As Gareth Bale prepares for the biggest game of his career – the Champions League final against Atletico Madrid - Nick Moore recalls 10 debut campaigns of the Bernabeu club's most high-profile signings...
10. David Beckham (£25m from Manchester United, 2003)
Beckham was a hell of a footballer – it’s easy to forget that the summer of 2003 saw Real and Barca fight tooth and nail for the Manchester United man’s signature – but he was also a devilishly handsome, blond-ponytailed one-man brand whose status as an international marketing goliath represented a shrewd investment, even at £25m. He immediately started repaying his transfer fee pre-season, with a summer tour of Japan in particular ridiculously lucrative thanks to Beckham’s status.
On the pitch he had a solid start, too: with Luis Figo dominating the right-wing position he was most used to playing, Becks proved himself a fine central midfielder (expressing a preference for the position, although many pundits were never quite convinced), and often bamboozling opponents by swapping positions with Figo. A Beckham goal helped win the Spanish Super Cup, too.
He made 46 appearances in total, scoring seven goals, but ultimately couldn’t inspire any major silverware as Real crashed out of the Champions League and hit the La Liga self-destruct button. His four-year Real career was moderately successful in the end – they won the title in 2007 – but Madrid’s accountants remained happy throughout his stay.
9. Luka Modric (£33m from Tottenham, 2012)
For Spurs fans, Madrid moves for their best players are now becoming tiresome. In 2012, it was versatile Croatian scamp Modric who swapped White Hart Lane for the Bernabeu, and while he has since gone on to establish himself as a key midfield cog for Los Blancos, his first year in Spain was a mixed bag.
Modric initially found it tricky to break into a well-oiled midfield trident of Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil, but he eventually crept into the line-up and showed just what he could do. He laid on two fine assists for Cristiano Ronaldo against Ajax, and scored a stunner against Manchester United in the Champions League, while in La Liga he was instrumental in their March Clasico victory. In the end he made a healthy 53 appearances across all competitions, and while the Spanish Super Cup was the only gong in his cabinet at the end of the first 12 months, his report card was overwhelmingly positive.
8. Wesley Sneijder (£15m from Ajax, 2007)
After five year’s worth of awesome Eridivisie performances, Real shelled out €27 million for the archetypically ambidextrous Ajax midfielder, the second-biggest Dutch transfer of all time (after Ruud van Nistelrooy’s move to Manchester United). Intelligent, quick and a master of dead ball situations, he soon endeared himself to the Madridista masses, helping to win their opening day league derby against Atletico with a typically pinpoint free kick.
He then played a central role as Madrid retained their La Liga title, playing 30 games, scoring nine times and crafting seven assists; his first season was such a success that at the end of it he was offered the prized No.10 shirt.
But – as is mysteriously the way with so many of Real’s major signings – it wasn’t to last. He was sold to Inter two summers after arriving, complaining of being treated terribly, as Florentino Perez’s second term brought about yet another major player overhaul.
7. Mesut Ozil (£12m from Werder Bremen, 2010)
Fresh from some dazzling displays at the World Cup in South Africa – Gareth Barry probably still wakes up screaming for Mother Barry to bring his blanket – Ozil had outgrown Bremen and the young German seemed like the visionary playmaker that Madrid fans had been hankering after since Zidane’s retirement in 2006.
“This is one club you don’t say no to,” said Ozil, and the love-in was soon mutual: he scored and put an assist on a platter for Gonzalo Higuain against Ajax on his debut – leaving the pitch to a standing ovation.
His visionary passing continued season-long, and Ozil ended the year with 25 assists, more than any other player in Europe, as well as a healthy tally of 10 goals. Honours-wise, he helped Real to win the Copa del Rey, too.
But a Zizou-like dynasty as the Madrid main man didn’t materialise: while Ozil’s second season was excellent (they won La Liga with 100 points) and he also topped the assists charts in his third, the changeable nature of life at the Bernabeu convinced the German he was out of favour, and he switched to Arsenal last summer.
6. Arjen Robben (£24m from Chelsea, 2007)
After two superb seasons of boogie-ing through Premier League defences as Chelsea’s creative hub – and one frustrating injury-plagued one – the marauding Dutchman won a richly deserved mega-transfer to Madrid, where he did not disappoint. His inspirational performances routinely inspired Real to victory as they won La Liga at a canter: he helped himself to four league goals, dumped full-backs on their backsides and got the tough-to-impress Bernabeu regulars purring with his exceptional trickery.
By the time title rivals Barcelona came to the capital, the title was already safe: Robben capped a sublime evening with a goal as their Clasico rivals were humiliated 4-1.
Alas, that was as good as it got: Robben’s price tag seemed more than justified, but, as with many Real Madrid careers, it was over just as it was getting started. His second season was also excellent from a personal point of view, but the team won nothing and Florentino Perez’s cash-falshing arrival, including signings like Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo, saw him head for Bayern Munich, where it has gone rather well. Perhaps Madrid should have shown a little more faith?
5. Ruud van Nistelrooy (£10.2m from Manchester United, 2006)
Having already been a seasonal top scorer for PSV in the Eredivisie and for Manchester United in the Premier League, the goal glutton showed that he can outscore the rest regardless of which domestic league you stick him in by bashing home 33 goals for Real in his debut year.
He came hurtling out the traps, smashing a hat-trick against Levante in his second Real appearance. Ruud rammed in four times against Osasuna, then scored in seven straight games, tying a La Liga record. He finished the season with Marca’s Pichichi Award for the year’s top scorer, with 25, and the La Liga title in the bag.
Real didn’t fare well in the Champions League, crashing out to Bayern Munich, but Ruud got six goals, and he grabbed a couple in the Copa del Rey, too.
