Los Galacticos. To become one and join the elite club of stars is the dream of many footballers. To wear the white shirt; to shake hands with the infamous Florentino Perez; to perform some keepy-uppies on the Santiago Bernabéu pitch in front of a hundred flashing cameras; to hear the words ‘Bienvenido al Real Madrid’.
For some, that glory never ends. Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos and Zinedine Zidane never looked back. For others, that’s where the glory ends. Jonathan Woodgate, Thomas Gravesen and Julian Faubert can turn away now. For others it’s a mixed bag.
This summer has seen two more ‘Galacticos’ head through the door, as Álvaro Morata and James Rodriguez head to the Premier League and Bundesliga respectively. Questions circulate as to whether Los Blancos were glamourising their ability or suppressing it.
With that in mind, here is an XI of players that proved the latter to be true, and became true stars elsewhere.
1. Goalkeeper – Santiago Cañizares
Maybe not the glamorous start you were all waiting for, but a worthy one all the same. Born and bred in Madrid, Cañizares spent a total of 11 years associated with the club but never truly broke through as the first-team starter between the Bernabéu sticks.
After 54 appearances, Cañizares switched the white of Real Madrid for the white of Valencia. Ten years of first-team football, 418 appearances, two league titles, two cup medals and a UEFA Cup win later and I think it’s safe to say that the move was a success.
2. Right Back – Juanfran
Few things can be more painful than seeing a man you let go become a success at your local rivals. Well that is the case with Juanfran, as the Atletico Madrid full-back did, in fact, begin his career at their bitterest enemies.
The 32-year-old made only six first-team appearances two years for Real Madrid, being shipped out to Osasuna for €10m in 2006. After 153 appearances in Pamplona, Juanfran returned to the capital with Atletico Madrid.
Seven years later and the Spanish international remains one of the best right-backs in world football. He was part of Atletico’s title fairytale in 2013/14 and has helped Diego Simeone’s men to reaching two Champions League finals.
Unfortunately, both of those finals were lost to Real Madrid so Juanfran can’t quite have the last laugh, yet…
3. Centre Back – Ezequiel Garay
Ezequiel Garay arrived in Madrid with a solid domestic reputation, after a successful four-year spell with Racing Santander. At £8.5m, the Argentinean was not the most high-profile of signings, but he was a solid addition to a defence that was losing Fabio Cannavaro to Juventus.
After a fairly successful first season – making 23 appearances – José Mourinho’s arrival the following summer demoted Garay to fourth-choice centre-back. He was soon sold to SL Benfica as part of the deal to bring Fabio Coentrão to the Bernabeu.
His spell in Portugal was a successful one, and his continental stock rose attracting the interest of Manchester United and Chelsea. He opted, however, to move to Russia with Zenit St.Petersburg and immediately won the league title in 2014/15.
He is now back in La Liga, having signed for Valencia in a €20m deal in August 2016.
4. Centre Back – Walter Samuel
Walter Samuel, a name with enough burly connotations to make any striker shiver. The Argentinean was purchased by Real Madrid in a €25m transfer, after impressing in Serie A with AS Roma.
Samuel was signed to be a leader in Real Madrid’s defence and to keep the more fragile attacking players in-line and in-check. Despite making 40 appearances in the 2004/05 season, it was to be his solitary campaign in Spain, as he moved back to Italy with Internazionale.
Il Muro (The Wall) was back where he belonged, and intent on staying there. He spent nine seasons at the San Siro, winning five Serie A titles, three Coppa Italias and one Champions League in 2009/10. Real Madrid’s loss was Inter’s gain as Samuel became a legend in Milan.
5. Left Back – Zé Roberto
It’s been a long time since Zé Roberto last pulled on the white of Real Madrid – 19 years to be precise – but the Brazilian veteran is still going strong. Now at the tender age of 43-years-old, Roberto is a current starter in Brazilian champions Palmeiras’ starting line-up, bombing up and down the left-wing at every opportunity.
