Florentino Pérez might be an idiot, at least it when comes to matters on the field, but off of the pitch, he could be a genius. Therein lies the double-edged sword that defines the Real Madrid president in his time at the helm of the world’s biggest club.
In the past week “Uncle Flo” has been universally panned for his impulsive firing of Carlo Ancelotti, who’s been replaced today by a far less desired Rafa Benítez. The former Valencia and Liverpool coach now has the dubious honor of being the 90th coach to serve under Pérez during the embattled president’s 12-year reign.
For many fans, this may prove to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, though the heavy vitriol levied at Pérez could soon become an afterthought. After all, this has happened before. It’s all part of an approach that maintains a precarious balance between success and failure; part of what makes Pérez such a difficult figure to define.
Off the pitch, he has proven to be a visionary, Long before oil oligarchs and airline moguls became the norm, Pérez created the blueprint for the modern, global club, one that valued success off the field as much as victory on it (sometimes, perhaps even more so). For every swashbuckling, ego centric, team-debilitating move he’s made, Pérez has countered with a brilliant commercial move in the boardroom, many of which have secured the long-term future of the club.
To truly measure this, we must return to the first days of his presidency. In 2000, on the back of two Champions League titles in three years, former Madrid president Lorenzo Sanz called elections early. Like Pérez, the cigar-smoking Sanz was another president shrouded in polarization, under whom Madrid finally broke its 32-year Champions League drought in 1998. But while the team flourished in Europe, Sanz was busy running Madrid’s finances into the ground. Still, he was bullish about his re-election chances, working under the assumption that his trophy-laden reign would be enough to see him through.
But Madrid’s fans were worried, not only about the team’s league form (during Sanz’s reign, Madrid finished outside the top two three times, even finishing as low as sixth in his first year in charge) but also about the long-term stability of the club. Enter the relatively young upstart Pérez, who promised to alleviate the club’s financial burden. Perhaps even more importantly, Pérez, pandering heavily to the emotions of the fans, promised the arrival of Barcelona’s Luis Figo.
In hindsight, it was the perfect cocktail for victory. Figo’s then record-breaking move remains one of the most fascinating coups in soccer history, with Joan Gaspart, then president of Barcelona, reacting with scathing criticism: “I’ll not forget this. Whoever is responsible for this will pay for it. We’ll see how and when.” Not surprising, as Henry Winter of The Telegraph summed it up in 2000: “He [Figo] had offended not only a club but a culture. His £37 million summer move was not a transfer but an act of treachery towards Catalonia.”
Pérez lived up to his financial promises as well. For a club on the brink of financial ruin, he arranged the re-zoning of Madrid’s training ground in a deal with the Spanish government for 500 million euros, clearing Madrid’s debt and paving the way for Pérez’s first “Galácticos” project. He also completely renovated the Santiago Bernabéu, created a new sports complex in Valdebebas and opened the Alfredo Di Stéfano stadium. The Bernabéu, in particular, was a specific goal of Pérez, who had vowed to improve the comfort of the historic stadium, the quality of its facilities and to maximize its revenue.
As a result, Real Madrid is currently valued by Forbes as the richest club in the world, a distinction it’s held for the past three years. The strategies of venturing into Asia at a time when that market was relatively untapped and securing 50-50 splits of star players’ image rights were innovations. As outlined this 2006 research paper:
“After the arrival of Florentino Pérez, Real Madrid, with its huge commercial apparatus, has become responsible for approaching and negotiating with large commercial brands. Real Madrid pioneered this system in Spain, with Figo being the first player to cede his image rights to the club. The soccer players signed subsequently, football stars Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, and Beckham, have followed the same process.”
Pérez was always aware of the impact of his market-altering deals. “As far as transfers go, there is no such thing as cheap or expensive,” he said once. “A hundred million euros can be cheap and €20 million can be expensive. Zinedine] Zidane cost €73 million and he was the cheapest player.”
In terms of trophies, Pérez’s plans proved far less lucrative. Madrid’s run from 2003-2006 would be barren. Pérez eventually resigned, claiming the transfer policy that had spent prodigiously to bring so many marketable names to the Bernabéu had been a failure, and that the club needed a “change of direction.”
