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Remembering the Age of Galácticos

Managing Madrid examines John Carlins's "White Angels: Beckham, Real Madrid and the New Football," a spectacular account of the 2003/2004 Galáctico season.

Alex Livesey

Who can forget the era of the Galácticos? That moment in history when one team dared consolidate the most talented, prestigious and marketable players in the world under one crest in the quest for sporting perfection. That moment when the captains of England, Portugal, France and Spain (with the help of two cheerful Brazilians) set aside their national loyalties to create magic on the pitch under a blinding aura of white. That unbelievable season when, after a most promising start, the greatest soccer team ever assembled watched the Copa del Rey, Champions League and La Liga titles slip from their grasp to the incredulous shock of Madridistas everywhere.

Depending on who you talk to, the Galáctico era marked by players such as Roberto Carlos, Raúl, Luís Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo "Fenomeno" and David Beckham is an object of romantic affection or vehement disillusionment. An ambitious, improbable, and--hindsight being twenty-twenty--impractical policy pursued by president Florentino Pérez, the Galáctico period hit its most-legendary peak in the summer of 2003 with the signing of Beckham. In a 330 page insider account of that unforgettable season, British reporter John Carlin takes readers through the jaw-dropping highs and heart-wrenching lows of Real Madrid's 2003/2004 campaign.

Carlin, a reporter with insider access to the team's training sessions, games, trips and hotel stays, recollects the season by sharing anecdotes of the meetings, matches, and most importantly, players, who defined that unprecedented experiment. Here are a few highlights:

Florentino's Transfer Policy:

Football for the Real Madrid president was a simple game. The formula for success boiled down to this: the greater the players/ the greater the spectacle/ the greater the success/ the greater the club's global reach/ the greater the profits/ the greater the capacity to buy more great players.

Add all that up and what you got was ilusión big time, permanent ilusión in bright shining lights. That was the new football formula. Simple as that. If you understood the formula you understood the great Pérez riddle: the most expensive players in the world were the cheapest.

Growing Pains: Luís Figo and Zinedine Zidane:

A few weeks into the (2001) season Zidane met with Florentino Pérez. Pérez asked him how he was settling in and he said fine, except for one thing. Figo simply refused to pass him the ball. Time and again when the simple and natural thing would have been to give it to him, he gave it to someone else. Pérez went and talked to Figo. Not revealing that Zidane had been complaining about him, Pérez asked him why he did not pass the ball to his new teammate more often. Figo responded as one might have expected. With indignant denials.

The next time Real Madrid played, Figo, on first receiving the ball, passed it to Zidane. The second time, again to Zidane. Third, to Zidane again. Whereupon he turned toward the stands, to where Pérez was sitting, opened his arms, palms outspread, and shrugged, in a gesture intended eloquently to put it to Pérez, 'What the hell are you talking about, senor presidente?'

Roberto Carlos on David Beckham's Signing:

Asked by a journalist in São Paulo for his views on David Beckham joining Real Madrid, Roberto Carlos had this to say: "Now that Beckham's coming there are finally going to be two good-looking guys in the team. I am so glad, because I felt so lonely being the only handsome player in such an ugly team."

Beckham's Bernabéu Debut:

It was as if he had metabolized all that pressure and transformed it into high-energy fuel. Ten minutes into the game he had the Bernabéu fans- the most equisititely fussy fans in the world- in his pocket. Real Madrid got a free kick on the edge of the Mallorca penalty area, but wide out to the left, nearer the corner flag than the 'D.' Few other players would have considered a shot on goal from there. Beckham did, sending the ball skimming over the point where the bar meets the post, with the goalkeeper quite beaten...The whole stadium cried, 'Uuuuuuuuuuy!'

For the rest of the game he didn't put a foot wrong. He dictated the tempo in midfield behind Zidane...he made three or four of his trademark pin-point passes, fifty yards long from the right touchline to the left...but added to his game a new propensity to tackle back. That desire won over the fans.

Here is an example of Beckham in his first season with los Vikingos:

David beckham vs Atlético Madrid (via Majoxbecks)

Zidane's "Piruoette:"

The Frenchman had a Valladolid player to beat before he could have a clear shot on goal. What the big man did next would be imprinted forever in the memory of all those who saw it...Collecting Ronaldo's pass on the run, floating as he always seemed to be one inch above the ground, he pinged the ball from his right foot to his left, at the very same instant initiating an anti-clockwise rotation of his body. Halfway through the electric-quick turn, in the split second when his body was turned towards his own teammates, he slid his left foot back over the ball, dragging it along in the direction of the rival goal.

Zinedine Zidane's famous roulette movement vs Real Valladolid 2003/2004 (via Yeghig Bekerian)

Ronaldo on Roberto Carlos:

'It's an injustice that I've won all these individual awards and Roberto hasn't won one. It's not right,' he said of the man with whom he plays for both club and country. 'Look at this guy. The world has never seen a player like him, and probably never will again. He's unique. The perfect modern footballer, who combines the technique of a Brazilian with the strength of a European. And he's won everything there is to win in the game. He's won more trophies than I have.'

Roberto Carlos was grinning as Ronaldo delivered what for him was an unusually long peroration on his footballing qualities. But Ronaldo hadn't finished. 'And the other thing is that he is in such extraordinary physical shape that he is going to continue playing at the highest level long after the rest of us have retired..."

Shattered Dream:

Three-quarters of the way into the season they had been eight points clear at the top of the Spanish league, in the quarterfinals of the Champions League and in the final of the Spanish Cup. And then nothing. Nada. No Spanish Cup, no Champions League, and not second, or third but fourth in the Spanish league. So what was it that went so suddenly and calamitously wrong?

The most obvious and most frequently heard explanation was that Florentino Pérez was to blame. That his ideas had been too dreamy, too romantic.

A variation on the same theme was this. Real had come to depend utterly on the genius and inspiration of the great players...The problem with that, said the wise 'futbolero' heads, was that genius and inspiration could not always be relied upon to do its stuff. Even the great ones had off days.


White Angels is a must-read for any Real Madrid fan, especially those that wish to relieve the magic of the Galácticos. Copyright Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004.

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