Tuesday's game against Wolfsburg could be the most important of Real's season
Last Wednesday’s abysmal performance in Wolfsburg has left Real Madrid against the ropes in "their" tournament, the Champions League.
The 2-0 defeat means that the Madridistas need to pull off another one of their trademark comebacks if they want to stay alive in the biggest club competition worldwide. But what happens if they don’t?
Here’s how a quarter-finals elimination would very likely impact the President, the squad and the coach.
The current president has run out of scapegoats. Having fired Carlo Ancelotti and Rafael Benitez in less than a year, and lacking a Sports Director to blame for two consecutive trophyless seasons, if Wolfsburg go through all fingers will point at him as the main party responsible for the fiasco.
More than ever before, in the last two seasons Perez has made all significant team-related decisions: player signings and sales, hired and fired coaches, the appointment of a physician detested by the players, "suggestions" for starting line-ups. It would be his merit if things went well, but that is not exactly the case right now.
That said, Perez and the 1.993 socios who represent the remaining 66.000 in a sort of Real Madrid Parliament, decided to change the requirements to become President back in 2012. Now any socio needs 20 years of seniority (thus eliminating nouveau riches from the picture) plus personal wealth of at least 15% of the club’s budget -- at a whopping €600million this year. A quick run thorough the list of socios who meet both conditions leaves you with… yes, Florentino Perez. (This scribe, also a Real Madrid socio, meets one of the two. I will let you guess which).
Therefore, if Real Madrid fail to defeat Wolfsburg for a large enough margin on Tuesday night, Florentino will have to listen to plenty of "Vete ya" (the Gary Neville treatment) and will face a seemingly infinite number of white handkerchiefs at the Santiago Bernabeu, but won’t leave his position unless he really wants to.
Under the very probable assumption that Perez continues as president, summer will become the dream of any sports newspaper, as the number of players leaving (and joining) Real Madrid could easily reach double digits.
Only one player in the squad seems to have his job guaranteed: Gareth Bale, whose success at the Bernabeu has become almost a question of pride for the president. Leaving the Welshman aside, no other member of the squad can feel safe. The feeling of a finished cycle is evident within the club.
Real Madrid's President Florentino Perez, right, stands with newly appointed coach Zinedine Zidane at the Santiago Bernabeu in January. (AP Photo)
Not even Keylor Navas, an outstanding goalie performing as well as anybody this season, would be able to spend the summer without a shade of concern, as Perez still thinks of David de Gea as the best possible option for Real Madrid’s goal.
If the Madridistas don’t make it to the semi-finals on Tuesday, names such as Cristiano Ronaldo, the legally troubled Karim Benzema and of course the sometimes exceptional, but often erratic James Rodriguez and Isco Alarcon would join the transfer market as soon as the ref blows the final whistle.
And yes, that alternative is Jose Mourinho.
Real Madrid’s management knew they were risking Zidane’s growth process as a coach when they asked him to take the reins of the first team. It was a bit too early to put the Frenchman in such a delicate situation with no previous experience. However, Rafael Benitez had completely lost control over the dressing room and they needed to act fast.
An elimination on Tuesday would very likely lead Perez and his consultants to believe that, despite the much better attitude of the squad under him, Zidane is still too unexperienced to coach such a complex club.
However, what would be the alternatives? Pep Guardiola’s early decision to go to Manchester City next season accelerated other clubs’ choices, and now it’s hard to find a top-level manager for hire. Anyone would struggle to find a name able to earn the respect of the dressing room, apply innovative tactics such as those of Guardiola and solve the obvious problem with injuries that the Madridistas have suffered in the last two seasons.
According to journalists close to Perez, the President still believes that Mourinho is that man. Bringing the Portuguese back would help him to "clean" the squad off several players, as many of them would refuse to play for their former coach again.
But Mourinho’s divisive presence, both inside the dressing room and among the socios, would generate such an internal fracture that such possibility seems unthinkable. Zidane is still the favourite to keep the job, although nothing is in fact impossible in the soap opera that Real Madrid have become.
In the big picture, an elimination at the hands of Wolfsburg would generate lots of talk, plenty of unrest and several changes in personnel, but no substantial modifications to the key decision-makers in the club. Using the words of the Italian writer Giuseppe Tomassi de Lampedusa, "everything needs to change, so that everything can stay the same".
Eduardo Alvarez is a Spanish football commentator and Real Madrid correspondent for ESPN FC. He has been a Real Madrid socio since 1995.