World Soccer: With Florentino Perez’s return to the Santiago Bernabeu, everyone is talking about the second coming of the galacticos. What differences do you see between this Real Madrid and that one?
Jorge Valdano: The fundamental difference is that last time Madrid had a team; now we have a squad. This is a much more balanced squad, but the basic policy is the same and always has been. Signing the world’s best players began with Alfredo Di Stefano and has been a constant throughout the club’s history. When Madrid did not have the best players in the world they stopped being Madrid. We were always very uncomfortable with the word “galactico” but it’s impossible to avoid – every tournament we play takes place on Earth.
It’s going to take a while to get it right, isn’t it? You’ve practically bought a whole new team.
Football is a game of habits, and habits need time. But I’m convinced we will succeed in playing great football. We have two advantages. One, we’re in very good hands. Manuel Pellegrini has reached professional maturity. He’s been in Spain a long time and he’s a coach who makes his teams the protagonist in every game.
He seeks to dominate possession and always looks to attack. He fits perfectly with the history of Real Madrid. And two, this is a very professional group of players, one that’s easy to work with. Our big stars are also committed and hard-working.
So far you have had good results but there are question marks over the performances.
All we lack is a little fluidity. The team is very comfortable in both areas – not just attacking, defending too – but we need more pause and tranquillity in the middle. That said, because of the characteristics of the players, we’re a more direct team than people think. The Bernabeu fans are impatient; they don’t like long, slow build-ups, they like more direct football. This is a team that’s more comfortable accelerating than slowing the game down.
So, Barcelona are not the footballing model to follow?
Madrid have never copied anyone.
Are Madrid over-dependent on Cristiano Ronaldo?
His role in the Madrid team is as decisive as his role at Manchester United. When you have one of the best players in the world you have to use him to the point of abusing him. That’s normal. Logically, he’s arrived with the intention of being decisive, but that doesn’t mean that we depend solely upon him.
How important will Xabi Alonso be in bringing that fluidity? Could his signing be as important as Cristiano Ronaldo’s?
Xabi will be decisive for us because of his intelligence, his maturity, his capacity for influencing games, and quality. He is going to be the man who dictates the style and pace of the team. Ronaldo has the power to change the result – the greatest power there is during a match. Xabi has the power to change the play, to impose himself on the course of a match, like the director of the orchestra.
Supporters were surprised by the departures of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder. What was the thinking behind that?
Huntelaar was a victim of [Karim] Benzema. Given that we had players like [Ruud] Van Nistelrooy and Raul, he was set to play a very secondary role, so we found him a club to
fit his ambitions – Milan was a very good option. In the case of Sneijder [who joined Internazionale], it’s true there was a time when we were short of players in the middle and we thought he could make us stronger there. But the arrival of [Esteban] Granero and Xabi Alonso, and the fact that during pre-season the coach played with four attackers, changed the club’s position. There was not much sense keeping him.
During pre-season he came on as a sub in lots of games – and always played very well. We thought he would be satisfied with that but a few days before the new season his father told us his son wanted to have a more important role [and he joined Bayern Munich].
They weren’t economic decisions, then?
Well, in the real world, if you sign [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic you sell (Samuel] Eto’o.
What role does president Florentino Perez play in the day-to-day running of the club?
Florentino decides on strategic questions, takes part in important decisions and is
on top of even the smallest details. He participates in all decisions.
Including footballing ones? What about signing new players?
Of course. I don’t know any club where the president opposes a signing and the club still signs him. Ultimately, he’s responsible. His word is key.
If you want to sign, say, Wayne Rooney from Manchester United and Florentino says no, does that mean you don’t sign him? Or how about, to put the question the other way round, if Florentino wants to sign Rooney and the technical staff and the coach don’t want him, does he end up getting signed anyway?
Given the type of players that Real Madrid sign, reaching a consensus is very easy. I understand that the media are attracted to this idea but we have never found ourselves in that kind of situation. If we are not all happy, the player doesn’t get signed. Signing a player who the coach doesn’t want is a terrible error. It’d be very unintelligent to
sign a player against his will. Beyond the galacticos, if you want to sign a player,
you need to convince the president. And when the president is convinced, the signing goes ahead.
