In July 2020, Real Madrid were crowned champions of Spain guided by a club legend in the dugout and a team with more certified players of that status than anyone else in world football.
Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, Dani Carvajal, Marcelo Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Casemiro, Karim Benzema – eight players who provided the backbone of the side who won four Champions League titles between 2014 and 2018.
For a club who in previous years had been renowned for their lack of continuity, they appeared to have stability on and off the pitch with clear elements of long-term planning to succeed their stars.
Ferland Mendy, Fede Valverde, Martin Odegaard, Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo Goes were all being embedded at various rates into the first-team squad.
No signings were made that summer despite a host of player exits – Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez, Sergio Reguilon, Achraf Hakimi, Brahim Diaz, Dani Ceballos and Borja Mayoral were among the exits from the first-team squad, either on loan deals or permanent exits.
In January, Odegaard was allowed to leave on loan too – not being able to break into Zidane’s trusted midfield trio of Casemiro-Kroos-Modric – amid an injury crisis for the club.
For several weeks across January and February, Madrid only had 11 fit senior outfield players and their squad was down to the bare bones.
They finished the season trophyless, missing out on the league title to neighbours Atletico Madrid and despite an admirable run to the semi-finals of the Champions League, were outclassed by Chelsea over two legs.
Club record signing Eden Hazard – reports vary between an initial fee of £85million and £136million, but any measurement makes him the most expensive in Madrid’s history – has constantly suffered injury setbacks and his last full 90 minutes at club level was in November 2019.
Last season, the club suffered from over 60 separate injuries and at one point had four Spain-capped players unavailable to play at right-back – Carvajal, Lucas Vazquez, Nacho Fernandez and Alvaro Odrioziola – due to their multitude of injuries.
Club captain Ramos – who had never missed a sustained period of time in his 16-year career – was limited to just one start after January – as his distinguished spell at the club petered out.
Multiple youth players had to be added to matchday squads to make up the numbers – former Tranmere Rovers youth player Marvin Park, of Nigerian and Korean heritage, was among those to make their senior debuts.
In many ways, it was impressive that Madrid managed to take their La Liga title fight down to the final day of the campaign, such were the misfortunes they had been dealt.
The season ended with Zidane confirming his exit from the club – for the third time, and once more on his terms – before it was announced that Ramos would not have his contract renewed.
Tuesday’s confirmation that Raphael Varane would be joining Manchester United means that both of their starting central defenders – the base of their success over the last decade – have both departed.
Between Zidane, Ramos and Varane – they won 10 La Liga titles and 11 Champions League crowns, with each three an icon of the club and synonymous with their successes.
Yes, the versatile David Alaba has been added as a free agent but this alone does not sufficiently replenish the squad’s ranks.
Carlo Ancelotti has returned to the dugout but faces an unenviable task – many fans are questioning why the club do not appear willing to follow-up their interest in Sevilla defensive star Jules Kounde, who is said to be close to joining Chelsea.
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The answer lies in Madrid’s wage budget for the upcoming campaign, which is set to be capped at £255 million (€300m) by La Liga.
By comparison, their salary cap for the 2019/20 season – in which they lifted the title – was a whopping £553 million (€641m), meaning that over 50 percent of the budget has disappeared in the space of two seasons, in numbers outline by The Athletic .
There are suggestions that Zidane’s exit was fuelled by the club’s refusal to back him in the transfer market and there has been speculation that the appointment of Ancelotti is both a symptom of the club’s relative austerity and an acknowledgement they need a boss who will not kick up a fuss.
This situation has been fuelled not only by the ramifications of the pandemic but that those have coincided with Madrid’s restructuring of their Santiago Bernabeu home.
The reconstruction works are designed to make the stadium hugely profitable for the club in the long-term, able to stage concerts and non-football events, alongside greater revenue from the modernisation of facilities on the land owned by the club.
The entire project will cost the club in excess of £700million – after the loan taken has been repaid – and this has coincided with huge revenue streams disappearing from matchday income, stadium tours and museum visits.
