Inside the mind of ESL architect Perez

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April 27, 2021
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    Guillem Balague's BBC Sport column

    Anyone who believes the spectacular climbdown by football's elite signals the end of the road for European Super League plans does not begin to understand the mindset of Florentino Perez, one of the scheme's main proponents.

    In a way, we've been here before. This is not the first time Perez has attempted a radical reinvention of just how football should be marketed around the world – and only the most naive believe it will be his last.

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    In 2000 Perez stood for election as Real Madrid president on the wild, seemingly unachievable pledge he would bring Luis Figo from main rivals Barcelona to the Bernabeu. Furthermore, he claimed if he failed to do so he would personally pay the membership fees of all the club's season-ticket holders the following season.

    Perez had convinced Figo's agent to sign a contract containing a prohibitive clause with financial penalties that would have enabled him to do precisely that if he was elected and the Portuguese winger's move fell through. If they backed out of the deal, Figo's side agreed to pay Real Madrid (in what was then pesetas) an amount equivalent to about £26.2m, which was basically the total cost of season tickets for a year.

    It was not as reckless an agreement as one might imagine because at the time Figo was looking to improve his terms with Barcelona. What better way, thought his agent, to strengthen his hand than by threatening Barcelona? What were the chances of Perez winning the election anyway? He'd been defeated in an earlier run for the role and the club, under the presidency of Lorenzo Sanz, had won the Champions League that year and also two years earlier in 1998.

    For Real Madrid, it was a win/win. The poaching of Barcelona's talisman opened past wounds at Barcelona about Madrid stealing Alfredo di Stefano from under the noses of the Catalans in 1953. Perez won the election and Figo's goose was cooked.

    Luis Figo and Florentino Perez embraceLuis Figo's switch from Barcelona to Real Madrid was one of the most controversial transfers in European football history

    The arrival of Figo was just a tasty starter for the banquet of riches about to come Real Madrid's way as Perez set about making the club the biggest and one of the wealthiest in the world by bringing in its best and most expensive players. It was a recreation of Disney, a big brand that owned – and attracted – the biggest brands, in this case the likes of Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham.

    The fact it didn't totally succeed on the pitch became almost irrelevant. Perez, at one point, suggested Beckham could play right-back and Zidane centre-back to make way for other 'Galacticos', a term the players deeply disliked as it made them sound more like business assets than footballers.

    Much of their time, particularly in the vital pre-season period, was spent promoting the club, meeting sponsors, 'pressing the flesh', rather than getting in the right sort of shape to face a tough campaign. On one such tour, one player remarked that "getting to actually play a game felt like we were having a day off".

    The chickens finally came home to roost in the 2003-04 Champions League quarter-final against Monaco. Real Madrid won the first leg 4-2 but as the players were walking off at half-time of the second leg with the score at 1-1, a despairing Zidane turned to France and Monaco winger Ludovic Giuly and said: "We are all knackered." Real Madrid lost 3-1 and went out.

    Perez's Galactico policy had taken Real Madrid from the verge of bankruptcy and turned the club into a global brand. On the pitch, they failed to win a major trophy for the three seasons after winning the league in 2003. It mattered not a jot. Perez was re-elected in 2004 with 94.2% of the vote.

    It is that kind of feast that he tried to reproduce last week by pushing the club towards a new European Super League and, with it, revenue that would, with the help of some cost-cutting, have paid for a competitive squad and the rebuilding of the stadium.

    It would also have helped Real Madrid adjust to the new reality of having to fight off what Perez calls "club states", namely Paris St-Germain and Manchester City. In his eyes, they have changed the rules.

    Back in the Galactico era, the club's growth seemed inextricably linked to that of his civil engineering company and vice versa. From 2000, ACS Group went from being a company predominantly involved in national projects with a turnover of between 3.4bn pesetas and 4.4bn pesetas to one with a growing international profile and a turnover of 10.7bn pesetas in 2003.

    On the pitch, though, Perez had destroyed the essential balance between the authority of the manager – a position he had little respect for – and the role of the players. Admitting he had "spoilt the footballers", Perez resigned in 2006. But very soon it became clear it was "hasta la vista" rather than "adios". The presidential seat was too appetising to Perez, for reasons including the prestige that came with it – prestige that could be translated into key networking opportunities, including for his own growing company.

    When he returned in 2009 he continued with his Galactico policy until the signing of James Rodriguez from Monaco in 2014 – after the Colombian's starring role at that summer's World Cup – fell flat. Since then he has evolved the idea to try to mix experienced players with young ones in the hope the latter grow to become stars, with the signing of Eden Hazard the exception.

    The period brought Real Madrid mixed fortunes by their standards – the conspicuous success of four Champions Leagues, including three on the bounce between 2016 and 2018, balanced by just three La Liga titles out of a possible 12.

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    A civil engineer by profession, in addition to his Real Madrid duties Perez's role as chairman of ACS means he has oversight of one of the leading construction companies in the world, employing more than 190,000 workers with a revenue in 2019 in excess of £34bn.

    He has a personal share of 12.5% of the company and a personal wealth estimated at around £1.6bn. He has often maintained he is not motivated by money and that what he values most is what he has achieved through hard work, professionalism and effort rather than the staggering accompanying wealth. Put differently, power has got a much bigger pull for him than the money that comes with it.

    But there are some things neither power nor money can affect.

    In 2012, after what everyone believed was a successful six-year battle with cancer, Perez's beloved wife, Maria de los Angeles Sandoval, died aged 62 following a massive heart attack.

