Two summers ago when David Beckham joined Real Madrid amid unprecedented fanfare it was possible to believe that the galacticos project, pioneered by their hugely ambitious chairman Florentino Perez, was on the point of transforming European club football.
We don't worry about formations, we don't even worry about coaching, Perez's theory seemed to go - we'll simply buy the biggest names in the game and success, gloriously achieved, will surely follow.
Twenty months later the latent absurdity of such thinking is all too clear. Real's defeat by a mediocre Juventus side in the Champions' League last week, followed by their feeble loss to Getafe on Sunday night, means that for a second successive season the team with the proudest history in all of European football will end the season without a trophy.
Perez dreams of making Real the world brand of football, but on Sunday night the side coached by Wanderley Luxemburgo, already Real's third coach this season, were out-thought, out-fought and, worse still, completely out-played by a team whose sole aim this season is to avoid relegation. The result simply confirmed they had become something very different: an international joke.
For many Barça fans this has become literally true. "Why are Real Madrid like the Eurovision song contest?" they ask. "Because Luxemburg always end up losing."
Even the normally sycophantic Madrid sports press has lost patience. One leading paper now refers to "Ex-Galacticos", while Juanma Trueba, the chief football writer of AS, likened them to Norma Desmond, the fading former star of the silver screen portrayed by Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder's classic Sunset Boulevard.
"Norma lives in her mansion together with her faithful servant and admirer who protects her from the crude reality of the world outside. I fear that they [the galaticos] are the same," Trueba wrote.
"The players don't take any notice of the whole galactico thing," a bemused David Beckham, who missed the Getafe debacle, admitted yesterday. "But we know that people look at our players and wonder why we've not won things. We know there's going to be criticism."
So what of the future? The first thing on the cards is a clear-out of some of the galacticos this summer, but this is easier said than done. Having seen the failure of Zinedine Zidane, Raul, Beckham, Luis Figo and co to deliver, few clubs will be keen to splash out serious money on players that are clearly past their best. However, with a transfer fund said to be in excess of £100m money may not be the biggest issue.
The central question is how many big names will start next season. Because he embodies Perez's project, Beckham has, perhaps somewhat unfairly, become singled out for criticism. In fact other big names - Raul, Ronaldo, Zidane and even Roberto Carlos - have under-performed on a more consistent basis.
Zidane, at 32, looks tired, frustrated and unhappy and was substituted both against Juve and Getafe. His retirement from the international scene seems to have hastened rather than delayed his decline. If anything the concerns about Raul are even greater. Once the unquestioned golden boy of Spanish football, two seasons in the doldrums have severely undermined his status at Real. He is tied into a lengthy, and highly lucrative contract that should keep him at Real until 2010, but the club may be beginning to have second thoughts.
Similar doubts have been expressed about Roberto Carlos, while despite many valiant displays Figo is the galactico most likely to depart this summer.
If some of the big names are jetisonned there is an increasing sense that they should not be replaced by replacement galacticos, but by younger, hungrier players whose reputations will be made at Real, rather than made already. In fact, as Real have struggled (this is the third successive season they have failed to win the Champions' League) so Perez's galacticos policy was subtely altered.
He broke his own pledge of refusing to splash out large sums of money on anyone who wasn't a big-name attack-minded player by spending £30m on centre-backs Walter Samuel and Jonathan Woodgate last summer, then made made further adjustments in January by going back on his promise never to recruit new players midway through the season by buying Thomas Gravesen from Everton - the sort of hard-working midfielder that is the antithesis of his previous galactico recruits.
Perez has been forced to do some serious backtracking on his coaching appointments too. When he came to power five years ago, Perez was a fierce critic of the hire-and-fire regime of his predecessor Lorenzo Sanz, but there have been five coaches at Real in the last two years, and Luxemburgo looks unlikely to last beyond the end of the season.
The new name linked with the post is a little ironic. Fabio Capello, the current Juve coach, led Real to the league title in 1997 and is one of the few in the game thought to be able to bring the galacticos into line. However Capello was appointed by Perez's predecessor and arch-rival Lorenzo Sainz, and the defensive style of many of his teams will not satisfy Real fans, notably those who embrace the galacticos project, one which demands entertainment and spectacle as well as results.
Real mess Likely comings and goings
Likely To Leave
Wanderley Luxemburgo (coach). Made a great start, but days are numbered.
Luis Figo Continues to try hard but probably bound for Premiership.
Michael Owen Despite impressive form, could still be third choice next season. An exchange deal for Arsenal's Jose Antonio Reyes is most likely option.
Likely To Arrive
Fabio Capello Juve coach is said to be Perez's choice as Luxemburgo's successor.
Robinho Brilliant young Brazilian inside forward.
And what about?
Zinedine Zidane Shadow of his former self, Real are concerned he may retire in the summer.
Raul Once untouchable, now increasingly criticised.
David Beckham Too lucrative to dispense with.
Roberto Carlos Real ready to lose a dwindling force.