“Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is? Insanity is doing the exact same fucking thing over and over again expecting shit to change. That. Is. Crazy. Everywhere I looked all these pricks doing the exact same fucking thing. Over, and over, and over, and over again thinking, ‘this time is gonna be different. No, no, no please…this time is gonna be different.” -Vasz, Far Cry 3
By all accounts and reports, Angel Di Maria Hernandez only has a few hours left as a Real Madrid player. The club have agreed to a huge 60 million-pound transfer fee with Manchester United for the Argentine midfielder. The details are still being finalized, but a couple of things are certain: Di Maria himself has asked for a move away from Real Madrid, Real are keen to sell (though only for the right price), and Manchester United are ken to buy, as they desperately need the creativity and energy that Di Maria has provided for Real since he joined them from Benfica in 2010. For the price being quoted, Di Maria’s move should make sense: the Real Madrid squad is seemingly full, with the team having bought Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez, and reportedly looking to add Radamel Falcao from AS Monaco before the end of the window. There simply doesn’t seem to be the desired playing time or tactical spot for Di Maria in the Real lineup.
But it doesn’t make sense. At all. Rather, the transfer defies belief, common sense, and logic. Because Angel Di Maria is arguably one of the most vital components of the current Real Madrid side. Under Jose Mourinho, he was a winger cutting in from the right, where he enjoyed mixed success in three seasons. Under Ancelotti, however, Di Maria moved infield to form part of the midfield trident in the Italian manager’s 4-3-3 formation: Xabi Alonso was the anchor, Luka Modric or Sami Khedira the pivot, and Di Maria the all-important playmaker and shuttler between the midfield and attack. The positional shift paid dividends for Ancelotti and Real Madrid: Di Maria led the top five European leagues in assists last season; in the Bernabeu Clasico that Real eventually lost 3-4 to Barcelona, Di Maria was easily Real’s best player on the pitch, providing the assists for both of Karim Benzema’s goals and creating a half-dozen clear opportunities to score even more; he was voted Man of the Match in the 2014 Champions League Final, where his play and creativity were vital in securing Real’s tenth European Cup. Even more revealing was the state of Real Madrid’s play without Di Maria: his late appearance in the first leg of this year’s Spanish Supercup made Real considerably more dangerous; without him in the second leg, Real looked listless and devoid of ideas against a resolute Atletico Madrid that held on to secure the victory at the Vicente Calderon. His importance to the side’s success is unquestionable, so why is he being moved along? The simple answer is that Di Maria has requested a new, improved contract that Real Madrid have refused to give him – as one of the more important components of the side, he’d like his pay to reflect that. But the nuances of why Real Madrid have refused to raise his contract are considerably more complicated, and to understand them we have to go back to 2003.
During Florentino Perez’s first stint as President of Real Madrid, the construction magnate enthusiastically embraced a footballing and marketing policy known as Los Galacticos: every summer, Real Madrid would buy the biggest, most famous, most marketable, and most talented attacking player on the market, and add them to a team of super-players that played beautiful, flowing, attacking football. The initial results were spectacular: two European Cups and two La Liga titles in four seasons. However, the project came at the expense of squad balance: Claude Makalele was refused a payrise in 2003 and duly shipped off to Chelsea. Makalele, a gifted anchor and destroyer in the defensive midfield spot, had provided an important counterbalance to the attack-laden squad containing Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Ronaldo (Brazilian), and Raul Gonzalez. In his place, Perez bought England captain David Beckham. He was signed as much for his image as for his ability: Perez bragged that Beckham would double the club’s marketability in Asia and North America, suggesting that Makalele simply hadn’t fit in a team of beautiful, sexy, attacking superstars. Three years later, Perez resigned in disgrace, with Real having gone trophyless in the preceding four campaigns. At the time, Sid Lowe captured the essence of the project’s failure in The Guardian:
“Sure, Madrid have increased income enormously, but how many fans gather to celebrate a great bank balance? And, besides, huge income has come at the cost of huge outlay – £285m on transfers alone, plus £4m a season per galáctico, after tax. Madrid failed not despite the galácticos, but because of them. Pérez created an unmanageable monster, a satiated, divided squad of aging players, a club where marketing ranks ahead of meritocracy. Where tours of the Far East take precedence over pre-season training, where those who play know they will play come what may and those that do not, know they will not; where the non-galácticos are consciously undervalued.”
When Perez returned to the Real Madrid presidency in 2009, he insisted that he had learned his lesson, and the initial prognosis was that, even if the Galactico Era was to be reborn, it would not come at the expense of the squad’s balance: alongside Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Mesut Ozil, and Gareth Bale, the last five years have seen defensive talents added to the glamour signings – Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira, Asier Illaramendi, Raphael Varane, Alvaro Arbeloa. Yet the core ethos has remained the same: players that Real Madrid buys should be bought not only for their footballing prowess, but also to further the notion of Real Madrid as a destination for the latest superstars. This summer’s transfer dealings have reinforced that notion. Even if Toni Kroos is a bargain at $30M, James Rodriguez was an utterly stupid buy. His transfer value was grossly inflated by an overhyped performance at the World Cup, his skills aren’t suited to a particular position in Ancelotti’s 4-3-3 framework, and he doesn’t track back on defense. Yet all this was obscured by Perez’s annual rush to gobble up the prettiest, shiniest, newest toy. When people questioned the transfer’s cost, Real (stupidly) pointed to the value that Rodriguez would hold in breaking into the Colombian supporters’ market and (moronically) insisted that the fee had already paid for itself in jerseys sold, a stat that has since been proven to be bullshit.
The victim of this marketing strategy dressed in football clothes is Angel Di Maria. He is not a glamorous footballer in the Real Madrid sense of the term; he lacks the sex appeal of Cristiano Ronaldo or his bromance partner Gareth Bale. Yet he has become massively important to Ancelotti’s Madrid side. The Italian insisted that he had left Di Maria out of the lineup for the second Supercup game for “footballing reasons”, yet the ultimate reason for his exclusion from the squad and from the upper echelons of the club’s contracts is quite clear: unless you are Cristiano Ronaldo or the newest, sexiest member of the Galacticos project, you are not worthy of the attention or consideration of Florentino Perez. Never mind that Rodriguez was not a purchase that Real Madrid needed to make. Never mind that Ancelotti had nearly perfected his system, and will likely have to revert to a disjointed and unbalanced 4-2-3-1 to accommodate James Rodriguez in the side. Never mind that Di Maria was Real Madrid’s most important player during Ronaldo’s long battle with knee problems in the back end of last season. Never mind the notion of squad balance: all these principles and facts must submit to the almighty mania that is the Real Madrid Marketing Machine. That means shipping out players who no longer sell jerseys with star power or sex appeal. That means making ludicrous decisions like selling Claude Makalele or Angel Di Maria. Buying James Rodriguez whilst selling Di Maria is akin to selling your Ferrari’s engine so that you can buy it flashier rims.
What’s even more ridiculous is that Real have been here before. Perez has made these same mistakes before. It took them twelve years and $1.5 billion in transfer spending to get from nine European Cups to ten European cups because a megalomaniac president insisted on putting marketing ahead of football. It would appear that they are doing so again. For a club that has been here before, there is only a single word to describe it: insane.