The sage of Real Madrid

Jorge Valdano is explaining what Real Madrid is about – a question he’s better equipped to answer than perhaps anyone else – and the club’s director of football reaches into the past, to talk about a fellow Argentine-turned-Madrileño.

“You could say Alfredo di Stéfano incarnates Real,”says Valdano. Di Stéfano was the linchpin of the great Real that won the first five European Cups, from 1956 to 1960. Valdano explains: “After a defeat it was best not to look at Alfredo, because his eyes would be spitting fire. When things went badly, he’d forget about beauty and just pursue the result. Everything that has happened at this club has been influenced by Di Stéfano’s spirit. This is a club with a very bad relationship to defeat.”

Valdano is speaking as Real’s director of football, as a former player and coach of the club, but also as a gifted writer. Almost nobody can talk football better than he does. Ask him a question and he pauses a beat, before answering in complete sentences in his precise, Argentine-inflected Spanish.

We’re sitting in Real’s offices inside the Bernabéu stadium one evening, an hour before a game. On one wall hangs a black-and-white picture of Di Stéfano’s team. It shows the players standing in open-topped cars, driving through Madrid amid cheering crowds. Franco’s policemen accompany them on motorbikes. The photo is Real triumphant – the club’s natural state. But in Valdano’s four spells here since he first arrived as a player, in 1984, Real mostly hasn’t been like that.

There is something dysfunctional about post-Franco Real, and Valdano’s time in Madrid helps illuminate what. The club has struggled to redefine its identity and regain the dominance it had in Di Stéfano’s era. Its present failure is baffling. In football, money brings success, and Real is the world’s richest club: it turned over €401m in the 2008-09 season. Yet it regularly gets thrashed by the world’s best team, its eternal rival Barcelona. Real had better hurry up and win something soon – ideally the Champions League in London this May – for Valdano’s sake and its own.

To the left, to the right

Valdano was born in 1955 in a small town in what was then the wealthy Argentine pampas. He grew tall and strong, and turned out to be good at everything, the man other men wanted to be. He devoured Jorge Luis Borges, briefly studied law, dressed as elegantly as he spoke, became a goal-scoring striker and in 1975 arrived in Spain to play for little Deportivo Alavés. Franco died that year, and so Valdano found himself a young, leftwing intellectual in a free country just as young, leftwing intellectuals in Argentina were being dropped from military helicopters into the River Plate. This shaped his thinking about football.

He admired the César Luis Menotti, the coach who brought Argentina its first World Cup in 1978. Menotti believed in “a football of the left”: a creative game in which working-class people expressed their natural genius. By contrast, “football of the right” was the thuggish game played by certain Argentine clubs, whose players read up on their opponents’ personal problems so as to unsettle them, just in case biting and spitting failed. Valdano, a subtle, funny man, only partly bought this spiel, but his books describe a Menottista football.

The zenith of Valdano’s playing career was winning the World Cup with Argentina in 1986. He scored in the final, and, just as thrillingly, got to observe his teammate Diego Maradona from up close. Indeed, while Maradona was dribbling through the England side to score football’s most famous goal in the quarter-final, Valdano was running alongside him hoping for a pass. In the changing-room afterwards, he teased Maradona: why hadn’t he passed? Yes, Maradona replied, I was watching you all along, and wanted to pass, but the English kept getting in the way, and suddenly I’d beaten them all so I just scored.

Valdano was awed: “While scoring this goal you were also watching me? Old man, you insult me. It isn’t possible.” Valdano with Maradona – as in most of his relationships in football – was a literate, educated person landed among aliens. Other footballers often mock him as a pseud, and call him El Filósofo, “The Philosopher”, a nickname that’s intended as an insult. Valdano never hides his bookishness. He just doesn’t think it’s very relevant. “I’m convinced that I can describe Maradona’s goal much better than he ever could,” he once told me, “but I could never have scored it.”

This evening in Madrid’s offices we get talking about world cups. Several of Real’s players pocketed one with Spain last year. Had that reminded him of his own triumph? “It seems pornographic to me that 25 years have passed, because I recall every detail precisely. But when the Spanish players were given their medals, my daughter asked, ‘Where’s your medal?’ Eventually my wife found it. It’s now in a place where I can’t get to it, ha ha.” Still, he insists he hardly ever thinks about lifting the cup.

