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Barca fire needs reigniting

Barcelona Nov 13, 2014
Read
Jul 23, 2014

Real prepare for a battle beyond Spain

ESPN FC's Craig Burley and Steve Nicol discuss how Carlo Ancelotti should manage the embarrassment of attacking riches at his disposal.

Even though it was a policy that exploded into life as far back as the 1950s, seeding the first-ever era of complete European domination, and even though Version 2.0 reinvigorated Real Madrid and won them domestic, European and world titles, there was a stage when it looked not only like the "galactico" philosophy was dying out at the Bernabeu but also that it was poisoning the club.

But just like in life, literature and cinema, it seems football has tons of room for the "you thought you got rid of me, but here I am again" narrative.

James Bond, Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction," Silvio Berlusconi, Injun Joe from "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," Robert Downey Jr., Madonna, the Daleks, name your own example -- reappearance, resurrection, reinvention. For good or for bad.

But by the time Madrid got around to buying David Beckham, the philosophy was worn out and shabby. Not because of whom they had just bought; rather, they had simply run out of strategy. Los Blancos had lost equilibrium, didn't understand how to properly complement their superstar policy with worker ants and weren't truly supplying homebred talent. A club culture where luxury, wealth, fame and reputation held the upper hand over strategy, tactics, hard work and hunger was establishing itself.

Today, Galactico 3.0 is beginning to look much shrewder, better thought through, more attractive and more effective. A little like an updated Mk 1.

Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez were purchased to help Real Madrid dominate beyond Spain's borders.
Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez were purchased to help Real Madrid dominate beyond Spain's borders.

This is the way I'm choosing to interpret the signing of James Rodriguez. Madrid's last two truly galactico signings, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, have been sensationally successful in almost all aspects. The prices were daring each time but have been validated by trophies, individual excellence, erosion of the gap that existed between the club and FC Barcelona and the club's revenue streams.

Now, James. You could certainly argue -- and I wouldn't demur -- how truly unfair it is that the most likely to suffer for the Colombian's arrival is Angel di Maria, who, last season for sure, deserves recognition as Madrid's second-most impressive, consistent, creative and hard-working player.

The next most likely to suffer is Isco. Over half a century of games in his first season, goals, assists and the promise of golden times to come but now facing the threat of his development being choked somewhat by the 2014 World Cup Golden Boot winner.

- Cox: How will James fit?
- Rigg: Can James live up to expectations?
- Train: Domination on the menu
- Report: James deal agreed
- Poll: Your best Real Madrid XI

I suspect that for Madrid this is a classic case of the "opportunity cost." It's a broad concept, not simply limited to, for example, "won't Madrid regret selling Di Maria and Isco?" or "selling Di Maria and loaning out Isco?" or watching the young Spaniard get frustrated on the bench. Those opportunity costs are real and have a value, but there's another side to it -- the guiding of certain business or commercial actions based on the scarcity of resources.

When a world-class talent may be available, a club like Madrid needs to figure how much it will hurt to see him at PSG, Manchester City or, worst of all, Bayern Munich. Also, how long might it take for a similar chance to come around again (and how much more expensive will it be) if the decision is to ignore this opportunity and wait for future developments?

Scarcity of true galactico resources was part of what afflicted Real Madrid by 2004-05 when, having gobbled up Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo and already in possession of Roberto Carlos and Raúl, they cast around for the next candidate. David Beckham worked at the club in many senses, but the trophy haul during his time there was negligible and his arrival happened to coincide with a gross downturn in the quality of the club's decision-making (hardly his fault).

This summer's signings will affect great players like Angel Di Maria and Isco, but that's life.
This summer's signings will affect great players like Angel Di Maria and Isco, but that's life.

Just like with the world's natural resources, if you mine exhaustively enough and consume quickly there will be scarcity. From the turn of the century onward, Madrid bought Figo, Zidane, Ronaldo and Beckham. Their ages ranged from turning 27 to already turned 29. Madrid required that galacticos were forged elsewhere and then ripped away from the clubs that made them, irrespective of the financial outlay. Out of this world. But also off the shelf.

To some extent Cristiano Ronaldo fit that pattern, but for the fact that he was only 24. What a remarkable purchase he seems now. With each year he has become more of a footballer, more of a world icon, a more complete sportsman -- culminating in three goals scored across the semifinal and final of the 2014 Champions League.

Bale was a tortuous negotiation -- ditto Zidane, Ronaldo, Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo -- but he produced (pound for pound given the problems he faced) an utter gem of a season that culminated in crucial goals to win the Copa del Rey final and Champions League final. Like Cristiano Ronaldo he was 24 when he signed for Los Blancos, but this was a guy whose stated goal was to make himself world class at Madrid, a club he had supported since boyhood (just like Ronaldo and James), rather than simply bringing his proven world-class status to the Bernabeu.

