Decline and Fall

When I was writing ‘White Storm’ for Real Madrid’s centenary, a book commissioned by a British publisher and endorsed by the club as kosher, I got to meet various interesting people at planet Bernabéu. Some were more interesting than others – but that’s the nature of a multi-national enterprise, although it felt less like an impersonal leviathan back then in the early naughties. One of the most interesting (and remarkably open) folks I spoke to was Jorge Valdano.  Valdano wasn’t everyone’s cup of coffee back then, but as Director of Football he acted as a public buffer between the club’s supporters, the press and Florentino Pérez, then a relative newcomer to the presidential post but already beginning to put his ‘galácticos’ policy into action. José Angel Sánchez had been in his post as head of marketing for about two years, and was already Pérez’s most trusted lieutenant.

‘Nobody’s bigger than the club’ Valdano told me.  ‘You have to understand this concept’ he insisted.  He tossed the noun concepto around with some gusto, being a philosophical sort of chap and blessed with the blarney stone, as many Argentines tend to be.  ‘The institution has become something separate, like a living organism’ he insisted.  ‘You cannot oppose or challenge it, because in the end it will defeat you.  It’s the same for players and for coaches. People here watch the way you behave.  They want to see that you understand this idea – that you’re prepared to function within that framework.’

He pronounced it something along those lines, but anyway, the exact words are not important.  He was reminding me that the greatest of all madridistas (at that time Alfredo di Stéfano still eclipsed Raúl) had himself fallen foul of this ‘concept’ as a player, and that the club had been obliged to show him the back-door exit, as they were to do several years later to Iker Casillas.  Jose Mourinho, destined to arrive at the Bernabéu some eight years after my chat with Valdano, was also a man reluctant to take such an idea on board, and indeed, Valdano was desperately opposed to his recruitment, ultimately in vain.  It also spelled the end of the Argentine at the Bernabéu, but his fears were substantially justified by Mourinho’s subsequent reign – turbulent, semi-successful but finally damaging for the ‘institution’ and its alleged good name.

Jorge Valdano. The last buffer.

Since then the patterns have repeated themselves with white-light clarity, but nobody in the mainstream Spanish press has the balls to point it out, mainly because Florentino Pérez is a powerful man who can damage your career.  The problem with Real Madrid, 16 years on from my meeting with Valdano, is that its president has himself forgotten to respect the very concept that he is also responsible for maintaining – that the institution is bigger than anyone apart from, it would seem, the current president.

The present crisis at Madrid is neither Lopetegui’s fault nor those of the squad, but rather the endemic autocracy of Pérez’s own empire, with its ever-shrinking circle of confidants and the rotten core of its complacent executive, no longer the Pretorian Guard but in truth the ‘castrati’, drained of their testosterone because of Pérez’s visceral fear of alpha-males, a model of masculine control to which he has always aspired but never attained, despite his  net worth of 2 billion and his apparent ability to pull the strings of anything he turns his hands to.  Pérez and the eunuchs.  It would make a good name for a band.

Cristiano Ronaldo was the latest in a line of alphas employed by Real Madrid, the hunting dog to Benzema’s feline version. Pérez, hopelessly attracted to the types he nevertheless most fears, knew that Ronaldo would succeed in Madrid on the pitch, just as long as he respected ‘the concept’.  Real Madrid and Pérez were, in a sense, merely reflecting a general obsession in Spanish football, enshrined by the ‘furia’ of its sepia beginnings, of the notion of ‘carácter’ (personality), sacred to all football teams throughout the divisions.  If you ain’t got a guy who yells, bawls and generally scares the rest of his team-mates, then you won’t succeed.  Camacho (and Di Stéfano before him) was the archetype, such that the fan-base of Real Madrid has never been in favour of fancy-dans, unlike Barcelona with its pretensions to style over substance – at least in madridista eyes. Butragueño was the Bernabéu exception, excused for his lack of ‘carácter’ because of his brilliance and the home-grown players who knew how to feed and protect him.

