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Believing in the Beautiful Game
by Paul Gardner, December 11th, 2008 7AM
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Juande Ramos is a pretty lucky guy. Direct from being a colossal flop with Tottenham in London, he returns to Spain and walks straight into what is arguably the top job in club soccer anywhere in the world -- coach of Real Madrid.

One explanation of that anomaly would be to decide that the people at Real Madrid have simply lost all of their marbles. There is, as it happens, plenty of evidence pointing in that direction. Ever since the club fired Vicente Del Bosque in 2003, right after Real had won the Champions League -- and won it with considerable panache. The reasons for the firing never made much sense, it seemed that Del Bosque was considered to have a bad, old-fashioned image, that he had a Dickensian air about him, and Real wanted to project modernity. In came the Portuguese Carlos Queiroz, certainly a smart, modern type -- but that didn't work, and he was gone after one year. Since then, there have been six more coaches, leading up to Bernd Schuster, a former Real player, who was appointed in 2007 and was supposed to be the guy who brought back the real Real -- a team that won, and won in commanding, majestic style.

That vision, of course, goes back to the all-conquering Real of the late 1950s, a team of stars, let me underline -- Di Stefano, Gento, Santamaria, Kopa, Puskas -- that won the European Cup five times in a row. Maybe no team will ever be able to do that again, but it's a pretty good dream, trying to recreate the excitement and beauty of one of the all-time great teams.

Real has come close -- the all-star team assembled at the beginning of this century by President Florentino Perez, Los Galacticos, did play sublime soccer. Why wouldn't it, with Figo and Zidane and Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo and Raul? But one European Cup, in 2003, was all it got before it fell apart, and suddenly everyone knew that trying to build a team around expensive stars was a mistake. It had worked back in the 1950s, but not these days, was the verdict.

So del Bosque went, and so did the astute Argentine director of soccer, Jorge Valdano. And so too, it seems, did the heart of Real Madrid. It has won a couple of La Liga titles since - in 2007 under Fabio Capello, then in 2008 under Schuster - but there has been no real joy, for it was almost as though the titles were claimed only because Barcelona was going through a bad spell. Anyway, there was absolutely no sign of the lovingly-sought style.

It has to be admitted that however much else the Real people have gotten wrong -- and that's plenty -- they have stuck with the idea of their team as something special, the team that serves as the benchmark for skilled, attacking, exciting soccer. That is no small matter in this era of prosaic, efficient, tactically disciplined soccer.

And it would appear to be that desire for style that has brought Ramos so quickly to the Bernabeu. He is not remembered for the fiasco at Tottenham, that hardly registered in Spain -- he is remembered as the coach who, in just two seasons at Sevilla, 2005-07, produced a team that won (including two UEFA Cups) and won with style.

Yesterday was Ramos' first game in charge, a meaningless Champions League game against Zenit St Petersburg. A 3-0 win for Real -- but no sign of style. Ramos has work to do. His second game this weekend offers little chance for experimentation -- the clasico of clasicos, a visit to Barcelona's Camp Nou to play against a Barcelona team that is doing everything that Real considers its own birthright. Winning with exciting, attacking soccer.

Whatever the result -- whatever the scoreline -- the sport of soccer should be thankful that two of its top teams are still in love with the idea of playing the beautiful game in a beautiful way. Two major clubs, both with a huge following of passionate fans who have not surrendered to the vapid idea that you can't expect to win if you play skillful soccer.


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