His two season spell in Madrid was just the flint to ignite Roberto’s career, but he did pick up a Champions League winning medal from it. The versatile Brazilian made his biggest mark in the Bundesliga, making 282 appearances in ten years of action with Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich.
With the latter, Roberto won an incredible four league and cup doubles. He was a cult hero in Bavaria, renowned for being able to play in almost every position on the pitch. His career shows no signs of slowing down, as he has made 97 appearances in two years for Palmeiras.
6. Central Defensive Midfield – Claude Makélélé
Only a few players in football history have earned themselves an entry into the sport’s dictionary. Johan Cruyff inspired ‘The Cruyff Turn’. Jean-Marc Bosman created the ‘Bosman Rule’. Then there’s Claude Makélélé. The ‘Makélélé Role’ is one of minimum glamour, maximum effectiveness.
Makélélé’s spell Madrid was by no means forgettable. He won two La Liga titles and one Champions League in a three-year spell at the Santiago Bernabéu, racking up 140 appearances along the way. However, the juxtaposition of industrial midfield play with Los Galacticos was too much for Florentino Perez to handle, and he sold Makélélé to Chelsea in the summer of 2003.
The Frenchman thrived in London. He won two Premier League titles and became an icon in the defensive midfield role. Chelsea loved him, José Mourinho loved him, everyone loved him. Makélélé will never be forgotten by football fans, and Perez’s decision to sell him looks one of his worst to date.
As Zinedine Zidane said: “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you’ve sold the engine?”
7. Central Midfielder – Wesley Sneijder
When Inter won the Champions League in 2010, there were few players on the planet that were more valuable than Wesley Sneijder. The 33-year old, who started his career as another Ajax boy wonder, moved to Madrid in 2007 for €27m. He was the second most expensive Dutchman of all time, and the pressure was on.
Sneijder was a revelation in his first season in Spain. He scored nine goals in 38 appearances, including the winner in the Madrid derby, as Real Madrid won La Liga in 2007/08. He was given the holy number ’10’ shirt for his second season, but suffered injuries and only made 28 appearances. The hype was fading and his spell as a Galactico was cut short.
So the Dutchman found himself in Milan and, like Samuel, stardom awaited. His first season under José Mourinho ended in Champions League glory. He also guided Holland to the World Cup final and was reward with a spot in UEFA’s Team of the Year for 2010. A move to Galatasaray added more trophies to a sparkling cabinet in the Sneijder household.
He never did get that move to Manchester United, though…
8. Central Attacking Midfielder – Mesut Özil
When Mesut Özil signed for Arsenal in 2013, it felt like the world had temporary frozen in time. For a start, Arsene Wenger had spent over £42m on a player. Furthermore, this wasn’t just any player; this was Mesut Özil. He had just finished as the top creator in Europe with 28 assists and was widely regarded as the best attacking midfielder in the world.
So why was he at Arsenal?
Well, Özil claims that he was forced out of the club and that his coach – José Mourinho – did not have ‘faith’ in him. In a parallel manner that Makélélé’s selling irritated Zidane, Özil’s sale did not go down well with Cristiano Ronaldo who said: “He was the player who best knew my moves in front of goal…I’m angry about Özil leaving”.
It’s hard to say that the move hasn’t been a success, well, for Arsenal at least. Whilst success has been limited to a few FA Cups, Özil has been one of the Gunners’ star players and has made 42 league assists in four seasons. Oh, and he also won a World Cup…
9. Right Wing – Arjen Robben
When Arjen Robben faces up a left-back on the right side of the pitch, everybody in world football knows what is about to occur. Yet the Dutchman still performs the same, rehearsed routine, and executes it perfection. The cut-in, the shifting feet, minute touches of the ball, the left-footed curler into the corner. No matter how many times you watch it, it feels just as original and poetic as the first time.
When Robben arrived in Madrid, after a break-through spell at Chelsea, his skill-set was slightly less predictable. Yet, as with Sneijder and Özil, his spell in Spain was effective and his traditional wing-play was appreciated by the fans. The jinking runs and impermeable confidence was vibrant and worthy of the Bernabéu pitch.
