El Clasico: A long way from a Real happy family
Tensions between Ronaldo and club president Perez could plunge season into crisis
Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo is flanked by his mother and club president Florentino Perez, who has never been close with the Portuguese since his arrival at the club. Photograph: Denis Doyle/Getty Images
Real Madrid are hitting a fork in the road. Their season could go one of two ways depending on how they fare today against their old foes Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium. Win and they will cut Barça’s lead at the top of the table to a manageable eight points, given Real Madrid have a game in hand, and are hitting a rich vein of form.
They bullied Sevilla 5-0 in their previous league game, for example, and last weekend in the desert they won their record fifth trophy of the calendar year, the Fifa Club World Cup.
Lose or draw, however, and things will get nervy. Their league race would essentially be over and in February the club faces into a sticky Uefa Champions League knockout tie against Paris Saint-Germain. Were Real Madrid to go crashing out of Europe at the last-16 stage – following seven straight semi-final appearances and back-to-back tournament victories, allied to a league title defence that petered out before Christmas – the problems that have been festering all season at the club will bubble to the surface.
The summer started with a stutter when talisman Cristiano Ronaldo reared up in June while on international duty with Portugal in Russia at the Confederations Cup. Ronaldo had just been hit with a charge of tax fraud involving a hefty sum, failing to pay €14.7 million of tax for image rights earned between 2011 and 2014. The amount is almost four times the figure that landed Leo Messi with a 21-month suspended jail sentence a year ago.
Lack of support
Ronaldo was upset by the lack of support from Real Madrid with his predicament, which fed into a larger feeling of “persecution” he felt in Spain, according to a story by Portuguese newspaper A Bola, which was based on a source close to Ronaldo. He was “very, very mad”, reported his family friend, and intended leaving La Liga. Ronaldo was sick that yet again club president Florentino Pérez hadn’t come out to bat for him.
Pérez let Ronaldo stew over the summer. After all, who would buy Ronaldo? Paris Saint-Germain, one of only a handful of clubs with the resources and declared interest, were busy spending the guts of €400 million on luring Neymar jnr and Kylian Mbappé to football’s latest big-spending project.
Pérez has never been close to Ronaldo. Peréz even tried to torpedo Ronaldo’s move to the club when he returned to power as president after a three-year hiatus in the summer of 2009, having inherited his world record signing from a deal negotiated with Manchester United by his predecessor Ramón Calderón in December 2008. Peréz wanted to spend the €93 million fee for Ronaldo on other players instead. He had to be dissuaded by his general director at the time, Jorge Valdano, who urged him not to cut off his nose to spite his face.
Ronaldo – whose self-love knows no boundaries; it’s said he probably shouts his own name during sex – wasn’t pleased by the lack of love and respect shown to him by Peréz. It accounted for the unhappiness Ronaldo felt during his early years at the club. In the summer of 2012, he threw a tantrum when Peréz wouldn’t accompany him to Geneva to that year’s ceremony for the Uefa Best Player in Europe Award, which was won by Andrés Iniesta. Ronaldo declared himself “sad”. His sense of isolation confounded the courtiers in Madrid.
The petulance dismays Real Madrid fans, though, who don’t idolise the player even though he’s scored more than 420 goals for the club. He still gets whistled at during matches despite his incredible goal-scoring haul in the run-in to this year’s Champions League title, including match-winning hat-tricks against Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid, as well as scoring the goal against Malaga that clinched Real Madrid their first league title in five years.
Peréz regularly polls his fan base. He’s conscious they are the electorate who swept him into power in 2000 so he watches their mood closely. It emboldens him to treat Ronaldo coldly. The distant relationship between the pair became evident again earlier in December when on the day that Ronaldo was crowned as Ballon d’Or winner for the fifth time, drawing him level with Messi, Peréz publicly flirted with Neymar jnr.
Fulfil his ambitions
Peréz sent a message that Real Madrid, the world’s biggest and most prestigious club, offered the right environment for Neymar jnr to fulfil his own ambitions to one day become a Ballon d’Or winner.
Casting covetous eyes at Neymar jnr has incensed Ronaldo who himself is angling to re-negotiate his contract at Real Madrid. Even though Ronaldo has more than three years to run on his current deal, he’s keen to cash in following a stellar year, and significantly he’s anxious to secure wages on a par with Neymar jnr and Messi. Negotiations have hit an impasse – after all, he won’t go on forever; he turns 33 in February – which has fuelled further speculation that he could leave during the summer.
Peréz is obsessed with making his own Ballon d’Or winner. It’s what drove his original galáctico spending spree at the turn of the century when season after season he stockpiled the world’s best players, including Luís Figo, Zinedine Zidane and the Brazilian Ronaldo. He bought Gareth Bale with this plan in mind. That plan will never materialise.
Bale is damaged goods. The Welsh winger promised so much. He made important cameo appearances in the semi-final and final of the Fifa Club World Cup last week, rekindling memories of his match-winning performances for the club, among them his decisive headed goal in the 2014 Uefa Champions League final against Atletico Madrid.
Since arriving (injured) at the club in the summer of 2013 for €100 million, he’s been hamstrung by injuries, 20 in total, nine of them are related to his over-sized calf muscles, which help give him his explosive speed, but now sadly they’re pockmarked with scar tissue. He has back trouble, too, which has a knock-on effect on his calf muscles.
His injury profile has plagued his career. His playing statistics compared with, say, Ronaldo are striking. Bale has only played more than 30 league games a season three times in the last decade, a mark that Ronaldo has hit eight times. Real Madrid have tried everything, including tinkering with the grass at the Bernabéu and adjusting the seat in Bale’s Lamborghini sports car to try and comfort his delicate body.
Now patience has run out. Where once Bale used to enjoy protection in the media by those journalists close to Peréz, now they have rounded on him. They criticise him for failing to adapt culturally in Spain. He can’t speak Spanish. He’s like a satellite orbiting the team. He’s no longer untouchable. He’s lost his starting position, having ceded it to Isco, the new darling of Spain’s national team.
Another pretender, the electric Marco Asensio, scorer of two golazos against Barcelona during Real Madrid’s Spanish Super Cup triumph in August, is also pressing for inclusion ahead of Bale. During the summer, Real Madrid were open to offers for Bale, but he dug his heels in. It looks inevitable, though, that he’ll be offloaded next summer at a cut-down price to free up funds for the next big thing.
Karim Benzema, another favourite of Peréz, is also under sustained pressure for his lacklustre performances. He’s only scored two goals in 11 league appearances this season, but he’s always been the ideal foil for Ronaldo, disappearing so Ronaldo can appear. Benzema also has an important ally in head coach Zidane, himself under untold stress.
How short the memories are in Madrid. Zidane has amassed eight trophies in a two-year spell as manager, including the club’s first league and European Cup double since 1959. Last season, he was lauded for rotating the squad effectively and crucially for persuading Ronaldo to sit out for the first time in unimportant league games so he could peak for vital games in the spring.
This season, the press have been lambasting Zidane for his lack of tactical nous during matches, and for allowing a drift to set in among his gilded squad, which has led to points being dropped at home to the likes of Real Betis and Levante, and defeat on the road to newly promoted Girona.
The decision by Real Madrid to let three key players leave during the summer, a decision criticised by Ronaldo in November – James Rodriguez; Pepe, who had been a rock at the heart of defence for a decade; and Álvaro Morata, who scored 15 goals in 14 league appearances last season – and instead bet on youth, now seems short-sighted.
Meanwhile, Barcelona who endured a summer of institutional crisis – which included the trauma of Neymar jnr’s defection; a heave to unseat the club president Josep Maria Bartomeu from power; and bungling in the transfer market, notably with the failure to close the sale of Philippe Coutinho – have raced ahead in the league. There is a workmanlike feel to their team, but they’re unbeaten all season.
Zidane, who is out of contract at the end of the season, knows all about the vagaries of life as manager at Real Madrid, a club where nothing lasts forever. Antonio Conte, among other elite managers, has been mentioned in dispatches as a possible replacement.
Zidane has a status in the club, however, that makes him unlike any of his predecessors who have been so easily discarded in the past. Peréz – who once axed seven managers in a three-year spell – will tread carefully when it comes to Zidane. A graceful exit could be engineered, with Zidane falling on his sword. Or, of course, if he oversees a stirring win against Barcelona, the clouds over his reign might dissipate once again.
When politics meets football in Catalonia
The eyes of the world’s media will be on Spain this weekend, as news filters through around the time of Saturday’s 1pm kick-off about the result of Thursday’s parliamentary elections in Catalonia. Following a rogue declaration of independence in October – a move that failed to garner international support, including from the Irish Government – Spain’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy called regional elections in Catalonia to try and clear the air.
La Liga’s president Javier Tebas has constantly threatened to throw FC Barcelona out of the league if Catalonia were to secede. The club, which historically has been a flag-bearer for Catalan separatism, can expect to receive a frosty reception at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium with only about 200 Barça fans expected to travel to the match.
Last October 1st, for example, on the day of police brutality in Catalonia towards people casting votes in an informal independence referendum, the Bernabéu turned into a sea of Spain flags during a league game against Espanyol. Real Madrid fans chanted “Viva España!” on the 12th minute during play, and waved placards that were handed out by the club with a unionist message which read: “We are all Spain”.