Real Madrid's galácticos... remembered by the galácticos: Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos recall the magic
A silver car pulls up and Zinedine Zidane steps out into the mist. It is winter in Madrid. He strolls towards the door, pulling off his hat, shakes hands, and, removing his coat and draping it over the arm of the sofa, settles in. On the table in front of him sits a magazine. FourFourTwo, April 2003. Is it really that long ago? Time flies. The Frenchman picks up the magazine and smiles. There he is, alongside Luis Figo, Ronaldo, and Roberto Carlos. “I’m older now, and I’ve got less hair,” he grins.
That day in 2003, the four players posed on the pitch at Real Madrid’s Ciudad Deportiva training ground near the northern gateway to the city. These days, four gigantic skyscrapers stand in its place, towering over the Spanish capital, the land sold to clear Madrid’s €278m debt. The towers’ nicknames? Figo, Zidane, Ronaldo and Beckham.
Madrid now train just five minutes from where Zidane sits, at Valdebebas out by Barajas airport. He has just come from there. Another glance. A smile. “I was lucky to be able to play with those players,” he says. “They were spectacular players and good friends. I experienced something very special with them, at the world’s best club.”
It is a scene, a line, repeated over and over. A decade on, FFT wants to meet up with the old gang to find out what it was like, where life has taken them, to remember the good times. And, to judge by the warmth with which they all talk, those were good times.
Meeting them all is a chase around the world. In Roberto Carlos’s case, quite literally. The first conversation was suppose to take place in Russia. Then it was Brazil. Then Spain. Then Greece. Then Madrid: first to his home to the north of the city and finally to a city hotel. In the meantime, a million changes of plans and excuses: there was even a SIM card dropped in the bath. His former team-mates giggle when they hear that he’s the last man left, that the pursuit is still on, Benny Hill-style: sounds like Roberto. He was always the hardest to tie down, as difficult to catch on the pitch as he was off it.
Yet it says something about the way that the four of them identified with Madrid that, ultimately, three of the four meet FFT in the city where they played, despite the fact that none of them are Spanish. The climate is not bad, which helps, and Zidane says he likes the mentality of the Spanish: open, happy, full of life. Figo and Zidane still live there and Roberto Carlos has a house; he was at the most recent clásico and still eats in the same restaurant he always did, devouring jamón. He remains an idol for the fans, something he is keen to thank them for.
Then there’s Ronaldo, sitting in a Kensington hotel, relaxed and charming as ever – and genuinely funny at times too. He’s preparing for a flight to China. “I’m going to play golf with Michael Phelps and Yao Ming,” he grins. It is another reminder of just how big the galácticos were. How big they still are, in fact; you quickly lose count of how many autographs he signs, and as he strolls into the lobby after spending an hour talking about those days, someone can actually be heard gasping: “Oh, my God!”
So what was it like? “Wonderful,” says Ronaldo. “I had a great time,” adds Roberto Carlos. “Good memories,” says Luis Figo. He continues: “That was a lovely time. When I look at the cover I think of good atmosphere, talent, friendship. Look at us: it looks like everyone is laughing.”
That’s because they were. It was all Felipe, the photographer, could do to keep them still for a moment. Ronaldo was, as usual, the ring leader. “Mad,” as Steve McManaman put it. “What really stays with you is the friendship,” Figo says, “even if you live on other sides of the world.” He and Zidane still meet up in Madrid; they live close by and their wives are friends too. They go to the gym together. Although Zidane adds sheepishly, “it’s been a while since I went now”. Roberto Carlos describes Ronaldo as his “brother.”
Ronaldo notes: “Zizou and I have been arranging our annual charity game for 10 years in a row now. I visit the club every time I am in Madrid: for me, that was a wonderful story which I am still living.” Roberto Carlos is harder to pin down, for them as well as for FFT. He’s always forgotten something, always dashing off somewhere, with calls unreturned. There is no reproach from his friends: that’s just the way Robi is. “We had a good time,” Figo says. “And our team marked an era.”
There may never have been a team like it. They already had Raul and Roberto Carlos; Fernando Hierro too. Iker Casillas was an emerging goalkeeper, one that observers could see would be good. In fact, the moment that Roberto Carlos first recalls is pre-galáctico (and pre-Casillas): the club’s seventh European Cup, won in 1998. “We were playing Juventus and they were clear favourites,” he says. “That was so special because people were so anxious for a return to the glory days and to finally win it [32 years later]. It’s different now: these days, Madrid chasing the very best titles is a sure thing.”
“That was the turning point,” he says. Another European Cup win followed in 2000, with Fernando Morientes, Raul and Steve McManaman scoring in the final against Valencia – and it was about to get even bigger.
That summer Florentino Perez won presidential elections and began to change things. He added a superstar a summer – every summer. An already exceptional team became barely believable; the greatest show on earth. It was as if someone had cheated at Championship Manager, gathering together all the world’s best players – absurdly talented, absurdly famous. When Hierro, the club’s captain, told FFT “of the 10 best players in the world, we have five”, he was not wrong.