Real Madrid's Team of the Decade
Roberto Carlos is arguably the greatest left back in soccer history
Fernando Hierro was possibly the finest center back in Spanish history
The original Ronaldo was a phenomenon even though he often declined to train
Here's one man's choice for Real Madrid's Team of the Decade, 2000-2010:
GK: Iker Casillas
Casillas' decade started with him coming on as a sub in the final of the European Cup to rescue Real Madrid and ended with him as a World Cup-winning captain. And although the saves he made in Glasgow were, in truth, not as special as the mythology suggests, he has been consistently superb over the last 10 years -- making brilliant saves as if he were having a nice cup of tea. It would be worth watching his saves on slow-motion replays, but for one thing: Replays rarely do him justice -- it is above all the incredible speed of his reactions that separates him from the rest.
An advertising campaign stated: "I am not a galáctico, I am from Móstoles" -- the humble satellite town just outside southern Madrid. He was right too: Casillas has consciously distanced himself from a policy that ultimately failed and the reality of Madrid's galácticos was often disguised by his stunning saves. He once cost his dad an estimated €1 million ($1.3 million) by forgetting to take his Quiniela (gambling) coupon in -- the son has probably been forgiven. Madrid's player of the decade. Four leagues, two European Cups and two Zamora awards (although half of the first was in the last century). And the World Cup.
RB: Míchel Salgado
Steve McManaman described him as the "hardest man I have ever met -- a proper psychopath even in training." When Salgado departed, a banner declared: "Ten years of courage, thanks!" But, until his physical decline, he was more than that: He could play too. Not that he scored many goals -- just four in 254 league games for the club. He made The Guardian's Spanish team of the season three years running (which doesn't prove much necessarily but does show that he stood out at the time, too, not just through the mist of time). An Anglophile who spent a summer in the down-to-heel seaside report of Margate as a kid and used to take David Beckham for a weekly pint in the Irish Rover, he's now a columnist for English magazine FourFourTwo. Two European Cups and four league titles (although his role in the 2007 and 2008 successes was rather limited).
CB: Fernando Hierro
Possibly the best center back in Spanish soccer history. He almost didn't make this list because the majority of his career played out in the previous decade. But his departure in 2003 -- along with that of Claude Makelele and Vicente del Bosque -- helped usher in Madrid's decline. There is little doubt that he was missed. Hierro was a brilliant passer, and a superb leader, and he could be a horrible hard man when he needed to be. Hierro was more than just a center back -- in 1991-92, he scored 21 league goals from midfield. By the end, he was slowing down alarmingly but still had incredible presence on the pitch. Three European Cups (two in the decade), five league titles (two in the decade) and 29 goals for Spain.
CB: Iván Helguera
Helguera had the bandy-legged walk of a cowboy and was terrified of flying. He wasn't helped when a bird flew into the engine of Real Madrid's flight on one European trip, either. But he was clever on the ball and swift into the tackle. He played a key role, as a center back, in Madrid's winning the 2000 European Cup, and he also played defensive midfield for the club. Was among the country's best XI in 2003. Fabio Capello decided he didn't want Helguera when he took over as coach in 2007, but the truth is that, slowing down, lacking the edge he once had, the end had already come. Three leagues titles and two European Cups.
LB: Roberto Carlos
A truck-driver's son and a freak of nature with thighs that measured 60 cm in diameter. Arguably the greatest left back ever, he revolutionized Madrid's game. It was the fact that Roberto Carlos was such a physical beast that Madrid was able to get away with the slightly awkward tactical solution of playing Zinedine Zidane nominally on the left. As Del Bosque put it: "Roberto Carlos can cover the entire wing all on his own."
Carlos scored 71 goals in his 11 years at Madrid -- although the truth is his free kicks were rarely as good as it was made out and certainly could never lived up to that one against France. And even he admitted that he had no idea how that had happened. It was, he revealed, down to the "floaty" ball. Mostly, he threatened the reproductive future of the poor players in the wall rather than the net. But he couldn't half hit it: A speedometer measured one shot at well over 100 km an hour. Having stood right next to him once during a shooting session, this columnist can confirm that the noise when he struck the ball properly was deafening. Four leagues (three in the decade) and three European Cups (two in the decade).
RM: Steve McManaman
OK, so here's the one where there's a little bit of bias but stick with it for a moment ... Macca was better than David Beckham (who won only one league title and who, the first six months and the last three months apart, was very good without ever being brilliant) and maybe even Luis Figo. Figo was Spain's best player in 2001 but otherwise struggled to reproduce that form. Although McManaman was never the dominant creative force he had been for Liverpool, he had the intelligence to be consistently useful for Madrid. As Johan Cruyff once put it: "He is everyone's best partner on the pitch."
