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Arrigo Sacchi’s Forgotten Time at Real Madrid

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The former AC Milan and Atletico Madrid manager had a brief yet eventful stint as Real Madrid’s director of football in the mid-2000s. It’s worthwhile to reflect on those events.

The new trainer of Real Madrid, Vanderle Photo credit should read JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images

2004 to 2006 — these were some of the most chaotic years in the history of Real Madrid. Perhaps it was so chaotic that no one likes to talk about it. Maybe the lunging fear of its return plays a role in the indifference. During the chaos of the 2004-05 season, Real Madrid had three managers: José Antonio Camacho, Mariano García Remón, and Vanderlei Luxemburgo. The first two had previously played almost 600 games for Real Madrid. The third manager, Luxemburgo, had 22 different managerial jobs in the 22 years before joining Real Madrid in 2004. However, the most notable appointment in 2004 was that of Arrigo Sacchi. The Legendary tactician had finished his coaching career in 2001 with a disappointing stint at Parma. But when Real Madrid came calling with an offer to be their new Director of Football, the former Atletico Madrid manager didn’t refuse.

Real Madrid’s 2004-05 squad was full of global icons. Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Roberto Carlos, Michael Owen, David Beckham, Luis Figo, and so on. Their starting lineup looked like an all-star XI for a Pepsi commercial. But success on the pitch was not complimenting the firepower on the roster. Camacho left in September and his assistant, Garcia Remon, was promoted to the Bernabeu hot seat. Real Madrid were sitting in 10th position in the league table by the seventh matchday, but Garcia Remon steadied the ship to the best of his ability. But in December, things were about to take more drastic turns.

On December 21, 2004, Real Madrid had a board meeting to finalize the decision to hire Arrigo Sacchi. The press claimed Real Madrid President Florentino Perez and Club Director Emilio Butragueno had been contemplating the appointment for a long time. The Italian was announced as Real Madrid’s new Director of Football the following day. He would work directly under Butragueno. While announcing the appointment, Florentino’s said:

“We’ve decided to appoint Arrigo Sacchi so he can bring his substantial experience to help make our club more professional. We did not want someone to coach the team but someone who can help organize and plan everything to do with football at the club and Arrigo Sacchi was the ideal candidate.”

Real Madrid Training Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Florentino Perez was trying to manage Real Madrid — the biggest football team in the world — like a basketball or baseball franchise (their American counterparts based on financial muscle). The club was to have a head coach responsible for training and picking the starting XI, and a general manager to build the roster. Director of football, sporting director, or general manager — they are three job titles with pretty much the same job description.

There were whispers about another Italian (who would get engraved into Real Madrid’s eternal history in about 10 years from 2004). Carlo Ancelotti had just won the Champions League title for the first time as a manager in 2003 with AC Milan. Ancelotti was a key man in Arrigo Sacchi’s Europe-conquering Milan side in the late 1980s. Florentino’s prized-possession since 2001, Zidane, had also worked under Ancelotti at Juventus. The dots began to connect quite easily. Florentino was perhaps planning to use Sacchi to persuade Ancelotti into joining Real Madrid. However, the reality was quite different.

Real Madrid sacked their manager Garcia Remon on the day before new year’s eve 2004. The former national team head-coach of Brazil, Vanderlei Luxemburgo, was named as his replacement. Sacchi had recommended Luxemburgo’s name. Real Madrid enjoyed some early good form under the Brazilian. The players were also deemed to be happy with the team responding to the manager’s ideas.

Wanderley Luxemburgo / David Beckham / Raul Photo by Neal Marchand / Icon Sport via Getty Images

The England Captain at that time, David Beckham, however, was rumoured questioning Sacchi’s position. Soon after a derby win against Atletico Madrid, Beckham gave an interview in Spanish, much to the amazement of the journalists. When asked about Sacchi, he responded, “Sacchi...la estabilidad es muy importante (Sacchi...Stability is very important)”. While he was happy with the team’s performance, the Englishman was perhaps skeptical if Sacchi’s role was going to sustain in the long run.

Speaking of Englishmen, Michael Owen’s transfer saga also had Sacchi involved in it. The Italian repeatedly denied the rumours of the former England and Liverpool striker’s departure throughout the season and stressed that Owen had the backing of the team. In the end, Owen, the 2001 Ballon D’or winner, left the Spanish capital in the summer of 2005 and moved to Newcastle United.

Real Madrid then signed Thomas Gravesen, a central midfielder from Everton, under Sacchi’s watch in the winter-window of 2005. He was signed to provide some defensive cover to their otherwise star-studded midfield. Although he started well at Real Madrid, the Danish midfielder fell out of favour when his admirers, Sacchi and Luxemburgo, both left the club in December 2005.

Having finished second behind Barcelona in 2004-05, Luxemburgo survived to hold onto his position for another season. But by December 2005, with three defeats against Valencia, Deportivo de La Coruna, and Barcelona within a string of five difficult games, he was sacked. The 0-3 defeat against Barcelona at the Bernabeu was Luxemburgo’s last game in charge. Ronaldinho tormented Real Madrid’s backline, including Iker Casillas, in a once-in-a-lifetime offensive onslaught on that merciless night. At the full-time whistle, the crowd got on its feet to applaud the Brazilian wearing the Blaugrana stripes, but the other Brazilian on the sidelines for the home side lost his job.

Real Madrid v F.C. Barcelona Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Both Sacchi and Luxemburgo left Real Madrid at the same time. Sacchi denied widespread rumours about falling out with the coach. Real Madrid also confirmed that the Italian had made them aware of his decision (to leave) a couple of weeks before the Barcelona defeat. Sacchi assured:

“I started to think about leaving in October and told the president then. For a man of football being at Real Madrid has been fantastic, but at my age, my family is very important to me, and I miss my wife, my daughter, and my home country.”

The end of the Galactico era, the end of Arrigo Sacchi’s time at Real Madrid, and the end of Florentino’s first stint as Real Madrid’s president (which came to an end in February 2006) — all of it coincided into a dramatic period, to say the least.