Ca-macho. When real men stalked the Earth

Ronaldo, his ego not fully-formed in 2009, did not initially threaten the institution, and his relationship with Pérez, so long as it remained one of father-son/employer-employee, was a good one.  But Ronaldo became such a success that his authority in the dressing-room became unquestioned – an alpha male dangerously unbalanced by a monstrous ego but unable to share the limelight – obsessed with goal-scoring to the expense of all other considerations, for example the self-esteem of his fellow-players.

An oddly modest and accommodating man in private, Ronaldo’s compulsive drive and his relentless need for attention on the pitch began to weary his team-mates, unable to oppose him in the privacy of the dressing-room partly because of his success but also because of his intelligence.  Pérez, growing progressively authoritarian as opposed to authoritative, began to smell trouble.  Ronaldo, intelligent enough to read the signs, was always one step ahead of him and had planned Juve-gate well in advance.  The sudden departure of the club’s two most charismatic figures, Ronaldo and Zidane, left Pérez with his trousers down, panicking in a storm of his own making.

The problem, therefore, is not so much the famous 50 goals that Ronaldo will now not score but rather the absence of a real leader in the tired squad that is left.  Ramos is a leader of sorts, but lacks Ronaldo’s intelligence.  He aspires to Alpha-status but doesn’t quite make the cut.  Pérez has no need to fear him, and indeed, seeks his advice.  Ramos, in a classic moment that explains all that is now wrong with the club, advised his president against signing Conte because of the Italian’s reputation as a disciplinarian.  Pérez, fearful of a man who he might not be able to control, accepted the advice he wanted all along.  The club remains bigger than Conte’s alleged demands, but not bigger than Pérez, it would seem.

Fancy some of this, Sergio?

Mild-mannered Bob Martinez seems more like his kind of guy, for the moment.  And so the very man who should not be advising Pérez (Ramos) gets to be the ersatz director of football, and helps steer the ship in a dubious direction.   Pérez, blinded by his own control-freakiness and incapable of seeing that the best way to steer his ship away from the rocks is to appoint people to reduce his power (a syndrome known as ‘the power paradox’) instead retains the anonymous and self-serving José Angel Sánchez, the man reluctant to truly advise his boss because he prefers not to rock the boat and anyway, he is unqualified to do it.  Football, as such, does not interest Sánchez and never has done. He is a marketing man, a passive power-broker, a number cruncher.  He has helped make the club rich, but otherwise his influence has been wholly pernicious.

And so Madrid stumble from crisis to crisis, hiding the symptoms behind the fading glory of their Champions League run whilst all the time failing to reduce Barcelona’s domestic hegemony.  Lopetegui is merely the latest victim of this shambles.  He is not blameless, of course – but in Greek myth the song of the siren was too beautiful to resist.  His bank account will have swelled considerably, but his reputation is in tatters.  Why did he sacrifice it all for the siren Pérez?  We’ll never know, but now it will take a very strong head indeed to accept the next offer he makes, and remember, Pérez doesn’t like strong men in the end.  He is therefore condemned to fail, and should just resign.  He can dedicate more time to his building company, a much more successful venture than Real Madrid precisely because he has been obliged to delegate his powers in his business dealings.  It’s so obvious that it’s funny.

Santi Solari is a popular guy around the Bernabéu but he lacks authority and is far too matey with all and sundry.  Fine for Ramos, but probably not for the team, languishing in mid-table.  The press have rallied to his side, of course, but they are also a major part of the problem.  The Madrid football press and those who run that particular show are also in cahoots with Pérez.  The last time anyone crossed him was Eduardo Inda (‘Marca’) who was a nasty piece of work but had the balls (or the stupidity) to attack the president.  He was soon on his bike, and now flits in the shadows of the far-right underworld running a website called ‘OK Diario’ from whose scuzzy pages he nevertheless claims inside knowledge of the Bernabéu, still desperately wanting to be back in Pérez’s inner circle.

