Down the years, Real Madrid have hired the services of some of the world’s greatest players. Other times they have bought players who fail to reach their potential at the club. Here is the starting-eleven of the team that ‘could have been.’
Imagine football without Iker Casillas. The very notion should cause many Madrid fans to faint or at the very least tremble in fear. If this had been the case then Santiago Canizares would probably have been Real Madrid’s number one goalkeeper.
Once described by Manchester United legend Peter Schmeichel as the best keeper in the world, Canizares started his career with Real Madrid’s youth teams and eventually joined the first team in 1990. His stay was brief as he found himself loaned to first Elche and Merida before joining Celta Vigo on a two year spell. His impressive performances earned him a recall, but he failed to maintain a starting position and as a result left for Valencia in 1998.
As a youth player, Canizares should have taken priority over then goalkeeper, Bodo Illgner, who was in his thirties at the time of the Spaniard’s departure. It should also be observed that Canizares wasn’t afforded much time to assert himself at the Bernabeu. Barcelona began dominating the Spanish division and the youth players at Madrid were soon to be eclipsed by the Galacticos project.
Had there been no Casillas, Canizares would surely have been the one to come closest to his stature. His dependable hands and excellent reflexes in his latter years are a testimony to what the Castilla can nurture; whether Real Madrid decide to use it or not.
Arguably the best Argentina has to offer at centre-back at this moment in time, Ezequiel Garay left Real Madrid as little more than a bargaining chip for Fabio Coentrao. Although both sides may refute such a statement, it doesn’t take anything away from the fact Garay has developed into a formidable defender. On the balance of things, the exchange may have been fair, but would Los Blancos take the 27 year-old back now?
As with any Madrid side, depth is valued, and at the moment they have just three ‘senior’ centre-backs. This includes the 20 year-old Raphael Varane and excludes bit part player Nacho Fernandez. On this basis alone, Garay’s presence would certainly be valued.
However, the Rosario-born defender was not valued highly enough in Spain and despite his potential and clear signs of development, he joined Benfica where he has steadily risen to prominence. Now worth in the vicinity of £20 million, Garay has played virtually every game for the Lisbon side since arriving. Even if he was essential in the purchase of Coentrao, it may still have been worth keeping the defender in the loop.
The sad case of Jonathan Woodgate is a perfect example of ‘what could have been’. The Englishman joined Real Madrid from Newcastle United for a £13.4 million fee amidst much confusion. The 24 year-old had been blighted by injury for much of his career and in fact made the move to Spain in the middle of rehabilitation. Woodgate had to wait a season to get his debut, which could not have gone any worse as he scored an own goal and got sent off. From the very outset, it looked like a doomed transfer.
Woodgate did however manage to demonstrate his quality in the very short time he was with Real, which was really not that easy considering he needed to adapt to Spanish football. He played a total of 14 matches for Los Blancos with the likes of Sergio Ramos, Ivan Helguera, Alvaro Mejia and Francisco Pavon all rotating. Of the nine La Liga matches Woodgate was involved in, his side only conceded in six and were the victors in seven of those matches.Things began to look more optimistic as the former Leeds United defender developed into something of a leader.
Once again, injury intervened and brought all hopes of Woodgate asserting himself at the Bernabeu to an end. Suddenly the support was gone and the Englishman was hung out to dry. With little choice on the matter, Woodgate escaped his Spanish nightmare and returned to playing his football more comfortably but still irregularly in England. However, it still left many wondering after such a promising start to his career.
Woodgate had been a part of a high achieving Leeds side that troubled Europe’s elite on a season by season basis. His spell at Newcastle was good enough to entice Real Madrid into making him a Galactico, and he looked like being one of Madrid’s best defenders. But injury would always be Woodgate’s nemesis, and we will never truly know what he could have done in the famous white jersey.
A bullish defender who simply did not warm to La Liga and instead called Serie A his home. The Argentinian switched capitals when he made the £21 million move to Real Madrid from Roma, having spent four years with the Italians. It was a smart purchase without a doubt, but Samuel simply wasn’t the player Madrid needed at the time.
For a player who played a total of 40 matches for Los Blancos in his first and only season with the club, it’s hard to imagine what went wrong. In the prime of his game, with experience of European football and only in his mid-twenties, Samuel was perhaps Real Madrid’s most prominent centre-back. Of the 30 La Liga fixtures he was involved in, Samuel played the full 90 minutes in all but three matches, which suggests the club had plenty of faith in his abilities.