Surprisingly, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale represent shrewd business, as they are peaking at Real instead of arriving at their best.
Surprisingly, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale represent shrewd business, as they are peaking at Real instead of arriving at their best.

The shrewd pattern of purchasing brilliant athletes who carried with them a driving hunger to win, win and win again, while improving personally and maturing, was set around such decisions, like the additions of Raphael Varane as a teenager and Dani Carvajal as a repatriated Madrid youth team product (and prodigious Madridista from childhood). Also, the active promotion and involvement of Zidane -- as an assistant coach, not just some guru figure -- added some of the elements the club was lacking between 2000 and 2005.

Note that the return of Fernando Hierro to the coaching staff adds grit and aggression. The first real victim of the second galactico era is back, still carrying the "work harder, pay more attention, play ruthlessly" message that was being ignored a decade ago. Good signing.

I would argue that for anyone who understands or even appreciates top-level football, Toni Kroos is as galactico a signing as you could ever wish to achieve. Technically superb, 24 years old, laden with experience and a world champion and Champions League winner on the threshold of becoming Europe's dominant midfielder. And he chose Madrid over staying at Bayern. What a statement.

The Di Stefano era was a
The Di Stefano era was a "galactico" era of sorts at Real Madrid.

Back to James. Was his the position they most needed to strengthen? No. Does the expenditure on Asier Illarramendi and Isco last summer look slightly ill-judged given the 100 million euros shelled out this summer on Kroos and the Colombian playmaker?

Possibly, apart from the facts that Kroos and James would have been snapped up by other clubs had Madrid not moved with such ruthlessness and that, as opposed to the days of 2000 to 2005, Madrid have become canny net traders in the transfer market.

Last year, the sales of Mesut Ozil and Gonzalo Higuain nearly paid for Bale. Twelve months on, each won his domestic cup while Madrid won the Copa del Rey and La Decima. Who got the most out of those deals? Madrid did.

If Isco and Di Maria are sold -- and I'd lament the loss of either player from La Liga -- you could expect that those deals would yield in the region of 80 million euros, which, with the 19 million euros for Alvaro Morata, pretty much washes Madrid's face on the outlay for Kroos and James. Both men will retain a healthy resale value over the next four years, and each player may still have a couple of years to reach full potential. Neither is suffering from the fatigue that afflicted Xabi Alonso and Iker Casillas at the World Cup. Nor are they remotely sated in their search for trophies.

With James Rodriguez's signing official in Madrid, ESPN FC's Craig Burley asks where players like Angel di Maria will be next season.

So, if you'll permit me, back to Galactico 1.0. When president Santiago Bernabeu signed Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Francisco Gento, Luis del Sol, Raymond Kopa, Hector Rial et al, the result was complete European domination. The original galactico ideal was not all about marketing and world profile, although both concepts were in the mix even then. It was about filling the home stadium, winning everything in sight and doing so with Fred Astaire style. Or Astaire plus some nightclub bouncer muscle when needed.

Los Blancos played in eight European Cup finals from 1956 to 1966, winning six of them. No team has ever retained the Champions League, and whether this Madrid side can do that in Berlin in June remains a moot point. It's possible, but let's put that kind of crystal ball gazing aside temporarily.

The next galactico era under president Florentino Perez is geared toward the bigger picture beyond La Liga.
The next galactico era under president Florentino Perez is geared toward the bigger picture beyond La Liga.

The strategy here is not simply to win La Liga, although with Atletico Madrid having been stripped of significant assets and Barcelona in a state of institutional and sporting flux, Madridistas must feel sure beyond measure that they will be champions this season. No. Across Europe to the north, Bayern Munich have set out on a highly tuned strategy to not only dominate Germany and Europe for a generation but to do so with a thrill and a swashbuckle that transforms their public image.

Instead of being viewed as professional, athletic, hungry, hard to beat and arrogant, Bayern hired Pep Guardiola to play a brand of football that the world can fall in love with. Not Barça Mk 2, but a blend of Pep Guardiola's Barcelona plus Jupp Heynckes' Bayern. The kind of football that thrilled us in the opening stages of this summer's World Cup -- vastly technical, but daring and played on the front foot and at high speed. That, at least, is their aim.

James is just one more keynote indication that Madrid are preparing for battle. Battle with Bayern. A fight for total domination of European football and of our footballing affections.

Graham Hunter

Graham Hunter covers Spanish football and FC Barcelona for ESPN FC, Sky Sports and a number of newspapers and magazines across the world. He is also the author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World."