Initially, in 1897, a group of students and lecturers of the Institución Libre de Enseñanza, including several graduates from both Cambridge and Oxford, organised themselves into a team for football matches on Sunday mornings. During the following years this developed into several different clubs until in 1902 Madrid Football Club was officially formed. From the very beginning it was a club owned and operated by its club members. It was only three years afterwards that the club captured its first Spanish Cup by defeating Athletic Bilbao in the final. Real Madrid – as it was to become in 1920 after being given royal patronage by Alfonso XIII – was on its way to winning the FIFA award of ‘the most successful club of the twentieth century’.
Having been a founder member of the Spanish Football Association, Real Madrid played their home matches at their ground, Campo de O’Donnell, and entered the first ever Spanish League in 1929 being narrowly beaten to the title in its inaugural season by – you could probably guess this one – Barcelona. The rivalry the Spanish know as “El Clásico” had started. Madrid won its first title in 1931-32 and by winning again the following year became the first club to have captured the championship more than once.
Love Them or Hate Them?
Few football fans are neutral when it comes to Real Madrid. They are one of those clubs that people love or despise with equal passion. Their ability to manipulate and dominate the Spanish media and their supposed arrogance in their dealings with other clubs has upset many people at home and abroad. In addition there is the notion that Real Madrid was ‘Franco’s team’ which is very understandable if you read Jimmy Burns’ “Barca: A People’s Passion“. Undoubtedly, when in power, Franco realised the excellent propaganda to be gained from having a successful Real Madrid side and poured resources into the club to help them become a dominating force – and helped them ‘bend’ a few rules. It’s also true that Santiago Bernabéu had fought for Franco’s army during the Nationalist invasion of Catalonia. However, in his presidency, Bernabéu is known to have banned the infamous General Millán Astray, founder of the Spanish Legion and a great friend of Franco, from the stadium because of his improper conduct. He also presented Madrid supporting Israeli General Moshe Dayan with his own gold Real Madrid pin badge during a match with Macabi Tel-Aviv which brought him tremendous condemnation as Spain didn’t recognise Israel as a state at the time.
Real Madrid Conquer Europe
Probably the two most influential people in the history of Real Madrid have been Santiago Bernabéu Yeste and Alfredo di Stéfano. The former was elected president for the first time in 1945 – having been centre forward, club captain, groundsman, manager, director and probably provider of the half-time oranges – and he immediately set about improving all aspects of the club – from its ground to its playing staff. He was a man of immense vision; truly ahead of his time. Bernabéu’s first mission was to create the memorable stadium which was to carry his name and the ground-breaking Ciudad Deportiva – two projects which immediately illustrated his forward thinking.
It was only natural, then, that when the French newspaper L’Équipe began to formulate the idea of a cross Europe cup competition, Bernabéu embraced the notion completely. He combined this enthusiasm with a desire to bring the world’s best players to play for the club. This was initiated in 1953 by the signing of the Argentinian, Alfredo di Stéfano; which is a story worth an article on its own! In essence, the player left his Colombian club, Millonarios, having signed for Barcelona. Bernabéu, however, took advantage of various mix-ups in paperwork to manage to get the Spanish F.A. to declare the transfer invalid and then signed the player for Real Madrid instead. This fore-runner of what was to later happen between the two clubs with Luis Figo is either considered totally unscrupulous or brilliant opportunism, depending on your particular allegiances!
The wonderful Real Madrid team which won the European Cup five successive times from 1956 – containing the likes of Puskas, Gento and Kopa as well as Di Stéfano – was Bernabéu’s greatest achievement; the final at Hampden Park in 1960 when Madrid defeated Eintracht Frankfurt 7 – 3 being, for many people, one of the finest team performances in the history of the game.
Although this level of achievement could not be sustained indefinitely, Real Madrid continued to be one of the world’s most successful clubs. It is often forgotten that the team that lifted the European Cup in 1966 was totally composed of nationally-born players; a feat not likely to be repeated by a team from any country, one might suspect. Despite twice winning the UEFA Cup and being runners-up twice in the European Cup Winners Cup, Real were not able to capture the European Cup again until Predrag Mijatovic’s goal earned them victory against Juventus in 1998.
Enter Florentino Pérez and the Galácticos
Then in July, 2000 Florentino Pérez, just after the Champions’ League had been captured again, became the club president and began to assemble the famous – or infamous – galáctico team. Having been elected largely because of his promise to sign Figo from Barcelona, he also added world stars such as Zidane, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo and, later, David Beckham. This extravagant spending was largely financed by a controversial deal which somehow managed to have the training ground ‘rezoned’ by the Madrid local government – clearing the club’s enormous debts in a massive political manoeuvre. Pérez also helped expand the Real Madrid ‘brand’ into a worldwide asset by taking the club on a variety of pre and post season tours to help develop their target commercial market.
Despite winning the Champions’ League in 2002, the Galácticos policy never fully succeeded and it was no real surprise that, after a rapid succession of managers had come and gone, Pérez himself was replaced as president in July 2006 by Ramón Calderón. His first actions were to install Fabio Capello as manager and former player Predrag Mijatovic as director of football. Capello managed to repeat his feat of 1997 – winning the league and then being sacked for not producing an attractive enough style of play. His successor, another former player, Bernd Schuster, won the league in his first season – the 31st title for the club; the first consecutive league title winners for 18 seasons; and a record number of points for La Liga compiled in the process.
In 2009 Florentino Pérez again became president and carried on where he’d left off by buying Kaká from Milan and later Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United for a record £80 million. Signing José Mourinho as his coach in in May 2010 and spending obscene amounts of money on his first team squad reaped rewards in the 2011–12 season when Real Madrid finally managed to beat Barcelona to the league title for a record 32nd time.
Love them or hate them, there seems little doubt that Real Madrid will continue to battle it out with Barca for the national title for the foreseeable future and continue to try to attract the best players so that it can return to what its supporters see as its rightful place as the world’s most successful football club, as well as its wealthiest. For a more in depth account of Real Madrid’s history take a look at the Wikipedia article on the subject. And if you’d like to delve deeper in the club’s past get hold of a copy of Phil Ball’s “White Storm: 100 Years of Real Madrid“.