Is it hard to convince him?
No. This year we made eight signings. If it was difficult we wouldn’t have had time to sign so many players.
The obvious aim is the Champions League Final at the Bernabeu. Would it be sad to sit and watch a Final without Real Madrid?
Yes, for me, it would be. Our hope is to be there. But we can’t let that be an obsession. Football is a game and it stops being a game when it becomes infused with anguish. We can’t live our lives worrying about that. What we have to do is earn the right to be in the Final. It’s worth noting that Madrid went 32 years without winning the European Cup and that didn’t stop us being the best club of the 20th century. So if history has taught us anything it’s to be patient.
You talk about patience but no one is going to give Madrid time after you spent more than £200million. Is this team obliged to win it all?
No. Our obligation is to get better each day – and results are a consequence of doing things the right way.
Let’s put it another way. Would it be a failure if Madrid don’t win anything?
Failure is not giving everything you can to achieve your objective…although I know very well what the public perception will be.
The pressure is immense.
That’s one of the reasons we look closely at a player’s personality when we sign him. Not everyone can handle the pressure. We can’t control the pressure and the demands that come from outside. Florentino has discovered the secret of creating expectation, but he still hasn’t found the antidote.
How can you minimise that pressure?
A director has to counteract media opinions, to lean the other way. You have to be like the rider in a motorcycle sidecar, pulling against the momentum, against the current of opinion. At moments of euphoria, you have to be critical because euphoria distances you from reality; at moments of negativity, you have to extenuate the positive.
The problem might be your opponents as you’re up against one of the best Barcelona sides ever. Considering you’re close to Pep Guardiola and share his footballing philosophy, you seem very reluctant to praise them now.
I work where I work and the focus of my attention is Real Madrid. Last year, I was a commentator on football and I spoke in very eulogistic terms about Guardiola right from the first minute, at a time when there were enormous doubts surrounding him. At that time, I gave over three full-page articles to Barcelona and Guardiola. My position hasn’t changed at all. The thing is, my attention has to be trained elsewhere now. I’m not paid to motivate our rivals!
UEFA is becoming increasingly interested in financial fair play. Where do Madrid stand on that and would you support measures to limit the spending of clubs?
We will support any initiative of that sort. UEFA and FIFA are stressing the importance of bringing the total outlay on salaries below 70 per cent of a club’s income. We’re below 50
per cent, so we would be comfortable with any imposition FIFA make. It’s a question of survival for football. Big clubs have to take responsibility because they are the ones that mark out the pathway for other clubs to follow.
And what about the signing of extremely young players?
We have to establish a rigid system of control to prevent abuses. Happy cases like Leo Messi [who joined Barcelona at 13] make millions of kids think they are going to be successful, but in many cases those kids end up abandoned to their fate, with no future in football and no formal education. It’s right that FIFA should be very strict in controlling the movement of young players.
Madrid have signed the best player from England, Italy and France. Is La Liga now the world’s best league?
The Spanish league is the best in the world – not just because of the players, but because of the play. And that says a lot about the media and the fans: they demand a certain level of entertainment. The investments that Madrid have made have benefited the league in general because it has brought the spotlight back onto Spain.
But by buying from Milan, Manchester United, Liverpool and Lyon that money goes abroad.
Yes, but it’s also true that the majority of the clubs we have bought from have not reinvested that money, so it has not served to strengthen them. Manchester United and Milan have not spent what they have gained.
Is the risk that Madrid and Barcelona will turn the Spanish league into a two-horse race in which no one else can compete?
The dominance of Madrid and Barcelona is a question of budget and that’s true in almost all developed countries. We’ll see how that evolves in the long term but Madrid and Barcelona can lose with any of the teams near the bottom. The media is talking about the fact that there are two clubs that stand way above the rest. Well, last year was worse – last year there was just one. I’m sure that the desire to compete at the highest possible level will push other clubs into responding to that challenge and improving, just as has happened with Madrid now after Barcelona’s success. That creates a virtuous circle.
But those clubs can’t afford to respond.
Signing the best players in the world is not easy, that’s true. But clubs can take advantage of other markets – there are lots of talented young players and Spanish clubs do have the capability to turn to that market.