Less than two years ago, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez shifted uncomfortably in his seat at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu as most of the 80,000 Blancos supporters around him chanted ‘Florentino Dimision’ (‘Florentino Resign’).
But with Madrid now heading into Saturday’s final against Juventus as favourites to win a third Champions League trophy in four years, with the 2016/17 La Liga title already secured, very few complaints about Perez’s leadership are being heard anywhere.
Those chants came in November 2015, as Barcelona won the first La Liga ‘Clasico’ of the season 4-0. Perez’s second term seemed about to collapse, just as a decade earlier he had stepped down in ignominy as his first ‘galacticos’ project crashed and burned.
The first Florentino era had brought the super expensive signings of Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, and [Brazilian] Ronaldo, and a Champions League title in 2002. But the dismissal of manager Vicente Del Bosque in 2003 marked the point when hubris overtook reason.
Carlos Pinedo, author of new book Real Madrid — The club of the 21st century, told the Irish Examiner that when first elected president the former civil servant and construction magnate had no experience of how football really worked.
“When Florentino arrived in 2000, his personal experience was in business and politics, and he applied what he had learned there,” Pinedo says. “He also remembered how Santiago Bernabeu had put together his Madrid teams in the 1950s. The key then was to sign a great player, and leave the rest aside.”
Even on his return to the club in 2009, Perez seemed to remain faithful to this idea. There was a new splurge on stars including Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale before 2014 finally saw the club’s long-awaited ‘Decima’ 10th European Cup trophy. But he seemed to quickly blunder again in firing popular coach Carlo Ancelotti 12 months later.
History was apparently repeating itself, thought most observers. But they were wrong, as Perez had actually changed.
“Florentino has a different philosophy, he has learned from his mistakes,” Pinedo says. “During the first term he was only worried about the biggest ‘cracks’. He takes more advice now, and things are different.”
This time around Perez and his advisors, especially right-hand man Jose Angel Sanchez, have been much cleverer in the transfer market. There is still a need for big names, and Ronaldo and Bale are key to the project. However the last ‘galactico deal’ was €80 million on James Rodriguez in 2014, and even that was balanced by selling Angel Di Maria for €75 million the same summer.
Meanwhile, they have also focused on younger players who have emerged as key first teamers — like Raphael Varane, Casemiro, and Marco Asensio. They have also picked up intelligent bargains, with key midfielders Toni Kroos and Luka Modric both steals at €30m.
There has been a huge chunk of luck involved. A 12-month signings ban imposed for breaking youth transfer regulations helped bring stability to the dressing room. The bursting of Spain’s financial bubble limited access to credit for huge deals.
Zidane’s success as manager has been an unexpected surprise too. When Rafa Benitez had to go in January 2016, Florentino had no option but to turn to the big name with little managerial experience.
The Frenchman had retired in despair aged just 34 as the Galacticos 1 project collapsed around him, but that experience has proved useful. He knows what went wrong then, and has the personality and charisma to pull the dressing room together. After winning the Champions League final against Atletico Madrid just six months after taking over, this season he has delivered the club’s first La Liga title in five years.
“This year they have taken La Liga more seriously,” Pineda says. “Zidane’s work was key for this. He connected very well with the players, and achieved what other coaches could not do. Zidane is the best coach Madrid could have.”
Should they become the first team to do back-to-back Champions Leagues on Saturday, Florentino, now 70, will move closer to joining the mythical Bernabeu in status. Even if they lose to Juventus, no challenger will emerge in tightly controlled presidential elections this summer.
“The socios [club members] backing for Florentino Perez is pretty much complete,” Pinedo says. “The last time there was not even an election. The other candidates retired after seeing they had no chance. The same will happen next time. Things would have to go very badly to diminish his power now.”
For Perez, whose bland public persona hides a steely interior, the success of his second project is surely deeply rewarding. The fans and pundits on his back not long ago have been shaken off completely.
Listen to a preview of the Champions League final with European football writer Paul Little of the Daily Star and backpagefootball.com, Spanish-based football writer Dermot Corrigan and Italian football journalist Emanuele Giulianelli. Presented by Peter McNamara and Larry Ryan of the Irish Examiner.
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