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Jun 4, 2013

'Pope' Perez geared for third term

The news of Florentino Perez's four more years as Real Madrid president has come as no surprise to anyone in Spain. The question now is what Perez, whose first period was dominated by the business success but sporting failure of his 'galacticos', and second spell overshadowed by Jose Mourinho's various controversies, has planned for term three.

Changes to the club's election statutes made last September - all candidates must be socios for at least 20 years and stump up a €76 million bank guarantee - meant Perez was a shoo-in this year. Annoyed at this apparent pretence at democracy, some fans groups - and AS editor Alfredo Relano - tried to mount a campaign to find an alternative, but to little real effect. His pretty poor record of only five major competitions won during ten years in charge was hardly mentioned.

For many in Spain, Florentino was the only viable candidate anyway. He certainly thought so. "[Perez] felt about Real Madrid the way Pope John Paul II felt about the Roman Catholic Church," John Carlin wrote in 2004. That remains the case. And you do not vote out - or even challenge - the pope.

This bishop of the Bernabeu has also shown a certain blind faith in his running of the club. He first attended games as a boy with his father in the 1950s, and remembered watching Di Stefano, Puskas, Gento and company dominate the European game. So his first term 'galacticos' policy of signing Luis Figo, Zidane, [Brazilian] Ronaldo and David Beckham was an [conscious or not] attempt to recreate the days of his youth when all the world's best players played for Madrid. And won the European Cup every year.

This worked - at first at least. Vicente del Bosque's calm hand delivered the 2002 Champions League trophy, as well as two league titles in three years. Revenues also soared, helping to remedy the club's ailing finances, but even still this was not enough. Del Bosque was sacked in 2003 with Perez saying the club needed a "more modern" coach, and then trophies dried up under a string of failed replacements, leading to his stepping down in 2006 having apparently been drained by the failure of his 'project'. The 12 months during which Del Bosque departed, Beckham signed, and no trophies were won, is now the defining year of the Florentino I period.

A reinvigorated Perez returned in 2009 after successor Ramon Calderon resigned following allegations of voting fraud. More than €250 million was immediately spent on Kaka, Karim Benzema, Xabi Alonso and also Cristiano Ronaldo, although that deal with Manchester United had been agreed beforehand. Manuel Pellegrini was coach for the first year, but Florentino II really began when Jose Mourinho was installed in summer 2010.

Perez had learned in his first term that a succession of weak coaches was no good, so Mourinho [a galactico on the bench] got a free hand no Madrid boss had ever been given. He used it to grind out just one Copa del Rey and La Liga trophy while bit by bit obliterating all signs of traditional Madrid 'senorio' from the Bernabeu. Important club figures from Raul to Jorge Valdano to Iker Casillas were sidelined, and Mourinho fought with journalists, referees and many of his own club's fans. But Perez pursued a see no evil hear no evil policy - even when UNICEF was libelled or Tito Vilanova poked in the eye.

There were a few calls for "unity" as things got worse and worse, but even when Mourinho's exit "by mutual consent" was announced last month there was no excommunication for the Portuguese. Meanwhile three European Cup semi-finals in three years were hailed as "bringing the club back to where it belongs" by Perez. Presidential infallibility would be one name for it. Trying to rewrite history would be another.

So now to Perez III. The initial impression is more along the lines of his first term, and an [unacknowledged] quick moving on from Mourinho. Carlo Ancelotti - called last week an 'Italian Del Bosque' by Marca - is clearly first choice as coach. Zidane seems set to be his superior, in overall control of the 'sporting project'. How this idea will work in practice nobody yet knows.

The construction magnate appears to have more 'concrete' ideas of how the club should progress off the pitch. There was no Figo-style present for Madrid's socios during this year's election, but there was a €30m-a-year shirt sponsorship deal with Emirates Airlines. Work on a €250m remodelling of the Bernabeu, to include a new retail and hotel complex, is due to start in summer 2014. A long mooted Disney-style theme park is still being talked about, although there has been less said recently about the proposed €1 billion Real Madrid Island in Dubai.

These developments are all designed to secure the club's financial security. And the figures do look much better now than when Perez replaced Lorenzo Sanz in 2000. Deloitte said last year Madrid was the first football club anywhere to raise its annual turnover past the €500 million mark, due to Perez's marketing nous. When big money spent on players can be recouped through increased sponsorship deals, even the over €100 million in total spent on Kaka can be seen as a success.

But the financial picture is not all positive. While last September's AGM heard of an annual profit of €24.2 million, Madrid's debts remain pretty high at €124.7 million. News 'leaked' last week that 'the club' [i.e. its president] was considering selling naming rights to the Bernabeu to finance its remodelling. If the idea of sidelining 'Don Santiago', overseer of those 1950s glory years, is serious, money for new galacticos must be tight.

Blancos fans are currently excited by possible signings like Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Isco, Thiago Alcantara and Robert Lewandowski, but they also know the biggest deals of the last two summers were for Fabio Coentrao, Nuri Sahin and Luka Modric. Perez had long coveted Neymar, but after Barca won that race, he claimed the €150m the Brazilian starlet would have cost was too much.

Madrid may now need to sell before buying big, and Juventus-bound Gonzalo Higuain [a Calderon signing] is unlikely to be the only big name to leave. A new deal for Cristiano Ronaldo is more important than any new signing, but no closer to appearing, as Madrid seemingly cannot match the terms on offer elsewhere. Xabi Alonso's contract situation - with just 12 months left - is also worrying.

The most likely summer window scenario for Madrid now looks like one big headline signing covering a lot of wheeling and dealing. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. A sensible transfer policy which saw, say, Cavani, re-signed young-right back Dani Carvajal and maybe Marco Verratti and Isco arrive, while the likes of Kaka, Angel Di Maria, Coentrao and Raul Albiol were quietly moved on, might be ideal. Prospective new players [and hard-bitten journos] will enjoy talking to Zidane. Ancelotti's laid back style might be just what is required to heal the Bernabeu dressing-room.

Madrid supporters expecting such sensible decisions are hoping Florentino III has learned from the mistakes of terms one and two. Madrid do not need new galacticos, in the team or on the bench, a few clever tweaks could make a side capable of finally achieving 'la decima'. Deliver that between now and 2017 and Perez will have fans falling at his feet. Fail and it will not matter how shiny the new Bernabeu is, or how profitable the theme park. The pope would have to go.

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