It didn’t last though, unfortunately, and after two seasons the flying Dutchman was off to Bayern Munich for €25m. Robben claimed he was “forced” to leave and “didn’t want to go” but, as we’ve already seen, that’s a battle that the player rarely wins.
The 33-year-old was soon able to forget all about Madrid, however, as he embarked on a stunning career in Germany. To this date he has won 16 trophies with the Bavarian giants – including a Champions League – and has scored 131 goals in 242 appearances, an impressive goal every 1.85 games.
10. Left Wing – Samuel Eto’o
Before you start, I know what you’re going to say. ‘Samuel Eto’o on the wing? You don’t know anything.’ Yep, well actually it’s not as wrong as you think. The Cameroonian’s favoured position is on the left-wing, and he even refused to play centrally for his country in their 2014 play-off against Tunisia. He also played wide in spells for Barcelona and Inter Milan; but we all know he’s on the wing to fit the formation.
Eto’o only made seven appearances for Real Madrid’s senior team, spending the majority of his spell with the club either on loan or in the Castilla reserve side. My bet is that Madrid’s executives weren’t quite aware just how much the sale of the striker to lowly Mallorca would come back to bite them.
As it turns out, that was quite a large amount. Eto’o turned out 199 times for FC Barcelona – Madrid’s greatest rivals – and scored 130 times. He was a huge part of the Catalan club’s successful periods – under Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola – and won three league titles and two Champions Leagues in his five year spell with the club.
If that wasn’t enough, the 36-year old went on to win a major treble with Inter Milan in a prolific spell with the Italian club.
11. Striker – Gonzalo Higuaín
Speaking of goals, I introduce Gonzalo Higuaín. Hated in his homeland, loved in Italy, the Argentinean is the epitome of a ‘Marmite’ player. He arrived in Madrid with a buzzing reputation – having scored ten goals in 17 league games for River Plate – and, in all honesty, didn’t disappoint.
His career in Spain was a turbulent one, and his first few seasons were clouded with doubts regarding his consistency. In 2009/10, it all clicked, and Higuaín hit 29 goals in all competitions; only Lionel Messi scored more in La Liga. In total he hit 121 goals in 264 games for Real Madrid, yet never quite managed to oust Karim Benzema as Los Blancos’ starting striker.
He couldn’t accept the supporting role anymore and moved to Napoli in a €40m move. Whilst the world knew of Higuaín’s goal-scoring prowess, no-one quite knew just how high his limits were. Well, 91 goals in 146 games should give you a good idea. He became an icon in Naples, and some eve compared his status to that of Diego Maradona.
That was somewhat reversed, however, when he decided to move to league rivals Juventus in a record €90m move last summer. Whilst the hero became the foe in southern Italy, he won the hearts of Juve fans with another prolific season – 32 goals in 52 games – as the Old Lady won Serie A and reached the final of the Champions League.
12. The Reserves
As if this array of talent wasn’t enough, there’s a diamond-encrusted set of reserves in case any of these bitter Galacticos picks up an injury.
The star of the pack is Ángel Di Maria who many would say deserves a spot in the XI but misses out due to his lukewarm spell at Manchester United. It’s ironic that the Argentinean could get into Real Madrid’s team, but not into this team of players that couldn’t get into Real Madrid’s team. Keeping up?
Some players have taken a step down to a more appropriate level after leaving Madrid, and have thrived in their own right. Pedro León had an impressive spell with Getafe, and goalkeeper Fernando Pacheco is now vice-captain at over-achieving Alavés.
On the continent, Fabinho has become one of the most-wanted talents in Europe, having converted from a right-back to a defensive midfielder at AS Monaco, and José Callejon is a crucial part in Mauricio Sarri’s Napoli side.
Finally, in the Premier League, Juan Mata has gone onto become one of Europe’s best attacking midfielders, Rafael van der Vaart was a fans’ favourite at Tottenham Hotspur after leaving Madrid and Esteban Cambiasso had a great season at Leicester City ‘before they were cool’ (he also won the Champions League with Inter Milan, just so you know).