Real Madrid in turmoil ahead of Camp Nou Clasico

Gareth Bale has been the scapegoat for their issues but he has an ally in Florentino Pérez

Gareth Bale celebrates ending his goal drought against Levante. Rarely has a celebration caused such a fallout. Photograph: Juan Carlos Hidalgo/EPA

Gareth Bale celebrates ending his goal drought against Levante. Rarely has a celebration caused such a fallout. Photograph: Juan Carlos Hidalgo/EPA

 

Rarely has a goal celebration been scrutinised so closely. Last Sunday, Real Madrid laboured to a 2-0 win over relegation-threatened Levante in La Liga. Gareth Bale opened the scoring in the 17th minute – a hooked volley from inside the box. It was his first goal for Real Madrid in 10 games.

During the drought, Real Madrid’s fans had turned on him.

Bale marked the goal by wheeling away with his hands covering his ears. He wasn’t listening to their jeers anymore. Once he reached the corner flag, he drew a boot at it, fists clenched, his face contorted in demented rage. The image adorned both cover pages of Madrid’s sports newspapers, AS and Marca, the following morning.

If Bale wasn’t entirely happy at scoring neither was his team-mate, Cristiano Ronaldo. When Bale’s goal flew in, Ronaldo thrust his arm in the air in disgust. Spain’s TV and radio stations have pondered the gesture all week. More evidence, it seemed, about how marginalised Bale is in the Real Madrid dressing room. Marca reported the previous week that Bale has made “little effort to integrate with the group 20 months after his arrival”.

Gary Lineker felt moved to righteousness. He marvelled at the Portuguese star’s childishness, tweeting: “Ronaldo’s extraordinarily stroppy reaction to Bale scoring from a rebound from his effort was bizarre and unhealthy.”

‘The Anxious One’

Sergio RamosLionel Messicompañeros

Ronaldo was subjected to more self-laceration before the half was out. Running onto a pullback in the box, he shot towards the opposite bottom corner of Levante’s goal. The ball took the slightest of deflections from Bale en route to the back of the net. While Ronaldo lapped up the applause of his teammates, the goal was credited to Bale over the PA system. Parts of the Bernabéu stadium took to whistling the news.

Bale is in a tricky spot. Before the match, his coach Carlo Ancelotti told staff at Madrid that it was getting harder and harder to justify Bale’s inclusion in the side. He was bought for €100 million to score goals. Yet he hadn’t scored in nine games. There is a clamour to replace him with the home-grown talent, Jesé, who was a revelation last season before getting a cruciate knee ligament injury and is fit again.

Bale is also too similar in style to Ronaldo – both are big, powerful-running wingers – and he’s been shoehorned into the team’s starting XI. Ancelotti’s team is more effective with a 4-4-2 rather than fitting Bale into a 4-3-3 line-up. Critics stress that, since his arrival in the summer of 2013, it is no coincidence that Madrid’s most fluent passage of play occurred in 2014 when he was out injured.

Fighter

luchadorAthletic Bilbao

“He doesn’t defend because he doesn’t want to,” one of his team-mates muttered anonymously to the press.

After a triumphant 2014 in which they won the Champions League title, the club has been in free fall. Having led the league by four points a few weeks ago, Barcelona have leapfrogged them to lead by a point. They tumbled out of the Copa del Rey to Atlético Madrid and last month they also got filleted 4-0 in the league by their city rivals.

In the latest round of the Champions League, they only scraped past Schalke, 5-4 on aggregate, having lost the home tie, a game in which Real Madrid’s fans fluttered their hankies disdainfully at Bale, a practice borrowed from bullfighting.

Bale is a convenient scapegoat for Madrid’s troubles. He has, however, one important ally in the Spanish capital – the club’s president, Florentino Pérez. To understand Real Madrid, you must follow the movements of this man. The legacy of Santiago Bernabéu – who presided over the club from 1943 until his death in 1978, and whose name adorns the club’s stadium – was to elevate the status of the president unlike, say, Barça who idolise coaches like Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola.

