On June 24, 2003, two days after winning La Liga, Real Madrid held a press conference led by former player, manager, and then-sporting director Jorge Valdano. He sat alongside Enrique Sánchez, spokesman for a board presided over by president Florentino Pérez. Two days after winning the league, the club announced that it was firing its manager, Vicente Del Bosque, and letting go of captain Fernando Hierro.
The decision came on the heels of a very tense title celebration where many of the players expressed their disgust at the way Pérez ran the club.
The press conference was one of the most bizarre ones I’d ever seen at Real Madrid. Valdano was visibly uncomfortable, trying to explain the shocking decision in a conciliatory manner, saying, “all clubs need to refresh their squads every so often to avoid staleness and encourage new competition.” He said some nice words about Hierro’s immense impact at the club and that one night of unpleasantness didn’t erase 14 years of service. But then, Sánchez took over and said that the club was letting go of Del Bosque because it wanted to look for “tactical ideas that were more in line with these modern times.”
Valdano immediately cut him off, clearly surprised and annoyed by Sánchez’s comment, saying, “I don’t understand that concept… modernity is to play well and to win, and Del Bosque has done that.”
It was a small but telling detail into the way Florentino Pérez runs Real Madrid.
Florentino came into the club in 2000 with a massive splash: the signing of Barcelona’s captain and one of the best players in the world, Luís Figo. In those early days, life at Real Madrid was glorious. Barcelona was in a major institutional crisis under the disastrous leadership of Joan Gaspart, and it looked like Madrid was entering a long period of unprecedented dominance.
The good times lasted about two years. In the first season under Pérez, Real Madrid dominated in the league and reached the semifinals of the Champions League. Figo fit like a glove from the very first game of the season, forging a very tight bond with Raúl, who would be top scorer that season thanks in large part to the Portuguese superstar’s assists.
The following summer saw the arrival of Zinedine Zidane, making it clear the “splashy summer signing” was going to be a cornerstone of Pérez’s strategy. For the first half of the season, Zidane struggled to adapt, largely because his addition threw off the balance that had been achieved the year before. It was so bad that he received whistles from the Bernabéu faithful. Madrid would end up finishing only third in La Liga, nine points behind the champion, Barcelona.
The team put aside its disappointing league performances in Champions League, and everyone remembers this unforgettable moment in the final against Bayer Leverkusen, not the fact that a team of superstars was outplayed and needed a heroic performance from a 21-year-old Iker Casillas to eek out the victory.
That summer saw Pérez make a splash once again by signing World Cup hero Ronaldo. Again, Pérez brought in yet another player that the coach would be forced to play, threatening the balance of the squad. This time the players started to show their displeasure. Fernando Morientes, a popular veteran was going to be sacrificed to bring in the Brazilian forward. The club was desperate to move Morientes, trying to offer him plus cash to Inter Milan in exchange for Ronaldo and eventually coming to terms with Barça. On the eve of the Ronaldo transfer, Raúl played the European Supercup final against Feyenoord with a Morientes shirt under his own (right). Ronaldo eventually joined the club and won over his teammates through his jocular charm (and goals), but they didn’t forget how the club mistreated a player who many felt was a stalwart in the dressing room. A year later, Morientes was loaned out to Monaco, and his goals would knock Real Madrid out of the Champions League (cough, Morata, cough).
Real Madrid did not play particularly well in 2002-03. A team with Ronaldo, Zidane, Figo, and Raúl simply couldn’t find the right balance to control games. It became increasingly reliant on the brilliance of Iker Casillas in goal and Ronaldo’s timely goals. “Ronaldo y Casillas” became a common cliché among fans and the media. Tension began to rise as the team’s performances kept disappointing despite having arguably the three or four best players in the world.
The players and manager knew exactly why that was; the president and the board had a different idea. They blamed the coach, Vicente del Bosque, and the fact that he gave the “old guard” within the squad too much power.
