A minor side note to Real Madrid’s Champions League success was the absence of James Rodríguez, the Colombian who remains the sixth most expensive player in history and yet was unable to even make the Spanish giant’s match day squad, yet alone the first team itself.
It was a decision that raised few eyebrows and seemed very much in keeping with the playmaker’s three abortive years at the Bernabéu, a period during which only Carlo Ancelotti gave him regular football – and even that seemed more of a sop to his president.
James’ failure to forge a career for himself at Real Madrid is down to him being a player who performs a role that was already very well catered for by even better players. It’s not any great indictment on the player himself – he remains an elegant and talented attacking-midfielder or withdrawn attacker with a wand of a left foot and an ability to pass the ball to high levels of quality and consistency. The problem lies more with the decision making process at Real Madrid and why the powers that be thought he was the answer to a question that no-one was asking in the first place.
Buy in haste and repent at leisure is an apt maxim for clubs dazzled by players who put in very strong performances at a major summer international tournament – as James Rodríguez did for Colombia in 2014.
The World Cup in particular seems to incite a collective sense of transfer psychosis causing clubs to clamber over each other to overpay for a flavour-of-the-month player who enjoys a few good performances in a tournament that’s much higher in profile than it is in quality.
Didi: The Ethiopian Prince
Real Madrid have some notable form here, never more so than in the period immediate following the 1958 World Cup – for 2014’s James Rodríguez of Colombia, read 1958’s Didi (Brazil) and Agne Simonsson (Sweden). Real Madrid of 1958 was a team that featured numerous world stars like Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Hector Rial, Raymond Kopa, Paco Gento and José Santamaria, so only the most talented of newcomers could stand a chance of flourishing in such exalted company.
Pelé may have been Brazil’s breakthrough player in Sweden (and Madrid would make repeated attempts over the years to bring him to Spain,) but the mastermind of the World Cup win was their captain, Didi. A long-established star for both Botafogo and his country, Didi was the man who bent the tempo of matches to his will. A consummate passer of the ball over short and long distances, he was particularly renowned for his ability from set pieces and even boasted his own trademark dipping free-kick style named the folha seca.
Then Madrid president Santiago Bernabéu pressed ahead with the deal to acquire him and Didi arrived in early 1959 to great fanfare. New player unveilings at Real Madrid then as now were extravagant, showy events and Didi was introduced to Madrid’s supporters as ‘a world champion and the world’s greatest player’. The Brazilian was 26 years old and, significantly, six years younger than Di Stefano whom he was expected to initially complement then ultimately replace.
Madrid’s succession policy would be dashed to pieces on the unyielding rock that was their Argentinian playmaker, however. A fiercely proud and deeply obstinate man still playing at the peak of his considerable powers, Di Stefano openly bristled at the very thought he might be eased towards the exit by the new incumbent.
On Didi’s first day at the club a photographer asked the two South American midfielders to pose shaking hands for the camera. Di Stefano took Didi’s hand and without the remotest flicker of a smile said quietly to his new teammate: “I hear you’re my successor. Well, you’re too old and you’re not good enough”.
This precipitated a self-confessed campaign by Di Stefano to undermine the Brazilian at every opportunity, one aided in large part by Didi’s own struggles to adapt to Madrid’s complex team hierarchy. For much of his career Didi had been at the fulcrum of whichever team he was playing for and teammates were selected based upon how they dovetailed with his playing style.
This arrangement had strong parallels with the earlier careers of his new teammates Puskas and Kopa, both of whom had similarly been the creative hubs of their respective club sides before moving to the Spanish capital. That, that pair had prospered in Madrid came about only because they were willing to curb their natural games and defer to the seniority of Di Stefano.
Didi either did not realise he would have to adapt to suit this structure, or he wasn’t capable of doing so. Certainly the pace and the physicality of the Spanish game appeared problematic for him and his confidence wasn’t helped by Di Stefano repeatedly grumbling at him for slowing Madrid’s build up – interestingly an accusation levelled sometimes at James too. When the Argentinian started to contemptuously take possession of the ball off the foot of his Brazilian teammate during games, it was clear there was a major problem. The two players were competing rather than complementing each other and this was a war that could have only one winner.
After just 19 appearances Madrid’s management concluded that Didi couldn’t flourish in a team cast almost entirely in Di Stefano’s image. The Brazilian was loaned to Valencia and it was no coincidence that he started to show some of his World Cup form playing again for a team that was happy to look to him for a creative lead. Valencia seemed enthusiastic to sign Didi permanently, but Madrid would only sanction a return to Botafogo. His time in Spain lasted less than 12 months but Didi prospered back home and would remain a key figure for Brazil when they retained the World Cup in 1962. Real Madrid found a better midfield balance with the arrival of the younger, stronger and less stellar Luis Del Sol from Real Betis as his replacement.
The Powerhouse Agne Simonsson
Real Madrid’s second Galactico signing from the 1958 World Cup was Agne Simonsson, a clever ball-playing centre-forward as adept at creating goals as he was scoring them. Simonsson had caught the eye with fine form and goals all the way through to the final against Brazil, but with Didi taking the available foreigner slot the Swede would have to wait before his Madrid move was finalised. That wait did not take as long as he might have expected.
While Didi’s career with Madrid was floundering, the 23-year-old Örgryte forward was going from strength to strength that same year winning the 1959 Swedish Golden Ball and being voted Sweden’s Sportsman of the Year. The highlight of his season came at Wembley with two well-taken goals and an all-round outstanding performance for his national side as they outclassed England.
Substantially enriched by the sizeable £14,000 signing on fee he received for this first professional contract, Simonsson finally joined up with Madrid early in 1960 but soon faced the same daunting Di Stefano-shaped obstacle in his path that had reduced Didi to irrelevance.
The intention had been to make Simonsson Madrid’s main attacking focus and allow Di Stefano to concentrate on playing a deeper role to preserve his ageing legs, but this was given short-shrift by a player who remained Madrid’s best forward as well as their best midfielder.
While not actively hostile to Simonsson in the same way he had been with Didi, Di Stefano still rendered him a peripheral figure by continually making runs into the same areas of the pitch the Swede occupied. Simonsson made just three appearances before dropping to the bench and spending the following season out on loan at Real Sociedad. By 1963 he too, like Didi, was back in his homeland at his former club with only his bank account richer for his Spanish experience.
SEE ALSO: Combining the Old Lady and Los Blancos
As with Colombia’s mercurial James Rodríguez, both of these post-1958 acquisitions were the right players at the right time for the wrong club. Di Stefano’s dictatorial command over Real Madrid’s team was well-established and readily accepted as a small price to pay for the phenomenal success he inspired. Bringing in the right new players was a strategy that needed to be executed with delicacy, but Santiago Bernabéu – like his modern-day successor Florentino Perez – eschewed smart team balancing for some quick World Cup driven headline grabbing.