Real Madrid’s might is evident, but success isn’t guaranteed

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The past few days have added significantly to the overwhelming sense of shock and awe that must have Real Madrid‘s rivals quaking in their boots right now. On the pitch this weekend, they treated their nearest LaLiga challengers to a night of pure brutality — a performance of such contempt, authority and intensity that it snarled “How dare you try to sit at our top table?”

Poor old Girona; so far this season they’ve treated us to such impish, audacious entertainment, but Saturday’s 4-0 humbling saw them receive a proper corrective. It was clinical to the extent that Yann Couto, usually one of Girona’s standout players, was not only presented with firm evidence as to how far off the required elite level he is, but was also left shedding tears of self-pity by the final whistle having been torn to shreds by Vinícius Júnior down the wing.

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Míchel, Girona’s Madrid-born coach who, notwithstanding that defeat, deserves gigantic plaudits for how much entertainment he’s squeezed out of a relatively average squad, admitted: “Madrid have left me with egg on my face and reminded Girona that the title race isn’t really the battle we’re in.”

Yet it’s here where I note that Madrid’s imperious victory needs to be assessed in a much broader context.

Only four days previously, Madrid and the NFL jointly announced that either the Miami Dolphins or Chicago Bears will play a regular-season home match in front of an 85,000 capacity audience at the Santiago Bernabéu next year. Spain’s capital now joins London, Munich, Frankfurt, Mexico City and Toronto in having been awarded this massive opportunity to bask in the world’s gaze, and it’s significant that Real Madrid, rather than Atlético Madrid, won the right to host.

There was open competition between the two LaLiga clubs and, on paper, the Estadio Metropolitano is modern, well-situated, has already successfully hosted a Champions League final and is a fine venue capable of holding 70,000. But the NFL were swayed by the fact that the Santiago Bernabéu is a huge, recently remodelled arena that, crucially, has the ability to close its roof and become a dome. This arguably offers the ultimate big-event experience: no exposure for players, fans, sponsors or media to any kind of adverse weather.

It’s well-established that beyond the core financial agreement between NFL and a host club outside North America regarding a big game, there are also a series of fantastic ancillary benefits (financial, prestige, marketing) coming down the line — in this case to Los Blancos and their neighbourhood. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 21-16 win over Seattle Seahawks at Bayern Munich‘s Allianz Arena in November 2022 was calculated to have brought a €70m impact to the city; Madrid are confident they’ll out-strip that.

Again, even this NFL announcement needs further context, as there are other seismic events from which Real Madrid are about to benefit.

We know that the privilege of hosting the FIFA Men’s World Cup is coming to Spain in six years’ time: the 2030 tournament will be theirs, with partner matches in Morocco, Portugal, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina. What we don’t know, formally, is where the jewel in the crown, the final itself, will be played. But you can absolutely bet your bottom dollar — and please, come back and tease me if I’m wrong — that it will be in the Santiago Bernabéu.

And while even Los Blancos‘ president, Florentino Pérez, will find it impossible to turn his magnificent stadium into the minimum 3.5km (2 mile) length required for a Grand Prix racing circuit — perhaps the only feat beyond the man who can make everyone bend to his will — it remains a pertinent fact that Madrid has also been confirmed as hosting annual Formula 1 races from 2026 for 10 seasons. It’s another mega-boost for the image, coffers and self confidence of the city Real Madrid call home; in fact, part of the circuit will take Ferrari, Red Bull et al speeding past the club’s training ground at Valdebebas.

Pérez has already negotiated a €360 million deal with Sixth Street and Legends via which the two companies will maximise use of the stadium for live music. Hence the reason Taylor Swift has chosen the Santiago Bernabéu as the only gig she’s playing in Spain during her 2024 worldwide tour.

At the time of writing, none of us know for sure whether or not Kylian Mbappé will finally add his remarkable skill and scoring prowess to Madrid’s already 24-karat talent stable, but it’s a genuine prospect. And just as a little garnish on the top of this already appettising Madrid menu, we’re only a month or so away from Spain playing Brazil in a prestigious friendly match — where else, but at the Santiago Bernabéu?