It was Inda who illustrated beautifully the problem in Madrid.  When the club had a decent mild-mannered coach (Pellegrini) he was castigated for seeming to lack balls and personality, and it was Inda who used the infamous 4-0 defeat at Alcorcón to poke fun at the Chilean, publicly obliging Pérez to appoint Mourinho.  The Special One, whose appreciation of power-sharing was on a par with that of Louis XIV, and whose respect for the sacred nature of institutions continues to resemble Godzilla on the rampage, was never going to last the course at the Bernabéu.   But at the very least he challenged Pérez’s insufferable autocracy, ruffled him and finally forced him to act.  Rumours that Pérez wants him back may seem unlikely but are probably true.  Bullies recognise their own types.  They retain a reluctant admiration for those they understand, especially when their craving to be alpha-male causes them to be fatally attracted by the very thing they can never really be.

Effective leadership requires the ability to delegate. It’s not rocket science.  Felipe II of Spain was unable to do it, and look what happened to his empire.  Who was the inner circle who gathered to sack Lopetegui?  We don’t actually know.  And whoever they were, do we think that a democratic and open discussion took place?  Yes – we do know that it didn’t take place.  Lopetegui could have stayed, but the damage had been done.  Pérez never wanted him anyway, and has cast him off like an awkward bastard child. Here – take my money but don’t come around here ever again, ok?  However, there is no strategy in place to find a man who will find something of value in the present rubble.  Rumours that Conte wanted to sweep with a broom sounds like the sort of thing that Real Madrid actually need at this stage in their development/decline (tick correct answer).  Of course they still have great players, but the mix needs freshening up and the club needs a Director of Football to oversee the process, hands free and with the same sort of decision-making autonomy of a Txiki Begiristain, for example. Pérez needs to either leave the club, visit a psychiatrist, or do both.   Only then will Real Madrid truly rise again.


11 thoughts on “Decline and Fall”

  1. Why have you not written another book?

    Morbo was superb, this article fantastic. I’ve not read White Storm yet.

    Surely there is a market for an English language Basque football history book. (FFS I read the Basque history of the world).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Is this a atmospheric, noir thriller from 60’s…..a Master Piece indeed. Take a bow Senor Phil Ball! I can’t believe I can read such deep, erudite, psychological analysis for free….thank you, thank you,thank you!

    As an aside, you do seem to have a soft corner for Mou…..I do remember that you had supported him even in his first season after summarily getting beaten in Clasico. I can only surmise Pep may have been too preening for your unaffected liking;-) Regardless what appeals to you in Mou?

    Back to the topic….Madrid seems strangely dystopian given its riches both in trophies and monies…..somebody needs to wipe the slate clean, really!


    1. Thanks man. I felt it needed a bit of ‘couch’ analysis. And yes, I do quite like Mou, although less than before. His paranoia attacks are getting less attractive, but like Ronaldo, he’s a nicer guy off camera. He’s also straight, a quality Pep lacks. Pep strikes me as a bit creepy. But these are personal things. As an ex-player, I’d have preferred the Mou type of motivation, but it’s always a matter of taste.

      Dystopian – that’s the word. And for all Barça’s faults as an institution, they’ve learned the lesson from the Laporta era. They don’t do autocracy anymore. Yes…the RM slate needs a damn good wipe.


  3. Whatever his faults CR7s relentless drive for goals and excellence kept the other players striving also, alongside the “playing for zidane” factor of the last 3 yrs. Both absences have produced the odd situation of a team comprising a good portion of the top 100 players in the world having no leadership. With this squad set up, and senior players with media and perez influence, id say theyre almost uncoachable in terms of the coach being allowed to implement tactics and personnel changes. A lost season. A chummy chummy coach is the only thing that can work


  4. Last time Real Madrid won the league convincingly, it was back in 2011-2012, where they had Cristiano playing his best football week in week out. Real Madrid have had problems in their attack for more than 4 seasons. Consistency is the most important factor in winning the league specially for clubs like Real Madrid. I believe Real Madrid have had great defensive and midfield lines for the past seasons but not a good enough attacking line. Defensive and midfield lines have been compensating for that lack of spark and quality in attack for several years.
    The main problem in Madrid has been sporting issues. Florentino is reluctant to accept that he doesn’t possess enough knowledge about how football works inside the pitch.


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