Graham Hunter, Spain writerNov 14, 2023, 04:02 AM ET
You may have noticed that, almost two months before the January transfer market even opens, Real Madrid have completed some extraordinary business during the last few days. They have extended the contracts of: Fede Valverde (aged 25) until 2029, Eduardo Camavinga (21) until 2029, Rodrygo (22) until 2028 and Vinícius Jr. (23) until 2027. The “lowest” release clause written into those contracts is for Camavinga (€900 million), while the highest is Vinicius (€1.5 billion).
It means that while there’s not a single elite club in the world that wouldn’t bite their own hand off to sign any or all of these players, it’s financially impossible to do so unless one of that fantastic group tires of life at the Bernabeu, demands to leave and is granted his wish. Otherwise, they are untouchable.
If you throw in the fact that 20-year-old summer signing Jude Bellingham has a contract at Madrid until 2029 (€1.5bn release clause), 23-year-old Aurélien Tchouaméni (€900m) until 2028, and the next to have his deal improved and extended will be 25-year-old Éder Militão, it becomes crystal clear that president Florentino Perez has created a vibrant, loyal, talented and ambitious eco-system at his club for the foreseeable future. Hats off to him for that.
The only question: who is going to be the manager that gets to make merry with this extraordinary group? Carlo Ancelotti is out of contract at the end of the 2023-24 season and Brazil want him to take over their national team this summer — oh how they’ve courted him!
Right now, we know that if given enough encouragement, Perez would extend the 64-year-old legend’s tenure with Los Blancos. There’s a long way to go this season before we discover whether or not Ancelotti can add to his superb silverware collection at Madrid, but the way in which he’s reshaped the first-team tactics to immediately give Bellingham a platform to excel has made a big impact on his employers.
However, let’s suppose for a moment that “Carletto” actively wants a slightly reduced schedule in his life; maybe he yearns for the sunshine and the joy of working between Brazil, Italy and Canada, given how much less time an international coach has to spend at his desk or on the training ground. Moreover, let’s suppose that with World Cup 2026 peeping around the corner, Ancelotti craves lifting the beautiful trophy that cruelly slipped through his hands as both a player and a manager.
In 1982, Ancelotti was expected to anchor theItaly midfield that went on to win the World Cup — coincidentally, claiming it in a final at Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu — but was badly injured in the lead up to that tournament. Then, when Italy lost on penalties to Brazil in the 1994 final at the Pasadena Rose Bowl, it would be the last time Ancelotti was involved in international coaching as assistant to Arrigo Sacchi. (Another coincidence: that was the last time the World Cup was hosted in North America, as it will be roughly two-and-a-half years from now.)
You could easily understand him dreaming of one last tilt at winning the biggest one of all … right? So, if Ancelotti rejects the chance to bring this golden Real Madrid generation to full fruition: who would be next? Who possesses the right characteristics to meet the criteria Perez will set for managerial success?
It’s at this point I need to remind you who Raul Gonzalez Blanco is, and what he achieved at Madrid.
The dry facts state that among Raul’s 25 trophies are five LaLiga winner’s medals and, perhaps most importantly, three Champions League final triumphs. I’d call these facts “dry” because the man who is coaching Real Madrid’s second team (Real Madrid Castilla) these days spent several years as Los Blancos‘ captain, where the adoration he received from the club’s fans matched or out-stripped almost anyone in this grand club’s long history.
Raul is much more than a bunch of, admittedly, brilliant statistics could ever represent. He was their spiritual leader, he was a magical Madrileno — meaning that unlike many of the club’s all-time stars, he was actually born in Spain’s capital — and he was an absolute Madridista (meaning that he was passionately devoted to the club, its triumphs, its character, its image and its capacity to impose itself on the world, not just Spain).
No-one has played more times for Real Madrid — and I’d argue that no-one ever will, given that his record is 741 matches — and for the longest time, his 323-goal haul made him Los Blancos‘ leading scorer until Cristiano Ronaldo and Benzema overtook him in recent seasons.
I know what you’re thinking. I don’t mean to put words in your mouth, but didn’t I just hear you argue that “given Raul won the UEFA Youth League as Madrid’s youth team coach in 2020 and his decent work since moving up to coach Castilla … he’s almost bound to be the next man in after Ancelotti?”
Well, here’s the rub. I strongly believe that the remarkable job Xabi Alonso is doing at Bayer Leverkusen — they’re top of the Bundesliga, something his club has never won, and are running away with their Europa League Group H — plus his extremely bullish and President-pleasing sentiment of “I love Real Madrid,” which became 100% clear when he was a successful midfielder there in the post-Raul years, means he’s a strong favourite to succeed Ancelotti as and when he leaves. In fact, I think that only in the instance that Alonso were to turn Perez down, for some shocking reason, would anyone else be in the reckoning.
It all leaves Raul between a rock and a hard place. He’ll have watched carefully while Villarreal appointed (and then, this week, sacked) Pacheta having given him precisely two months in the job. Ridiculous. Villarreal approached Raul prior to Pacheta, but the Castilla coach was wise enough to decline the offer. Look how quickly he was proven correct that Villarreal are a club both in a downward spiral and an extremely volatile place to ply your trade.
In recent seasons, both Eintracht Frankfurt and Schalke 04 — the latter is a club where Raul won the German Cup — have tried to convince him to take over and, for a second time, re-locate from Madrid to the Bundesliga. He’s spurned both temptations.
When Raul was promoted from the principal youth-team coach at Madrid to take charge of Castilla, the final testing ground for kids who are supposed to reach the first team, former Real player and manager-turned-writer Jorge Valdano was effusive in his praise for the club legend.
“Madrid are incubating a coach who, for years to come, will cope with the media pressures, the brutal atmosphere and the disproportionate expectations that surround the club,” he wrote in El Pais. “Some people say ‘it’s too soon for him,’ which is what they said to me left right and centre when I gave him his first team debut too. His instincts are rock-solid Madridista, he puts the club first, then the team, then the individual players. I believe that in Raul, Madrid can find their version of [Pep] Guardiola or [Diego] Simeone, which is to say someone who’s the perfect embodiment of their institutional character.”
Since then, Raul took Madrid’s “second” team to within a whisker of promotion to the Segunda División, whipping Barcelona in the playoff semifinal and then losing in the final to Eldense: that game ended 4-4 and saw Castilla edged out on a count-back of both teams’ performances across the entire regular season.
In the scenario where Ancelotti leaves to take over the World Cup’s most successful nation and tries to lead them to a sixth trophy-lift next summer in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, I’m suggesting that Raul’s only real option, when Alonso takes over, is to leave Madrid, cut his teeth elsewhere and prove, as Alonso is doing, that he’s got the chops to be considered Los Blancos‘ big boss in the future.
A much more favourable scenario — for Raul, at least — is the idea of Ancelotti surprising everyone, renewing and, during the time the Italian stays in charge, Alonso perhaps being tempted elsewhere on a long contract (Liverpool, for example).
Be all that as it may, Perez’s vision, persuasive powers and the fact that the Santiago Bernabeu is becoming an utterly magnificent stadium in which to reach for glory, means that the next five or six years of European football could easily be dominated by Real Madrid and their generational talents. Raul will want to lead, and share in, that golden age if at all possible, and it’ll be tremendously interesting to watch what he does and how he succeeds in advancing his case over the coming months.
Whatever talents he was born with, the No. 1 characteristic which made Raul an all-time Real Madrid great is that he competes ferociously. How he turns this uneven “match” in his favour remains to be seen, but he always plays to win. Watch this space.