As the most closely-observed internal election in history approached its climax, the choice facing David Beckham appeared to be between the glamour offered by Real Madrid or Barcelona's money.
Real Madrid will not attempt to match the bid of between £30m and £34m that Barcelona's presidential candidate, Joan Laporta, has had accepted by Manchester United, and nor do they see any need to offer the England captain the £8m a year salary Beckham can expect at the Nou Camp.
Instead, they are planning to offer United £14m plus a player, probably Geremi, who spent last season on loan at Middlesbrough, while Beckham can expect to be paid no more than €6m (£4.25m) a season. It is slightly less than his recently renegotiated deal at Old Trafford, but similar to the wages of Raul and Zinedine Zidane.
He will be offered a five-year deal if a proposed meeting between Real's president, Florentino Perez, and Beckham comes off once the Spanish season finishes a week tomorrow. However, Beckham's advisers will totally oppose Real's suggestion that the revenues from any further advertising contracts will be split between the player and the club. Earlier this week, Emilio Butragueño, Real's head of marketing, suggested Beckham would have to sign over all his image rights, something neither Zidane nor Ronaldo had to do.
The Spanish champions, whose immediate concern this weekend is to win the Madrid derby and keep the pressure on Real Sociedad at the top of La Liga, have no need to break the bank to land their prize since everything appears to be playing into their hands.
Perez knows Beckham cannot stay at Old Trafford and Milan have declared they are not in the race, which leaves only Barça and his own team. Beckham's agents, SFX, have announced they have no intention of meeting Laporta while Beckham is livid at being used as a "pawn in an election" - a view shared by John O'Shea and Phil Neville, his United team-mates.
That only leaves Real. They can name their price and, unlike Barça, can offer Champions' League football. "The directors of Real are merely waiting for Beckham to announce that Real Madrid are the club of his dreams," the Spanish sports daily, Marca, stated yesterday. "It will be then that Manchester United's directors will be forced to negotiate with Real Madrid just as happened to Juventus [with Zidane] and Internazionale [with Ronaldo]. They already know that the wishes of the player will decide matters."
Manchester United are in real danger of seeing their whole transfer strategy for Beckham unravel spectacularly. To announce that they would be willing to sell the captain of England to Laporta before the man they negotiated with had even won the presidency of Barcelona may have been designed to spark a bidding war in Madrid and Milan.
Instead, they have seen the price slashed and the media spat with Beckham become so personal - his father revealing he has not spoken to his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, in two months - that his position at Old Trafford appears untenable. Had United waited until tomorrow's election before making the announcement, Beckham might not be so antagonistic towards Barcelona. As for a player swap, Ferguson would much prefer Claude Makelele to Geremi, who although he takes a mean free-kick was at Middlesbrough only because he was surplus to requirements at the Bernabeu.
Financially and because they do not want to be accused of selling their most valuable asset to their chief European rivals, United would prefer Beckham to go to the Nou Camp and even recorded an interview with Sir Bobby Robson to extol the virtues of Catalonia on the club's website.
Robson, who won three trophies in his one season at the Nou Camp, can be guaranteed to go misty eyed at the sight of a Barcelona crest and the Newcastle manager did not disappoint. "Beckham would be an icon there," he said yesterday. "It's a great city and the club is part of that wonderful spectrum. It's the best. There was always tension and, if you can't handle that, it will eat you up but that wouldn't bother Beckham."
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