Here’s an analogy for you to mull over:
An entrepreneur, lets call him Phil, comes up with a product. It can be any product: a website, a toaster, a killer ninja battle droid, you name it, but Phil designs and develops it. He makes it successful. It’s him who brings this product to the attention of the world… and it’s a truly great product. Now once this online killer ninja robot toaster is in the public eye, and shown to be a success, a big corporation buys it. It pays off Phil, the entrepreneur, creator and nurturer, and takes the product for itself, selling it under it’s name and reaping the benefits of it’s spin off fluffy toys and lunch boxes. The great product is now owned by the corporation, helping it succeed, which it does.
Who is great in this equation? Phil or the corporation?
I ask you this because this is how I often see Real Madrid. Most people probably casually accept Real Madrid as king of the uber-super clubs, but why? What actual pragmatic reason is there for this lofty assumption? Before you try and figure it out, Phil isn’t supposed to be anyone at all, but I could, feasibly, have given him any number of names, Alex, Carlo, Claude, Jose, Rafa, Gérard, Louis etc but I didn’t want to tie it to one instance. Because there isn’t one instance. Madrid don’t really develop players. They don’t really even develop teams. They let other clubs and other managers do this, and once the player has proved his worth to the world, they buy him, and use him to make themselves more successful. Which often, they do.
Historically of course, Real are undoubtably great. The early teams of the Di Stefano era and the Quinta del Buitre generation of the 80s are both truly great sides. But in the last 25 years what have Madrid achieved, on their own merit, to make them truly great? Because it’s only really in the last 25 years, even the last 10, that this claim has been forcibly made.
I say this because as Real sit second to Barcelona, again, after the staggering events of the summer, we’re still constantly being reminded, by their players and their fans, and casually by writers in both print and up and down the blogosphere, that this is a uniquely special club. The biggest club in football. The greatest club. We were reminded this constantly as they wheeled out star after star in elaborate presentation ceremonies over the summer, but is this true? Where has this idea come from? Sure, they’re certainly the biggest ‘show’ in town, but what makes them a great or even legitimately the biggest, club? Surely the five back to back European Cups won during the Franco regime when the competition was in it’s infancy in the 50s can’t be the only reason they’re still revered so highly? No one’s claiming Nottingham Forest are as great or as big as Juventus or Inter despite having the same amount of replica cups in their trophy cabinet. Their recent history has been decent admittedly, with 3 wins since the 60s, but AC Milan have 5 wins since then, with 3 runners up spots and just as many post Champions League re-structing victories. Liverpool have 5 wins too, all since the 70s. Barcelona and Manchester United are viewed, in some quarters, as bigger than either of those foes, yet they both have a paltry 3 in comparison. So it surely can’t be this which makes Madrid so seemingly massive.
The thing that Barca and United hold over their European Cup superiors is the amount of admired quality that has flowed, grown and been moulded through their ranks. The list of genuinely great teams who play genuinely great football is what has swelled their support bases to where they now stand, as unofficially the two most supported clubs on the planet. This doesn’t make them the greatest, but since we can’t be simply using old European Cup victories as our only criteria we’ll have to look at how Madrid fare in this respect. Well, not that well. The list of genuinely quality players who’ve come up through Real’s Castilla or Reserve structures recently isn’t all that impressive: Eto’o, Cambiasso, Raul, Casillas. Only two of them have made their name at the club and the most famous, Raul, is actually a product of the Athletico Madrid youth structure. Guti? Maybe, but not really great. Arbeloa? Hardly. Can we add Rafa Benitez to the list? He’s possibly a great manager? I’m stretching a little though. In fact West Ham have a far better record of producing world class players in the last 25 years than Real Madrid do.
Now youth team product alone isn’t the be all and end all of greatness. Far from it. Many players realize their potential at a club that didn’t nurture them. Fabregas at Arsenal and Ronaldo at Manchester United being two recent examples. So who have Real had who are similar to this? Hierro? Yes. Robinho? Hmmm, not really, but maybe at a push. Higuaín? Getting there, I’ll count him for the moment. Raul could count, but then he’d be exempt from the earlier category. Surely I can think of more than three, possibly four? This is the greatest club in the world isn’t it?