Real Madrid finished the 2004-05 season in second place, a big improvement over fourth in the previous campaign. However, despite all the positives, Samuel returned to Serie A with Inter. The Argentinian’s transfer even today seems a little strange. Perhaps the adaptation to Spain was too grueling, or maybe something internal took place. What is certain though is Samuel went on to become a fine defender, with over 200 appearances to his name since returning to Italy and a Champions League winners medal to prove it.
RUBEN DE LA RED
If Jonathan Woodgate’s calamitous tenure in Spain was bad enough, then Ruben de la Red’s story was nothing short of a tragedy. De la Red arrived at Real Madrid at the tender age of 14 having lived in and around the capital. From an early age he showed potential, and despite the frustration and pressure that comes with playing for their youth academy, de la Red rejected many appealing offers from other clubs in order to finish his development with Real Madrid.
By way of comparison, de la Red’s early career largely resembles that of Esteban Granero’s. His career started brightly at Los Blancos with a series of substitute appearances under then coach Fabio Capello. From here, he moved onto Getafe just as the aforementioned Granero did, with the likelihood of a return on the cards.
And return he did, with an outstanding goal against Valencia from distance to show why his former employers felt compelled to bring him back. However, several months later disaster struck. During Real Madrid’s match up with Real Union in the Spanish Cup, de la Red collapsed on the field and briefly lost consciousness. It was discovered the 23 year-old was unable to pump blood to his brain fast enough and as a result would miss the rest of the season as a precaution.
As it turned out, it was de la Red’s final competitive match as no treatment could be found. Two seasons later the Spanish international retired aged just 25. The player continues to be something of a ‘what if’ phenomenon, as he had clearly demonstrated talent in his short career. Currently coaching Madrid’s Under-15’s, de la Red will not easily be forgotten by Real Madrid fans as his two year struggle touched so many hearts.
Manchester City defensive midfielder Javi Garcia had everything needed to take the Santiago Bernabeu by storm, just not the first team opportunities. Garcia was one of many youth players who’s future was simply not at Real Madrid. A physical, dominating player, the Spaniard made waves winning the UEFA European Football Championship with Spain’s under-19’s in 2006. His performances for Real Madrid’s Castilla saw coach Fabio Capello give him a chance.
However the good times ground to a halt as Bernd Schuster’s appointment as head coach saw Garcia up for transfer. He joined Osasuna but quickly returned to Los Merengues when the player’s full potential became more noticeable.
With the arrival of Xabi Alonso and Esteban Granero, Garcia’s position in the team could not be guaranteed and so he departed for Benfica. It turned out to be his big break as he vastly improved the Portuguese side’s bite in the midfield department. He scored the vital goal in a home win over Naval to take the Lisbon club to the top of the Portuguese table; where they would stay for the rest of the 2009 season.
With a three season stint in Portugal all but completing his maturity as a footballer, Benfica accepted a £15.8 million bid from Manchester City for Garcia. And despite the boundless quality ahead of him in the pecking order at City, the 26 year-old has found playing time plentiful. Still several years from reaching the pinnacle of his career, it remains to be seen whether a return to Madrid could be in store.
Clearly one for the history books, Arjen Robben will be remembered for his exploits in the UEFA Champions League, but wearing the Bayern Munich jersey, not that of Real Madrid. The Dutchman moved to Spain off the back of an impressive stint in England with Chelsea. Madrid paid £24 million to get their man, a figure they would not exceed on an individual until the return of Florentino Perez in the 2009-10 campaign. The transfer fee served as a compliment to Robben’s quality as he quickly became a star figure, regularly popping up with vital goals.
In fact his time at Real Madrid was definitely positive. It’s hard to compare it with the free-scoring football he currently enjoys in the Bundesliga, but his Spanish adventure was nothing if not consistent. In his first season he won the La Liga title, where he asserted himself as one of Los Blancos’ key figures as he so often would in his career. His desire to take to the spotlight was infectious but at the same time damaging if he could not find the end product.
With so many factors capable of playing a part in his sale, such as his ‘one-dimensional’ style of play, it was actually an act of recouping the money they’d spent on the likes of Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo that saw Robben leave for Bayern Munich. With over £130 million spent, the £20 million offer for Robben from the Bavarian’s was too enticing to turn down.
With the obvious benefit of hindsight, the 29 year-old has now become a Champions League winner, something Real Madrid have not been able to boast in over decade.