The following is a quote from Florentino Pérez that appears in Jose Antonio Abellan’s latest book about Real Madrid. He claims that Pérez said this to him in a meeting in February 2007:
“By the way, they say Del Bosque is going to coach the Spanish national team? Right, what the National team needs right now is Del Bosque. Let’s see here, Del Bosque is not a football manager. It’s like when I say that Casillas is not a goalkeeper for Real Madrid, they think that I have something against them. I don’t have anything against Del Bosque. I sincerely believe that Del Bosque is the opposite of a football manager. The proof is that, if he were one, he’d be managing right now. The great players, the great managers, they play and manage in one or another team. But he isn’t managing a team because he is not a manager. He doesn’t have any of the requirements to be one. He doesn’t understand physical fitness, he doesn’t know tactics, he doesn’t know how to manage a squad, he doesn’t know anything. There was such a lack of authority when he was here… all of the problems that Real Madrid has come from his time here, especially since Figo got here and he became best friends with Raul. Between those two, and Hierro, they ran the squad. They were the real bosses there. Figo is the one who screwed up the dressing (room), he’s been a son of a bitch just like Raul, the two worst for Real Madrid. Poor Vicente (Del Bosque). Vicente was irrelevant. I won’t ever say it (publicly), but that is the truth. He has never led anything. Nothing.”
Shortly after, Pérez would unveil his next superstar signing, David Beckham. The signing had already been announced a week earlier, just before the team had to play a crucial match to wrap up the title. At that point, everyone knew that the signing made no sporting sense whatsoever, given that David Beckham had played his entire life as a right winger and Real Madrid already had the best right winger in the world. Pérez ignored those concerns. In fact, he doubled down, selling Claude Makelélé, the seemingly superhuman midfielder charged with holding everything together while the other galactícos did their thing, to Chelsea.
According to Pérez, Makelélé, “Rarely passed the ball more than three meters.” In his mind, Beckham could pass the ball very, very far and he would be totally fine filling in for Makelélé, despite the fact that he’d never played defensive midfield.
Then, much like this season, Real Madrid started off 2003-04 in fine form. This was despite the fact that the squad and starting lineup lacked any sort of balance, and players like Beckham, Raúl and Zidane were being asked to play positions they weren’t used to playing. When you have great players, you can get away with that for a few months, but eventually t other team’s figure out how to exploit the weaknesses.
Come 2004, Real Madrid collapsed over the last three months of the season. It lost in the Copa del Rey final to Zaragoza, was eliminated by Monaco in the semifinals of the Champions League, and lost six of its last seven games in La Liga to gift Valencia the title. For the first time since 1995-96, Real Madrid finished the season without a major trophy.
Now, six years into Pérez’s second spell as president, it’s almost impossible to not have a feeling of horrible deja vu. The club has parted ways with high performing players like Mesut Özil, Ángel Di María, and Xabi Alonso to make way for #marketing buys like Gareth Bale and James Rodríguez, asking them to play out of position in systems that don’t play to their strengths. Before the season started, I argued that it was going to be impossible to replace Di María and Alonso with the current players on the squad. Sadly, I was right, as Madrid’s showed time and again that it did not have the midfield to consistently compete against the best teams in the world. Real Madrid lost the Supercup to Atlético de Madrid, has taken only three points out of a possible 12 against Atleti and Barcelona, was eliminated by Atleti in the Copa del Rey, and couldn’t beat Juventus in either of the two legs of the Champions League semifinal.
Moreover, Florentino continues to have problems with captain Iker Casillas, who is probably going to be forced out, and Sergio Ramos, who he is hesitant give a long-term deal because he fears he may have too much influence in the dressing room.
Who Florentino decides to blame for all this remains to be seen. But if history is any indication he’ll blame the manager, Carlo Ancelotti, and the two leaders in the dressing room, Casillas and Ramos, rather than look in the mirror and blame himself for his own disastrous decisions.