The sight of legendary Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas sobbing into a press-conference microphone as he bid farewell after 25 years with Real Madrid shouldn’t merely sadden Real fans nostalgic for past glories. It should send them charging to the gates of the Bernabeu, torches blazing and pitchforks aloft.
Casillas, who is on his way to Porto, is the highest-profile victim of the internecine political feuding that has consumed Real since megalomaniacal businessman Florentino Perez returned as president in 2009. In a recent tell-all interview with El Mundo, Casillas’ parents claimed that Perez had long hoped to replace Casillas, whom he allegedly considers too “short” to play in goal, with a signing of his own. “It’s been an attempt to hunt him and destroy him,” Casillas’ father said.
Perez has faced widespread criticism for his management of Casillas’ final weeks at Real. In May, after Real failed to win a single major trophy for the second time in three seasons, Casillas emphatically declared, “I can’t conceive of myself at any other club next season.” Nevertheless, Perez proceeded to conduct a very public flirtation with Manchester United keeper David de Gea, who grew up in Madrid and reportedly “dreams“ of playing at the Bernabeu. Sunday’s press conference was a half-hearted affair noticeably bereft of the fanfare that usually accompanies the departure of a club legend.
Given Casillas’ poor form, the decision to sell him seems perfectly defensible. But the years of rancor – the accusations and counter-accusations, the rumors of dressing-room unrest, the personality clashes – that precipitated his on-field decline raise uncomfortable questions about Perez’s player management.
Perez has never seemed particularly interested in the old athletic ideal of a tightknit lineup bound together by shared experiences and intense camaraderie. During his first spell as president in the early 2000s, he introduced the “galacticos” business model, a scattershot transfer philosophy that prioritizes the accumulation of big-name stars (Beckham, Figo, Zidane, Ronaldo) over the sort of patient team building that fosters continuity and goodwill.
There’s something profoundly dehumanizing about the way Perez conducts transfer business. At Real Madrid, players aren’t people. They’re simply the names and numbers emblazoned on millions of jerseys marketed to fans around the world. Perez’s pursuit of star players makes a certain amount of commercial sense. Real Madrid is one of the richest, most popular soccer clubs on the planet. Its jerseys really do sell by the millions. But over the last decade, the stream of galacticos has disrupted the team’s rhythm, unsettling players and creating unnecessary flux.
Last summer, Perez sold Angel di Maria, whose man-of-the-match performance in the Champions League final had helped secure Real’s elusive tenth European title, to make room for a slightly shinier model: Colombian James Rodriguez, the winner of the Golden Ball at the 2014 World Cup. The transfer reportedly infuriated Cristiano Ronaldo, who recognized the lunacy of exchanging a creative attacker established in the lineup for a different creative attacker riding a streak of good form.
During World Cup years, Real nearly always signs the tournament’s breakout star, because, well, that’s just how Perez operates. He’s like a small child who proclaims a different big-name player his personal hero every time he opens a sticker album. The fact that neither Fabio Cannavaro nor Mesut Ozil – top performers at the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, respectively – made a meaningful impact at the Bernabeu hasn’t altered Perez’s thinking.
The revolving-door transfer policy has also frustrated the youth prospects in Real’s academy system. Homegrown striker Alvaro Morata left Real last summer, partly because Perez kept signing players in his position. In May, Morata’s new team, Juventus, beat Real over two legs in the Champions League semi-final, with Morata scoring both home and away.
The Casillas transfer probably had to happen. “There is a divide that has become entrenched and purely footballing criteria have been buried beneath politics and phobias,” Sid Lowe wrote in the Guardian. “The situation had become untenable.” But Perez’s transfer philosophy has created an environment in which untenable political situations are virtually inevitable. The team’s inconsistent play exacerbates the tense atmosphere of a dressing room packed with egocentric superstars and their equally self-centered coaches, leading to more inconsistent play and endless cycles of tabloid outrage. The annual arrival of fresh galacticos doubtless strengthens Real’s global brand. But at what cost?