McManaman won two league titles and two European Cups (although he was really a central figure in only the first of each). He was the man of the match in the European Cup final in Paris at the end of his first season and then found that the club, under a new president, suddenly wanted to ship him out, telling coach Vincente Del Bosque not to pick him and leaving him in the cold. With the help of some teammates who defended him, McManaman stood his ground and after a three-month absence ended up back in the team -- this time on the other side of the pitch to accommodate Figo. Then Zidane came and he was pushed back down the pecking order again. But he remained useful. Scored in Paris, scored at the Camp Nou in the semifinal against Barcelona in 2002 -- and scored a ridiculous goal against Real Oviedo. Have you ever seen Luis Figo do this? Case closed.
CM: Claude Makelele
The man who defined a role, giving a name to a whole new tactical position. And if it wasn't an especially glamorous or memorable one -- and in truth, it wasn't -- it was an important one. Ask his teammates. Makelele scored only one goal for Madrid but it wouldn't have swapped him for anyone. It was Makelele who freed up Zidane -- and remember that when Zidane went back to France, he took Makelele with him -- and enabled the system to work. Makelele never tried to do anything clever and rarely did anything that made you think, "Wow, he's good," but he read the game superbly. When he had his dispute with Madrid, his teammates were genuinely concerned. Rightly so: Makelele won two leagues and a European Cup, and although he was only one factor, Madrid's decline began when he left. Mind you, the day he chose to turn up at Madrid's training ground and plead poverty -- it probably wasn't the best day to do so in a Ferrari so flashy that even his teammates were open-mouthed.
CM: Zinedine Zidane
Sometimes computer keys don't do a player justice. One time was in Valladolid when Zidane pirouetted -- yes pirouetted -- around the keeper ... and then put the ball over the bar. As a journalist you just didn't know what to write. The fact that he had missed made it all the better somehow, as if he had produced a piece of art for art's sake, as if it was a modern version of Pelé's miss in 1970.
Zidane's Madrid career began with people complaining that he was a millstone around his team's neck -- one columnist described him as a talisman: "If Madrid really, really need to win, all they have to do is leave Zidane out" -- but it ended with him bowing out silently against Villarreal in 2006 and feted as one of the all-time greats. That might be pushing it (as a Madrid player at least) but rarely has there been a footballer as elegant. He glided through games and scored wonderful goals. The one that really sticks in this columnist's mind is a wonderful piece of footwork against Deportivo, but of course the goal everyone talks about is the iconic goal in Madrid's recent history -- the winner in the 2002 European Cup final. Also won two league titles.
Yes, yes, he's out of position -- but Raúl did occasionally play there (he was superb on the left in the 1996-97 title-winning team) and there are few genuine candidates for the role. For a brief moment, there was a chance that Raúl would be left out of this team altogether -- after all, his very best came last century -- but ultimately there was no way he could be overlooked.
It says something about his competitive spirit and his obsession with goals and records (the Champions League goal-scoring record, above all) that he chose to go to Germany and not Qatar or the United States -- and it is that attitude that carried him through an astonishing career, even if the truth is he was, by the end, no longer worthy of a place in the Madrid starting XI. Four league titles (although his role in 2006-07 was minor) and two European Cups in this decade alone, he is Madrid's all-time top scorer. He scored in both European Cup finals, had the winner in the Intercontinental Cup and was twice Champions League top scorer, in 1999-2000 and 2000-2001. Pichichi in La Liga 2001 (and 1999).
CF: Ruud Van Nistelrooy
Rutergus Johannes Martinus Van Nistelrooij. The only Real Madrid player to be (my) Player of the Year over the last decade, Ruud almost single-handedly took Madrid to an extraordinary and barely plausible title in 2006-2007, scoring 25 goals in 37 games despite being virtually starved of service. As one El País columnist put it: "He has gone from the plenty of the jungle to the desert."
The argument against him would be that he did not do it for enough seasons to be included here, but his impact was so extraordinary in that 2006-2007 season, when taking the title from Barcelona appeared impossible, that he sneaks in. He scored 64 goals in 96 games for Real Madrid. Ultimately, injury and age brought his time at the club to a close. The pity was that he did not arrive sooner.
The original Ronaldo. The phenomenon. A beast. By the end, Ronaldo was a problem for Madrid -- out of shape, uncommitted and in conflict with Capello. But he had been unbelievable. He scored 58 seconds into his debut and led Real Madrid to the league title in 2003 with 23 goals. The following season he was among the league's best XI with 24 goals in 32 games. And whenever he was one on one, you knew that there was only going to be one outcome. Fast, powerful, absurdly talented, his finishing was simply impeccable -- he had 83 goals in 127 games for Madrid.
Ronaldo didn't train that hard -- and for "that hard," you could sometimes read "at all" -- but still delivered on the pitch. Even his teammates put up with his laid-back attitude because they knew he was worth it. One player recalls: "We used to say to the manager, 'Boss, if Ronnie doesn't want to train, don't make him train.' Ronaldo would say, 'Relax, I'll score you two goals'. And then he'd go and score two goals." Won two league titles (although had gone by the time Madrid actually clinched that third, in 2007) but not the European Cup.
Coach: Vicente del Bosque. Two league titles, two European Cups ... and the team got rid of him.