A year after that, hepatitis forced him to retire from playing. He became a writer, and a coach, and in 1994 returned to coach a Real that was going through dark times. The club hadn’t won its pet prize, the European Cup, since 1966. Worse, in 1992 Barcelona had won the trophy at last. Catalans had begun mocking Madrileños for only winning the cup “in black and white”.

In fact, Spanish football was experiencing the same shift in power as Spanish politics: from the centre to the regions. Under Franco, Real had ruled unchallenged. It’s a nonsense to call Real “a fascist club”, as its detractors sometimes do. Yet Real did benefit from the football-loving Franco. It’s not that he fixed referees or gave Real money. He didn’t need to. A dictator typically concentrates his country’s resources in the capital city. That’s where he, his bureaucrats, generals and secret policemen live. It’s the last place where he wants an uprising. And so capitals and their football teams thrive under dictatorships. Every team from a dictatorship ever to win the European Cup (now called the Champions League) came from a capital. By contrast, winning teams from democracies almost all come from provincial towns and cities.

After Franco died, Spain’s regions rose. Barcelona in particular grew richer, and its football team improved. Real’s decline fed the daily hysteria at the Bernabéu. Several Spanish newspapers and TV stations live off Real. “This club moves amid great turbulence. It’s a universal focus of news,” says Valdano. He tries to remain ironic while everyone else loses their heads. When a journalist placed two tape recorders in front of him before a recent interview, Valdano commented: “Ah! One to record my words, the other to record my thoughts.”

But the hysteria at Real is often all-conquering. The club’s unique, inherited obligation is to rule Europe with the world’s best footballers playing attacking football. When Real stopped meeting this obligation, it got caught in a cycle of hubris and despair. The club’s president would hire a coach, buy new players, say that this at last was the perfect team, as good as Di Stéfano’s, and after three defeats he’d chuck everyone out and start again. Valdano himself was sacked months after leading Real to the Spanish title in his only full season as coach.

At Real, the coach acts as human sacrifice.

Real’s wealth did eventually buy more titles: the Champions League in 1998 (immediately after which the coach was sacked) and 2000. Uefa, the European football association, named Real club of the century. And in summer 2000, the Madrileño construction magnate Florentino Pérez was elected the club’s president with a mission to restore the glory days of Di Stéfano. Pérez made Valdano his technical director, in charge of signing players. After a hiatus, when Pérez was voted out of office in 2006, the two men returned to power in 2009. They are still chasing Di Stéfano’s legacy, watched from the stands by the impatient octogenarian.

Pérez’s big idea was to buy galacticos, the world’s greatest players. Di Stéfano’s team, too, had been full of galacticos. Santiago Segurola, a Spanish writer on football and buddy of Valdano’s, has a theory on this. In 1951, when Pérez was four, he began going with his father to the Bernabéu. Pérez loved his dad. He came to associate him with that 1950s team. And so, explains Segurola, Pérez developed a Freudian relationship with Real. By trying to recreate the team of the 1950s – now with Cristiano Ronaldo as Di Stéfano – he is communing with his father. Above Pérez’s bed (witnessed there by the author John Carlin) hangs a photograph of Pérez posing on the Bernabéu grass among four of his galacticos. As the psychiatrist in Fawlty Towers says of Basil Fawlty: “There’s enough material there for an entire conference.”

In name, Valdano was Real’s technical director, but he often seemed more spokesman than policymaker. His job was to turn Pérez’s actions into beautiful words. This was probably frustrating, but everyone in football wants to stay on the boat, especially at Real, and so they do what’s required. In 2003 I sat in these offices listening to Valdano tell me Real would henceforth field only galacticos and homegrown players. In his fine phrase, Real wouldn’t sign “middle-class footballers”.

In 2002, Real won its ninth Champions League. After that, Pérez’s galacticos stopped producing: too many chiefs, almost no Indians. From 2004 to 2006 Real won nothing. Valdano admits that, “We lacked players of, let’s say, the middle class. This time, as well as Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka, you need players like Xabi Alonso. Guys who might not look spectacular, but who can read a match; who can destroy a counter-attack by taking one step left or right.”

