Few recent moments in football have been more magnificent than Ronaldinho’s goal at Stamford Bridge last season. It’s a moment that bears repeating and its use in an advert for Sky is one of the few reasons to be grateful for the hype that the satellite broadcaster invests in the game. Given that Chelsea won that tie, even Blues fans can enjoy it, not least because they can hope that one day Ronaldinho will be playing for them. Petr Cech will know that there was nothing he could do about it. For Barcelona supporters, it is at least a bitter-sweet memory and (we go to press a few days before the second leg of this year’s rematch) one that may have some sort of delayed happy ending. There’s one man we can think of, though, for whom that should qualify as a nightmare moment: Florentino Pérez.
The resignation of the Real Madrid president is a reminder that he was the man who looked not at Ronaldinho’s feet but his face. “How ugly is Ronaldinho? There was no point buying him; it wasn’t worth it. He’s so ugly that he’d sink you as a brand.” That was the disparaging comment from an unnamed Real executive – perhaps Pérez himself and certainly reflecting the mindset he promoted – not long after Barça splashed out on the Brazilian. “How many trophies will he win?” should have been the question.
Elsewhere in this issue we look at the latest football rich list, in which two sides with a Carling Cup between them in the past season and a half head the table. Real have overtaken Manchester United at the top of this income chart – yet Pérez feels he has to resign. A comeback against Arsenal is achievable as we write, but there is every possibility that Real Mad-rid, a club accustomed to hoovering up trophies, will be without silverware for a third consecutive season. Perhaps, at last, Pérez gets it: it’s not about the bottom line, it’s about the football.
Money plays an ever-more important part in the modern game and Pérez’s success in conjuring millions through an unusual property deal – the local authority in Madrid buying land owned by Real for a huge sum, clearing the club’s enormous debt – means that he leaves Real in better health than when he took over. Merchandising is inescapably related to the shallow tastes of the floating fan rather than the diehards. But the ex-president’s obsession with galácticos has delivered more glamour than glory and reflected the concerns of Heat and the gossip pages rather than sporting needs. The continental habit of dividing responsibilities, so that the man who looks after the team is not the man who buys it, can only work if both have “football” uppermost in their minds.
More than any of the high-profile signings, it’s the sale of Claude Makelele that sticks out: a player who won’t sell you many shirts, won’t win you that many games, but will stop you losing plenty. An unglamorous player in an unglamorous role was deemed surplus to requirements. If the rumours are true, Real then failed to offer Patrick Vieira, an ideal replacement, a salary to match those of the club’s other stars, because they didn’t think he would sell that many shirts, either. The message was clear: it’s not what you do it’s how you look.
Some felt Alf Ramsey should have dropped Nobby Stiles in 1966 because of the ugliness of his challenges; had Pérez worked for the FA’s marketing department he would have demanded Stiles go because of his shortage of teeth. Consider the endless disparagement that Peter Beardsley had to deal with, not just from fans but from the media, staging “Quasimodo” photographs. However, any of those who belittled Beardsley would have loved to have him in their team and Stiles, dancing while grinning toothlessly at Wembley in 1966, is arguably the face of the greatest moment in English football.
Those who dislike the game often criticise it for being insignificant and ephemeral. But in an increasingly superficial world, football itself remains a meritocracy: if you’re good enough you will get on. Yes, the biggest advertising deals will go to the successful players with the most appealing faces. But football is not tennis, where Anna Kournikova could become one of the sport’s biggest earners without winning a single tournament.
True glamour and romance in football are derived from, and are not separate to, glory. Pérez ought to be thanked for providing such a public reminder of what happens when people forget that.
From WSC 230 April 2006. What was happening this month