Even today, Wesley Sneijder is causing Europe’s elites problems, as he scored the winning goal for Galatasaray to knock out Real Madrid’s fellow group members Juventus. Not one to shy away from the big stage, the 29 year-old won the UEFA Champions League with Inter under former Los Blancos boss Jose Mourinho. He arrived at Real Madrid with Arjen Robben taking much of the spotlight. However, he came to real prominence when he scored the winning goal in the Madrid derby.
Sneijder then shot to stardom finishing his first season with nine goals and nine assists in 38 competitive matches. He began to terrorise his opponents from set pieces and became a key contributor to the team. In his first season, he helped Los Merengues win the La Liga title.
The Dutch star suffered the same fate as fellow team mates Robben and Rudd van Nistlerooy. With the copious spending in the 2009-10 season, the Spanish side cashed in on many of their players in favour of star signings, one of which was Sneijder. His career thereafter continued in an upward fashion as he won Serie A and later the Champions League. Still only 29 years-old, Sneijder has enjoyed a successful career where his Real Madrid stay is little more than a small chapter of the story.
A name that may surprise many a football fan, Chelsea midfielder Juan Mata did indeed begin his career with Real Madrid. Known more for his exploits with Valencia, the talented Spaniard has only been kept out of the international side on account of the vast array of quality ahead of him in the pecking order. Mata has a lot in common with former Madrid starlet Sergio Canales, who is currently on the books of Los Murcielagos.
Canales’ career has not resulted in a big money move as of present. Mata’s, on the other hand, has exploded since joining Chelsea in 2011 with over 30 goals to his name. He had joined Madrid from Real Oviedo and played for the Castilla, before his release clause was triggered by Valencia. Had this not been the case, it’s feasible to believe Mata could have developed into a promising young player at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Like several others among those listed here, Mata is a Champions League winner and at the very least has demonstrated the quality to be deserving of such an honour. His career at Chelsea hangs precariously with his playing time limited under coach Jose Mourinho. As such, a return to where it all started could be a notion worth entertaining. But regardless of his current situation, Mata is yet another player who got away.
One of Real Madrid’s real nemeses on the field, Soldado had waited patiently for his chance, and when it didn’t present itself at the Santiago Bernabeu he moved on, never to forget their lack of faith. The striker arrived at Los Blancos over a decade ago from local side Don Bosco. His goalscoring pedigree was apparent from the very beginning, with more than 60 goals over the course of four seasons with the Castilla. In that time he was occasionally seen warming the bench for the first team, and in 2005 got 17 matches under his belt, scoring on four occasions.
He went on loan to Osasuna to prove his potential, and did, scoring 13 goals in 44 matches. He returned to Madrid but after just eight appearance finally left for Getafe. He went from strength to strength, scoring 33 goals in just two seasons. He was purchased by hometown club Valencia, where the nostalgia appeared to awaken something within the striker. In his three seasons with Los Murcielagos, Soldado netted an incredible 81 goals, never scoring less than 25 goals a season. With Los Blancos reportedly on the hunt for a striker, Soldado could have been the man to step forward and aid his former club.
Perhaps Real Madrid’s biggest regret of the last decade was selling Samuel Eto’o. 292 goals, with nine coming against Los Merengues in La Liga, it has to be said Eto’o was one that well and truly got away. Eto’o joined Real Madrid at a very young age in 1997. However the relationship was doomed from the very outset as the Castilla were relegated to the third division of Spanish football, where non-European players were not allowed to play. Consequently Eto’o was sent out on loan spells. He first went to CD Leganes and then Espanyol but Eto’o found the experiences tough going and barely made an appearance for Espanyol.
With time running out to impress, Eto’o went on loan to Mallorca, the club that would change his fortunes. He scored six goals in 19 appearances before returning to base. Real Madrid remained unconvinced of the striker’s real potential and sold him to Mallorca for £4.4 million. In retrospect, this was a petty sum and, at the very least, Real Madrid could have charged more. In his first season he scored 13 goals in 33 appearances.
Thus began a tidal wave of goals that eventually took the Cameroonian to Real Madrid’s hated rivals Barcelona. He finished his time with Mallorca with 69 goals and began a new life feeding off the quality service found at the Camp Nou. In his five years with Barcelona Eto’o never scored less than 13 goals in a season, despite lengthy injuries and the odd pocket of racist abuse.
Years on and Eto’o is still managing to find the back of the net with Chelsea his most recent adventure. A diamond of a footballer and one of the best strikers of his generation, Eto’o has produced so much heart break and anger for Madrid fans, so much that could on reflection have been avoided.
Follow Louis Gibberd-Thomas on Twitter: @mercutio156