In Spain, nothing succeeds like more excess

It's a mad, mad world when Barca and Real Madrid go to market
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The Independent Online

It is endearing how, even at this late stage of the game, football people cling to the notion that players owe as much loyalty to their clubs as the fans themselves. The sad, ludicrous, but curiously noble delusion was in evidence once again at Madrid airport on Friday, where a small group of Real fans gathered to hurl abuse at Fernando Redondo, the Argentine midfielder who had travelled home to pack his bags prior to his move - clinched on Thursday night - to Milan.

It is endearing how, even at this late stage of the game, football people cling to the notion that players owe as much loyalty to their clubs as the fans themselves. The sad, ludicrous, but curiously noble delusion was in evidence once again at Madrid airport on Friday, where a small group of Real fans gathered to hurl abuse at Fernando Redondo, the Argentine midfielder who had travelled home to pack his bags prior to his move - clinched on Thursday night - to Milan.

"Moneybags!" cried the outraged innocents. "Scum!" These are the very same fans who thrilled to the news on Monday that Real had acquired the services of Luis Figo, viewed in Barcelona as the most shameless traitor in the history of mankind, for a world-record fee of £37m.

Which goes to show, once again, that football fans are the most irrational people in the world, incapable of anything dimly resembling objective thought once in the thrall of life's ruling passion.

Nothing - nothing - more irrational, however, than the willing suspension of disbelief to which they will succumb once the football season has begun. Real fans will convince themselves that Figo will be prepared to die in defence of their team's legendary white shirt, much as Milan fans will come to believe that Redondo's desire to defeat Inter in the local derby will be as lusty as theirs.

After the events in the Spanish transfer market of the last week, sanity would demand one of two responses. Either football fans start seriously waning in their devotion towards the star players of their favourite clubs; or they do as the sensible Japanese do - follow players, not clubs, and when a player switches clubs, cheerfully switch with him.

This would be a particularly convenient course of action for those Arsenal fans whose two favourite players might happen to be Overmars and Petit. Having arrived in London together, they are now migrating together to Barcelona.

No better place for them to go. Because Barcelona fans are more used to this kind of thing than most. A couple of good performances and they will not have the slightest difficulty kidding themselves that Tweedlemanu and Tweedlemarc are dyed-in-the-wool Catalans.

Even by the manic standards Barça have set in years past, though, the transfer activity in the last week has been unusually intense. First Figo went for £37m, then in came Spain's most highly- rated young player, Gerard, from Valencia for £12m, closely followed by Overmars and Petit for £31m. But there is plenty more going on behind the scenes and plenty more to come. Under the brand-new president, Joan Gaspart, and the brand- new manager, Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, Barça are setting about a spectacular overhaul of their squad. Following the Figo sale, they said they had £70m available for new players. They have spent £43m already but, with other players yet to be offloaded, the available balance should comfortably exceed £40m.

Zenden, the Dutch winger, is expected to move to Lazio for over £7m. Dani, the Spanish striker, might go for £10m - to Middlesbrough if Bryan Robson gets very lucky. The Dutchmen Hesp and Bogarde are up for sale. So are the Portuguese goalkeeper Baia, the French defender Déhu and the Finnish forward Litmanen.

There has been no news of Rivaldo, but he has signalled he is not happy at Barça's failure to keep hold of Figo, and has spent much of the summer grumbling that the club do not pay him enough. Who knows for sure where Rivaldo will be in a month's time? Certainly not Rivaldo. Yesterday, rumours were rife that he was about to join Milan for £34m.

As for other players who might be in Barça's sights, well, there has been no shortage of rumours emanating from the Nou Camp. And since rumours have suddenly displayed an extraordinary tendency to become reality, they should not be lightly dismissed. Especially because Figo's departure to Real (most Barça fans still cannot quite believe it) painfully wounded the self-esteem of Gaspart, a multi-millionaire hotelier whose passion for the club is so great he often has to leave his seat during a game, destroyed by nerves, unable to watch.

The speculation in Barça circles is that the hot-blooded Gaspart will not be content merely with the purchase of relatively unspectacular players like Overmars and Petit. That he will be looking for a coup de théâtre to rival Real's acquisition from under his nose of the player generally regarded to be second best in the world only to Zidane.

Thus, yes, of course, Zidane has been mentioned. As has David Beckham, reckoned by Barcelona insiders (because he is more than two years younger than Figo) to be worth £40m. Gaizka Mendieta, the Valencia captain generally identified as Spain's best player last season, is another name doing the rounds. Valuation: same as Figo, £37m.

Beckham is particularly fancied by Barcelona fans as they believe he will be able to compensate for the loss of Figo more than most. Beckham, everybody knows, lacks Figo's all-round game, but the prospect of him feeding his "half-a-goal" crosses from the right to Patrick Kluivert (who, apparently, will not be going anywhere) makes Catalan hearts leap for joy.

Whatever Barça's final line-up come the new season, everything indicates that Serra Ferrer, a highly- rated Spanish coach who did wonders three years ago with Real Betis, will have a fine pedigree of players at his disposal. Rivaldo (assuming he stays), Kluivert, Frank de Boer, Luis Enrique (due back from a longstanding injury), Gerard, Petit, Overmars, Cocu, Abelardo, Sergi - a decent bunch for starters, with more thoroughbreds to come.

As for Real Madrid, they lack the resources to excite as much speculation as Barcelona do right now. Which is why the talk in the last week has centred more on possible sales than on new purchases. So far, in the effort to balance the outlay on Figo, they are doing well. They recovered £23m on the sale of Anelka to Paris St-Germain (a move which not one Real fan, or player, regretted). And selling Redondo to Milan for £11m looks like good business: the Argentine offers a steely, skilful link between defence and attack, but he cannot score, never makes a pass longer than 20 yards and is 31 years old.

The possible sale of McManaman, who could now aspire to little more than a role as Figo's understudy, and of the Bosnian Balic, a left-sided forward who is enormously regarded in Turkey but never made the grade in Spain, might reap another £16m. Whereupon, for all anybody knows, Real might be back in the game, pursuing Zidane or, a favourite of Florentino Perez, their new president, Michael Owen.

Where Real Madrid and Barça are concerned, and especially after Figo's sensational move, truth in the football transfer market is stranger than rumour. Anything at all is possible in the coming weeks. No fee is suddenly too high.

And for those who consider that what we are witnessing is a descent into madness, consider this: if following the game were a sane exercise, football would not be the multi-billion-pound industry it has become.

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