What else increases the greatness of a club? Well there are the players that reach their peak there. One’s whose long journey to greatness is finally realised majestically at the club they become synonymous with. Who’s synonymous with Madrid? Zidane? Probably yes, still debatable though, he was great a Juve. Roberto Carlos? Yes. Fat Ronaldo? No, he was better at Barca. Figo? Same I’d say. Beckham and van Nistelrooy? Both unquestionably better at Manchester United. Robben? Made his name elsewhere, and I’m moving down the food chain too. Di Stefano and Puskás remain the only certainties in this category, even when extending the board to include their whole history. Alfredo was 27 when he went to Madrid, he fits perfectly. But surely they’re not just riding on his coat tails still? Napoli don’t seem to be doing too well in the great club stakes despite being synonymous with Maradona. I wonder how far up the ladder of greatness Stanley Matthews has propelled Stoke and Blackpool?
OK, I’m getting a bit facetious now, it’s obviously a combination of great old names, a few new ones, and generally sustained success. But the point is what then separates Real Madrid so far from the rest? On close inspection they really aren’t that special. If anything far less than other clubs. Few players become great at Madrid, certainly recently. They’re usually great somewhere else first. Real can rarely claim to have produced, made or molded a great player in the last few decades.
When the other still considered ‘great’ clubs of Europe, the Barcas, Milans, Juves, Bayerns, Uniteds and Liverpools buy, they buy to order. More or less. They rarely poach each others players on such a level and for such frivolous purposes and when they do, the move is generally seen as a sideways one rather than a step up, depending on the current fortunes of each club of course. Yet Madrid not only manage to pick and choose from any club, they also manage to convince the players themselves they’re getting a big promotion. That they’re joining the elite, a band only the brightest and the best are permitted entry to.
So when the Ronaldos, Kakas and Benzemas of this world wax lyrical about what an honour it is to follow in the foot steps of the great players and the great teams of yore to have worn the white shirt, who on earth are they talking about? I could reel you off a name of great players to have played for Milan, Barca, Ajax or United equal or longer off the top of my head. As for teams? Again, what teams? The last truly great Madrid team was the aforementioned Quinta del Buitre. The early Raul era and first Galacticos maybe? Meh, maybe, but that Galacticos team was fairly run of the mill big club success wise. They’d peaked by the time Fat Ronaldo arrived and troughed after Beckham did. 1 Champions League and 3 League titles is equal to the Fergie Fledgling United side that preceded it and only just above the Rijkaard Barca team. Liverpool fans will happily tell you how many Leagues and European Cups they won during a much longer period. Any player of peak age or abouts, and around mine in their mid to late twenties, would have grown up with the truly great AC Milan side of Gullit and Van Basten (not to mention Maldini & Baresi) that retained the trophy in 1990, and who’s successors went on to beat the equally great ’92 Champions, the Barca Dream Team of Romario, Laudrup, and Stoichkov managed by the legendary Johan Cruyff in 1994. They would have witnessed the home grown fluid brilliance of both Alex Ferguson and recently Pep Guardiola’s Treble winners. They would have seen those same teams win the trophy in 2006 & 2008. They would’ve seen Milan win it again, twice. They may have even seen the Arsenal invincibles play a brand of football far and beyond anything Madrid have managed in 50 years. What, Zinedine Zidane’s glorious 2002 final winner aside, would they have seen so strikingly alluring and uniquely special about Madrid? Steve McManaman? Really?
Now I’m clearly exaggerating slightly, I’m not trying to say Madrid aren’t a big club, or even a great one, it’s just that I’m constantly baffled why anyone, let alone professional footballers, are so uniquely attracted to this particular club. Why it’s seemingly held in such high esteem. Everyone has their own definition of what makes the greatest team in the world, and I’m not proposing an alternative myself (I may be mentioning 3 clubs quite prominently, but simply as a comparison to Madrid, not to promote them as the greatest themselves), but there are many different criteria for such an accolade, and yet Madrid come second best, or worse, in all of them bar pre 1960s success. So it seems odd that they’ve managed to build up this illusion, and convince so many people to blindly accept that they are far and away the biggest club in the sport. They have no stability, no real legacy, no desire to do the hard graft, they simply have one, very simple, strategy; “Who’s the best player in the world right now?..Right, lets buy him” Is that truly the mark of greatness? Or the mark of a once great business now woefully short on ideas.