stance on not playing him in the first place. Persumably the Italian knows that Becks isn't one of the 'bad influences' in the dressing room and has always worked hard. Also, I find it hard to believe a coach as experienced as he is has never worked with a player who was leaving at the end of the season. I just don't get what the problem is there. If Barca pursued this policy with Larsson (who was actually photographed in his hometown club's kit mid-season, not that anybody minded), we probably wouldn't have won the Champions League. It seems irrational on Capello's part, and again does not cover the club itself in glory.

Jose to the rescue?

If, as Sid asserts, Jose Mourinho is a popular choice with Madridistas because of his Barca-baiting (which he is admittedly very, very good at) then it not only disproves the notion that they don't care about Barca in the capital. It also raises the question of how many Chelsea games these guys have seen recently. If they think Capello's Real doesn't play good football, and I think they're being a bit unfair there, wait until they see the way things go under Mourinho. And that's not even going into the parts of his personality that (allegedly) have some around the club a bit concerned.

I'm also not sure Mourinho wouldn't balk at the restrictions he'd be under at Real where power is concerned, especially in regards to transfers. You sense he wouldn't hesitate to drop even someone like Raul, but I have a feeling that wouldn't go down well in the boardroom or the dressing room. Player power has waned a bit under Capello, but the very fact that he feels the need for a cleansing now, rather than at the beginning of the season, seems to demonstrate that he has come to see the extent of the disease that is the influence certain players (not Beckham) have that supersedes his own.

Oh the other hand, would he tolerate not being alone in the spotlight? At Real, like I've just mentioned, the club, the institution, is supposed to be bigger than any individual, which is why the galactico project was doomed to failure. It's the same at Barca. No coach can come to be seem as the figurehead and symbol of a club like the big two of Spain, like Mourinho was at Porto and then at Chelsea.

what price success?

In my opinion, it is important for a club with its own proclaimed identity and philosophy to hire a coach who fits into that ethos if they're thinking long-term. Del Bosque's political affiliation may have made the Real board uncomfortable, but he was as Madridista as they came, quietly proud of the colours and dignified about it.

This is why Barca got lucky with Rijkaard. Regardless of the current problems, he understands the ethos of Barcelona, that fundamental need for style and a positive reputation. Van Gaal didn't, and so he is remembered less than fondly by fans even though he won back to back titles, including the cup and league double. If you listen to way Rijkaard talks, his lexicon is all about 'leaving a good image', about ensuring the impression left by the team is positive regardless of the result. He's managed to articulate a lot of what Barca is all about, as well as express it on the pitch. Optimally, Real need someone who does the same for them. It's about a lot more than just results.

One of the candidates is talking about bring back Camacho for his third spell as coach, which I find hilarious (sorry) and baffling in equal measure. I know he's a hero at Real and a Madridista to the core, but weren't his first two short spells as coach there disastrous enough? Didn't he fall out with key dressing room figures, most of whom are still around, last time? The whole idea is so ripe for comedy that his other promise to bring in Michael Carrick pales in comparison. Carrick is a fine player who'd do well in Spain, but 1) he looks perfectly happy at Man Utd, who I bet pay better wages than Real, and 2) Carrick to Real Madrid? Seriously?

People were talking about Schuster last season, before the elections. He's just as mouthy as Mourinho (and just as amusing from a distance), but I think far less deceptively so, and he'd suit Real more. Being a former player there (as well as at Barca, funnily enough), he'd understand what the club is about.

starting point

Every single little conflict or problem is magnified into crisis at a club like Real Madrid when things are not going well. Trust me, us Barcelonistas know the feeling. While clubs like Real and Barca are great institutions, they also contain a certain neurosis beneath the pomp and arrogance. As soon as things start going wrong, cracks appear in the facade of eternal greatness and perfection, and it all just goes downhill from there.

The way I see it, there are 2 main ways of ending the internal squabbling at a club, at least to all outward appearances. Here's what won't work - purging the club of all your enemies. Sure, Barca president Laporta's done a bit of that, but it's only worked for him on the back of other factors which cure internal conflict. The only reasons he had such an easy ride in the elections this time around are 1) the support of the players and coaching staff on the football side and 2) success.

The latter is the most obvious way to stop unrest within the club. Even the bitter buggers who still yearn nostalgically for former president Nunez (who resigned, I don't know, 10 years ago) and attack Laporta/Cruyff every chance they get will stand up and get their 'Visca el Barca, Visca Catalunya' in when titles are won. They might even praise Rijkaard - essentially a Cruyff hiring - through gritted teeth. Everyone loves a winner, after all, especially if the victory comes in a manner satisfying to the club and its traditions.

