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A Real Problem
by Paul Gardner, January 8th, 2009 7AM



Real Madrid, once the world's greatest club, once a classy example to everyone of how to play soccer with style seems to me to be in danger of becoming the club that everyone loves to hate.

It doesn't take more than 10 or 15 minutes of watching the current team to realize that this is rather ordinary soccer that is being played. Worse, it is soccer that often has an unpleasant physical edge to it. Not at all what Real is supposed to be about.

I'm certainly not about to say that Real is not worth watching, but its play -- at the moment -- is a far cry from the wonderful soccer of the glory days of the 1950s, or of the more recent teams that featured players such as Fernando Redondo, Roberto Carlos and Figo and Zinedine Zidane.

However, the main problem for Real lately has been its questionable behavior in the transfer market and the lack of respect it has been showing toward other clubs. The attitude that comes over from Madrid is one of overbearing superiority. An attitude that seems to claim special favors when it comes to acquiring players.

Typical of this approach was what happened last summer, when the rumors suddenly started to swirl that Real was "interested" in Manchester United's Portuguese winger, Cristiano Ronaldo. Never mind that Ronaldo had only recently signed a new contract with ManU. Real was interested. Huge salary figures started to circulate, Ronaldo began to make equivocal statements. ManU, quite understandably, was incensed at what they saw as an attempt to unsettle -- and then poach -- their star player.

Was this all simply hot air and rumor? Evidently not, for we then got the perfect example of this new-found Real arrogance from none other than the club's President himself, Ramon Calderon. Treating ManU as though it were some minor-league club, he scoffed at its complaints and suggested that, instead of showing anger, ManU should be pleased that one of its players was good enough to attract the attention of Real Madrid. Ronaldo is still with ManU -- but for how long?

A similar situation has now arisen with another of ManU's foreigners, the Argentine Carlos Tevez. Once again the rumors that Real are "interested" are in the air. And once again, the player has stirred things up: Tevez has let it be known that he would love to play for Real Madrid.

At this point, one loses patience. Yes, Real was totally out of order, probably still is, in its attempts to acquire Ronaldo. But the Tevez situation is different, and ManU does not come out of this one looking too good.

Where Ronaldo could never doubt for one moment that he was ManU's No. 1 star, Tevez has lately been struggling for a starting place. He was doing well enough until ManU acquired Dimitar Berbatov from Tottenham. And, would you believe, Tottenham was miffed that ManU had been following the Real tactics, that it had been "unsettling" Berbatov. Whatever, Tevez now finds himself spending most of his time sitting on the bench. He is, after all, only a loan player at ManU. Why wouldn't he want to go to Real? Or to any big club where he can command a starting spot?

Tevez is a world-class player who is being asked to play a secondary role at ManU. That is what is likely to happen at the rich clubs, which feel they must have -- and can afford -- a bench that is as strong as the first team. A situation which means there are quite a few such players with top clubs, players who are under-used, who certainly feel under-appreciated -- players who can be quite easily "unsettled" by other clubs.

I started off by castigating Real Madrid for its overbearing attitude to acquiring other clubs' players. I'm not about to withdraw that criticism, but I'll admit that Real is hardly the only club involved in this shady business of "showing interest" in players who are under contract elsewhere.

There's no escaping the fact that in today's game, there is little incentive for a player to remain endlessly loyal to one club. One thinks immediately of Paolo Maldini, who has been with AC Milan for over 23 years, the only club he has ever known. Then there's Barcelona's Xavi Hernandez, who joined the club at age 11 and has a contract that will see him through 2014. And then ... well there aren't many more.

No, the fans don't like it. Portsmouth's Jermain Defoe, who has just moved to Tottenham, even received death threats over his switch. But there will be many more Defoes choosing to move, than Xavis who elect to stay put. Club-hopping usually means an increase in salary for the player -- and a fat fee for the agent involved.

So, like so much else in today's pro sport, it comes down to money. At which point there are no rights or wrongs. The big clubs have money, what else should they do but spend it? The players are offered better contracts, why would they turn their backs on that?

No, I don't like the swaggering way that Real Madrid has of implying that it is somehow entitled to sign anyone it wants. But neither am I going to waste any time feeling sorry for Manchester United or any of the other big clubs, all of whom are capable of dubious maneuvering when it comes to acquiring players.

In a sport drenched in money there are no blameless parties.

Qualities like loyalty and honoring one's contract, which ought to be held in high esteem, tend to get trampled in the dirt. In theory, I greatly admire Maldini and Xavi. But at the same time the thought intrudes that pro soccer would be a much duller sport if there were no trading of players.


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