Real Madrid's world has been turned upside down this summer with the departure of manager Zinedine Zidane and star player Cristiano Ronaldo. Not since the iconic Alfredo Di Stefano—a man who scored in every one of the club's five consecutive European Cup final victories—was ushered out the back door in 1964 have they experienced as much turmoil with their team.
Nobody imagined Zidane—who coached the club to their third UEFA Champions League title on the bounce in May—would leave. It seems he didn't have the stomach to renovate an ageing squad, which floundered domestically last season, finishing 17 points adrift of Barcelona in the race for La Liga.
Of the team that lined up against Liverpool in Kiev, Ukraine, five of their key players—the disruptive Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, Ronaldo and his great foil, Karim Benzema—are all the wrong side of 30.
"I have the sensation Zidane went because he was compromised by the players that the club wanted to get rid of," Juanma Trueba, a Madrid-based Spanish football writer, told B/R. "Zidane preferred to be loyal to players like Cristiano and Keylor Navas. We don't know if Benzema will continue at the club, if they will sign Mauro Icardi.
"Zidane felt he owed it to them—they were the ones who made him a champion. With the likely signature of Thibaut Courtois in goal—and other players—the team next season won't be similar to the Real Madrid of Zidane. Zidane said he wouldn't continue because he wasn't happy with this overhaul of the squad. At that point everything fell apart."
Ronaldo followed him out the door shortly afterwards, jetting off to Juventus within a fortnight of his return from Portugal's FIFA World Cup finals campaign.
Ronaldo always had a frosty relationship with Real Madrid's club president, Florentino Perez, who nearly U-turned on the decision to sign him in the summer of 2009 because the player was an inheritance from Perez's predecessor, Ramon Calderon.
"Cristiano's departure was not a surprise," says Manu Sainz, a journalist with Diario AS. "I knew possibilities for him to go as far back as 2013. He's never had a good relationship with Florentino. Until now their issues have always been solved with money—Cristiano says, 'I'm leaving'; Florentino paid him more to stay. This time, Cristiano was tired of the situation. He didn't want to stay in Madrid for more money, so he decided to go by slamming the door in Florentino's face."
Real Madrid offered Ronaldo an improved contract to stay. It was important for optics that he was seen to leave rather than being pushed. It seems beyond strange, however, that a player who scored 451 goals in nine seasons—and dragged the club to four UEFA Champions League titles by, for example, knocking in five goals in a quarter-final tie against Bayern Munich in 2017—is not loved more by Madridistas.
It was notable, says Trueba, that during Real Madrid's recent player presentations of Alvaro Odriozola, signed from Real Sociedad for €40 million, and the Brazilian starlet, Vinicius Jr., there was no chanting of Ronaldo's name at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. Even the name of Mesut Ozil, who is a footnote in the club's history, was chanted by fans during the presentation of Gareth Bale in 2013 because a cohort of Real Madrid fans were upset by the decision to offload Ozil that summer to Arsenal.
As a piece of business, Real Madrid have made a €17 million profit on Ronaldo. A player in the autumn of his career has been sold for more than the club paid for him in 2009.
Sainz questions the wisdom of the decision, though, flagging the loss to Real Madrid's brand value by parting with the most famous sportsperson on the planet, according to social media followers. How too will the club fill his goalscoring void? Will he come back to haunt them?
"It depends on what Cristiano does at Juve," says Trueba. "If he scores 50 goals a season, every goal will be a dagger to the heart of Real Madrid. Knowing Florentino, he wouldn't allow Cristiano to go unless he can get another star for himself like Neymar or Kylian Mbappe. If Real Madrid only signs Courtois, Eden Hazard and Vinicius, it won't be enough; Florentino won't be happy with scant pickings—he will have a card up his sleeve."
Perez has told Real Madrid fans to expect "magnificent" additions to the squad this summer. The promise that he will revive the galactico philosophy that has been dormant since 2014 when the club signed James Rodriguez after the Colombian's heroics in that summer's FIFA World Cup finals is tantalising. It has been synonymous with his reign as club president since he announced himself to the world of football by filching Luis Figo from Barcelona in 2000.
"When Florentino first became president, nobody knew who he was," says Sainz. "He needed to generate a big bang so he linked himself to an important signing—Figo. Zidane and others followed. Then when he became president for a second time in 2009, he signed Kaka, Benzema and Cristiano. He signed Bale in 2013 because he couldn't win any titles. After he started winning Champions League trophies, he found his image grew with the club's sporting success. Until now.
"He's become crazy about Neymar. He used to be able to persuade the great stars—like Zidane, Beckham, Bale, Kaka—to join Real Madrid, but it looks like his strategy to convince them doesn't work anymore. I don't know why, but they don't fight with their clubs to join Real Madrid.
