To the Manor Born

Kylian Mbappé and the enduring appeal of Real Madrid 

All roads, as the frequently appropriated quotation goes, lead to Rome. In the ancient world, when Rome stood as the center of western civilization and the seat of power, it was there that men went to measure themselves, to win honor and fame, to achieve immortality. In the career of the modern-day footballer the path to superstardom, to greatness, to footballing nirvana, leads to Real Madrid. In the long history of European football Real Madrid towers over the continent, a vast monolith of brilliant white and gold, its grandeur casting a long shadow over all other pretenders to the throne. Only Real Madrid can be kings of Europe, no one else. ¡Viva Los Reyes!

Twasever thus. Beginning in 1956, Real Madrid won the European Cup 5 times in a row, the greatness of Ferenc Puskás and Alfredo Di Stéfano sparking what would grow to become an obsession for la Madridistas. The culmination of this great side, their 7-3 devastation of Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup final, exemplified and codified the aura and arrogance (in the best possible terms of course), of Los Blancos, the idea that all other football clubs, all other expressions of the game, were but flies to be swatted, mere speed bumps in the path of the unstoppable force of Spanish greatness. This of course is to say nothing of adoption and weaponization of Real Madrid as a force for Spanish nationalism under General Franco, the details of which are distressing, and deserving of exploration on their own terms. After their 5th title in 1960, Real Madrid became the first club to be awarded the trophy on a permanent basis, and, with their recapture of the title in 1966, they cemented their relationship with a trophy that no other club has matched since. 

However, as Real Madrid would come to define the European Cup, so too would the European Cup would also come to define Real Madrid. For a club that has won a record 34 La Liga titles, such paltry accolades can often be regarded as mere window dressing; the managers who claim them disappointments and failures. With the hegemony that has emerged at the top of European football, the almost pathological desire to claim the Champions League that was once the hallmark of Real Madrid has spread further afield, infecting and radically shifting the ethos of teams across the continent. Clubs such as Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, Barcelona, and Manchester City prize the Champions League above all else, the life-cycle of managers and coaches unduly influenced by the acquisition of a winners medal. In the cases of PSG and Manchester City this is perhaps unsurprising; with both clubs yet to claim club football’s ultimate prize their place among the top echelon of European football is the most tenuous, their place amongst the superclubs secured by Emirati riches rather than any pretensions of a grand and illustrious history. For a vast majority of the European elite though, emphasis on the Champions League is borne from the monopolization of domestic honors, the likes of which has never before been seen. With such an embarrassment of riches and paucity of competition, it is small wonder then that the Champions League has taken priority of place amongst the elite.

With this singular goal in mind, recruitment for such clubs can often resemble little more than an arms race. With such a concentration of talent shared amongst these sides, the question is not merely which superstar plays for your club, but which superstars. “Manchester United have signed Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho, and Raphael Varane to play alongside Bruno Fernades.” “Bayern Munich have added Dayot Upemacano, continuing their practice of poaching talent from their domestic rivals.” “Chelsea have signed Romelu Lukaku because the striker they signed last year wasn’t good enough.” “Manchester City added Jack Grealish for £100m, but should they have spent £150m on Harry Kane as well?” “PSG signed Lionel Messi, Sergio Ramos, Achraf Hakimi, an F-17 fighter jet and 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles, but will it be enough?”       

