When transfer fees are not a factor, Real Madrid remain the club to beat. After David Alaba and Antonio Rudiger, Erling Haaland may be next.
There was a time when Real Madrid bulldozed the transfer market. They had financial power and a reputation upon which Florentino Perez built his first presidential manifesto in 2000, subsequently shaping the entire internal and external perception of the team in the 21st century. In the age before the state-owned super club, there was the bank-backed super club.
Madrid’s dominance stemmed back to Perez’s promise to lure Luis Figo from arch-rivals Barcelona. Even Figo didn’t want that to happen at first, but it suddenly became abundantly clear that Perez, upon his election, was in the game to shake things up. He certainly wasn’t there to make friends; the aim was to build a team as marketable on the pitch as off it. Every year, a player of Figo’s ilk followed him to the Santiago Bernabéu. First it was Zinedine Zidane, then Ronaldo and finally David Beckham. By 2003, the Galactico project was complete.
Figo. Ronaldo. Carlos. Zidane. Beckham.
What a wall. ⚪ pic.twitter.com/5QNOS9OZBV
— Football Factly (@FootballFactly) November 21, 2017
Everybody knows the story by now. It didn’t work, mainly because of Perez’s aversion to the substance that was needed to complement the style. No coach of any worth was given a chance because that would have meant a power struggle. The mantra may as well have been ‘put these players on the pitch and cross your fingers’.
Raging inequalities and preferential treatment gradually began to sever the dressing room, and the lack of trophies – one league title and a Champions League – coupled with the rise of Joan Laporta’s Barcelona, meant Perez wasn’t given a second term in 2006. Three years later, he was back to do it all again: some of the biggest names in the world joined – Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Gareth Bale among them – and greater credence being given to the coaching led to more prolonged success.
But over that second spell – which so far has yielded four La Liga titles and four Champions Leagues – new challenges have arisen. Clubs like Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City have started to dictate the transfer picture. Real have been forced into a different way of working, looking towards the future and stars of tomorrow, like Vinicius Junior and Eduardo Camavinga.
Nobody would ever expect Perez to take that lying down. Everything he does is calculated, done for what he perceives as the betterment of Real Madrid and their brand. He is not one to take competition lightly, nor does he mind playing the role of pantomime villain. It is no wonder he is still one of the remaining driving forces behind the Super League, peddling the sort of self-serving untruths that have become an unfortunate fixture in modern society.
There is another, more clever and legitimate way in which he has attempted to manoeuvre Real’s position at the top end of the food chain, counter-acting the rise of state ownership. With so much money in the game these days and transfer fees spiralling, there has been a marked rise in big-name players winding down their contracts, gaining more control over their futures and a greater slice of the finances involved in free transfers. Real know their standing remains high with players, so they actively look to pounce on those whose deals are expiring. That is how they snared David Alaba from Bayern Munich last summer and, as is all but officially announced, Antonio Rudiger from Chelsea this year.
That deal may also be overshadowed by arguably the biggest free transfer in modern history: Kylian Mbappe is the man they want. Perez has courted him since he became the most prominent young footballer in the world. Now they could get him for free. They may have PSG’s riches to deal with as they attempt to convince him to stay at the Parc des Princes, but it has long been the school of thought that Mbappe himself dreams of Real, just like many of the best. That in itself has never changed, but the club’s strongest domain has. Perez has openly said – perhaps with less than full honesty – that they cannot get into bidding wars with City by way of an example; they certainly do not have the ability to dominate the market like they did years ago. But once transfer fees are off the table, they become a strong proposition again.
Thomas Tuchel spoke about how difficult it was to feel like a spectator in the Rudiger saga. Chelsea wanted to keep him but he had the power. There were a number of offers on the table and their viewpoint will be that he couldn’t settle in their wage structure. At 29, this is the last big contract he’ll sign and he finds himself in an enviable position. Nobody can blame him for taking full advantage – his wages stand to be around €400,000 per week and he’ll earn them at the biggest club in the world.
Because his exit has come at such a tough time off the field for Chelsea, with Roman Abramovich’s sanctions and all the implications, including not actually being able to finalise new contracts ahead of their impending takeover, there is a belief that it spells worse news to come. The reality is, though, this is an isolated incident. Chelsea are a big club who have fallen foul of an even bigger one, as so many have before.
Keeping or buying a player Real want has long been notoriously difficult. Manchester City’s purchase of Erling Haaland was a win for the wealth and strength of the Premier League, but there is the lingering suggestion that Madrid will be his ultimate destination. When his Etihad contract runs out, perhaps? City will need to be wary. Joshua Kimmich’s deal at Bayern expires next summer; you can be sure Perez will circle.
Modern football transfers are not sustainable and that is partly why calls for change to competition structures are being radicalised. But there has been an increase in elite free transfers and it is no surprise that Real Madrid have put themselves in a strong position to benefit. They may no longer be the richest club, but they arguably remain the most powerful.