Real reasons

Six months after winning La Liga, Bernd Schuster has been sacked by Real Madrid. Phil Ball thinks it was always a mismatch

And so Bernie Schuster is gone – he of the porn moustache and the Pringle sweaters. Sacked by Real Madrid, by “mutual agreement” five days before the clásico at the Camp Nou, he has walked off after 18 months with a paltry €7 million (£6.6m), and is currently taking calls on his mobile for his next job, from the leafy confines of Madrid’s swankiest golf course.

Schuster was the man upon whom Ramón Calderón, Real’s dithering president, had based his hopes of some long-term stability at a stuttering club, but employing a man like Schuster to usher in a period of calm is roughly equivalent to giving Russell Brand the Songs of Praise spot. In short – it was destined to end in tears. It not only ended thus, but it has called into question the whole executive and management structure at the Bernabéu, and laid its incompetence bare.

The director of football, Predrag Mijatovic, chief creator and undisputed leader of the infamous Ferrari Boys who played for the club in the late 1990s, was behind the recruitment of his friend and ex-mentor Fabio Capello. Calderón’s deteriorating relationship with Mijatovic dates from Capello’s exit (after bringing them back the league in 2006-07) and Schuster’s subsequent arrival. Calderón always wanted Schuster, whereas Mijatovic’s scepticism towards the German was less founded on perception than an instinct that his ego would clash with that of the new recruit.

Their mutual loathing was an open secret, but it reached new depths in the summer when the club spent the best part of two months in futile pursuit of Cristiano Ronaldo. Calderón, his own vision blurred by successive league titles, allowed the summer to pass without a single meaningful addition to an ageing and injury-prone squad. Meanwhile, Barcelona were busy sweeping out the cobwebs of their own failed regime, in a display of self-aware ruthlessness that would return them to the top of La Liga while Real spiralled downwards.

Schuster, previously on Madrid’s outskirts with the humbler Getafe, was brought in on the explicit promise of restoring alegría (gaiety) to the team’s play. Capello’s alleged pragmatism and defensive instincts had brought back the trophies and ended Barça’s brief imitation of the 1990s Dream Team, but they were never seen as a long-term policy statement. Schuster had done well with Getafe, having reached the end of his tenure without falling out with the club’s president or the fans – a unique achievement in his tempestuous life. He had also done reasonably well in all his previous coaching jobs, at places such as Xerez, Levante and Shakhtar Donetsk. But as in his time as a player, his relationship with all other human beings except his wife (accused by many in his Barcelona days of being the source of conflicts with ­others) was found wanting. Calderón seemed to think, with something approaching desperate optimism, that Schuster’s outlook had been changed by two decent seasons at Getafe. Mijatovic didn’t agree but had no choice other than to show Capello the door.

The idea that Schuster would bring back the joy to Real Madrid’s play sat uneasily with the fact that Getafe, in his last season there, had finished a creditable ninth but with the best defensive record in the division. It hardly smacked of uninhibited alegría. Indeed, Schuster won the league last season with a defensive record Real had bettered only once in 12 seasons. Ruud van Nistelrooy, in what may yet prove to be his swansong as an effective striker, was efficiency personified, but it was the tough back-line of Ramos, Pepe, Heinze and Cannavaro, plus the world’s best goalkeeper, that won Schuster his first league title as a manager. The fact that Barcelona were in temporary disarray was handy too.

In the end, Schuster wanted out. His statement to the press, the day before his sacking, that to win that next weekend in the Camp Nou would be “impossible”, was a heresy that he knew would seal his fate. The Madrid press had never understood his deadpan and cynical humour, and were unsure as to whether this declaration was yet another of his double-edged jokes. They decided it wasn’t, and plunged in their knives.

Schuster will take a sabbatical, but there will be no shortage of suitors once he is refreshed. He may even wait for the Getafe job to come up again, matey as he still appears to be with their president, Angel Torres Sánchez. A foray into the Premier League may not be beyond him, either, if the rumour-mongers are to be believed. Mark Hughes watch out, Bernd’s about.

From WSC 264 February 2009