Amidst the avalanche of transfer activity this summer among Europe’s top clubs, Real Madrid seemed conspicuous by their absence. Granted, they were able to pick up David Alaba on a free transfer and paid Rennes £25m for one of the continent’s most exciting young talents in Eduardo Camavinga, but, most unusually for them, they seemed hesitant to wade into the chaos. To be sure, this dabbling in frugality is owed largely to the ravages of the pandemic, the effects of which have wreaked havoc on every club’s finances; decimating La Liga and in particular Barcelona. Nonetheless, Real’s relative inertia did seem strange, the usual buzz around the comings and goings at the Santiago Bernabéu replaced with an almost haunting quiet. Then, just as it seemed as though Los Blancos had allowed themselves to be overshadowed, a warning shot fired from the Spanish capital. Real Madrid had lodged a bid for Kylian Mbappé.  Florentino Pérez is a man who enjoys the spotlight. As curator of the world’s grandest footballing institution, one might think that this would be a prerequisite for the role of president, but Pérez luxuriates in it, never missing an opportunity to bask in the warm glow of his own self-reflection. His tenure as president, stretched over two separate reigns, has become synonymous with ego, efficaciousness, and staggering excess. Under his regime, Real Madrid have lifted themselves out of the relative slump they experienced in the latter half of the 20th century to a period of undeniable success. A record of 5 Champions Leagues, 5 La Liga titles, 4 European Super Cups and a host of other honors would qualify as a glittering period by anyone’s standards, even standards as lofty as Real Madrid, and surely have earned Pérez favorable comparisons to the legendary Santiago Bernabéu. However, while Pérez would surely feel that his name should be mentioned in the same breath as the man whose name is emblazoned above the stands in Madrid, his name will enduringly be synonymous with another; Galácticos.

As long as there have been football clubs there has been competition for elite footballers. In 1893, when Aston Villa paid £100 for the Scottish international Willie Groves, it would have been inconceivable that such excess could be flaunted in a sport that had its foundation in muscular Christian morality. Yet, as the fees for talent climbed ever higher over the coming century, aided of course by the Bosman in 1995, it became apparent that collecting not just talented players, but superstars, was the surefire way to prove the status of your club, if not necessarily a way to guarantee success. No man, save perhaps Roman Abramovich, has understood and weaponized this concept more than Florentino Pérez. Before Neymar and PSG broke football in 2017, Real Madrid under Pérez seemed more akin to MGM during the Golden Age of Hollywood; their immortal slogan, “more stars than there are in heaven”, having similar resonance at the Santiago Bernabéu. An exhaustive list of the stars of Florentino Pérez would be exhausting, and even to limit ourselves to the marquee names is to list a veritable who’s who of the world’s greatest footballers; Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, Luis Figo, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo, Garett Bale, Mesut Özil, Kaká, Ronaldo again. 

It seemed only a matter of time therefore, before Kylian Mbappé would be subject to a bid from Florentino Pérez. Set to dominate the conversation around the world’s greatest footballer for the next decade, Mbappé always seemed destined to wear the white and gold of Real Madrid, to continue the legacy of great players that stretches back to Alfredo di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás. It is preordained, as inescapable as death and taxes, if for no other reason than Florentino Pérez’ ego wills it, and that failure to secure a player who draws comparisons to Pelé would be anathema to Pérez’ conception of himself, and indeed, the club he fronts.

Kylian Mbappé is, indisputably, the ultimate expression of what a Real Madrid player should be. Supremely skillful, lightning fast and devastatingly clinical, Mbappé has long been perceived as football’s ultimate talent, the next guy up, the natural heir to the Ronaldo-Messi duopoly that has dominated world football for the better part of 15 years. As such, a move to the Spanish capital would be a natural evolution of his already glittering career, the final stepping stone on his path to greatness. The problem, however, is that an imminent move to Los Blancos really only benefits one party; Madrid. Real Madrid are in an unusual situation, or at least, what might be imagined as an unusual situation for Real Madrid. The swaggering team that won 4 Champions League titles in 5 years has all but vanished, the last vestiges of that imperious side entering the twilight years of their illustrious careers. While still a force to be reckoned with, this current iteration of Madrid is perhaps not the ideal launch pad for Kylian Mbappé. It of course goes without saying that Mbappé would improve Real Madrid, but the idea that his magnetism could overcome the serious deficiencies through the spine of this Madrid team is rather fanciful. Madrid have parted ways with arguably the most dominant centre back pairing of the late decade, suffer from an alarming gulf in age profile in central midfield, and have yet to see the best of the superstar forward that they already possess; Eden Hazard. Were Mbappé to insert himself into the maelstrom, one might worry that the sisyphean task of getting Madrid firing again might, at last, overcome him. 

