Friday 22 June 2007

Beckham Joins Real

by Rossa McDermott

Real Madrid's history of buying English players to bolster its ranks is quite limited over recent years and only accounts for three major transactions.

All of those have taken place in recent memory. Indeed, the history of players from England achieving success in Spain in 'La Liga' is also limited at any level. Moreover, the longevity of either managers or players in Spanish football can also be counted on one hand and with only name coming to mind that has gained any real success.

That name remains former Liverpool midfielder, Steve McMananam, who even with a couple of Champions League Medals has seen his England career disintegrate before his eyes.

Therefore beyond the hoopla and razzmatazz that will engulf the arrival of David Beckham to Madrid for the traditional pre-season 'presentation' of players on July 7th the focus has to be more on the new order in European Football rather than relying on history for any indication of what may lie ahead. The commercial profile of Beckham in Asia, his ability to sell numerous thousands of replica jerseys, his appeal to the merchandising public of the UK and his continued allegiance to sportswear manufacturer, Adidas and the marketing thrust of Vodafone, are the new driving forces in the modern game.

On the other hand, so far so good for the new ways of Real Madrid Club President, Florentino Perez, who has driven the new 'brand' to greater heights; cleared the clubs massive debts and brought the world's best players to the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium to entertain the fans. Not bad either for season ticket holders at Real Madrid ? Roberto Carlos, Figo, Zidane, Ronaldo, Raul, and now Beckham.

Having clinched their record ninth European Title last year at Hampden Park, Florentino Perez strategic plan continues to move on. His transfers and new signings so far have all been success stories and are not overshadowed by the failures of Seventies and Eighties when the likes of Laurie Cunnigham moved to Madrid in 1979 for a record fee at the time of nine hundred and ninety five thousand pounds sterling. Having been spotted playing an astonishing match at the Hawthorns for West Bromwich Albion in a 1977 UEFA Cup tie against Valencia, Real Madrid secured his services as quickly as possible.

Having been the first black player to play for England at Under 21 level, Cunnigham was used to challenges and moving to Madrid was another one of those. Sadly however his career never developed and after an indifferent season he succumbed to injury and never regained the prowess he showed under Ron Atkinson. The huge leap from Leyton Orient in 1977 to WBA and then Europe's leading club, Real Madrid, was too much it seemed despite wining the League and Cup in his first season.

A combination of a foot injury and different tactics for Real's Yugoslav coach Boskov, affected Cunningham's club and international chances. After leaving in 1983 he became a journeyman in Europe playing for Manchester United, Sporting Gijon, Leicester City, Betis, Charleroi, Wimbledon and finally Rayo Vallecano. He also lived a life style that often prejudiced the chances of a good performance. He died on the outskirts of Madrid in a car crash in 1989 having just helped Vallecano return to the First Division.

The era of former Liverpool and Wales striker John Toshack was in two stages, the last leading to a substitution by the current manager, Vicente del Bosque. His first tenure was in 1989 after he replaced Dutch man Leo Beenhaker and he lasted about fifteen months. The second stint was only for nine months and again he replaced a Dutch manager, Gus Hiddink. Since Toshack's departure the club has found a rich vein of form, which has seen them dominate the domestic Spanish league and also become serious European contenders under what the club always viewed a temporary manager.

When former West Brom and Manchester United manager, Ron Atkinson, moved to Spain his task was to lead Real Madrid rivals, Atletico Madrid, to greater thing. His tenure was a matter of months under the club president, Jesus Gil & Gil.

Other players had indifferent spells in Spain, former Aston Villa player Dalian Atkinson spent a year at Real Sociedad before returning to Britain. Ireland defender, Kevin Moran, spent a couple of seasons between 1988-1990 with Sporting Gijon before returning to Blackburn Rovers where he ended his career. Former Liverpool players John Aldridge and Michael Robinson also made their way to Spain when La Liga with Aldridge spending time with Real Sociedad in San Sebastian. Robinson joined Sammy Lee at Osasuna. From Northern Ireland the hero of the 1982 World Cup Gerry Armstrong also went to Real Mallorca in the eighties but it was also towards the end of his football career.

