Barcelona makes a lot of things look easy. That’s the prerogative of a true sporting dynasty: You become a model, and the way you do things is held up as the most natural and correct – a paradigm. Replicating it is the hard part. Especially when you lack the talent and resources and money and cachet and history and mystique.
For the better part of the last decade, Real Madrid, one of the very few clubs in the world that does have all the necessary assets and attributes to challenge their historic archrivals, has tried to catch up. But since Pep Guardiola took the Barca job in the 2008-09 season, the whites have won the league once and the Champions League once, while the Catalans have been Spanish champions five times and European winners thrice.
The thing is, if you inspect them closely, there is almost nothing separating the two clubs. Real is the richest club in the world, scratching out slightly more revenue than Barcelona. They both have gargantuan followings around the globe and fill their cavernous stadiums. They can buy pretty much any player they like, provided the other club doesn’t beat them to him. And their academies are some of the best in the world, consistently delivering elite talent for the first team.
So why has one team been markedly more successful over the last 7½ years?
And here’s the funny thing about this crucial element to soccering success: You have far more control over it than most any other factor in an unpredictable game played with a round ball.
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After Zinedine Zidane’s Jan. 4 appointment, Real Madrid is on its seventh manager since Guardiola took the reins in Catalonia. But after Pep walked out following the 2011-12 campaign, Barca’s next two managers lasted just a single season apiece – because of sickness in the since-deceased Tito Vilanova’s case and the underwhelming performance in Tata Martino’s – before Luis Enrique took over. Barcelona has had three club presidents in that span; Real two.
These aren’t enormous differences. Real has known more turnover in the dugout, but less in the boardroom – especially considering that current chief Florentino Perez is now in his second stint in the presidency.
They have had comparable talent – if Barca perhaps had the slightly better individual players, Real compensated for that with depth the Catalans couldn’t match, especially during the recent transfer ban – and faced the same obsessive scrutiny from their local press. Given those similar conditions, the difference lays not so much in the number of managers they’ve employed but the way they have been allowed to work.
At Barcelona, the manager is the keeper of the club philosophy, guardian of its identity and head of a think tank on best soccer practices. At Real Madrid, he’s a figurehead who strives to make his lineups independently while Perez exerts enormous influence over the locker room behind the stage.
When Barca hires managers, it looks for ideological descendants, or at least sympathizers, of a playing style they have developed and sharpened over the last four decades – since Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff came to town and fashioned the club into a bastion of soccer intellectualism.
Their managers are fellow travelers, as it were. Ideologues of a piece with a long line of predecessors, buying into the same manifesto.
At Real, Perez invariably alternates between hiring managers who will do as he says – and plays the signings he has overpaid for, regardless of their fit in the squad – and ones who are more independent with promising ideas. But then he either gets fed up with the yes-man manager performing poorly (in large part because he’s fielding Perez players) or with the own-man manager doing well but not listening to him. Because other than Jose Mourinho, who refuses to return, Perez has never trusted a manager to run the club the president considers his own.
Whereas Barcelona has traditionally had a distinct way of playing and a clear definition of the kinds of players it needs to accommodate that demanding style, the closest Perez has ever come to formulating a blueprint was “Zidanes y Pavones.” That was the notion of bringing in superstars – or “galacticos” – and supplementing them with academy produce like poor Francisco Pavon, a fairly unremarkable defender who is now best remembered for his president’s unsophisticated attempt at crafting a creed.
This translates to the coaching dugout. Managers aren’t selected to their fit with the non-existent club philosophy but how likely Perez happens to think they are to succeed and mesh with him, rather than the team itself. It isn’t terribly surprising, then, that for all of the galacticos that have come, Real has won just three league titles in the 13 years that Perez has been president in his two eras. (In the three years that he was gone, Real won La Liga twice.)
Real and Perez’s best chance of closing the gap seems to be to let Zidane – the closest thing the club has had to a mainstay in the locker room, having mostly been attached to the club in some way since 2001 – forge that philosophy.
He has gotten the early results to justify that mandate, although he remains largely untested and now commands a mere month of total managerial experience. From appearances – and those are always only just that at Real, it seems – he has soothed a simmering locker room and found some (interim) solutions to the team’s on-field issues.
But enabling and empowering Zidane requires Perez to loosen the iron grip he has wrapped around his club. It entails a rethinking of who the leader is of the club’s core business: playing soccer. At Barca, it’s the manager, functioning in the service of the philosophy; at Real, it’s the president.
Real Madrid has had a lot of very good managers in recent years, but none have left a legacy beyond their results that has lasted even weeks into the next man’s tenure. Yet every Barcelona manager over that time has made a mark in some way and managed to weave ideas into the club fabric – even the few that failed.
That is, at its base, the difference between the juggernauts of Spanish and continental soccer. And until that gap is closed somewhat, the one in the standings will probably favor Barca more often than not, even if all else is equal.