Feisty Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane, a former amateur boxer, is one of the proudest, most feared soccer players in the world. Yet when asked last week about the talent assembled by Real Madrid, f�tbol's answer to the Dream Team, Keane turned pale. "They're the best team I've ever played at the club level," the veteran captain told SI. "There's a magic about Real Madrid. With the players they've got, with the experience they've got, it's frightening."
How scary? Over the past two years Real Madrid has spent $159 million acquiring the Bonds, McGwire and Sosa of the sport: Brazilian striker Ronaldo, French midfielder Zinedine Zidane and Portuguese winger Luis Figo, all three of whom have won FIFA's World Player of the Year award. Throw in a handful of World Cup stars, led by Spanish forward Raul and Brazilian wingback Roberto Carlos, and you have a collection of artists worthy of the Prado.
From Zidane's artful passing to Figo's zigzagging runs to Roberto Carlos's cannonball 40-yard free kicks, Real Madrid is a team whose skills even the most soccer-phobic U.S. couch potato can enjoy. This month viewers can see Real in a European Champions League semifinal match on ESPN2 (against Italy's Juventus on May 6) and, if form holds, in the final, against AC. Milan or Inter Milan on May 28. The audience isn't likely to be let down. So captivating was Ronaldo in Real's quarterfinal match against Manchester United—scoring a hat trick at Old Trafford on April 23—that the opposing fans gave him a standing ovation. Real lost the game 4-3 but won the home-and-home series 6-5. And therein lies the appeal. In a sport often constipated by defensive play, Real barrels forward with abandon. "When you score four goals at home, you expect to go through, but you can't legislate for someone like Ronaldo," said Man U manager Sir Alex Ferguson after listening to his fans chant, "Fergie, Fergie, sign him up!"
"At Real Madrid our strategy is very clear," says team president Florentino P�rez. "We have to have the best." Real's been able to afford the best, thanks to the 2001 sale of its practice facility for $400 million, an ownership structure that defrays debt among more than 100,000 club "members" and Perez's philosophy of rarely spending money on players below the superstar level. Real Madrid has the world's best core but a relatively thin supporting cast.
Transfers are dependent in part on players' wanting to go to a team, which is why the better Real Madrid gets, the more attractive it becomes to stars. Even Manchester United, the world's most popular team, has felt Real's influence—and not just on the field. British tabloids were abuzz last week that Real was angling to buy England's national treasure, Man U winger David Beckham, for $60 million at the end of the season. Nearly lost in the talk was this remarkable fact: With all of Real Madrid's talent, Beckham might not make its starting lineup.