Real Madrid's Many Bright Lights Not Shining as a Group

By Mark Zeigler San Diego Union-Tribune - The final whistle sounded and to a man they broke into wide smiles. They hugged. They high-fived. They patted each other on the back. They laughed.

Four unanswered goals in less than 60 minutes had given Real Madrid a 4-2 win over AS Roma in the UEFA Champions League yesterday erasing a horrifying 2-0 deficit in the opening 21 minutes and erasing the memories of a stretch of poor form not seen in these parts in decades (and maybe ever). The Bernabeu crowd roared. The "galacticos" were back.

They hope.

There might not be a more confounding story in sports today. No professional team in any country in any sport is stocked with more superstars than Real Madrid an embarrassment of riches that is equal parts humbling and frightening. Luis Figo. Zinedine Zidane. Ronaldo. David Beckham. Michael Owen. Raul. Roberto Carlos.

In 2002 Real Madrid won the UEFA Champions League and did it with a flair and dominance commensurate with its haughty expectations. People saw Zidane score the decisive goal in the Champions League final – an acrobatic shoulder-high left-footed volley that ranks among the greatest goals of all time – and merely shrugged. What else did you expect?

Which makes what has happened over the past four months that much more unfathomable. Real Madrid closed last season with five straight losses. The start to the 2004-05 Spanish season (four goals scored in five games) is the team's worst in 20 years and entering yesterday's match against Roma it had lost three of four overall.

Real Madrid is on its fourth coach in 15 months.

The players are bickering in the locker room.

They are struggling against teams whose entire salary is less than a single galactico.

They are living breathing exponents of the tired slogan about how there is no "I" in team or in soccer (or in their case futbol).

It's hard to determine what the low point was assuming of course Real Madrid has indeed reached it. Some will say the 3-0 Champions League loss at Germany's Bayer Leverkusen two weeks ago that easily could have been 6-0 and that prompted Diego Maradona watching on TV on the other side of the equator to say: "The galacticos aren't more than a band of stray dogs. I felt embarrassed watching them."

Others will say it was the 1-0 loss to Espanyol four days later that led to the resignation of coach Jose Antonio Camacho who had replaced Carlos Quieroz who had replaced Vicente del Bosque.

"I don't have a magic wand said Mariano Garcia Remon Camacho's assistant who reluctantly agreed to take over. "It is the players who are the leading artists in this show."

The whole "galacticos" idea – of aligning the galaxy's best soccer players on the same team – was hatched by Florentino Perez when he was voted club president in 2000. He ran on a platform of luring Portuguese midfielder Luis Figo to Real Madrid from bitter rival Barcelona offering to personally pay for every season-ticket holder's seat if he didn't deliver. He was elected; he quickly bought Figo from Barcelona for $56 million.

In 2001 he bought Zidane from Italy's Juventus for $66 million.

In 2002 he bought Ronaldo from Inter Milan for $44 million.

In 2003 he bought Beckham from Manchester United for $41 million.

Perez was up for election last summer and opponents using the five-game losing streak as evidence pointed out that the collection of offensive firepower was no good unless you had gritty defenders behind them. Perez won in a landslide and to his credit spent $55 million on defenders Walter Samuel and Jonathan Woodgate.

He also bought glamour-boy forward Michael Owen from Liverpool. Couldn't resist.

"A galactico a year Perez explained.

The problem is that Perez is juggling three plates – trying to make money through jersey sales in Europe and Asia trying to please the club's demanding fans with entertaining soccer and trying to win. One of the plates was bound to hit the ground sooner or later and one did.

Writes England's Telegraph newspaper: "The Galactico experiment was beautiful but flawed. It stole the soul of a great organization and handed it to half-a-dozen superstars thus emasculating the manager and marginalizing the home-grown players. It is about presidential worship locker-room hierarchies and celebrity at all cost."

But Perez presses on insisting he will not abandon his grand plan. When he took over the club had annual revenues of $170 million and was $192 million in debt; the projected revenues for the current season are $369 million with zero debt. And put Zidane and Ronaldo and Figo and Beckham on the same plot of grass and chances are they will play entertaining soccer.

Now all they have to do is win.

"It isn't fun playing for any team when things aren't going well says Beckham who was booed last week even after scoring on one of his vintage bending free kicks. "But we know that we've got some of the best players in the world and we can play the sort of football that has never been seen before . . . Maybe people should just relax a little bit."

Other News:

Wayne Rooney: The 18-year-old forward made his debut for Manchester United yesterday against Turkey's Fenerbahce in the UEFA Champions League. Has a hat trick in a 6-2 win.

Club America: Mexico's richest club just can't get it right. Coach Oscar Ruggeri resigns after starting the season 2-3-1. Mario Carillo takes over and loses his debut 4-1 to Necaxa.

Tim Howard Kasey Keller: The U.S. goalkeepers for the recent World Cup qualifiers are both on the bench for their English clubs Howard at Manchester United Keller at Tottenham.

Huh? The soccer world is still scratching its head at Chivas USA's choice of Thomas Rongen who doesn't speak Spanish to coach an MLS expansion franchise that will market to Mexican-Americans and use Spanish as its primary language. In Thursday's introductory news conference Rongen pronounced the last name of Chivas USA co-owner Antonio Cue as "q" instead of the proper "kway." As New England Revolution president Sunil Gulati told the Boston Herald: "I think generally people are a little surprised not because of Thomas but because they've been pushing forthright with the language thing." One theory is that Rongen was hired to lend expertise in the idiosyncrasies of MLS but is ultimately being set up as a fall guy if Chivas USA has a slow start as expansion teams almost inevitably do. The assistant coach assigned to him is former Chivas goalkeeper Javier "Zully" Ledesma who knows nothing about MLS but would be a natural midseason replacement for Rongen – and a much more familiar face to Hispanic media and fans. And if Rongen succeeds coaching players he can't talk to well then Chivas USA bosses will declare themselves geniuses.

Mac is back: Lost in the euphoria over the U.S. women's 4-3 win against Iceland in the opening game of their "Fan Celebration Tour" in Rochester N.Y. on Saturday night was this tidbit: The winning goal came off a corner kick . . . by Shannon MacMillan? MacMillan was controversially cut from the Olympic team last summer and the "celebration" part of the tour is supposed to refer to the Olympic gold medal. But needing bodies because players are either hurt out of shape or with their college teams U.S. national coach April Heinrichs swallowed hard and summoned MacMillan for at least three matches including Sunday's game in Portland (where MacMillan went to college). The tour has had mixed results so far. The opener sold out weeks in advance and at 14870 was the largest crowd ever to watch a soccer match at Rochester's Frontier Field. The second of 10 matches is tonight at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh also vs. Iceland where organizers are expecting about 5000 in the 64450-seat stadium.

ONLY IN SOCCER: American forward Clint Mathis now playing for German club Hannover 96 subbed into Saturday's game in the 80th minute and scored the winning goal against Schalke 04 in the 82nd. His celebration? Running past the Hannover bench glaring at coach Ewald Lienen grabbing his crotch and then tapping his wrist. The clear message: You should have put me in sooner you idiot. Perhaps the most amazing part is that Mathis who acquired quite a reputation for his outbursts in MLS still plays for Hannover. Wrote German newspaper Bild: "A provocation like that is something a Bundesliga coach rarely has to put up with."