Real Madrid need to ditch excuses and embrace forming women's team
"What's going on today?" questioned an elderly man as he rested his elbows on the front gate of his garden. It was not yet midday in Las Rozas, a leafy suburb on the outskirts of Madrid, but the temperature simmered toward 35 degrees. A queue of people in red-and-white Atletico Madrid shirts meandered back from the turnstiles at the Spanish Football Federation's headquarters, which houses a small stadium. Parents sent their children to wait in the shade as the temperature grew alongside the sense of occasion.
Barcelona beat Atletico on that June day in the final of the Copa de la Reina, the domestic cup that women's football teams compete for in Spain.
Real Madrid were nowhere to be seen as their two main rivals in the men's game fought for silverware. They were not absent because they had been knocked out at an earlier stage, but because Real Madrid do not have a women's football team.
"We will definitely have a women's team," reiterated Real Madrid president Florentino Perez in September on El Larguero, a Spanish radio show.
"We're working on it," he elaborated, "but it will be from the position of a newly formed club, not a team in which we bring the best player from Germany, Brazil ..."
It felt like a capitulation in the face of gradually escalating pressure rather than an embrace of the idea that women should be able to play competitive football in a Real Madrid shirt.
Perez's declaration that the women's team will be a grassroots entity, as opposed to a high-level professional outfit, deserves scrutiny. It is possible that this stance emerges from an altruistic sense of obligation towards the city of Madrid and a prioritisation of the development of local players within it.
The more plausible explanation -- and the one suggested by COPE upon breaking the story that Real Madrid will form a women's team -- is that Perez favours the cheaper option. It requires less investment to nurture young players in Madrid, than it does to set up a professional team to compete at the elite level. The two, of course, are not mutually exclusive.
The penny-pinching approach is hard to justify at a club that has recently announced a net profit of €21.4 million and revenue growth of 8.8 percent for the 2016-17 season. A highly competitive women's team would cost a negligible proportion of Real Madrid's income. FC Barcelona spend an estimated €600,000 per year on the women's section of the club. Last season, Barca won the Copa de la Reina and reached the semifinal of the Champions League. It would not be an expensive project for Real Madrid, a club that was the richest in the world for 11 consecutive years until losing the crown in 2017. Given that fact, it is remarkable that this conversation remains necessary.
Alfredo Relano, the editor of Diario AS, argues that Real Madrid have an obligation to create a women's team that runs deeper than the financial permutations.
"Being the president of the club comes with a certain social responsibility," Relano said in December, "especially after the favours granted to his [Perez's] administration by the local Madrid council."
Dec. 28 is the "Day of the Innocents" in Spain, which includes a hoax-spreading tradition similar to April Fool's Day. On that day in 2016, AS published a spurious article announcing that Florentino Perez had finally backed down and agreed to create a women's team at Real Madrid. The newspaper made a serious point beneath a thin veneer of tomfoolery: The club's silence on the matter was becoming an issue.
Perez has now offered words of assurance, albeit without demonstrating tangible progress. The situation at Madrid shows more promise than at Manchester United, the club that have usurped Real Madrid as the richest in the world. United have been perpetually promising to "review" the absence of a women's team since 2013. Nevertheless, Real Madrid's ostensible lethargy constitutes an act of self-harm as women's football flourishes around them.
The top level of women's football in Spain has gained sponsorship from the utilities company Iberdrola, and matches are now broadcast on terrestrial television.
Perhaps more significantly, a September clash between Atletico Madrid Femenino and Athletic Club became the first women's match to feature on La Quiniela, a version of football betting pools. La Quiniela is a 71-year-old tradition in Spanish football that runs as deep as the mechanical consumption of sunflower seeds on the terraces. It is a deep-rooted part of the ritual of being a football supporter in Spain. The inclusion of a La Liga Iberdrola match indicates that women's football has permeated a potent symbol of footballing traditionalism on the Iberian peninsula.
Real Madrid need to accelerate the formation of their women's team, because they are already a long way behind the curve. A young boy growing up in a Madrid barrio can dream of one day emulating his heroes in a Real Madrid shirt, yet his sister cannot.
Image is precious for Real Madrid and Perez. The longer this drags on, the more the image of the club and its president will be tainted around the edges.
Matt McGinn is ESPN FC's Real Madrid blogger. Twitter: @McGinn93