At Real Madrid, the Champions League Can Still Slip Away

Why he was prepared to do that can, in part, be gleaned from Real Madrid’s balance sheet. The club is drowning in debt, behind on its salary bill — another six-monthly installment of player salaries is due on June 30 — and hamstrung by the costs of renovations to its stadium, the Bernabéu. There is a loan from Providence, an American hedge fund, to pay back. There are transfer fees outstanding. Real Madrid, put simply, needed the money.

But Pérez’s rationale can be seen, too, in the identity of those teams hoping to beat Real Madrid to the Champions League trophy in Istanbul next month: Chelsea, underwritten by the private wealth of a Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich; Manchester City, turned into a contender by its state backers in Abu Dhabi; Paris St.-Germain, the team that bought Neymar, financed by Qatar.

This is the new world order that Pérez has long feared, coming to pass. He knows that Real Madrid cannot compete for resources with these teams, no matter how often the Spanish government agrees to buy its training facility. It only has so many training facilities to sell, after all, and besides, in a world in which P.S.G. can pay $258 million for Neymar — a fee paid, to some extent, with the specific aim of distorting the transfer market — even that may not be enough.

It is hard to have too much sympathy. “They have to control costs, not increase income,” Javier Tebas, the president of La Liga, said last week. It was a sensible sentiment; if Real Madrid, like Barcelona, cannot pay the salaries or the transfer fees of Europe’s rising powers, then they should cut their cloth accordingly.

Both clubs have frittered away hundreds of millions of euros on poor signings and inflated salaries; neither has the sort of coherent vision for their future that Manchester City, say, has carefully (and expensively) nurtured. Their crisis is in no small part of their own making. They could start again, trust in youth, run themselves more sustainably, and still enjoy the vast advantages conferred on them by their revenues.

But that, at Real Madrid, is easier said than done. It is not a club that will accept second best. Pérez knows that the continued popularity of his presidency rests on his ability to deliver “a time of total glory,” as he said in the aftermath of the club’s 13th Champions League trophy, now three years past.

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