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Power to the president

In the space of half an hour, 70 years were summed up.

It was the 1956-57 European Cup first round and, with just 45 minutes left of their tie against Rapid Vienna, Real Madrid were 5-4 down and facing early elimination in their first defence of the competition. So, club president Santiago Bernabeu decided enough was enough.

At half-time, he strode into the dressing room and effectively pushed manager Jose Villalonga to the side.

"No-one's getting away from here that easily," Bernabeu roared, grinding his cigar into the ground for effect. "We haven't come here on holiday and I want to see more balls out on that field. I don't know if you understand but you've got the shields of Real Madrid on your shirts."

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Duly fired up, Alfredo Di Stefano scored the 60th-minute goal that kept the club in the competition and launched the second of five successive European Cup wins.

Except, he did so by also disregarding his coach's influence.

Previously realising the team required more balance to be more consistent in the league, Villalonga had instructed Di Stefano to remain higher up the pitch. The player offered a simple enough response, beyond deciding to drop back to change the course of that match against Rapid. "Villalonga told me to stay up in attack, but we knew it was not working."

By the summer, the coach was not working. Having been dismissed by Bernabeu. Real would keep winning, however, lifting a further three European Cups over the next three years despite making five managerial changes over the same spell. You would almost think the position of head coach isn't that important to them.

It was perhaps inevitable that the defining period in Madrid's history further conditioned the entire process of 'control' at the club, and arguably set it for good. The story about Di Stefano, Bernabeu and Villalonga sums up so much about Real.

On the one side, influential players. On the other, an all-controlling president. In between, a head coach not entirely sure of where he stands. And, as a consequence of it all, consistent success - but only to a point.

That point is where the problems begin. More than pretty much any club in the world, Real persevere despite removing all normal power from the position of head coach.

It was something that even a personality as forthright as Jose Mourinho found, and something one as facilitative as Carlo Ancelotti is now going to have to figure out.

It's also been like that since Bernabeu ascended to president in 1943 and effectively created the modern Madrid. A few details from the 70 years since then illustrate the curious and occasionally disregarded role of the head coach at the club.

In that time, there have been 48 different managerial appointments. Only 23 of them have lasted a full year; only eight of them more than two. Ten coaches have managed the club twice and one of them, Luis Molowny, four times. Miguel Munoz holds the record for the longest-serving manager but also the second shortest, while the only individual to have spent less time in charge - Jose Camacho - did not actually oversee a competitive game.

Most notoriously, Real have sacked a coach the month before a victorious European Cup final and also straight after one.

Virtually all of those managers have faced the same pattern: initial objectives, player problems, interference from below and above, and ultimately dismissal.

One of the most notorious stories concerns a coach who was explicitly told by one suit not to use two relatively high-profile players who were to be frozen out and sold. When the manager had no option in one game but to do so, and won, the official approached afterwards. It was not to congratulate him.

"You'll be gone from here by the end of the season."

One of the most troubling aspects of it is that the identities almost don't matter, because different elements of the story have been repeated so often.

As Florentino Perez said on the Monday that Mourinho was announced as Chelsea manager, Madrid has always been a "presidential club". Those presidents have usually made their primary pronouncements with the type of players they've signed. Perez himself famously leveraged the position on the back of the audacious purchase of Luis Figo in 2000, with predecessor Lorenzo Sanz similarly marking himself out with the acquisitions of Predrag Mijatovic and Davor Suker. In that kind of context, the coach's power is already eroded.

Camacho infamously walked out in the summer of 1998 because he realised his plans for the playing squad would not be backed and, as a consequence, any temporary bad results would not be tolerated. A dispute with Sanz's number-three, Juan Antonio Onieva, sealed it. Camacho departed for the Spanish national team, saying it was better to leave after just 22 days rather than three months.

In his own 35 years as president, Bernabeu was involved in similar disputes. When Ferenc Puskas was being unveiled as the club's latest stellar signing in the summer of 1958, Villalonga's replacement, Luis Carniglia, was understandably a little perturbed at the sight of a player who hadn't properly competed in two years.

"I don't know what I'm supposed to do with this guy," Carniglia wondered aloud. "He's so overweight." There was an immediate response from the man who carried more weight than anybody.

"That's your job," Bernabeu shot back. "You're here to make him prettier."

Just as that president set the template for each of his successors, though, his first big signing created the space for the players. Di Stefano himself suggested transfers to Bernabeu, not least the likes of Hector Rial and Francisco Gento, and was frequently described as a "manager on the pitch". His influence would extend far beyond it.

"He loved to win," Gento said. "Oh, how he loved to win! He would go absolutely mad at us if we got things wrong or if people weren't trying and he gave everything for the club. He was a true leader, a beast as a player and sometimes as a man too because he had quite a temper on him."

In that golden era, Di Stefano set the standards and philosophy while Bernabeu fortified the edifice all around it. Within that framework, then, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the longer-serving and more stable managers - such as Munoz, Molowny, Vicente Del Bosque and even Di Stefano himself - have been former players who knew the nuances of the club and how to temporarily tread a steadier path.

Even they all eventually ran into trouble. The nadir was when the paternal Del Bosque was dismissed in the same summer Real signed David Beckham, signalling the height of the Galactico era and the ultimate evaluation of stars over structure.

It was also no coincidence that it led to the most barren period in the club's history since before Bernabeu took over. That is the major issue about Real's approach to managers at the moment. For most of the last few decades, football clubs were sufficiently lacking in planning for it not to really matter. Madrid could match most with their mass of resources and the occasional exceptional team. Now, the present realities of the game are posing them a problem.

At the very top end, the elite clubs are finally seeking to concentrate their immense resources into something more focused. All of the sides that so comprehensively eliminated Real in the semi-finals of the Champions League over the past three seasons have displayed this. Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund didn't just have figurehead managers, but also personalities who knew how to enhance the highly designed teams they put out.

Mourinho has always represented the antidote to that, the ultimate short-term manager for pretty much any situation, capable of instantly improving any set of circumstances.

Yet it is ironic and perhaps indicative that, on leaving Real Madrid, he immediately started talking about a long-term project at Chelsea and a stable institution where everything is unified.

This is not to say a manager as subtle as Ancelotti will not temporarily overcome these flaws to win a Champions League. It is, after all, a cup competition. Similarly, the two-horse nature of the Spanish domestic division will continue to give them openings. Even structure cannot prevent occasional stutters, as Barca are currently enduring.

But, unless Real change the overall approach in the long-term, the head coach is always going to eventually encounter an exaggerated crisis.

Most have found it difficult to manage.


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