Real Madrid is still a beacon in European football, both despite and because of its president Florentino Pérez.
The billionaire construction engineer has not given up on attempting to lead a breakaway of the continent’s super rich clubs — but unlike his co-conspirator, the Juventus president Andrea Agnelli, Pérez has not taken his eye of the domestic ball.
Pérez has visions of grandeur the way that Charles de Gaulle had for France. The Madridista isn’t so much fixated on a league of the world’s richest clubs, but of owning the best players on earth and hiring and firing managers to turn that obsession into something so grand, so overpowering, that it ends up as a league of one. Pérez, 74, builds skyscrapers in his home city. His father sold perfume. Real Madrid was their shared passion, the father putting the son’s name down at birth on the waiting list for supporters – the socios who pay for membership and are the ultimate owners of the club.
Many moons ago I sat with Florentino two rows in front of his father (and mother) in the presidential tribune at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. Zinedine Zidane was the world’s greatest player at the time, and Pérez had bought him from Juventus.
Zidane was a Galáctico, a world renowned artiste. Pérez Jr. collected superstars the way his father sniffed out exotic scents. When Zizou juggled the ball from one knee to the other, Pérez half rose out of his seat. Behind him, his dad Eduardo, mouthed: “Good, very good… but not as great as Alfredo Di Stéfano!”
Di Stéfano, the Argentine, led the fantastic Real line up that for five years on the trot won the inaugural European Cup, the forerunner of the Champions League.
Dressing Di Stéfano, Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo in the pure-white Madrid cloth has been the ritual since the early 1950s. To that extent, Florentino merely follows a preordained path.
Late last Saturday, after Madrid’s match against Villarreal, the president’s car was in a minor bump on the road. The cameras, of course, were on it and a bystander called out: “When is Kylian Mbappé coming to Madrid?”
Next year, replied the president. Yes, Mbappé is owned by Paris St-Germain, which is owned by Qatar, a Gulf state that, like Manchester City’s owners, rewrites the wealth league of global soccer. Yes, PSG say their stars – Neymar, Mbappé, Messi – are going nowhere. Yes, there is a pandemic that is sucking financial power out of sport along with so much else. And yes, yes, yes, Madrid is only just opening up the Bernabéu after its 575m euros modernisation.
And Real’s team is also under reconstruction. Zidane has departed after overseeing three successive Champions League triumphs. Carlo Ancelotti is back for his second spell as head coach – and doing very nicely.
Right now, Real Madrid is top of the nascent La Liga, ahead of the neighbours Atlético and way, way ahead of perennial rivals, the near bankrupt FC Barcelona.
Ancelotti, wherever he goes, is wily. He knows how to win. He knows that his president is star struck. And he knows that Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Marcelo are elderly players whose waning years he must handle with care.
The team defensive leader, Sergio Ramos, 35, decamped to PSG after attempting to hold Pérez to ransom over a new contract. Ramos’ central defensive partner Raphaël Varane was sold to Manchester United, unusually for Madrid while still at the peak of his career.
However, one leader that Pérez would not sign away is Karim Benzema. The Frenchman will turn 34 in December, but the president not only handed Benzema a new deal until 2023, he put a one billion euros release clause into the contract to ensure that nobody poaches the striker’s limelight.
Benzema’s response has superstar trappings. He captains the team. He started the new season with eight goals and seven assists in six league matches. This, for the forward reckoned to be Cristiano R’s “running mate” for a decade, covering miles and miles to create space for the goal king to exploit.
“Benzema?” said Ancelotti, “he’s the best striker in the world. Calling him a forward stops short because he’s a very complete player. More complete than he was five years ago.”
Complete, and with a touch of wizardry. No-one compares Benzema to the Galácticos, but there was a very special moment against Mallorca last week when Benzema controlled a high cross on his back, below his right shoulder and, without breaking stride, volleyed it into the net.
Did he mean that? The Bernabéu socios have not always warmed to Benzema, but they gave him a standing ovation when he left the field.
Benzema, incidentally, shares with Zidane that both were born to Algerian immigrant families and played street football in southern France — Zizou in Marseille, Benzema in Lyon.
Florentino Pérez has committed to Benzema after 567 games for Madrid, and 387 goals and 151 assists. And Pérez, the accountant, also knows how to run a club.
The most recent balance sheet shows that despite Covid-related losses of 300m euros in 2019-20 the club owns equity of 534m euros and a cash balance of 122m euros. This during the stadium rebuild, the coming and going of players, and a 10% salary reduction across the board.
Grandeur sometimes goes in cycles.