The image was familiar. Florentino Perez, the longtime and unmovable Real Madrid president, standing beside a superstar signing, holding up a newly printed version of that hallowed white jersey. Eden Hazard this time, after the 28-year-old Belgian dribbler was poached from Chelsea for $114 million or so – a fee that could rise another $50 million in add-ons and bonuses.
But even if all of this looked right, it had actually been half a decade since Real had made a major splash in the transfer market. Because the Galacticos project has come full circle.
Starting in 2000, Perez, a construction tycoon then in his first stint in charge of Real, began buying a single superstar (or “Galactico”) every summer. First, he poached Luis Figo from Real Madrid. The next year, he got Zinedine Zidane. Then Ronaldo – the original, Brazilian one. Then David Beckham. And finally Michael Owen.
Staggering success followed. Real quickly won La Liga twice and lifted a second Champions League title in three years. Along the way, its image as the world’s biggest and most glamorous club was restored. Perez called the approach Zidanes y Pavones, named after his French legend-in-the-making and poor Francisco Pavon, to signify he would be blending stars with homegrown players.
In his second spell in power – Perez resigned in February 2006 and didn’t return until May 2009 – he resumed this policy. Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka came first. And then Xabi Alonso. Jose Mourinho was his first Galactico manager. And then he bought Luka Modric, Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez in consecutive years. But the latter arrived in 2014 and would prove to be a bust, and that’s when the Galacticos stopped coming.
Not that it slowed Real down any. Because this stockpile of generational talent brought Real four Champions League titles in five years, through 2018.
And while big money was still spent on players, most notably the teenaged Vinicius Junior at the start of last season, it was never to lure the most coveted and established names in the game. Instead, Real signed players with promise, or useful pieces.
Yet at the same time, lots of other big clubs began copying Real’s original policy. Chief among them were Paris Saint-Germain, who shattered transfer records on single players they hoped would be transformational, rather than spreading the wealth across a handful of players. Other clubs did too. Even thrifty Arsenal got in on the fad, coaxing Mesut Ozil from Real and Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona.
As Real gave up on the Galacticos, everybody else embraced them.
But on June 7, Real announced the Hazard signing, after several years of speculation that such a move was afoot. It seems the little forward was finally able to force a move. Chelsea, banned from buying players for two transfer windows, pending an appeal, wasn’t eager to let one of the best players in the club’s history go. But then he had only a year left on his contract and held all the leverage.
“It’s no secret that it was my dream to play for [Real Madrid] since I was a young boy,” Hazard wrote in a goodbye message to Chelsea fans on his Facebook page.
It represents a return to the old Galacticos model. And it’s an acknowledgment that, for the first time in years, Real was in urgent need of an injection of elite talent.
Real suffered an enormous drop-off from its back-to-back-to-back European crowns last season. It placed third in La Liga, 19 intolerable points behind Barca, and was upset by Ajax in the round of 16 of the Champions League. Mostly, it was plain to see that Real needed a reboot after the summer departure of its greatest Galactico, Cristiano Ronaldo, who was never really replaced. It cycled through three coaches through the season, ultimately winding up with Zidane, who had left over the summer because, among other things, he felt unheard over transfer priorities.
So the club has dropped major sums for defenders Eder Militao and Ferland Mendy, and forwards Luka Jovic and Rodrygo. They are 21, 24, 21 and 18 years old, respectively, and all of them cost at least $50 million in transfer fees alone. But Real truly reverted to type with Hazard. And a further move is rumored for either Manchester United’s Paul Pogba or Tottenham Hotspur’s Christian Eriksen, representing a possible second Galactico acquisition.
But that may all depend on the club’s ability to offload old Galacticos Bale and/or James, after Bayern Munich declined to pick up the option to buy the Colombian outright after two seasons on loan. Bale, for his part, doesn’t seem to want to leave and is very nearly immovable for the size of his contract.
Even if Real does nothing else, settling for all this exceptionally swift summer business, it will have been its most significant transfer summer in perhaps a decade, going back to the summer of Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka. And while the new realities of the transfer market, which has soared in player valuations in the last few years, make these kinds of outlandish fees almost rote, Real also needed to send a message of some kind.
It has done that. After a season in the wilderness, Real is a major player again. On the transfer market, at least.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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