The problem with this is obvious: usually, stability is needed to bring about that kind of success in the first place, and that's why stability is sought. So it becomes a vicious circle that can be difficult to break: disastrous season --> stupid, frantic spending --> financial ruin --> disastrous season and so on.

The other way to end internal conflict is to start with a clean slate. This doesn't always work and can in fact end in disaster, but it's worth a try if you have nothing else. The difference between this and purging is that the top of the power structure goes too, and it's not simply personnel which changes. It signals a new way of thinking, a new style of management, and most likely a change of guard in the squad as well. I'm referring mostly to the example of Laporta's Barca here, but it's very applicable to Real.

Laporta bought in a new, more business-like way of running the club, a new wage structure based on on-field performance as well as renewed emphasis on the club as an image and a symbol. Essentially he changed the entire coaching staff as well, and they in turn carried out spring cleaning on the squad once they had enough time to assess which ones were still useful. All of these policies has contributed to Barca's revival. Many would argue (including me) that Real need a similar rebirth, tailored to the club's own unique history and identity. After all, that's what distinguishes Real Madrid from any other club in the world - what fans call the club's 'soul'.

Note: I am a Barcelonista, but my comments above were made with objectivity in mind, as a general observer of the Spanish league. If I've erred at some point, I apologize and please do point it out.


Gonzalo said...

Excellent post as ever Linda, seems more like the beginnings of a dissertation than a simple article! I'm mostly in agreement (with a culé, wonders will never cease). Just a couple of things to point out.

I believe De la Red is no longer going off on loan to Zaragoza. What happens to him after June when his contract expires is another matter.

Mourinho and Real Madrid are just not made for each other. His style of football at Porto and Chelsea is just not what Real fans really want to see; getting rid of Capello for Mourinho is a case of 'out of the frying pan and into the fire', so to speak. His huge ego, while amusing from a distance would alienate the press, fans and management within minutes of arriving.

Assuming for a minute that Calderón is still there next season (not a given by any means), then all transfers would be conducted by Mijatovic, Baldini and the president himself (no matter what he says to the contrary). I can't see 'kaiser Jose' going for that.

As to the future, it's not looking good. It would have been difficult to do the player clean-out in the summer, as the elections went on protractedly and by the time there was any sort of outcome, it was late in the day to go around selling players and signing new ones. The idea was to have a transitional year and then do the clean-out this summer. Where it's all gone t*ts up is in the expectation management. Thinking that the fans would not stand another year with no trophies, they brought in Capello specifically for that reason. This is mainly where Barça and Laporta got it right and Real and Calderón got it wrong.

Even with the current long-overdue clean-out, the chances are we'll have elections before the season is out and another management structure to put in place, and another manager, and another lot of new players (do I sound depressed?). Only a run of good results from now until the end of the season and the possibility of one or more trophies could see the current incumbent stay at the helm. But I don't know if that's the best way forward...

soccermad said...

Nicely done again, Linda. I have to say I don't have much sympathy for Los Merengues. I think whenever you name a player you're going after, available or not, you increase your chances of NOT signing him. Any club that treats someone like they treated Vicente del Bosque (especially given his ability to drive home a common purpose amidst the massive egos) kind of has this coming to them. Having said that, I miss the circus that was Real Madrid a few years ago, and watching them now doesn't hold the same enchantment for me, only a slightly morbid wonder over how long it's going to take to get back to the top.

risingson said...

Hi Linda, my ongoing fixation with the Argentinean National Team starting line-up has no bounds. That being said, please send me your thoughts on who you think the starting line-up should be.

There's a post I put titled "Argentinean NT Formation"

Also, you'll notice I added you as a link.

If you know of anyone else that would contribute good ideas to this discussion, I would greatly appreciate it if you let me know. I want to open this discussion up a bit more with people who actually know what they're talking about. I'm kind of still starting out here in the blogworld.


Greg G said...

After the Beckham incident, all I can say is Los Merengues have no class, a beautiful ship adrift in the deep blue without a rudder and a captain. To think that this is the House of di Stefano and Puskas is truly sad.

Zaahy said...

Real Madrid needs to get rid of Capello a.k.a CRAPello and Bring back Vincent Del Bosque if they wana win any thing.