Those who thought all of this was a sign of great things to come were disappointed, however: Van Nistelrooy hit 20 the following season, 10 the injury-plagued year after that, then moved to Hamburg, from where he’d never hit his previous prolific heights again.
4. Cristiano Ronaldo (£80m from Manchester United, 2009)
The most expensive player on the planet (until some fella from Cardiff bowled up and ruined it) immediately paid back part of Madrid’s whopping overdraft in a whirlwind of brilliant strikes, frantic footwork and slickly gelled image opportunities during 2009/10.
He grabbed 26 goals from just 29 games in La Liga – as well as providing seven assists – and also hit the target seven times in the Champions League over six outings. His partnership with Gonzalo Higuain was also a sensation, as they reaped 53 goals between them, the highest joint total in Real’s history.
It was all for naught, silverware-wise however: Los Blancos were surprisingly and disappointingly foiled by Lyon in the Champions League round of 16, while Barcelona managed to pip them to the title by three points.
And infuriatingly, despite his individual impeccability, CR7 still found himself constantly considered second best to Lionel Messi, who would win the FIFA Ballon d’Or this season, and the two after that. Ronny would finally break the pesky Argentine’s stranglehold on La Liga in 2011/12 – and on the individual top prize in 2013. And yet he may come to be seen as Real’s most significant ever signing. His debut term, however, must still be seen as a delicious appetiser.
3. Ronaldo (£30m from Inter, 2002)
Anything Portuguese Ronaldo can do, Brazilian Ronaldo has already done better. A matter for debate of course, but while CR7’s debut season was highly successful on a personal level, it also ended up potless – unlike the South American, whose mum probably doesn’t call him Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima.
The Phenomenon’s first term in Spain was aptly phenomenal, and it had to be, considering the hype generated by the forward who had sent Real replica top manufacturers and salesmen into overtime and meltdown.
Injured until October, once he did start scoring, he couldn’t stop. Twenty-three goals were enough to help clinch the La Liga title, and he was on fire in Europe, too, popping a hat-trick into Manchester United’s net to knock them out of the Champions League.
A fantasy season was marred slightly when Real were eliminated from the competition by Juventus in the semis, but with the Intercontinental Cup and Spanish Super Cup added to the title, it was certainly a dream start. Real’s greatest ever Ronny, then? Come back and see us when you’ve got two World Cup medals, Cristiano…
2. Luis Figo (£38.7m from Barcelona, 2000)
They may have been miffed in Catalonia – and they expressed their dissatisfaction openly and honestly by wanging pig parts at him and painting a vibrant “TRAITOR, JUDAS, SCUM” banner especially for his return to Barcelona – but Figo’s decision to jump the bile-filled divide to Madrid was fully justified by his first season at the Bernabeu. “I wanted to play better football and win more titles,” was his frank explanation of why he moved – and win them he did.
This was the Portuguese matinee idol taking the lead role in a season-long action blockbuster, tormenting full-backs, twisting them inside out, scoring goals (14 in total) and racking up assists for fun.
Returning to Barca for the Clasico may have required a major security detail and ended up as “the worst day of his life” (he felt that locals should have respected his efforts for the club… hmm), but it showed a sportsman with truly Herculean cojones.
Figo ended up the season having inspired a La Liga title, and became the first Portuguese player since Eusebio to win the Ballon d’Or. His move was the catalyst for the power shift from Catalonia to the capital for the next half decade, too.
1. Zinedine Zidane (£46m from Juventus, 2001)
Madrid smashed their own transfer record, paying Juve the comically large-sounding sum of 150 billion lire for the French World Cup and European Championship-winning midfield warlock. Even for that brass, Zizou couldn’t disappoint: he was ever-present in his debut season, and his 49 appearances in the white shirt were bewitching, sending Spanish journalists into a tizz of metaphors about ballet dancing and high art.
Such individual excellence wasn’t quite enough to win La Liga – Real finished third behind Valencia and Deportivo La Coruna that year, and they also lost to Depor in the Copa del Rey final – but it did help secure the club’s second Champions League win in three seasons, and ninth in total.
There was a once-in-a-lifetime moment, too. Zidane was always more about passes than goals, but his astonishing technique in slamming home a truly sublime volley – with his “weak” left peg – in the Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen, confirmed that this was the most galactic of all the Galacticos. Many still consider it the greatest-ever Champions League strike.
It was the start of a five-year romance with Los Blancos that continued until his retirement from the game in 2006. He remains closely tied to the club as an advisor, and of his four sons, three are currently on the books of the academy. All in all, a shrewd buy.
?? Gareth Bale (£85m from Tottenham, 2013)
Where should the Flying Welshman be judged in the pantheon of Real Madrid’s biggest signings’ debut years? It’s perhaps unfair to judge him on one match, but Madridistas are a hysterical bunch. With La Liga already surrendered to Atletico, a flat performance and defeat to their city rivals in the Champions League Final will be a lot for Real fans to tolerate – and all that has gone well this season will be forgotten. It’s the silver pots that count.
Inspire his team-mates to a victory, alongside fellow rampagers Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, and Bale’s £85m price tag can be considered a snip, and his first term a glorious success. The former Spurs man struggled with injury early in his career, but since getting fit has been scintillating. His 27 La Liga appearances have borne 15 goals and 12 assists, his 11 Champions League appearances resulted in five goals and four assists, and his majestic solo jig-and-hit to help scoop the Copa del Rey against Barca was a career high.
Lose, and such brilliance will be a footnote on a season that – while a glowing success on a personal level – will not be judged as a collective victory. The Decima is what the supporters crave. Lifelong adulation lies ahead for the individuals who secure it: Bale could become a Demigod. But lose it – and follow that up with a major-honour free season or two – and he might find that his paymasters go looking for another expensive toy to try out.