Why don't Real Madrid buy the world's best players anymore?
As clubs around Europe look to strengthen in the January transfer window, it has been strange to see Real Madrid happy to sit this one out, especially given the team's clear need of a shake-up.
For many years, Madrid president Florentino Perez dominated the transfer market with a determined policy to spend huge sums to ensure the world's best and most marketable players were at the Bernabeu.
However, something has changed. Even as Barcelona have added the €160 million Philippe Coutinho to the €105m Ousmane Dembele over the last six months, the coffers at the Bernabeu have remained resolutely shut.
Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Manchester United have all been spending big over the last few windows. A puzzled Marca pointed out last week that Juventus, Liverpool and even Atletico Madrid spent double what Real did last summer, when just €42.5 million was paid out on as yet little used youngsters Theo Hernandez and Dani Ceballos.
And yet, even with Madrid a whopping 19 points behind runaway La Liga leaders Barca, and looking in need of some new talent ahead of their crunch Champions League round-of-16 clash with PSG, coach Zinedine Zidane has repeatedly made it clear that he is happy with his current squad and does not want any additions.
"If there is a player that you want, that is available, that will bring you more than you have here, it cannot be bad," Zidane said last Friday. "But I do not see that. I have very good players, and do not see anyone [better]. You can change, but that would be in June. Now, no."
Madrid's squad has been the best in Europe through recent seasons -- as confirmed by winning three of the last four Champions League titles. While no new Galactico has arrived since James Rodriguez in 2014, maintaining a team full of such good players means spending has surged on salaries.
"It is all the time getting more difficult to compete on a level playing field," Perez told Madrid's AGM last October.
"And the way we are doing it is to have the best players. If we do not renew the contracts of [Luka] Modric, [Toni] Kroos they will go somewhere else. And without those players who won the Champions League we lose sponsors. If we did not win the Champions League last year [and have to pay bonuses] we would have almost €100m in profits. And having won that will bring more income in the future."
New research from KPMG's Football Benchmark says Madrid's successful 2017 -- when they won five trophies including the Champions League and La Liga double -- meant a 32 percent increase in wage costs, which led directly to a drop of 29 percent in their bottom line results, even after an 8 percent growth in revenues. KPMG say Madrid's €406m wage bill is the biggest in world football, just ahead of Barca's €395 million, but way above third-placed Manchester City on €307m and fourth-placed Manchester United on €306m.
On the other side of the balance sheet, other clubs have now caught up with Madrid, who have lost their spot as the world's richest. For 11 straight years they topped Deloitte's Money League, but the 2017 figures had Man United at No. 1 (revenue of €689 million), with Barca (€620.2 million) also ahead of Madrid (€620.1 million).
Add in the outside wealth enjoyed by PSG and Man City and, as Perez admitted, it is getting harder to compete. Paul Pogba's £89.3 million move from Juventus to Man Utd in 2016 meant that for the first time since Luis Figo's shock switch across the Clasico divide in 2000, the world's most expensive player was not at the Bernabeu. Neymar's €220 million move from Barca to PSG last summer just confirmed the trend.
Meanwhile, Madrid are still trying to push through a rebuild of their Bernabeu stadium first announced by Perez back in 2004. A €400 million naming-rights partnership with Abu Dhabi-based IPIC (International Petroleum Investment Company) was presented in October 2014 to finance an expansive project which included a futuristic silver "skin," extendable roof, luxury hotel and new retail area.
However, the project has been hit by planning and other legal obstacles, and last November it was reported that IPIC [now named Mubadala, whose chief executive is Khaldoon Al Mubarak, also the chairman of Manchester City] had pulled their financing. In theory there should be walls between money meant for rebuilding the squad and rebuilding the stadium, but it is difficult not to see a connection.
Madrid's latest financial results released last September showed a "cash balance" of €178m so funds probably were available to spend big during last summer's transfer window. This figure is also almost exactly the fee the club were reportedly willing to pay for Kylian Mbappe. When Mbappe joined PSG instead, the money was then (it seems) left unspent.
Although Perez was reportedly upset by Zidane's public insistence that he did not want any new players this January, local media speculation has already moved on to who they might target next summer. Wednesday's Marca spoke of a "third chapter" of Marca on the way with the "BBC" of Bale, Benzema and Cristiano being replaced by an "NHL" of Neymar, Chelsea's Eden Hazard and Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski. Former club president Ramon Calderon has also this week suggested the club's refusal to offer Ronaldo a new pay rise is aimed at pushing the 32-year-old to leave and free up funds to invest elsewhere.
That would be a departure from what has become the norm. Madrid, once the undisputed kings of the transfer market, now have to wheel and deal like everyone else.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan