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Soccer

Real Madrid Is The Good Guy

11:09 AM EST on January 24, 2024

Real Madrid players celebrates after Daniel Carvajal goal during the LaLiga EA Sports match between Real Madrid CF and UD Almeria at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on January 21, 2024 in Madrid, Spain.
Photo by Helios de la Rubia/Real Madrid via Getty Images

In The Invention of Argentina, Nicolas Shumway lays out his idea of “guiding fictions.” Guiding fictions are the foundational narratives and ideals around which a social institution, in Shumway’s case a nation, is formed. They are fictions because they are unprovable and, while they often purport to originate in deep traditions of an imagined past, they are commonly wholly invented. Nevertheless, they serve as guides for self-definition, self-conception, and future behavior, and by force of dissemination and adoption, they make themselves real. As Shumway put it, guiding fictions “are necessary to give individuals a sense of nation, peoplehood, collective identity, and national purpose,” without which a society cannot stand.

Sports teams are in a sense nations unto themselves, and as such are as dependent on guiding fictions as any other. What is a new coach’s press conference promise to impose upon their team a certain playing and cultural identity if not a list of guiding fictions awaiting implementation? Perhaps what most separates soccer as practiced around the world from the big American sports is the unparalleled rootedness of soccer’s guiding fictions. What it means to play the Brazilian or English or Ajax or River Plate way is something specific and long-standing, something first dreamed up and then made real over decades and decades, in a way that the particular nuances and relative newness of American sports teams can’t quite match.

Few guiding fictions in soccer are as clear and well-established as Real Madrid’s. It can be summed up in a word: winning. A fuller explication only requires two more: winning with superstars. The ethos of Real Madrid—one founded in the 1950s during the club’s dominance of the early years of what would become club soccer’s most hallowed tournament, the European Cup, and as reinforced over subsequent generations of amazing Blanco teams—is to sign as many of the best and biggest names as possible, and with that team conquer Europe to continually reaffirm its position as the best and most famous club in the world. So much of what makes the club what it is—the winning; the ability to attract and then bring in superstars in their prime; the consistently short tenures of its managers, who are at all times treated as subservient to the talent on the field; the weight of the shirt, which on some players is an unbearable ballast and on others a suit of armor bestowing invulnerability; the ruthlessly demanding fans who countenance nothing but perfection; the distrust of its own academy products; the air of aristocracy and entitlement and greatness and fame that defines madridismo—finds its source in the guiding fictions legendary club president Santiago Bernabéu wrote and then reified.

Clearly, Real Madrid’s guiding fictions have been good for the club. A prerequisite to winning is the belief that winning is possible, and Real’s decision to take that a step further, to hold winning as not just possible but obligatory, surely helps create the conditions of possibility for the preposterous successes of, for instance, the last decade. But guiding fictions are necessarily limited. This limitation on the kinds of stories that tend to be told about a club can sometimes cause notable aspects of a team like Real Madrid to go under-acknowledged. I believe this effect is why maybe the core identity of the present Real team has gone largely ignored, due to the way it actively goes against what the Blancos usually are thought to be.

Narratively speaking, Real Madrid is most readily identified as the archwinner, the beautiful game’s stiff-backed aristocrat, the world’s one true hegemon, a group of stars with such galactic ambitions that concerns of the merely human level fail to even register. Ethics? Ethics apply only to the weak who lack the boldness to seize what they want by any means necessary. Aesthetics? Aesthetics is comforting claptrap invented by losers to veil the reality that what is truly, undisputedly beautiful in this world is victory. History? History is to be ignored today to better focus on tomorrow’s triumph, after which the story of yesterday can be written by the winner’s own pen.

These attributes mean Real Madrid is traditionally cast in the role of the bad guy—not (necessarily) bad in terms of evil, but in terms of hatred, which is the only thing serial, dynastic, unapologetic winning inspires more of than devotion. In many ways, Madrid’s present iteration does fit the club’s traditional mold. It is in possession of several of the best and most popular players in the world, it has in the recent past won oodles of trophies, and the team carries itself with all the haughtiness and entitlement implied by that ability, fame, and success. However, several facets of this Real team fly in the face of the villain archetype. In fact, under its current conditions and in light of the greater soccer scene, Real Madrid right now should be regarded as something closer to the hero that has come to save modern soccer from itself.

Much of Real Madrid’s good-guy bonafides come from how the club stands in contrast to the prevailing current of negative forces buffeting soccer today. For instance, while the Merengues are of course a member of Europe’s upper class, they no longer count as one of the elite of the elite in terms of financial might. The oil-money clubs of Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City, and Newcastle United, plus the American FIRE industry vampires that own Chelsea, Manchester United, and Liverpool, all have access to cash reserves that far outstrip what Real Madrid has on hand. Not all of those clubs spend with equal abandon, but they all have the money to do so if they see fit. Madrid, meanwhile, operates under legitimate constraints.

The neverending chase for Kylian Mbappé is instructive. In prior eras a player of Mbappé’s stature leaving PSG for Real, should Real come knocking, would’ve been a fait accompli. But today, the bottomless coffers of Qatar have built what has so far proven an impregnable golden cage around the French forward. Madrid’s very public attempts to court him over recent seasons have increasingly felt like theater: like the club was using the rumors to burnish its image as a mover and shaker at the very top of the market, and selling that image to a fanbase desperately clinging to the old world order in which that was indeed true, while the club itself knew full well that it did not actually have the wherewithal to compete with the kind of money PSG is able to throw around.

In truth, Real's old Galácticos policy is largely defunct. Where the club used to sign the world’s best players in their primes for exorbitant transfer fees by the handful, the Blancos’ two most recent acquisitions that fit that bill came in 2013 with Gareth Bale and 2019 with Eden Hazard. In place of the Galácticos-type signings, which in the post-COVID world are reserved almost exclusively for the aforementioned cadre of oil and finance clubs, Madrid now focuses on scouring the globe for proto-superstars. Sure, Vinícius, Rodrygo, Eduardo Camavinga, Aurélien Tchouaméni, Éder Militão, and Endrick were all expensive, but they were all brought in more as projects than finished articles. And even Jude Bellingham, who became a Blanco this past summer for a titanic fee, joined as a teenager with more future promise than realized success.

Real has navigated this slight but meaningful drop in status admirably. Its scouting department has a fantastic track record, scoring more big hits (Vini, Rodry, et. al.) than misses (Reinier, Luka Jovic). But signing young talents is only part of the battle; affording them the time, patience, and care with which they can grow into the players their potential indicates is even trickier business, and there the club deserves even more credit. Supplementing the youth movement is the club’s impeccable timing with its own veterans, whether it be letting go of aging core players at the right moment (Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, Casemiro) or choosing which of the old guys to continue banking on (Luka Modric, Toni Kroos). Real Madrid is usually held up as an example of how obscene wealth alone guarantees success, but this version of the club is an example of how spending money wisely rather than overextending yourself (*cough* Barcelona *cough*) can be the best way to keep up with the richer Joneses.

Regardless of how it’s assembled its rosters, Real Madrid has always been known as a players’ club. The traditional seasons of celebration in Madrid are spring and summer—the former for the lifting of the trophy with the big ears, the latter for the presentations of the team’s newly acquired superstars, who fill fans’ hearts with excitement for more of the former. On-field success is always attributed first and foremost to the players, and finding the solution to failure always starts with spending big to get better players.

This makes Real Madrid decidedly not a manager’s club. Coaching fiefdoms like Alex Ferguson’s at Manchester United, Arsène Wenger’s at Arsenal, Jürgen Klopp’s at Liverpool, or Pep Guardiola’s everywhere he’s been, are impossible in Madrid. As institutional practice the club simply does not grant managers that position of privilege over the players or the omnipotent club president, Florentino Pérez. As is proper of a club so obsessed with glitz, Real does like to hire coaches with big names and proven track records, but it is quick to fire any manager the moment results or the players themselves indicate that the coach has failed at his job of getting the most out of the players on hand. The choice between a manager or a disgruntled big-name player is almost never a hard choice in Madrid.

Carlo Ancelotti is in many ways the perfect Real Madrid coach. So much of the Real manager’s job is making sure both the bodies and egos of its star-laden roster are toned, massaged, and unimpeded by injury, and no one in the world is as good at maintaining good vibes amongst a group of alphas as Ancelotti. For as impressive as Ancelotti's career as a player was, coupled with his unmatched collection of Champions League trophies as a coach, it's impressive how the Italian evinces hardly any ego of his own. This is especially striking in our present paradigm, where managers have taken an unprecedented position of prominence in the game. So much of the chatter about the sport today focuses on managers and their domain of tactics. Thousands and thousands of words are spilled every day about the buildups of Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton, or the high press of Klopp’s Liverpool, or the radical formational experiments of Guardiola’s Man City, or the tactical shortcomings of Xavi’s Barcelona—most of it centering the coach as the team's protagonist.

The tactical side of the game and the manager’s role in implementing it are real, important, and fascinating aspects of the alchemy that goes into who wins a match or a tournament. But I do think there is a risk in going too far by exalting the figure of the manager to a position matching or sometimes even exceeding the position of the players.

As all the great managers themselves will attest, soccer belongs to the players. There is far more to learn and appreciate about a good team in the movements, choices, and actions of the players, individually and in concert, than there is in trying to divine the instructions the manager drew on the blackboard in the locker room before the game started. No amount of tactical wizardry can turn an untalented player or team into a great one, even if there are marginal gains to be found in putting players in certain setups that maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Alternatively, any old coach smart enough to get out of the way can ride to glory and silverware atop the crest formed by great players' own abilities. There’s an unfortunate strain to some of the tactics-focused consumption of the game that overlooks this inarguable fact that soccer is a players’ game, opting instead for a dehumanizing, managerial worldview that treats the people who actually do the things that matter as interchangeable cogs to be bartered, bought, sold, and plugged in or out, all under the orders of the benevolent authoritarians in the manager’s seat or in the boardroom.

Ancelotti is the antidote to this impersonal, automatized view of soccer that has become so prevalent. Where other coaches love to expound upon the intricacies of their tactical philosophies, Ancelotti is content to demur when asked about his role and instead take a backseat to his players’ efforts. He doesn’t fit neatly into any given school of thought, be it the positional or “relational” (a term I hate but a concept I mostly appreciate, though that’s for another day) varieties. Instead of starting from his preferred tactic and fitting the players into it, Ancelotti seems to work in the other direction; he assesses the players' own individual talents, determines where and alongside whom those talents might be best maximized, sees what emerges from the combination on the group level, and then fosters the best environment to empower the players to discover and express themselves as a coherent whole. This is how Ancelotti himself described how he differentiates his relaxed, non-dictatorial style of coaching to what is more commonly found—and more commonly praised—in the game:

I think the mistake that new generation coaches make is that they give too much information about the system on the ball. I think old school coaches like me prefer not to give too much information and allow freedom for creativity. I give instructions off the ball. It depends on the creativity of the player, if Vinícius or Rodrygo feels creative on the ball, I’m not going to tell him what to do. It’s an interpretation of how to play on the ball and I don’t want to remove anybody’s creativity.

It’s a refreshing approach, and it’s one that speaks volumes about Ancelotti’s confidence that he doesn’t feel the need to put his own work at the center of it all. His disinterest in personal aggrandizement also does a disservice to just how brilliant a coach you have to be to accomplish what Ancelotti has. In almost all endeavors, achieving simplicity is the most difficult thing there is. Ancelotti’s coaching style may not be the focal point of his teams’ successes, but it absolutely requires unparalleled amounts of knowledge, intuition, foresight, interpersonal tact, and training-ground sophistication to put together as many varied winners as Ancelotti has across his career.

And not only does Ancelotti’s Real Madrid win, it also plays some of the most gorgeous soccer on the planet. If the lack of an expressed conceptual superstructure in Ancelotti’s coaching style unfairly hinders his reputation as a tactician, then something similar prevents more widespread aesthetic appreciation for Real’s play.

Since Ancelotti returned to the club in 2021, Real Madrid has regularly played some of the most thrilling soccer in Europe. The key is in all that creativity he allows his players. What determines how Madrid progresses the ball up the field or where its attacks flow or how areas of the pitch are occupied and taken advantage of aren’t strict coaching edicts or specific scripts practiced by rote, but rather are matters left to the players themselves to decide. Empowered in this way, Real’s players are free to unleash the full breadth of their skill, intelligence, and creativity, inventing new solutions to the problems opponents pose with an assuredness, imagination, and technical mastery unmatched by any other team in the world.

Unlike a team like Manchester City, which has much more ordered and consistent attacking principles which seek to create a specific subset of situations that are then solved in a specific subset of ways, no two Real Madrid goals look the same. The players go where they want, try new things, and read and react to the particularities of the moment as they arise. It’s a collaborative, generative style that encourages the players to take risks, safe in the knowledge that, with their teammates’ skills there to augment their own and with the manager there to help and encourage it all, the benefits of trying difficult things outweigh the potential downsides. But because this more spontaneous style isn't as readily diagrammed with little lines drawn onto still images pointing out the team's triangulations and symmetries, it doesn't get the analysis or praise its effectiveness and elegance deserve.