When he returned in 2009, however, it was more of the same. That summer saw Cristiano Ronaldo, Ricardo Kaká and Karim Benzema join the club. Always one for the grandiose, it’s was as if Perez condensed three transfer windows into one, undertaking what was then the biggest single-window spending in world soccer history.
It was the revival of this almost Frankenstein-ian Galácticos ideology has now permeated all factions of the club. It’s toxic and dangerous, and though it’s rarely blown up visibly, the perils always bubble under the surface. It’s an approach that’s executed with the tact of a teenager messing around in FIFA 16’s career mode, constructing star-studded squads, without regard for tactical fit or chemistry. It’s a policy that leads to whistling at the stadium and coaches who feel pressure — explicit or implied — to play star players regardless of form.
This season Ancelotti seemed to have his hands tied with some of his lineups. Who is brave enough to leave a Galáctico on the bench?
Still, to reflexively call for Pérez’s head is to defect from what Madrid has become. It ignores Flo’s duality, overlooking that the same wandering eye that can’t resist a new coach has built a financial monster. If fans wish to decry his meddling, they should then remain silent when those flashy star players sign for the club. Pérez’s aptitude to grow the club can’t be separated from his desire to inflate the squad.
But a mass call for his head is hardly likely to happen, as Pérez maintains a tight grip on supporters’ allegiances. People cried when Mesut Özil was sold, even pleading for him at Gareth Bale’s presentation (note Pérez gesturing that they should remain silent), but within weeks Isco was the toast of the town. The German became a forgotten relic of a time gone by. Ángel Di María’s loss was heartbreaking for a couple weeks, and then James Rodríguez was all the rage. Pérez knows he can play right into the emotions of a fanbase that has developed a Stockholm Syndrome-esque relationship with fickle president.
That doesn’t make Pérez’s duality any less baffling. For all his financial aptitude, Pérez can’t seem to comprehend that his methodology just doesn’t work on the field. In business, it’s good to constantly be adaptable, but a squad cannot thrive in a state of perpetual motion. Worst yet, Pérez isn’t simply throwing money at the problem. His impulsivity creates previously non-existent problems that he then tries to throw money at.
We saw it a little more than 10 years ago with the arrival of David Beckham and the subsequent sale of Claude Makalélé, then the fulcrum to Madrid’s Galáctico contraption. A bitter Pérez even offered a childish critique of the Frenchman’s game after he completed his move to what was then an up and coming Chelsea side.
“He wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three meters,” Perez said. “Younger players will arrive who will cause Makélélé to be forgotten.”
Yeah… that worked.
Less than two seasons after that, Pérez would find himself scrambling to acquire the likes of Thomas Gravesen and Pablo Garcia – two players who occupied the same place on the pitch but possessed nowhere near the ability of Makélélé.
Even more recently we saw the jettisoning of Di María, arguably Madrid’s most important player down the stretch last year, for the darling of the 2014 World Cup, James Rodriguez. Not an exact switch, of course, but the transfers where implicitly linked.
In the long run, the Colombian will likely prove to be a brilliant transfer, he’s marketable and still only 23 years old; not to mention his brilliant debut season where he finished with 17 goals and 15 assists in all competitions. Di María, of course, struggled in England this year, but who’s to say that he doesn’t have a much better season if he’d stayed in Madrid, where it clearly seemed that he turned a corner? Di María was deemed expendable because he wanted an improved contract, something most club presidents wouldn’t mind throwing at someone who played such an integral part. But not Pérez, who worried what breaking away from Madrid’s strict wages policy would mean long term. Predictably, Madrid missed Di María heavily at times during the last campaign, especially with Luka Modrić’s injury issues.
The overall result has become a case study in ineptitude – a philosophy without an obvious end goal. How can’t he see that continuity is one of the most important and fundamental ingredients to success? That his myopic season-by-season strategy lacks any of the long-term analysis he puts into his financial decisions? He views the team in a silo, as if each season is it’s own entity and nothing existed before.
Imagine what could have been. What if Pérez’s intruding fingerprints stayed in the boardroom and not the dressing room? What if the behemoth he’s created off the field was left to match that success on it?