Let me be honest here. I don’t like people in my bedroom. I think of it as a private space, a “safe space,” if you like, one of the only places where my misfit mind can be itself. Only under very special circumstances—not to be dwelt on here—are visitors granted admittance to the sanctuary. When this happens, it does not take long before I find them staring in disbelief at my Real Madrid scarf—a fine woven scarf from the 1980s. If they are astonished by its age, they are even more astonished by my affiliation. “I didn’t know you were a madridista!” they say. They don’t realize they’ve hit upon a very sensitive subject. I no longer identify myself as a madridista in public.
I started to feel uneasy about Real Madrid being my team with the arrival of Spanish businessman Florentino Perez as club president in 2000. Perez, a long-time madridista himself, won the elections after promising to sign Barcelona’s captain, Luis Figo, and to pay off Real Madrid’s huge debt. He kept both promises. In the years to come, he also signed Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, and David Beckham. The team came to be known as Los galacticos—the superstars—and the trophies didn’t take long to arrive (two Spanish Ligas, two Spanish Super Cups, one UEFA Champions League, one UEFA Super Cup, and one Intercontinental Cup in the first three years of his presidency). Most Real Madrid supporters loved Perez. At last, the club had become a refined enterprise managed by a clear-eyed businessman who understood advanced metrics and delivered results. His arrival seemed to be the best thing to have ever happened to Real Madrid.
Still, a small number of madridistas like myself saw things rather differently. When Perez signed Figo, we had mixed feelings: we were delighted to see our eternal enemy suffer but concerned about the unwritten rule that had just been broken. If a paycheck could cause Figo to switch sides, what else could happen? We had grown up admiring the likes of Paco Buyo, Emilio Butragueño, and Ivan Zamorano, iconic players who would never have thought of leaving the team to join Barcelona—such an outrageous treason was inconceivable. But Figo’s transfer changed everything. We’d assumed that our players were madridistas like us, but now a dangerous precedent had been set, one that endangered the integrity of madridismo.
With our integrity under threat, we radicalized. Perez could bring as many glorious moments as he liked, but he was never going to win us over. Not all is fair in love and war. To our eyes, he was contaminating the tribalism that had made football more than just an exchange of consumer goods.
Football might have become sophisticated, but this didn’t turn it into something respectable. On the contrary, by becoming sophisticated and snobbish, football had lost its essence. That is, allowing the fans to participate in the representation of a (symbolic) battle between two enemies through choreographies and chants. Instead, more and more madridistas turned from participants to mere spectators, and our stadium mutated from a battleground where everyone got involved—from the striker to the handicapped fan sitting in his wheelchair—to a sort of window display with celebrities on the field and groupies on the stands.
In the mid 2000s, the team suddenly stopped winning trophies. Consequently, the vast majority of madridistas turned their backs on Perez, who ended up resigning. I felt relieved, only to see him coming back three years later. He was then welcomed as the leader the club desperately needed. Perez rewarded such enthusiasm by signing Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo, and by expanding the brand overseas. The outcome can be seen at Real Madrid’s website today: a banner encourages people all around the world to apply for the so-called “supporters card.” The advertisement continues: “No matter how far away you are, we want to feel close to you. Become a madridista!”
Meanwhile, “old school” madridistas who have confronted Perez have been condemned to ostracism. As one of them, Alex, puts it: “The only thing I really enjoy about the football experience today is the fact that I hang out with my friends.” Another dissident who goes by the name of Juan agrees: “I owe Real Madrid some of the friends I have, and the moments with them are worth more than any result.” In other words: if it weren’t for the sense of community they’ve developed among themselves—the same sense of community Real Madrid has destroyed for a broader, more impersonal fan base—they wouldn’t be there anymore.
Upon Perez’s return, the status quo was not only re-established but strengthened. Perez became Real Madrid’s emperor and the club the most profitable corporation under his command, while the identity of the fan more fully merged with that of the consumer. The equation that explained the new dynamic was simple: good results and juicy income, not necessarily in that order. Nothing else mattered.
At this point, I couldn’t take it anymore. I felt nauseated by everything surrounding me: the board, the players, fellow supporters. The decisive moment for me was Raul’s goodbye. After 16 seasons playing for Real Madrid, only 500 fans turned up to say farewell—as opposed to the 50,000 fans who saluted the signing of Kaka, or the 80,000 who cheered Cristiano Ronaldo during his presentation. I decided to quit—I gave back my membership card, I stopped attending games at home, and I ceased traveling to other cities. I accepted defeat, and I wasn’t alone in embracing an early retirement. Many of us gave up.
If I am still a madridista it’s because I have no choice. As the Argentinian saying goes, you can change everything—your home, your significant other, your religion—except your football team. Nonetheless, the affiliation is painful. It’s incredibly sad to be attached to something I despise. That’s why I tend not to talk about it. I’d chosen to live with it as a sinner lives with his sin—doing penance in my own emotional desert. That old woven scarf hanging in my room is the last trace of a dazzling past.