"Neymar had an agreement for a few months [to leave Paris Saint-Germain for Real Madrid], but he changed his mind and said 'No' again. Last year, Mbappe wouldn't come. The year before, Paul Pogba wouldn't come—he went to Manchester United. You would think that Neymar would be crazy about going to Real Madrid, but Neymar isn't coming."
Sainz says it will be "impossible" for Real Madrid to sign either Neymar or Mbappe this summer. Trueba believes, though, that with some time before the transfer market closes, Perez could still pull off a big transfer. However, Neymar's arrival could be a mixed blessing.
"I believe Neymar is a luxury," says Trueba. "It's like every big party produces a little bit of a hangover. He's messy. He creates disorder, fights. Romario—who was also excellent—used to do the same. Real Madrid's fanbase knows how destabilising Neymar would be. He could bring problems, but he would be a key player snatched from Barcelona. After Messi and Cristiano, he is the best in the world. He'd be welcomed with open arms. The stadium would be full to greet him.
"It's the only option Florentino has. It will be a long process—Cristiano leaves, Neymar arrives. Those declarations of Neymar saying, 'I'm staying at Paris Saint-Germain.' How many times have we seen this theatre before? 'I'm staying.' 'I'm leaving.' 'They don't love me.' I wouldn't discount Real Madrid signing him. I would be more surprised if they don't."
In the interim, Bale—who joined Real Madrid for a world-record transfer fee with a view to taking over Ronaldo's mantle—has taken centre stage. He has struggled with injuries during his five years at the club and was out of favour last season with Zidane. However, he has scored some immortalising goals—including a bicycle kick in the Champions League final win over Liverpool in May—that hints at his potential.
"Bale is obviously a gifted football player," says John Carlin, author of the fly-on-the-wall Real Madrid book White Angels. "In terms of sheer talent, he probably has as wide a repertoire as Cristiano Ronaldo. He's great in the air. He has a fantastic shot. He's immensely powerful and strong. The difference so far has been Ronaldo's ferocious competitive lust. That mad desire to prove himself the best in the world, to win all those Ballons d'Or, something almost pathological that gives him an amazing edge.
"The greatest criticism of Bale is his seemingly lethargic attitude—that he doesn't have the competitive fire Ronaldo has. We've seen Bale operate at his peak once every 10 games. Was that a function of being in Ronaldo's shadow? Now Ronaldo is gone, the spotlight is on Bale. Does he have what it takes? Does he have the right stuff?"
Real Madrid have also unveiled Vinicius Jr., an exciting young forward bought from Flamengo for €45 million. He turned 18 earlier in July. His career as a prodigy at the greatest club in the world could go one of two ways. His compatriot Gabriel Jesus, for example, has assimilated well at Manchester City. But a young player like Martin Odegaard offers a cautionary tale. The Norwegian was signed as a 16-year-old in 2015 to much fanfare. He has struggled to make an impact at the club, however, and spent the last season-and-a-half on loan with Dutch mid-table side Heerenveen.
"I lived on the inside at Real Madrid after the signing of Robinho in 2005," says Carlin. "I was there every day talking to Florentino Perez. They were wildly excited about Robinho. He was Pele's heir. That's how they sold him in Brazil. That's how Real Madrid chose to see him. I remember being shown videos of Robinho by Real Madrid insiders and their tongues were hanging out.
"In his first game for Real Madrid, he was sensational. Everyone was so excited. He was 'definitely' going to be the next Pele. But that's the thing about Brazil. It's a sort of dream machine. Brazil feeds eternally off the 1970 national team, and you're forever waiting for the next star. Neymar is very pallid. He's now 26 years old. Has Neymar really lived up to the hype? I don't think he has. By the time Messi was 26, he had won four Ballons d'Or."
Messi and a Barcelona side seeking to retain its league title await Real Madrid next season in Spain. Atletico Madrid have restocked effectively already this offseason, adding Rodri and Thomas Lemar to their ranks, and they have managed to retain the services of Antoine Griezmann. Real Madrid's new manager, Julen Lopetegui—who comes into the job under a cloud of thunder following his sacking as Spain coach on the eve of the World Cup—has been dealt a difficult hand.
"Lopetegui has a very hard job," says Sainz. "It's very complicated for the club after losing Zidane and now Cristiano—two big leaders. One thing Lopetegui has in his favour is his relationship with the Spanish players—Ramos, Isco, Lucas Vazquez. They will help him. He did a good job with the Spanish squad. He went 20 games unbeaten.
"The problem is how he will he adapt without a figure like Ronaldo—with all the goals he scored—around? It will be a year of transition. It still has great players—Modric, Toni Kroos, Casemiro, Bale, but it will be very complicated for Real Madrid to win a fourth Champions League in a row. Other teams in Spain and Europe will be stronger than last season. Real Madrid is not a favourite, but it's a candidate to win titles. I have many doubts."
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz