5 Players Real Madrid Sold Too Soon
In a way few other clubs have matched, Real Madrid have come to be associated with a collection of players branded with the "sold too soon" tag.
The list is long. Really long.
Due to an unrelenting (and wayward) quest for dominance and a business model centred on transfer-market splashes, Madrid's squad turnover has typically been high, with stability rarely a trait.
In it, emerging talents have slipped through the cracks. Key figures have been sold. More than a few have been forced out.
Consider this bunch: Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Fernando Redondo, Xabi Alonso, Luis Enrique, Mesut Ozil and Juan Mata.
You could make a case for all of them that they were sold too soon, and yet they don't even make it onto the following top-five list—a list populated by players who we've deemed to be at the peak of the "sold too soon" bunch due to their importance or potential at Real Madrid and their lasting (or still unfolding) success after departing.
Signed from Sampdoria in 1996, Clarence Seedorf became an instant hit at Real Madrid.
Strong and elegant, forceful and creative, versatile and tireless, the Dutchman immediately cemented himself a position in Madrid's midfield alongside Fernando Redondo under the management of Fabio Capello.
In Seedorf's first season, Madrid, fresh from their worst league finish (sixth) in almost two decades, lifted the title, two points ahead of Barcelona. In his second, they toppled Zinedine Zidane's Juventus to claim the club's seventh European Cup—the one Madrid had obsessed over for the 32 years that had followed their sixth in 1966.
By 1999, however, the midfielder's role had been reduced, and he'd fallen out with manager John Toshack, seeing him sold to Inter Milan. His success, though, didn't come at Inter; it came at AC Milan, where he was integral to one of the decade's finest sides that claimed two European Cups and two Serie A titles while Madrid laboured through some of their leaner years.
He was the one who got away. The one who came back to haunt them.
The one who let them know all about it, too.
In 2005, while celebrating the capture of the league title at the Camp Nou with Barcelona, Samuel Eto'o chanted "Madrid, b-----ds, hail the champions" over and over. This wasn't just the tension of the Madrid-Barcelona rivalry erupting. No, this was personal.
Eto'o had started his career at Real Madrid but was consistently overlooked, rejected: big-name signings took precedence; the beginning of the Galactico era signalled his departure in 2000.
Evidently, Eto'o has never forgotten. He's carried that sense of sin with him, using it to light a fire within—a fire that burnt Madrid as he scaled the game's heights in Catalonia between 2004 and 2009.
He's a Real Madrid academy product, has won seven league titles, has claimed nine domestic cups and once, triumphantly, lifted the UEFA Champions League trophy.
For Real Madrid, though, the problem is that he barely did any of that with them.
At age 16, Esteban Cambiasso moved from Argentina to join Madrid's cantera in 1996. It didn't immediately work out, but after a spell back in Argentina, he returned. And made it.
In his first season in the senior team, the midfielder was a regular as Madrid won the league title. Disciplined, hard working, easy to coach, dependable, skilful, Cambiasso was a valuable asset for Vicente del Bosque, but like too many, he was pushed out and departed to Inter Milan as the Galactico policy consumed Madrid.
Good move? For him, you bet.
After finishing third in Serie A with Inter in 2004-05, the Argentinian lifted five straight Italian titles and then the Champions League in 2009-10, his unwavering excellence pivotal to each and every one.
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez has never lived it down.
"We will not miss Makelele," he said in 2003. "His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and 90 per cent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways."
And then, in an interview with France Football (h/t the Guardian's Richard Stevens), he added: "Younger players will arrive who will cause Makelele to be forgotten."
But Claude Makelele hasn't been forgotten at Real Madrid. He never will. Never.
The defensive midfielder with positional sense, immense ball-winning skills and strong tackling, Makelele was the man who underpinned the flawed and top-heavy Galactico side built by Perez and whose sale to Chelsea in 2003 was the tipping point that led to the concept's demise.
He was the man who held it together. Who made it function. Who, within the squad, was recognised as the club's key figure.
Cue the Zinedine Zidane quote.
Angel Di Maria
Claude Makelele 2.0? Perhaps.
As Real Madrid stormed to the 2013-14 Champions League title, the footballing world was captivated by Madrid's power, swagger and destruction. Cristiano Ronaldo was of course the headliner; Gareth Bale was his surging heir apparent; Karim Benzema rounded it off.
But again, a key figure was elsewhere.
In midfield, Angel Di Maria had transformed himself from a winger to an instrumental midfielder. Relentless, aggressive and extremely fast, Di Maria connected Real Madrid's lines and made them function, his influence profound even if his status was not.
We all know what happened next, though: To fund another Galactico move, the Argentinian was forced out and banished to Manchester.
Real Madrid haven't been the same since and are now watching Di Maria take Paris Saint-Germain to a new level.