Florentino Perez has Real Madrid poised for a return to the free-spending Galactico days
The stage was set, and it will remain set for the rest of the summer. Quite literally. And although this time there has been a change -- so far, anyway -- the rest of it is much of the same; the same words, the same faces, the same protocol. Thumbs up and kick-ups too.
Slightly different plan, though.
Usually, a temporary platform is erected on the eastern side of the Santiago Bernabeu, facing the seats of the directors' box, where presentations are made. This time, it has been set up inside, behind the directors' box where the canapes are carried and deals are done. As the hot weeks pass, one by one the players come -- often all the way to the very last day of August. Outside, fans wait for a glimpse of the new star. Sometimes a few come, sometimes loads do. It's been relatively quiet of late, a little low key. And that's the thing.
Sometimes managers come too. Julen Lopetegui was there, a day before he was supposed to be in Sochi leading Spain into their first game of the World Cup. Friday was Vinicius's turn; at 18, he says he's ready. Before him came Alvaro Odriozola on Wednesday. And the first presentation of the summer -- the time of year when Florentino Perez, the president, traditionally steps centre stage both metaphorically and physically -- represented the continuation of Real Madrid's recent policy.
It also suggested a return to an old one, sidelined a little in the past couple of years. The one that once defined them.
"When someone asks you if you want to go to Real Madrid, it's like when you're a kid and someone asks if you want to go to Disneyland; you say 'yes'," Odriozola said. At 22, included in the Spain squad for the World Cup, a quick, offensive, talented full-back, bought for a fee of €30 million plus a further €5 million -- essentially a negotiated, agreed way of meeting the buyout clause Real Sociedad had set for him -- Odriozola is part of a recent shift in policy.
Young, Spanish, the next generation of great players spotted early-ish (that's the hope, anyway), although usually having demonstrated it at first-team level not in the youth team, and usually signed with relatively little fuss, the buyout clause paid. Buyout clauses at that age and at Spain's "other" clubs are rarely so prohibitive, after all. So a player comes, perhaps a little overpriced now (although often not) but, if all goes well, he is potentially a bargain in the future.
A bit like Sergio Ramos, for example.
Yet back then, over a decade ago now, Ramos was an exception. Now, it is a rule. Odriozola follows Marco Asensio, Dani Ceballos, Jesus Vallejo and Theo Hernandez into the Bernabeu. Although not Spanish, some of the same thinking lies behind the signing of Vinicius at €40 million. Going back further, although not Spanish, Raphael Varane -- brought in by Zinedine Zidane in 2011 for €10 million -- can perhaps be seen as a kind of forerunner of the policy.
In parallel, Madrid's younger players, either coming through the system or brought in with the idea of them playing for Castilla first, are given loan deals or sold with a buy-back option, as a way of preparing them for the first team. Dani Caravajal, now facing competition from Odriozola, is perhaps the best example. And the approach can be applied to Borja Mayoral, Marcos Llorente, Asensio (loaned to Espanyol) and Alvaro Morata. Casemiro, too.
It is an economic necessity: However big Madrid are, the market is expanding rapidly, driven by Paris Saint-Germain and the Premier League. Prices increase, and there is not simply money to burn. Recent departures underline the need to recuperate money as well as spend it; they also underline that very good players want to play: Morata and James Rodriguez went.
It also may not always work. There is perhaps a risk, as was suggested last year domestically, that the gap between the younger players brought in and the starters is bigger than hoped. Between those younger players and departees like James and Morata, too. There is a risk that opportunities are few and that potential is not fulfilled, whether that's play or personality. Theo is an example. Going back further, perhaps Asier Illarramendi was too.
One thing is for sure: it is not chance, it is a conscious policy.
A conscious policy that represented a shift. The last time Madrid signed a Galactico was after the last World Cup, when James came. The year before that, it was Gareth Bale. Since then, Madrid have spent less on signings than they have recovered in sales. In terms of players they paid for, few were signed in the past two years: only Theo and Ceballos last season, and Morata the year before. The year before that, it was Mateo Kovacic, Danilo, Asensio and Vallejo.
In European terms at least, it has worked. They have won three Champions Leagues in a row in precisely the years when they didn't sign superstars.
Figures circulating this week suggest that in the past four years, there are more than 20 European clubs who have spent more money in net terms than Real Madrid. The very best players were already there and not much needed to be added to the starting XI, not least because there is also an argument that says that, actually, the really key players are the ones that fit neither policy entirely: Luka Modric came in 2012, Toni Kroos in 2014, both for fees of around €30 million.
(This is not some remake of Zidane's team as Pavones, a deeply flawed policy that, as the astute Santiago Solari insisted, tended towards the disappearance of the middle class).
And so there was continuity, a certain stability. The team was strong enough and didn't need new signings, new stars -- not that that always stopped them in the past -- and, besides, there were few on the market. When they tried to sign them, they weren't always successful: David De Gea, Kylian Mbappe, even Paul Pogba up to a point. Neymar and Luis Suarez, too, before that. The market had moved, the competition had changed. They already had Bale, Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ramos, Marcelo, Modric, Isco, and Kroos. No, they weren't perfect, and yes, there were doubts -- in some cases, attempts to sell, too -- but they were not easily bettered.
The "now" was pretty good, the "next" became the objective.
For all those reasons, there was a line of (recent) conscious continuity that saw Odriozola standing there on Wednesday.
And yet his presentation heralded a shift too, Madrid getting back to what they knew. Conditioned by the departure of Ronaldo, the opportunities and sense of a new era that a World Cup brings and a desire that, despite appearances, had never really gone away (do not underestimate Zidane's role in imposing stability, his loyalty to the players he already had over potential signings), this is the summer when, if they can, Madrid will again become the big threat on the market. They announced their intention at Odriozola's presentation when Perez made a promise that there would be more signings.
"Madrid always want more," Perez said. "So, we are going to build and reinforce the present and strengthen the future. We have an incredible winning team and a great squad that will be strengthened with magnificent players."
Magnificent. Now, it's a word that would be applied to pretty much any player Madrid sign of course, but most take that to mean, well, y'know, someone magnificent: a superstar. And that is exactly what Perez meant, heralding a policy shift for this summer, returning to a territory he once made his own but seemed to have left behind momentarily. Thibaut Courtois is the immediate target, but he is not the only one. It is not just paper talk, Madrid have manoeuvred to try to sign Neymar, and as for Mbappe, they would leap at the opportunity.
But PSG are powerful foes, with the will and the financial muscle to resist and retain players. Madrid are aware that methods employed with other clubs are less likely to work with PSG. It stings to see those two in France but these are not, Madrid suspect, moves for this summer. They have released statements saying they are not trying to sign Mbappe or Neymar. The Brazilian himself -- perhaps belatedly and yet also mercifully early -- has now ruled himself out.
"I'm staying in Paris," he said. "Everyone knows how much affection I have for the president, the country and the fans."
(A quick aside here: they do?!)
"I will stay at PSG; I am at the beginning of my career," Mbappe said.
And then there was Eden Hazard, with a rather different message. It will not be easy, it certainly will not be cheap, and he says that Chelsea will decide, but after six years, "it might be time to discover something different," he said.
The stage at the Santiago Bernabeu, perhaps, a new Galactico four years on. It's set up and waiting, just in case.