Pérez, or Florentino as he is known in Spain, is el faro, the fan’s lighthouse at Real Madrid. They look to him for guidance. TV cameras linger on his face during matches. People rush to get his autograph. In Catalonia, he is lampooned on a satirical show, Crackòvia. He is one of the five most powerful men in Spain, on a footing with the chairman of Santander bank and the country’s prime minister. He is dismissive of managers. He never spoke to Manuel Pellegrini after August during the Chilean’s year in charge in 2009-2010.

Futbolistas

ASfutbolistas

“For Florentino, they’re all useless. They’re all part of a conspiracy to take all the money without working hard for it. They have to pay agents. He employs futbolistas purely because he has no choice. He has to make do with them. In the same way, he wears a corbata, a tie, to work because everybody has to wear a corbata, but Florentino doesn’t like corbatas.”

Footballers have long been referred to as pieces of meat. Pérez, though, put a new spin on their commoditisation. When he became president of Real Madrid in 2000, he started an audacious galáctico policy where he signed the world’s best player every summer, including Zinedine Zidane, the Brazilian Ronaldo, his Portuguese namesake, and, of course, Bale, the world’s most expensive player.

Pérez wants to create ilusión, or excitement and a sense of wonder, for Madrid fans. The signing of David Beckham in 2003 – when the club eschewed the chance to sign Ronaldinho because he was too “ugly” – was a new departure. Pérez recognised the superior marketing potential of Beckham even though he wasn’t a world-class player. It was part of his voodoo economics. His commercial approach has been vindicated. Real Madrid have been the world’s richest club, according to the annual Deloitte Money League, for the last decade.

Contentious

“Much of the media is Madridista, but not all of it,” he said, almost in disbelief. He is a man who is used to getting his own way. In a slip of the tongue, he spoke about the moment when he, the autocrat, brought the Welsh winger to the club.

“When I signed Bale,” he said, before adjusting his tongue: “when we signed Bale . . .”

When pushed, he backed Ancelotti, but observers know these endorsements carry little weight. Pérez once went through seven coaches in a three-year period. Marca reports that Ancelotti will get the sack if there is another “debacle” when Madrid play Barça away on Sunday. It’s more likely he will limp on until the end of the season, especially as Madrid are still in the Champions League.

Pérez defended Bale by citing the crucial goals he has scored for the club, including last year’s decisive goal in the Champions League final and a galloping goal of genius against Barcelona in the final of the Copa del Rey. Bale would do his long-term prospects at the club considerable good if he were to score another golazo at the Camp Nou.

Who is Florentino Pérez?

Florentino Pérez was born in 1947, the same year that his predecessor Santiago Bernabéu opened the club’s stadium. Like Bernabéu – who brought the world’s greatest players to Madrid in the 1950s, including Alfredo di Stéfano, Didi and Ferenc Puskás – Pérez has signed the world’s brightest football stars, most recently last summer’s World Cup sensation, James Rodríguez, and, of course, his vaunted forward line – Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema.

Benzema is a favourite of his. Pérez oversees a construction company, Grupo ACS, which employs 140,000 people in 41 countries. He took time out from his business schedule to fly to Benzema’s home in Lyon to cajole the French striker into joining Madrid in 2009.

Pérez was what Spaniards call enchufe – connections. A year after taking over as president, he wiped away the club’s debt of about €250 million at a stroke by selling the club’s old training ground for redevelopment, following rezoning by his friends from Partido Popular, the country’s ruling conservative party.

Pérez is rich, very rich, but not ostentatious. He dresses in bland suits. He’s a widower and teetotal, a kind of anti-Berlusconi, his only extravagance a yacht he sails around Mallorca.

His personal wealth is around the €2 billion mark, which puts him in a secure position as the unpaid president of Real Madrid.

In 2012, he adjusted the club’s bylaws so that any person who wishes to run for president must be a socio (member) for 20 years and be able to privately guarantee 15 per cent of the club’s operating budget, a figure which comes to more than €75 million. He was re-elected president unopposed in 2013.

He could be in the job for a long time.

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