The ultimate Galactico: How Zidane's €75m move to Madrid helped change the modern game

The French World Cup winner, now assistant coach to Carlo Ancelotti, was the cornerstone of the first Florentino Perez project and a new strategy in football and marketing

By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer

Florentino Perez peered into the past. His inspiration: Real Madrid’s revered side of the late 1950s and 1960s – legends like Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Paco Gento. The year was 2000 and the new president sought something similar: a team filled with the world’s finest footballers. Luis Figo lit the touchpaper with his explosive move from Barcelona that summer, but the Galacticos’ great star was to be Zinedine Zidane.

Florentino flexed his muscles. Juventus tired in telling Madrid that there was “no way” the Spanish side would sign Zidane. But Florentino found a way; Perez coincided with Zizou at a gala in Monte Carlo and passed the player a serviette, upon which was scribbled a question: ‘Do you want to play for Real Madrid?’ Zidane was passed a pen, he wrote ‘Yes’ and the French World Cup winner moved to Spain in a €75 million move in the summer of 2001.

Flown in to a military airport to avoid the expectant Madrid media, Zidane bemused his new audience as he spoke in French at his unveiling. Nevertheless, as both he and his president addressed the press pack, the message was clear: Madrid were building the best team in the world, with the planet’s finest footballers. And Zidane was the cornerstone of the Perez project, Part 1.

It was a bold, brave strategy. Previously, clubs like Juventus, Barcelona and Manchester United had been able to hold on to their best players with relative ease when other top teams came calling. But the Perez plan to make Madrid the most glamorous and grandiose club on and off the pitch was appealing to the world’s top talents – and there was plenty of money to make it happen.

Zidane’s first two seasons were a success: a stunning strike from the Frenchman himself delivered La Novena – a ninth title in the European Cup/Champions League in 2001-02. The Intercontinental Cup came next in the summer and then La Liga in 2002-03. Suddenly, Madrid were the dominant force Florentino had hoped they would be – even if the president had only been in charge for the last of the club’s three Champions League wins in five years.

Dubious decisions followed, however, with Vicente del Bosque allowed to leave at the end of his contract in 2003 and defensive midfielder Claude Makelele sold to Chelsea. The plan to bring on young players alongside star signings, dubbed Zidanes y Pavones, also failed as the homegrown talents turned out to be of insufficient quality. Madrid went into decline and, ultimately, Perez departed under a cloud in 2006.

Zidane’s final campaign came in that very season and proved something of a disappointment; at almost 34 the midfielder looked slow and beyond the peak of his powers, although he did go on to shine at the World Cup in Germany, leading France to the brink of a second title before his ill-fated headbutt on Marco Materazzi and defeat on penalties to Marcello Lippi’s Italy.

Perez, however, has long maintained that his policy of signing the world’s most expensive players is the correct one. “One hundred million can be cheap and €20 million can be expensive,” he said in 2009. “Zidane cost €73 million and he was the cheapest player we signed …”

The construction magnate was referring to monies accrued through merchandising, shirt sales, lucrative pre-season friendlies, image rights and so on. Zidane, on arrival, was the world’s best player and the Frenchman made Madrid a greater global brand. So even though success on the pitch was at a premium, the former France captain is estimated to have paid back his transfer fee, and more, over the course of his five-year spell – all through merchandising and sponsorship.

Seven years on, Madrid find themselves in a somewhat similar situation: Florentino presides over the world’s richest club, yet success on the pitch has not quite lived up to expectations. Just one Liga title, one Copa del Rey and a Spanish Supercopa in Perez’s second spell is insufficient return for such significant investment. But the president will not be swayed. For Figo and Zidane in his first spell, read Ronaldo and Gareth Bale this time around. “The best players are not expensive,” the club chief reiterated in the summer, as Madrid set out to spend €100m on the Welshman.

It all started with Figo back in 2000, but Zidane was, and remains, the ultimate Galactico for Florentino. The Frenchman’s signing was a huge statement of intent and defined a strategy which has changed the face of modern football – off the pitch. And with Zizou back alongside coach Carlo Ancelotti and being groomed to lead the club in future, Perez will now hope he helps Madrid mark an epoque on the pitch, too.

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