When Real Madrid went Dutch

Alex Caple

The Galacticos project ended in 2006 having led to a level of success that people still aren’t sure of. Off went Zidane and Ronaldo, Florentino Perez left for the shadows and Ramon Calderon took over as President of the world’s biggest club. The most famous transfer policy ever made way for a new one: why nota Dutch experiment?

It’s important to make clear that this wasn’t a revolution in the way of Barcelona’s in 1997 that saw the Catalonians appoint Louis van Gaal as manager and promptly sign Dutch players all over the pitch. That side was built around a few superstars in Rivaldo and Figo, supplemented by footballers that van Gaal knew how to work with as he set about implementing a strict style of play. It was a team formed in his vision, with his players, with his style. Two league titles in his first two seasons followed before the inevitable Louis van Gaal downfall.

No, this was more a case of a football team having success and then maybe getting a little carried away – which admittedly isn’t the most surprising accusation of Real Madrid.

The Calciopoli scandal that hit Italian football in 2006 affected everything, but Real Madrid arguably benefitted from it more than any club that wasn’t Internazionale. Fabio Capello left the relegated Juventus to join Real Madrid, bringing former Brazil captain Emerson and newly-World Cup-winning Italian captain Fabio Cannavaro with him.

The most important signing though (at least for the purpose of this article) was Ruud van Nistelrooy. It became obvious very fast that Ronaldo was on his way out; Capello didn’t trust him, especially given the huge doubts over his fitness.

The Brazilian had been the club’s top scorer every year since he arrived in 2002 but now needed replacing, and Real turned to Manchester United’s Dutch striker. Van Nistelrooy had been phased out of the team, falling out with Cristiano Ronaldo in Manchester and finding his very, very, very individualistic style clashing dramatically with the young counter-attacking team that Ferguson was building there.


Real paid €14m for the 30-year-old striker – signing an unwanted, ageing striker on the cheap to lead their front line might be the ultimate sign that this wasn’t the Real Madrid of Florentino Perez. Mahamadou Diarra for €26m and Jose Antonio Reyes on loan completed the summer’s transfer business – the most ordinary, sensible transfer window that Real Madrid had ever managed.

The need for change had come about because of Barcelona’s ascension to the top of European football with their Champions League victory the previous season. On top of that, Real only had a Supercopa de Espana to celebrate in the previous three years. It certainly seems quite strange to look at that situation and see that the reaction to it was a ‘normalisation’ of the club, bringing it more in line with how other football clubs operate – especially as the in vogue method nowadays is to break the world transfer record.

But it worked. It worked incredibly. Capello spent the entire season trying to de-Galacticise the team, coming under intense pressure for not playing Ronaldo or Beckham as much as people wanted. Ronaldo was sold to AC Milan in the winter and Beckham agreed to a pre-contract with LA Galaxy in January; the pressure was relieved a bit, but not too much.

Regardless, Capello led Real Madrid to La Liga title in his first season with Real (strangely enough, it came exactly ten years after he did it the first time), but that first season would turn become his sole season of his second spell. Capello left the club in June 2007, having been criticised for his style of play and misuse of the superstars – you can take the Galacticos out of Real Madrid, but the expectations stay the same.

Out of the transfers though, Van Nistelrooy was the biggest success. He scored 25 La Liga goals as Real won the title, seemingly inspiring something.

A Dutch player had led Real Madrid to their first title in years, so just imagine how successful they’d be with several! The logic was flawless, and Royton Drenthe, Wesley Sneijder, and Arjen Robben joined Los Blancos in the summer of ’07. The three of them also represented the three biggest clubs in the Eredivisie, with Drenthe signing from Feyenoord, Sneijder from Ajax, and Robben from PSV (via Chelsea, admittedly, but that ruins the three clubs thing). The three very highly-rated midfielders cost €77m between them, with none of them over 23 years old – an entirely logical, practical piece of business.

Bernd Schuster had replaced Capello following a period of relative success in charge of Getafe. Things went well once again and Real Madrid, with their four attacking Dutchmen, retained La Liga. The direct correlation here between winning La Liga and signing Dutch players was clear to see – or at least was to the transfer gurus at Real; Rafael van der Vaart was signed from Hamburg for €13m in 2008.

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Sneijder, Robben, and van der Vaart represented the brightest lights of Dutch football at the time. The three of them, and in particularly van der Vaart, had been about as highly rated as young players as it gets. Real now had all three, offering potentially as creative a midfield as was conceivable. Indeed, if anyone had suggested back in 2003 that Real Madrid would be building their attack around those three players, it would have been taken for granted that a period of immense dominance was underway.

What happened in 08/09 shook up Real Madrid. They started the season so poorly that Schuster was fired in December. They had already lost nine times by then, and he was replaced by Juande Ramos. Yes, that seemed just as strange at the time. Ramos had been fantastic with Sevilla a few years prior, but he was joining Real Madrid having just been sacked as Tottenham Hotspur manager after getting just two points from his first eight games. Not that he was the only addition to the Real Madrid side. They, of course, signed a Dutch player: this time it was prolific goalscorer Klass-Jan Huntelaar from Ajax.

Things turned around spectacularly, for a bit. They dropped just two points in the next 18 La Liga games as they fought for the title. Then May 2nd saw a 6-2 loss to Barcelona, followed by losses to Valencia, Villarreal, Mallorca, and Osasuna as Real Madrid’s title defence ended with five straight defeats.

2006 had seen Real Madrid change their transfer policy dramatically thanks to a series of factors. 2009 did the same. Ramon Calderon had been forced to resign as President early in the year, while the club had seen a dramatic drop off in quality that season – finishing trophyless for the first time in three years. The biggest factor, however, was once again in Catalonia.

Barcelona, now under Pep Guardiola, had reacted to Real Madrid’s success with a revolution, becoming the most revered club side on the planet with their style of play and incredible success of their own. They flew to the league title, lifted the Copa del Rey, and then beat Manchester United to win the Champions League. Lionel Messi was becoming the best player in the world, their homegrown talent changing the world’s perception of the game.

Real Madrid reacted how Rea Madrid react. Florentino Perez returned as President on the back of more of his promises. The Dutch experiment was done with after a trophyless season as Robben, Sneijder, and even Huntelaar were shipped out. Van Nistelrooy, the player who had started it all, would leave the following winter. The experiment had delivered two La Liga titles in three seasons, but it just wasn’t Real Madrid. Not enough style, not enough stardom, not enough glamour. No, there was only one way out of this.

€35m, €65m, €95m. The Galacticos were back.

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