How Real Madrid are winning the fans but losing the game

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David Beckham was discarded over lunch in a restaurant on Sardinia on June 13, 2003. Peter Kenyon, then Manchester United's chief executive, agreed to sell him to Real Madrid for just €25m (£17.4m). Another €10m would follow if Real won lots of trophies with Beckham. At about 4pm Jose Angel Sanchez, Real's marketing director, disappeared to phone his club's president, Florentino Pérez. “Peanuts!” crowed Sanchez. “They're asking peanuts.”

The story is told in John Carlin's new book, White Angels. This and Jimmy Burns's equally excellent When Beckham went to Spain belong to a burgeoning British literary genre, the Beckham/Real Madrid book. In a London bookshop this week I counted 15 Beckham titles.

It says something about our age that journalists of the calibre of Burns and Carlin have been drawn from important subjects to football. Burns's first book, The Land that Lost its Heroes: How Argentina Lost the Falklands War, was lauded by a Moscow-bound Graham Greene. Carlin was such an outstanding correspondent in South Africa that he aided the transition from apartheid. Last year he abandoned an Aids research trip in Africa to interview Beckham in Madrid.

It is good for football that he did. These two books, plus Real Madrid's latest budget, plus Malcolm Glazer's bid to buy Manchester United, help us understand the historical phase that the game is now entering. It is called colonialism.

Football clubs had always made almost all their money in their own country. But now the dozen or so biggest are taking to the oceans to subjugate hitherto undiscovered tribes of fans. Each summer these clubs Real and United chief among them tour Asia or the US.

These expeditions have revealed that “fan” is an outdated concept. It used to be thought that most lovers of football supported one club for life. That is no longer true. The guy in Shanghai is quite capable of loving Real and United simultaneously, and other clubs besides. Foreign fans have always been like that. Johan Cruyff, the great Dutch footballer, once told me that growing up in Amsterdam in the 1950s he had supported Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United.

Today's foreign fan is loyal less to clubs than to players. Generally this means Beckham. The Chinese women with Beckham shrines on their office desks will follow him whatever his club. To people across the world, Beckham incarnates the West: in his expensive beauty, his wealth, his freedom to wear what he likes and his presence at the centre of the global show.

To United's manager Sir Alex Ferguson, the club is bigger than any player. Ferguson prefers hardworking mutes to superstars. He sold Beckham because the player was playing poorly, and wasting time on marketing nonsense. Commercially, the sale was a blunder. Rolf Beisswanger, head of global sponsorship for Real's sponsor Siemens Mobile, told Carlin: “Man United lost 50 per cent of their brand value when Beckham left.” Glazer should focus on this blunder to justify his takeover bid. Instead, the American is proposing giving even more power to the culprit, Ferguson.

Real understood that Beckham was worth far more as a brand than as a right-half. Indeed, though his arrival has weakened their team, it has helped them unseat United as the world's richest club. Last week Real revealed that its budget for this season is €300m, compared with €193m the season before Beckham arrived. Most of the extra money has come from marketing. If you understand Real's strategy, you know they will not sell Beckham or Michael Owen merely for playing badly. As brands, these two always perform.

Unfortunately, though, brands do not win you football matches. In 15 months with Beckham, Real have pocketed no trophies, which at least means no danger of having to pay United that extra €10m. Their four goals from six league matches represents their driest ever start to a season. “It could be worse,” muses Beckham. “We could be bottom of the league.”

Imagine the post-match scene in Real's changing-room: superstar galacticos recline on canopies eating grapes, while the so-called “middle-class” players massage their toes. In the corner sit the young defenders whose names nobody can quite remember, while the poor geek who happens to be coach this month collects the dirty kit. Outside, furious local fans bang on the door, while Florentino Pérez stands proudly by. He can argue that his method works: look, we're rich. But the question is why a not-for-profit institution such as Real Madrid, owned by its members, needs to make money. Surely that is the job of a quoted company such as United, while Real's sole raison d'etre should be winning trophies?

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