While Pérez was out of office, in 2007 and 2008, Real won two Spanish titles. Pérez and Valdano returned for the 2009-10 season, and again won nothing. Under Pérez, Real have spent several hundred million euros on transfers, probably more than any other club, and sacrificed several coaches. The club’s debt was €504m in 2008, and surely more now. Meanwhile, today’s Barcelona may be the best football team ever, better than Di Stéfano’s Real. Valdano will admit that “it’s the strongest Barcelona in history”. Isn’t their beautiful game – invented by Valdano’s hero, Johan Cruyff – the football he has always dreamed of? “No,” he smiles. “I’m from South America, not from Europe. For me, Brazil of 1970 was the platonic dream of football.”

Still, doesn’t Barcelona benefit from a fixed style? That gives the club a stability that Real lacks. Valdano interrupts: “The leader of Barcelona is the style of play. Heading Barça now is a person who takes the respect for this culture to the point of exaggeration: Pep Guardiola [the current coach]. In Madrid it was always different. At Real there is an enormous passion for triumph. Here, there’s an admiration for the player who gives everything. That’s why a player like Angel di Maria has had such rapid success [at Real]. And there’s also a desire for spectacle. In Barcelona that order is reversed: first the play, then the result.”

I once witnessed Real’s “enormous passion for triumph” up-close in Valdano himself. Real had just lost away to Milan in the Champions League. The defeat didn’t matter much – Real eventually progressed to the next round anyway. When I passed Valdano on the staircase leaving the stands of the San Siro, I said a cheery hello. He glared at me, “eyes spitting fire”, as he had described Alfredo di Stéfano in defeat, and strode off. The usual courteous Filósofo had vanished. Like Real Madrid, Valdano has a bad relationship with defeat.

That’s why, last spring, the club hired the ultimate winning coach: José Mourinho. Unfortunately, in 2007, Valdano had described the defensive football played by Mourinho’s Chelsea as “a shit on a stick”. When Valdano unveiled the Portuguese to the media, he admitted to having previously been “aggressive” about Mourinho’s style. Now Valdano, Pérez and Mourinho form an uneasy trinity.

Some companies get so obsessed with their internal processes that they lose sight of outcomes. In appointing Mourinho, Real showed that it’s so obsessed with outcomes it barely cares about processes. So why did Valdano appoint his ideological opposite? He says, “My idea of football is expressed in five books, and in the teams I coached at Tenerife, Real Madrid and Valencia. All my teams had the same style. But in my current position, I interpret Real Madrid – not my own ideas. And Real now, with our reorganisation of the team, needed a very strong leadership, and nobody represented that better than Mourinho.

“In two years we have replaced almost the entire team. Now our side has an average age of 24. Marcelo is 22, Özil is 22, Khedira is 23. It’s a team with a lot of future.” The youngsters have mostly played well under Mourinho, leaving aside last November’s 5-0 thrashing by Barcelona. How has Mourinho changed Real? “We haven’t yet lost a point because the players weren’t trying hard enough,” Valdano says. “Mustn’t that have something to do with the coach’s personality? His way of working, with very clear ideas, is well suited to players today. As a player I liked to have more liberty than obligations. Today they apparently prefer more obligations than liberty. They seem comfortable with a demanding coach who imposes a regime on them. We do have personalities here. We have Iker Casillas, captain of the world champions. We have players of great intelligence, like Xabi Alonso. And Cristiano Ronaldo, with his tremendous character. But I think these players – and this club – needed a coach with these characteristics.”

Is the Mourinho he sees the braggart the rest of us watch from afar? “No! In the media’s perception of great players and coaches, there is often a colossal misunderstanding. The Mourinho you see from a distance would not have the support of all his players. Almost nobody who has worked under his discipline speaks badly of Mourinho. I’ve seen the same thing with many players, like Raúl: great footballers who are nonetheless great unknowns. That’s incredible in this society of the image.”

Actually, admits Valdano, even he now struggles to fully understand the players. “Twenty-five years ago, the contact between club and player was very direct. Now there are many layers between club and player. Sometimes your interlocutor is still the player himself; sometimes the interlocutor is the player’s father, his agent, communications director, or his girlfriend. The complexity has increased.”

One thing hasn’t changed: Real’s “enormous passion for triumph”. The club is just two points behind Barcelona in the Spanish league. Next month it faces Olympique Lyon in the second round of the Champions League, hunting its 10th European title, “la décima”. Valdano promises: “When Barcelona awakens from its dream, el Madrid will be there, to occupy the place it’s always had in football’s history.”

Well, possibly.

Simon Kuper is an FT writer and columnist

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