The National League also had two players earn their keep in Spain in the late eighties at the start of their careers, both of whom came from the successful Shamrock Rovers team at Glenmalure Park, and they were Alan Campbell and Liam Buckley. Both strikers played at Racing Santander in different seasons and their profile earned them scant recognition and a couple of international caps under Jack Charlton.

For the glamorous clubs though, few of them sought stars from Football League and it was therefore a surprising move for Steve McMananam to join Real Madrid in 1999. That had more to do with former Liverpool striker, John Toshack being in charge at the time. Following his departure the England midfielder has battled against the odds to stay in the squad under Del Bosque. In Paris in 2000 the patience and work ethic paid dividends as he played a key role in unravelling Valencia to clinch the Champions League title.

Following that victory his task at Madrid became tougher with the arrival of Figo, then Zidane, Ronaldo and now Beckham. In addition there are the talents of Raul, Guti, Scolari and Morrientes to contend with as well. In that sense you have to view McMananam as a success story when compared to the time Cunnigham struggled at the club.

When you look back at the great era and those glory years of the 60's and 70's, Real Madrid embraced all nationals in their side ranging from French man Raymond Kopa to Argentina's Alfredo Di Stefano to Hungary's Ferenc Puskas. It is more that coincidence that the current side reflects a similar international flavour.

However in 1973 Real Madrid encountered a serious rival in domestic football, and that was Barcelona. With the Catalunya region strongly trying to protect its cultural and linguistic identity, Football Club Barcelona brought Europe's best to rekindle its fortunes with the arrival of Johan Cruyff from Ajax. He secured the league championship and along with Johan Neeskens and Mario Marinho after the 1974 World Cup triggered a belief in the club that success was not excusive to Real Madrid.

That period initiated a ferocious domestic rivalry that still exists today. The club has seen some of the greatest pass through its door during the past two decades with Allan Simonnsen, Diego Armando Maradona, Hristo Stoichkov, Georgi Hagi, Ronaldo and Luis Figo to mention but a few.

Their activities often eclipsed Real Madrid and coincided with a time when the Madrid team were under achieving. Those times seem to have now moved back into Real Madrid's' favour.

In terms of personnel, Barcelona also had mixed experiences with English players and managers. The arrival of Terry Venables and Alan Harris in 1986 heralded the playing of the game the English way. Under Venables a lean spell at the club saw them win the League championship at his first attempt and reach the European Cup Final in Seville, which they lost to Steaua Bucharest. Three key players during that time travelled from Tottenham Hotspur to help enables efforts, Steve Archibald, Gary Lineker and Mark Hughes.

Steve Archibald became a top sorer and succeeded in a league that threw up few chances but returned to England with the arrival of Gary Lineker as sides were limited to two foreigners at time. As if to reassure us that statistics never lie, the tenure of Terry Venables did last more than three years, seeing him return to take over Tottenham Hotspur in 1987 having been preceded by Mark Hughes who went to Bayern Munich.

The return of Johan Cruyff saw Lineker end up playing a wide role on the wings, which eventually led to return to England as well.

As a result one has to view the move of David Beckham to Madrid this week as reflecting European football in the 21st century. A club president intent on seeking Real Madrid's profile in the world and replica sales in key markets like Brazil, France, England and Asia.

It also reflects the pan European nature of the game transformed by a revitalised Champions League and powerful TV coverage. Clearly the expansion of the club game with teams probably better than many national teams will only enhance the power of the Group 14 and the plans for a Super League.

For many of the purists that maybe tacky. But for football lovers it is the new game and these are the new rules. It is not too long ago when no-one watched or cared about 'La Liga'.

In fact not too long ago the game had any money and Real Madrid were almost bankrupt.

If a week is a long time in politics then 90 minutes is a long time in football. The game is changing and so are the players. David Beckham joins Real Madrid not knowing whether Raul will concede his number 7 jersey and rumoured to be facing some unsettled teammates.

He travels this road with Florentino Perez fulfilling his commercial ambitions for the club. Time can only hope that in the years to come Beckham equals or improves on the success of Steve McMananam. All those who have gone to Spain in search of glory and his remains the best story to date.