Madrid-based media outlets have hinted that the club’s hard stance on a new contract for Ramos, alongside their willingness to cash-in on Varane a year ahead of his contract expiring, are a long-term project to fund a blockbuster move for Paris Saint-Germain striker Kylian Mbappe.
It would appear that such a move is not feasible with the club’s league-imposed financial restrictions this summer with the focus on club president Florentino Perez ramped up.
Perez began his second term as club supremo in 2009 and has presided over a largely successful tenure since – their four Champions League crowns is more than any other club in the same period.
He was re-elected for a renewed four-year term in April – running unopposed in the election for the third successive time, after his board changed the club’s constitution in 2012.
The rule change was designed to make challengers to the position required to meet several unlikely thresholds, including 20 years of club membership and presenting 15 percent of the club’s budget – currently a figure equating to €92.5million – with the funds required to have the commitment of Spanish banks.
Fans of Perez argue this protects the club from outside ownership and potential takeovers that do not have Madrid’s best interests at heart, while others highlight its lack of democracy and making Perez almost untouchable in his post.
Within a week of his re-election in April, Perez masterminding of the so-called European Super League was launched with Madrid – alongside Spanish rivals Barcelona and Atletico Madrid – among the 12 founding member clubs.
A huge backlash to the plans in England saw the Premier League clubs withdraw from the proposals almost instantly, with Madrid left alongside only Juventus and Barca in continuing to back the breakaway plans.
Perez gave a series of well-documented interviews in the Spanish press highlighting his motivation for the competition, which would act as a breakaway from UEFA.
He claimed the new competition would "provide higher-quality matches and additional financial resources for the overall football pyramid" and would provide "significantly greater economic growth and support for European football via a long-term commitment to uncapped solidarity payments which will grow in line with league revenues."
He also alleged that it would appeal to younger fans and improve standards across the game – which provided to be contentious due to the lack of detail, with many believing this was purely a power play in their own self-interest.
It is little surprise that Madrid, Barca and Juve are the three clubs to have had their revenue streams slashed in recent years more than any other, and their financial pulling power has sharply fallen behind their Premier League rivals and Paris Saint-Germain.
The entire episode highlighted Perez’s – a highly powerful and influential figure within Spanish sport and business – relative lack of power within Europe.
That triggered a chaotic series of events whereby the decision-making of Perez has come under greater scrutiny, with multiple leaked audio recordings of the Madrid supremo were leaked to the Spanish press.
Perez was heard making a number of derogatory insults towards multiple club legends, and is reported as saying: "Luis Figo is the one who pisses off the dressing room. He has been a son of a b****, like Raul. The two bad eggs were Figo and Raul. The best was Zinedine Zidane, without a doubt."
Another clip highlights Perez criticising Cristiano Ronaldo, as he states: "This guy is an idiot, a sick man. You think this guy is normal, but he's not normal, otherwise he wouldn't do all the things he does."
Perez, 74, also is recorded as insulting former Madrid boss Jose Mourinho and legendary club striker Raul Gonzalez.
The club’s cult hero goalkeeper Iker Casillas was also the subject of extreme criticism, with Perez stating: "He's not a Real Madrid goalkeeper, what can I say? He never has been. He has been our biggest mistake.”
All of these separate incidents has inflicted PR damage on Perez, who until recently was untouchable at Real Madrid – both in terms of the club’s constitution but also his general popularity within the ranks of the fans.
The exit of various club legends this summer and the further weakening of a squad who need a refresh is naturally leading to a feeling of pessimism among Los Blancos fans.
Real Madrid’s prudence means that they made a modest profit last season and their stadium redevelopment is likely to afford them a notable long-term boost financially, but the next few years appear less optimistic.
This is a club used to signing and retaining their star players and outbidding all rivals to fulfil their hopes and dreams, but now Real Madrid appear to be in a state of flux in a year of seemingly constant chaos and uncertainty.
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