This is by no means to say that Mbappé is not more than capable of such a herculean task, but merely to state that such an undertaking seems  like an unnecessary risk. As currently situated, Paris-Saint Germain are ideally placed to capture their maiden Champions League trophy, alongside continuing their dominance of Ligue 1. The opportunity for Mbappé to play a leading solo in Mauricio Pochettino’s glamorous orchestra is surely one that is too good to pass up. Should Pochettino manage to harness Lionel Messi, Neymar, Di Maria, Marco Veratti, Achraf Hakimi and Sergio Ramos alongside Mbappé, what glorious music they could make. What conjurations and what mighty magic should even just Messi, Neymar and Mbappé create? It is a mouth-watering prospect, and one that surely should cause Mbappé to think again, if not merely for the example that a current teammate has given him. 

When Neymar shattered the world transfer record by a simply mind-blowing margin, it was to move out from under the titanic shadow that Lionel Messi had cast during his time at Barcelona. Upon entering his 5th year at PSG, his harshest critics would consider his move ill-advised at best, as, for all his dazzling quality, he has been unable to carry PSG to the promised land. While harsh – the Champions league is a brutal competition that can be heavily contingent on the rub of the green – it nonetheless serves as a dire warning for those looking to burnish their reputations, rather than their trophy cabinet. 

Perhaps fate will be kinder to  Mbappé than it has been to Neymar. Perhaps he is, to paraphrase one of his great predecessors at his next club, the final layer of gold paint on the Bentley. He will take his rightful place amongst the pantheon of great players who have worn the white and gold. We must only hope that it is not too soon.   

What we talk about when we talk about Pep

Why Pep Guardiola is deserving of more criticism than he currently receives

At the risk of sounding like the meditation app you currently subscribe to for $14.99 per month, I would like to invite you to close your eyes. Focus on your breathing, allowing yourself to relax into that steady rhythm of in and out. As you feel whatever tensions and worries you carry begin to melt away, an image starts to form in your mind’s eye. The outline of a man, finely groomed and immaculately tailored; resplendent in silk and Italian leather, his bald head gleaming in the glorious afternoon sunshine. What sensations do you feel, what images does this man conjure, what do you think about when you think about Pep Guardiola?

Do you think of the football revolutionary, the young genius who inspired countless pale imitations, unleashing the greatest player of his generation, in the greatest team of its generation, to devastate and mesmerise in equal measure? Do you think of the intricate passes, the outrageous possession statistics; “that carousel that can leave you dizzy,” the telepathic understanding between the holy trinity of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta? Do you think of the goals that seemed to be crafted by Michelangelo himself, the cashmere jumper for a chilly night, the relentless evangelising from fans of the Blaugrana that Barcelona was “more than just a club,” as though even had they not been winning so relentlessly, they would have been content to sit in a field, holding hands and singing kumbaya?

Do you think of the sabbatical, the exchanging of philosophies with Marcelo Bielsa over red wine, the emphatic return to management with Bayern Munich? Do you think of his elevation of Manuel Neuer to the best goalkeeper in the world, of Philip Lahm recreated in his own image, of Robert Lewandowski scoring 5 goals in 9 minutes?

Do you think of the three Bundesliga titles in a row, of the 75% win rate, of Xabi Alonso spreading passes to Frank Ribery and Arjen Robben on the wings? Do you think of the questions raised, gently at first, over his failure in the Champions League, of the 5-0 aggregate loss to Real Madrid, of the fact that for all the technical mastery of Guardiola’s Bayern Munich they failed to register a shot in a tie with Barcelona?  

Do you think of his unveiling at Manchester City, of the beaming smile and scarf held aloft, of the tantalising promise of domestic and European domination?  Do you think of full-backs tucking inside, of costly defensive errors, of being ripped apart by Jamie Vardy and Leicester City on a torrential evening on Merseyside? Do you think about his triumphant second season, the breathtakingly beautiful football, the record goal tally, the record points total? 