    They had married just six months after they met, when she was 20 and he was 23. It was a love affair that would last for 42 years. Always by her husband's side, she was his rock, the woman who kept Perez's feet firmly on the ground while always providing unfailing support. It was she who persuaded him to give up a life in politics to concentrate on his business career and it was he who taught her a love of football and of the club he had supported all his life.

    She died two days after watching the club's reserve side, Castilla, play at Cadiz in a Segunda B play-off match. Five years ago Perez felt unable to attend when Real Madrid were drawn against Cadiz in the Copa del Rey and last week when they travelled to the Carranza stadium for the first time in the top flight since his wife's death, Perez was once again conspicuous by his absence.

    Short presentational grey line

    As became apparent to a global audience over the past week, Perez is not afraid of confrontation and controversy and never has been.

    In February he tested positive for Covid-19 but had no symptoms. "Not even this dreadful virus wants to take him on," one wag commented.

    Perez is powerful, energetic and a great negotiator. He has used his influence to convert the VIP seating at the Bernabeu into a forum for the exchange of favours, networking at the highest level, with politicians, artists, bullfighters and athletes. Most of the biggest names in Spanish public life have been present at a Real Madrid match.

    Florentino Perez with former Spanish president Jose Maria Aznar and Nicolas Sarkozy, the ex-president of FranceThe Bernabeu directors' box regularly plays host to influential figures – in this instance former Spanish president Jose Maria Aznar and Nicolas Sarkozy, the ex-president of France, while Perez (right) looks on

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    But alongside the friendly manner in which he moves around those circles, he knows how to work behind the scenes. His capacity to control the public message is legendary (his last three interviews were given to friendly journalists) and he feeds information via WhatsApp to new arrivals at key media outlets who are thankful for the contact. In that way they become his loyal soldiers.

    He has never been scared of facing down the biggest names at the club. In a clash with captain Fernando Hierro in 2003 – the same night the team won the league title and manager Vicente del Bosque found out his contract would not be renewed – the Spanish international defender pressed a finger into Perez's chest as he was telling him what he thought of the president's actions. Perez told him to stop: "I am not one of those referees you talk to like that, you know."

    Within a few days, a proposed new contract was withdrawn and Hierro, who had played more than 600 games for Real Madrid, followed Del Bosque out of the door.

    Despite paying fortunes both in transfer fees and wages to Galacticos, Perez could be notoriously stingy in paying many of the players what they were worth.

    He promised to increase Claude Makelele's wage but went back on his agreement, instead selling him to Chelsea. With Makelele in their side, Real had won six trophies, including two La Liga titles and a Champions League. But he did not fit the Galactico look.

    "We will not miss Makelele. His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents and 90% of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways," Perez said. But without him they struggled, while Chelsea won back-to-back Premier League titles after signing him.

    When Cristiano Ronaldo was bemoaning what he perceived as the lack of respect being shown to him, he told Perez: "I will bring you 100m euros and you can let me leave."

    "Don't bring me 100m euros," replied Perez. "Bring me the money I need so I can replace you with Lionel Messi."

    Short presentational grey lineFlorentino Perez addresses the mediaOn Saturday Perez said the 12 clubs that agreed to join a new European Super League had "binding contracts" and "cannot leave"

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    So, what of his future and that of Real Madrid now the proposed European Super League has collapsed?

    The attempt to create the ESL is not something that has happened overnight. It has been three years in development, which makes the spectacularly incompetent manner in which it was unveiled to a shocked footballing world even more remarkable.

    All those friends and colleagues Perez has worked with and done favours for in the past are going to be needed now more than ever to explain his side of the story. He is, in the eyes of many, the main protagonist in this whole affair, although to be fair to him he was no keener on the idea of a European Super League than Josep Maria Bartomeu, his opposite number at Barcelona until his mandate was over at the club this season.

    Both men were desperately enthusiastic about the project, not least because they saw it as a way out of the financial hole they had dug themselves into with their respective clubs. But it is Perez's refusal to admit that this was his main motivation, coupled with an insistence that what he is doing is for the benefit of all football and a total refusal to offer anything remotely akin to an apology, that means he has been branded as the devil incarnate in the whole affair.

    The idea that the breakaway project is now going to be kicked into the long grass never to be seen again is wishful thinking. Similarly the notion that this was done purely out of greed, while not completely wrong, is simplistic. In an interview this week Perez sought to defend his actions, saying football had to change or die, while refusing to concede his plans were dead in the water.

    Now 74, Perez has been in the role of Real Madrid president for a total of 18 years. Earlier this month he was re-elected unopposed for a further four years. Of course there is nothing to stop anyone from standing against him in subsequent elections, although the fact any prospective challenger has to have been a member at the club for at least 20 years and have enough money behind them to guarantee a minimum of 15% of the club's budget (£538m last year) has up to now tended to discourage any competitors. He changed the rules to make it harder to challenge him.

    Speaking on Spanish television, he said: "I haven't done anything in 20 years against football. I have enough credibility and history with Real Madrid for people to think I am working on this because things have changed and football has to change too."

    In a messianic message that hardly anybody in football agreed with, he declared: "I don't own Real Madrid, its members do. What I am doing is for the sake of football."

    The plan is off the table for now, but Perez's history tells us it is unlikely we have heard the last of it… or of him.

    Guillem Balague writes a regular column throughout the season and also appears every Thursday on BBC Radio 5 Live's Football Daily podcast, when the focus will be on European football.

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