Sam Wallace: Lavish spending has bought Real Madrid 10 years in the European wilderness

Madrid are defined above all by their nine European titles – and this generation has fallen badly short, writes Sam Wallace ahead of their meeting with Manchester United

Click to follow
The Independent Football

The last time Real Madrid played Manchester United in the Champions League 10 years ago, they did so as defending champions, way back in the day when David Beckham was still United's No 7 and no one felt the need to preface the Brazilian Ronaldo's name with the identifying adjective "fat".

What a game it was at Old Trafford that night. Beckham, in the last throws of his feud with Sir Alex Ferguson, and mad as hell about it, came off the bench and scored twice. But even he was upstaged by the brilliance of Ronaldo, applauded off by the entire stadium for his hat-trick when he was substituted and afforded first dibs on the post-match buffet.

Madrid, who won the Champions League in 1998, 2000 and 2002, were eliminated by Juventus in the semi-finals in 2003. That summer they spent £24.5m to acquire Beckham, the first major acquisition in what has been €930m in transfer fees on 59 players since then. It has been an extraordinary amount of money – players bought, players discarded – and on the biggest stage of all it has been a failure.

There have been favourable Spanish tax laws – now repealed – that helped Madrid and Barcelona sign big foreign stars. Not to mention the domestic television rights revenue carve-up they enjoy with Barça. Yes, they have won three league titles since the 2002-03 season, but Madrid are defined by one thing above all – their record of nine European titles – and this generation has fallen badly short.

Since Madrid last won the Champions League, Barcelona have won it three times, Milan twice and Porto, Liverpool, United, Inter and Chelsea have each won it once. For Madrid, the turbo-charged spending, the hiring and firing of managers and the endless boardroom politics have yielded them nothing in Europe. In fact, for six straight seasons between 2005 and 2010 they did not even make it past the first knockout round.

It starts in 2003 when Madrid bought Beckham from United, just turned 28 and undoubtedly an accomplished player. Yet given how United were rebuilding without him – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had become the preferred option on the right, until injury put paid to that – you would have to say that they were not buying Beckham at his sporting prime.

United's key target that summer was Ronaldinho, a World Cup winner 12 months earlier, but Barcelona signed him from Paris Saint-Germain and he went on to win the Champions League in 2006 and two league titles in the first great Barça team of the era.

Losing out on Ronaldinho was a blow for United who, especially since they had worked with Joan Laporta on that election-winning stunt in which he originally agreed, in a manner of speaking, a deal to sign Beckham. In England, Roman Abramovich had entered the fray that summer and started calling the shots in the transfer market (albeit doing United a favour by signing Juan Sebastian Veron).

Dismayed, United took a different approach. In the previous three summers they had signed Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Veron and Rio Ferdinand, for a total of around £80m. In the summer of 2003 they tried something different and opted for a mixed bag of young kids, long shots and very long shots. Among that group was Cristiano Ronaldo, who won three league titles at Old Trafford, one Champions League and was at the vanguard of another successful era at the club.

In 2009, the circle was complete when Madrid signed Ronaldo, already established as one of the planet's leading players for a world record transfer fee of £80m. Individually, he has not disappointed. But the man who scored his 21st hat-trick for Madrid on Saturday is yet to add to the one Champions League winners' medal he won with United.

After 2003 Madrid did not reach another semi-final until 2011, in Jose Mourinho's first year in charge, and then again last season. In the nine Champions League seasons since 2002-03, United have reached four semi-finals and three finals, winning it once. Barcelona have reached six semi-finals and three finals, winning all three. Madrid have reached two semi-finals, their two best finishes.

Both have been achieved under Mourinho, whose side might have beaten Bayern Munich last season were it not for the proximity of that league-title defining clasico. You might have imagined that they would be clinging on to Mourinho for dear life. But every indication from Spain is that this is his last season.

Mourinho is Real's 10th coach since Vicente Del Bosque, who won the club's last Champions League title in 2002 and was sacked. And what has he done since? Apart from win a World Cup and a European Championship? In the meantime Madrid have had a collection of misfits and yes-men, with the honourable exception of Fabio Capello. Bernd Schuster, who won a title in 2008, is a difficult one to explain. He has done very little since then.

Of course, Madrid are not the only club who spend a fortune on transfer fees. But in a world where constantly lavishing top money on the superstars is unsustainable, Madrid appear to be pressing on with the notion that signing everyone else's best players is the easiest route to success. But not everyone has been a Ronaldo. Two years ago they bought Nuri Sahin, then the Bundesliga player of the year, who sank without trace and is now back at Borussia Dortmund on loan. Last summer they bought Luka Modric from Tottenham, then one of the best players in the Premier League, for £33m and he has been regarded, at some points this season, as an expensive disappointment. Something for Gareth Bale to consider when he looks at his options.

In the meantime, Madrid have let youth team kids like Juan Mata, Roberto Soldado and Alvaro Negredo leave. You could argue that it is the club rather than the players who are the problem, but that would require much smarter thinking to put right than just blundering back into the transfer market again.

The League blocks its own former chairman

Where would we be without Keith Harris (no, not that Keith Harris), so often the nearly man of English football but still, resolutely, most famous for being the former chairman of the Football League?

Harris was at it again last week, coming in late with a bid for Portsmouth that aimed to bypass the Pompey Supporters' Trust's status as preferred bidders. Harris had a Malaysian-based Swiss banker on board, which is just what the Portsmouth fans want after the misery they have been through. Unfortunately, Harris, former chairman of the Football League you may recall, was blocked by, er, the Football League.

Of course, we are still waiting for Harris and his fellow self-styled "Red Knights" to ride selflessly to the rescue of Manchester United, because that is what bankers and Goldman Sachs economists do. It has gone a bit quiet on that front lately.

So much depends on Wilshere and his fitness

As with all top players, when they get injured, clubs get angry and blame gets passed around. So it is again with Jack Wilshere, who has the not insignificant burden of being Arsenal and England's great hope for the future. It would appear that Arsène Wenger and the club are not happy about him playing the full 90 minutes against Brazil on Wednesday and that his injury against Sunderland on Saturday was somehow related.

Yes, England and Roy Hodgson are desperate for Wilshere to play for England, precisely because he makes such a difference. But let's not forget that in his breakthrough season at Arsenal, in 2010-11, he played 49 games as an 18 and 19-year-old. The England manager is not the only one who has a lot riding on Wilshere being a success.