As currently situated, it is clear then that Pep Guardiola without question belongs in the upper echelons of the managerial pantheon, his place in footballing mythos bolstered further by a third Premier League title, and, at the risk of raising the ire of Chelsea fans, what should have been a third Champions League trophy. When we talk about Pep Guardiola we talk about this. We talk about the beautiful football, the genius who has defined how the game is played for a generation, the ceaseless, unrelenting commitment to winning. We talk in outraged tones about the money he has spent, ($500million on defensive players alone!), about his failure to win a Champions League title in 10 years, (10 years!), about whether he would have any success managing Brighton & Hove Albion on a shoestring budget, (let’s see him win the league by 20 points with a midfield of Yves Bissouma, Pascal Groß and Leandro Trossard!).We talk about his laissez-faire attitude to traditional managerial attire, his partiality to a bottle of full-bodied red, his exacting standards eventually taking their toll on both himself and his players.

This is the Pep Guardiola that we immortalise, the Pep Guardiola that we love, and the Pep Guardiola that we hate because he isn’t the manager of our football club. However, if reality is little more than perception, how we perceive Guardiola and his accomplishments has invariably been rose-tinted. Half-hearted criticisms that he has bought his success aside, scrutiny as to where the gold that has built the road to El Dorado comes from has very rarely, if indeed ever, fallen at his door. Now do not get me wrong, the cabal of billionaires that run elite football clubs are all, to put it politely, less than savoury individuals. As we have seen with the fiasco over the European Super League, the one thing that these immensely rich and powerful individuals can be relied upon to do is act terribly, and almost exclusively in their own interests. If this new bourgeois had spent years relentlessly and ruthlessly accumulating wealth and power at the expense of working people, did anyone seriously imagine that they would entertain the opinions of common fans?

While it would be overly harsh to criticise every top manager for taking extraordinary amounts of money from men with an extraordinary lack of scruples, not all billionaires are created equal. While it is a reasonable assumption that every member of the billionaire owners clubs have exploited people to some degree, it is unreasonable to assume that all of them have exploited people to the same degree. The state ownership of Manchester City may have done many wonderful things for the city of Manchester, this much is true, but they seem rather less concerned with enriching the lives of their own people. Flogging and stoning are legal punishments in Sharia courts, Homosexuality is a crime punishable by death and exploitation of migrant workers is common practice. The UAE has a long and miserable history with human rights abuses, which is devastating and catalogued by groups such as Amnesty International, but distressingly, they, along with other countries in the Middle-East are successfully rebranding themselves as champions of sport. 

In June 2017 Pep Guardiola addressed his fellow Catalonians from the steps of Montjuic in Barcelona, declaming to the 40,000 strong crowd that “we have no other option but to vote.” Throwing his full voice behind the movement for Catalonian Independence, his fist held high and clenched above his head he invoked the spirit of revolutionaries and freedom fighters the world over, evoking cheers and raucous applause from his fellow countrymen. In the back of his mind, I wonder if he spared a thought for the political dissidents of the UAE, dissidents that his current employers have abducted and tortured. I wonder if he thought about the citizens that his employers have held without trial and have denied access to counsel, for daring to speak out against their government. I wonder if his hypocrisy left a bitter taste in his mouth, whether the 40 pieces of silver he has won for Manchester City have been enough to assuage his qualms over his monumental hypocrisy, whether the riches he has earned during his tenure with the Citizens provided a balm for the burning knowledge that he is free to protest and demonstrate in the interests of his people, but the citizens of the UAE are met with violent suppression by his employers for voicing their own political dissent. Perhaps he has reconciled it within himself, or perhaps he never suffered any internal dilemma over this contradiction, content, conceivably, that it is not his problem to solve. 

It is, however, our problem to solve. When we talk about Pep Guardiola we immortalise him with our praise, praise for his beautiful football, for his bursting trophy cabinet, for his hilarious penchant for sticking two fingers up at the traditional managerial wardrobe, turning up to coach looking like the cool father who lets his daughter’s boyfriend stay the night. It’s understandable that this is how we categorise Guardiola, as it is far easier to talk about his genius as a tactician than having to grapple with the complex issues of global politics, and his place within them. However it is important, perhaps now more than it ever was, to contextualise Guardiola and others like him in terms of his position as the figurehead of a club run by an oppressive, totalitarian regime, to discuss his role as a puppet in the current era of sports washing, to realise that he is employed by people who would not tolerate him and his agenda if hewas their citizen. So by all means let’s talk about Pep Guardiola, but as we talk about his greatness, we must also talk about his hypocrisy.