“More than a club.” It is the slogan that has long been boasted by Barcelona as the lofty symbol of the Catalan club’s intended values and place in the world. Yet, in a very different way, it could also be aptly applied to the club they have positioned themselves in direct opposition to. A chastening 4-0 loss at home to Barcelona on Saturday in the world’s biggest game has shown one again that Real Madrid is far more than a football club. It is a soap opera, a telenovela, a place in which what happens on the field is only a small part of the story.
Even before one of the worst losses suffered by the 10-time European champions in recent memory, up there with the 6-2 and 5-0 demolitions at the hands of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Real Madrid was bristling with rumors of fractious relationships. At the center of it was Cristiano Ronaldo, who, it was suggested, wasn’t happy with the club, his new coach or the man who usurped him as the world’s most expensive player, teammate Gareth Bale.
Meanwhile, nobody seemed happy with manager Rafa Benitez. His alleged defensive tactics were failing to inspire his players or supporters, and his failure to indulge their egos was causing dressing-room friction. Being a manager of Real Madrid is a unique position, involving catering to the star-tinted glasses of president Florentino Perez and balancing a squad built at least as much for their commercial value as their footballing one. With that in mind, Benitez always appeared an odd appointment.
He is a coach who has had plenty of fallings out with his bosses in the past, notably at Liverpool and Inter Milan. He also plans his tactics meticulously, with the functioning of the team always coming above catering to individuals. He is, therefore, a man whose whole style could hardly stand in greater contrast to that of his predecessor at Real Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti.
It was startling them that Benitez’s team selection for one of the biggest games of his career on Saturday featured an incredibly attacking lineup in which defensive balance was all-too conspicuous by its absence. It proved their undoing as Barcelona exposed the cavernous gaps in their opponents to claim a brilliant win and establish a six-point lead atop La Liga.
Was Benitez’s decision to go against every instinct he has previously displayed in his coaching career simply him trying to adjust to the demands of his new job, a job he has dreamed about since coaching the club’s B team in the mid-1990s? Or was it the result of more direct pressure from Perez, a president who has signed star after star in his two spells in charge of the world’s richest club, yet only overseen the winning of one league title and one Champions League crown in his last nine seasons?
As their team went down to a humiliating loss, the fans at the Bernabeu made it known that they held Perez in large part responsible. The billionaire is unlikely to be giving up his job anytime soon, but the fallout from the defeat could yet be substantial. A press conference has been called by Real Madrid for Monday night, sparking obvious speculation that Benitez’s reign would be brought to an end after less than six months.
By offering the head of Benitez, Perez could make a convenient scapegoat. Or he could decide that it is better to back Benitez for the time being and try and keep the bulk of supporters’ ire focused elsewhere. Even a man who sees managers as so readily disposable as Perez clearly does has never dispensed with one in mid-season. Whatever happens, the very fact that a news conference has to be called speaks volumes for the turmoil at the club.
And Benitez staying would foster further speculation about the man who has long been the symbol for Real Madrid. Benitez and Ronaldo may simply not be able to coexist.
It has become almost ubiquitous for a Real Madrid press conference to feature a question about where Ronaldo stands among the greats of the game. It was a game that Ancelotti always understood and was willing to play, not hesitating to state that the three-time Ballon d’Or winner was the best player in the world, as well as an exemplary leader of men.
That side of the media game has never come nearly as easily to Benitez, however. And almost as soon as he took charge, he caused ructions in Madrid by simply saying Ronaldo was “one of” the best players in the world and a great player among many other great players at the club. Immediately rumors and supposed training-ground evidence surfaced suggesting Ronaldo was less than enamored by his new coach.
His performances on the pitch have added weight to that theory. The Portuguese has scored just five goals in his last 12 appearances, which for a player of his astonishing scoring record represents a major slump. At times he has looked disinterested, too, not least against Barcelona. There is more to it than just a personality clash, with Ronaldo also thought to have had his nose put out of joint by a shifting of his position on the field and an effort from president and coach to hand Bale a more influential role.
Speculation that Ronaldo will be on his way at the end of the season, when he will have just two years remaining on his contract, is gaining momentum with every passing day. Ronaldo seems happy to foster it, and indulged in open flirting with Paris Saint-Germain when the French champions took on Real Madrid earlier this month. With PSG losing their current talisman and one of the world’s highest-paid players next summer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, they are thought to have their eyes firmly on luring one of the sport’s greats.
Manchester United, too, would love to engineer a return for a player they sold to Real Madrid for a then record £80 million in 2009. Indeed, only on Saturday, United manager Louis van Gaal revealed the club were very much keen and hopeful of getting Ronaldo back.
“We are looking at all players, not just Ronaldo. But these players are mostly ungettable,” he said. “With Ronaldo, let's wait and hope.”
With Ronaldo being whistled by his own fans on Saturday, and generally cutting a dejected figure, the end for him at a club in which he has already achieved everything, including becoming their all-time leading scorer, could be near. And whether it’s for Ronaldo, Benitez, Perez, a combination of the three, or all three, Saturday’s Clásico calamity could prove to be the true beginning of the end.