I’ve already written here about the shrewdness with which Madrid have not only set about building a young, highly-talented, ambitious squad (Viní Jr., Jude Bellingham, Aurélien Tchouaméni, Eduardo Camavingaa), but have complemented that by securing all of them, their important footballers, to long-term deals.

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The sum total of this panorama? Real Madrid — as a club and a brand — look set to enter a genuine golden era, capable of dominating on the pitch; financially robust and out-earning their competitors; attractive to the rest of the world’s most powerful brand names and with irresistible international cachet as potential fans from other continents, many of whom aren’t currently paying attention to LaLiga, soon get drawn to Madrid’s lustre thanks to the combined effect of NFL, Formula 1, high-end rock concerts and the FIFA World Cup.

All of which merits our attention and admiration… and all of which also requires a reminder of the Achilles legend. Even if you’re not au fait with Greek mythology, you’ll know that while Achilles was the greatest of all warriors, reputed to be invulnerable in 99% of his body, his weak point was his heel. Eventually, it was was his undoing.

Everything in Real Madrid’s garden is fertile … except for the lawn. How basic is that? The vision, design and technology needed to re-build a stadium so that the pitch is removable, can be turned into an event-arena floor and can be re-installed for football matches are all laudable. But it’s a fundamental flaw if that process leaves the football playing surface badly damaged, which it has.

We are still in the “teething” stage of Madrid’s Bernabéu project, make no mistake. It might be that what architects and constructors call “snagging” — when you buy a new-build house and there are minor flaws to correct — is the way to describe things right now. But Real Madrid’s pitch remains a debilitating problem that requires solving.

The club was forced to completely replace the playing surface five times last season — which can cost anywhere from €150,000 to €300,000 — and coach Carlo Ancelotti spoke out about how debilitating a factor the pitch became for his team over those months. After beating Celta 2-0 in April, he made his feelings clear. “It’s pretty obvious that the works around the stadium affect the pitch. We’ve changed the surface regularly and we will keep doing that. The pitch suffers, because with the construction the deterioration can be rapid.”

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There’s no question now that the Bernabéu surface looks a little better, or that Madrid are treating it as a priority subject. But throughout this season, Ancelotti’s players have been consistently slipping and falling over when the studs of their boots have failed to find purchase in the soil.

The most recent was Bellingham on Saturday, after his ankle had already been damaged by a horrible foul from Girona’s Pablo Torre. Another was Toni Kroos falling over as his studs went from underneath him in Madrid’s most controversial match this season, when they conceded the 1-0 goal in less than two minutes against Almeria at home. There are too many.

In the early part of last season, Thibaut Courtois argued that “the quality of the pitch isn’t helping our style of play,” while Rayo midfielder Mario Suarez chose to tweet, sarcastically: “Nobody’s going to complain about the state of the Santiago Bernabéu pitch??? Just asking!” There has been angst, investment and improvement since then, but these problems remain.

This has been a season of horrible injuries at Madrid and while it’s impossible for the layman to draw a direct correlation, it is true that footballers are a superstitious, jumpy bunch. No club can allow a situation to occur when its stars even suspect, with or without foundation, that their own pitch is likely to increase their chances of injury.

The extra-curricular rewards Madrid are about to start reaping because they’re successful, daring and visionary should be applauded and appreciated. But they can’t come at the expense of the core product — football — and on that level, there’s work to be done to ensure the pitch is as magnificent as the squad and coaching staff.

Madrid play Champions League football in Leipzig this week and, who knows? Despite their horrible injury list — Courtois, Éder Militão, David Alaba and now Bellingham are absentees — this might even be a classic season when their emerging rivalry with Manchester City is tested to the hilt again. Let’s hope so, as that promises to offer us gala entertainment.

The club is in a powerful position to inspire shock and awe, no question about it. But there are one or two things at the Bernabéu that are still a bit shocking and could yet spell disaster to their grand plans, too.



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