I can and will point you to some highlights of the many beautiful goals Real has been scoring just recently, but it won't do much to capture what it is about the team that makes it so magical. It's not the highlights or the scoring statistics or even the win-loss record that best encapsulate the team; rather, it's found in Rodrygo crossing the pitch from his nominal right-side starting position to go play with Vinícius and Bellingham on the left, in a decision that feels as motivated by the desire to go have fun with the other geniuses as it is by the awareness of an ongoing match that needs winning. It's found in Kroos stepping up to his podium, placed, as always, a little bit up and to the left of the center circle, and from there conducting the Blanco orchestra like an infallible Kapellmeister. It's found in seven or eight Madrid players bunching together on one side of the field, flipping the ball between each other with totally improvised touches and movements in a tight space—in flagrant violation of several tenets of the tactics dogmatists' idolized "juego de posición" (written in Spanish for maximum pretension)—before Modric takes it and with the smaller toes on the outside of his right foot smites a pass down the opposite flank, where Fede Valverde barrels down after it. It's found in the increasing affinity Bellingham, Vini, and Rodry have developed with one another, notably in the two iconic Supercopa matches that served as the apotheosis of the trio's promise, after an initial start to the season when the three didn't seem to speak the same playing language. It's found in how one team can incorporate so many varied players, each with their own preferences—Kroos's positional stasis, Modric's pitch-spanning fluidity, Rodrygo's predilection for association and elaboration in close quarters, Vinícius's love of the open field, Bellingham's taste for verticality and directness—and create a whole that somehow accommodates all of it, maximizing the individuals and still adding up to more than the sum of its parts. Watching Real Madrid is watching a team create itself anew every time out, and almost always reaching a place that enthralls.

And that's probably the single thing that makes this Madrid team so countercultural in terms of the club's own guiding fictions. Real Madrid teams are rarely appreciated for their actual play. With them, it's usually about the titles won or lost, the big signings sealed or unrequited, the players who scored and/or won enough to be considered a boom or a bust. Traditionally, Barcelona is the club that founds its identity in the game itself, since its playing style is at the heart of its own guiding fictions. As the saying goes, Barcelona fans would rather their team lose playing beautifully than win ugly—something that isn't exactly true but still would never be said about Madridistas.

Indeed, Real Madrid's typecasting as the sport's big bad is in part related to the success Barça has had in telling its guiding fictions, which, along with the famous playing style, also center the alleged misdeeds of the evil white empire. Much of the Barcelonan case against Real isn't strictly true. The debacle of the Di Stéfano signing wasn't, as the Blaugrana-tinted version of the story has it, some simple matter of Spain's Falangist forces conspiring to screw over the Catalan club, and was in fact caused by the complexities of Di Stéfano's contractual situation, which Barcelona was too arrogant to iron out in full before any issue arose. Along the same lines, Real Madrid's rise wasn't actually fueled by Franco putting his thumb on the scales in favor of his preferred club; in fact, Franco didn't really give a shit about sports personally or politically, and the closest thing his regime had to a favored team was Atlético Madrid (then going by Athletic Aviación, a nod to the Spanish Air Force), and it was only after Real emerged as a European juggernaut that Franco tried to retroactively appropriate that success as a symbol of Spanish nationalism, which many at the club found distasteful.

The popularized but erroneous versions of those stories and many more like them support the notion that Real Madrid is the bad guy who claws to the top by hook or by crook, often at the expense of the virtuous Catalans who, despite the slanted odds, have struggled to greatness nevertheless. Barcelona needs this story to be true, because it fits notions of Catalan pride and perseverance that are key parts of what the club aspires to represent. For its part, Real Madrid isn't too bothered by its bad-guy image, since it supports the "They love to hate us because they ain't us" air that too is at the core of what Real aspires to represent.

But while this notion of the virtuous Barça and the villainous Madrid more or less works for all parties involved, I think it's worth pointing out when these guiding fictions get in the way of the truth. In Real's sensible and restrained financial stewardship, its infinitely praise-worthy manager, and the criminally under-appreciated beauty of its playing style—much of it achieved in defiance of the sport's greater headwinds—I see plenty of reasons why Real should be considered the good guy. In contrast, with its reckless and short-sighted spending, its open corruption in the Negreira case, its mistreatment of its players, its painfully stodgy play under Xavi's leadership, and the Guardiola era's complicity in the tactics-centric ideology that undermines the importance of the player in favor of the manager and a narrow understanding of what does or doesn't qualify as "good soccer," Barcelona looks to me much better suited to the bad guy role.

Ultimately though, flattening notions of good guys versus bad guys don't serve what, for me at least, is the main reason to care about any of this: to better understand the world, and to appreciate the good things in it. Its leading role in the Super League should by itself disqualify Real Madrid as an entity from being thought of as "good," and in terms of a team's greatness and coolness, even the free-flowing Blancos don't come close to matching what Barcelona Femení is doing right now. Still, there is something bad when inspiring, amazing things like Ancelotti's Real Madrid do not get the attention they deserve. It's not exactly a problem that some guiding fictions lead us away from what could otherwise be valuable sources for knowledge, enrichment, and admiration, but there's no reason why guiding fictions need to be the only stories that get told.

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