Real Madrid’s English era: How Becks and Macca rocked Europe in white

Nostalgia
Real Madrid's Steve McManaman and Luis Figo celebrate Champions League victory over Manchester United. Old Trafford, Manchester, April 2003.

David Beckham last pulled on the famous all-white strip of Real Madrid in 2007. In 2022, a full 15 years later, he remains the last Englishman to do so.

Yet things were once very different. Between 1999 and 2007, four English players turned out for Los Blancos: Steve McManaman; Beckham; Michael Owen; and Jonathan Woodgate.

This is the first part in a series of three articles that will look back on the English mini-era in Madrid, assessing the four individuals’ vastly differing contributions and how they’ve been viewed through the passage of time, and pondering chances of seeing an English male player at arguably the world’s biggest club ever again.

Macca’s European triumph

May 24, 2000, Stade de France. Glory in the City of Light. Real Madrid beat Valencia 3-0 in the UEFA Champions League final to take home their eighth European Cup.

By starting – and scoring – in that showpiece event, Steve McManaman became the first English player to win Europe’s premier competition with a non-English club.

And when Real overcame Bayer Leverkusen at Hampden Park two years later, McManaman added a second European Cup to his palmares.

But the then 30-year-old only came on as a substitute in that latter encounter. It was a sign: McManaman was slowly becoming more peripheral in the Spanish capital.

Just nine starts in the ensuing 2002-03 season made that ever clearer, before two more events at the end of that campaign pushed him closer to the door.

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READ: Steve McManaman: I had to turn games for Liverpool; seven could do it at Real

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The first was the unceremonious sacking of manager Vicente Del Bosque, whose trust McManaman had gradually gained over the course of his four-year stint in Madrid.

The next, ironically, was the arrival of Beckham, who pushed McManaman further down the pecking order in an already congested midfield area.

As it turned out, McManaman stayed for the 2003-04 pre-season, helping his new compatriot to settle in, but not long later, he was gone.

It had, however, been an incredible stay in Spain for the Bootle-born midfielder, picking up two La Liga titles, a UEFA Super Cup and a Spanish Super Cup to go with his twin European successes.

If his extraordinary scissor-kick goal in the 2000 Champions League final was the high point, then there were plenty of other moments that marked his class too.

He was instrumental in Real’s 2000-01 title triumph – their first in four years – playing in as many as seven positions during the campaign, and recording eight assists.

And his wonderful chipped finish in the 2002 Champions League semi-final Clasico not only landed Los Merengues a first win at the Camp Nou since 1983 but was the killer second away goal that all but sealed his team’s place in the final.

Such was his impact that Del Bosque, four years after his own exit, told Spanish newspaper MARCA that McManaman – alongside Geremi – had been the most important player in his group.

“I was very happy with Macca,” Del Bosque said. “He was a gentleman, a stupendous guy; he always had a smile, he never complained, he was great, a leader.

“He related to everyone very well; he united people. He had a bad time [towards the end] with Achilles pain, but every day he trained with the same attitude.

“He was exemplary and a very good footballer too. A fantastic player in every sense.”

High praise indeed, and McManaman’s indelible impact was all the more impressive given he had been only the second-ever English player at Real after Laurie Cunningham.

Considering their respective spells at Madrid, it was interesting to note the parallels. Both McManaman and Cunningham were gifted wingers who were labelled as brilliant but inconsistent, both were misused by England, and both were moved on from Madrid once they were deemed to have served their purpose.

And if McManaman was already leaving with cult status, he probably embellished that even further among the fanatical Ultras Sur when, following his departure, he criticised the “Disneyfication” of Real Madrid that he believed the not-always-popular galactico policy had been responsible for.

‘A symbol of modern-day stardom’

As the 2003-04 season clicked into gear there was, then, a lot for Beckham to live up to as he took on the mantle of being England’s biggest footballing export.

His long-winded, will-he-won’t-he transfer from Manchester United had already generated a media frenzy throughout 2003, but that was ratcheted up to a whole new level following his move to Madrid.

His glitzy unveiling – where he arrived in a baby blue suit accompanied by classical arias – hinted at what was to come, with thousands turning out at the club’s training ground to get their first sighting of him in white, and paparazzi accompanying his every move.

But beyond the initial buzz, the Londoner had plenty of doubters to overcome. Some thought his game would be too limited.

And it would certainly have been interesting to witness the first meeting between Francisco Pavon and Beckham after the former’s comments the season before when Real had met Manchester United in the Champions League knockouts.

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David Beckham England Free Kick

READ: A tribute to David Beckham & the art of a perfectly-placed free-kick

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“I like Ryan Giggs more than Beckham because he has more depth in his game,” Pavon said. “He’s more skilful with the ball at his feet and maybe Beckham is a bit limited by only playing on the wing and sending over crosses to the strikers.

“Maybe he could play well in central midfield, because he moves the ball well. He’s a bit tied down on the wing and he doesn’t have a real burst of speed to get away from a full-back such as Roberto Carlos. Giggs is more difficult because he is faster.”

And it wasn’t just Pavon who went public with his doubts, with even McManaman implying before his exit that Beckham would face a job just to get in the side.

“We have a very good squad, imagine what it would be like if we signed a player like Beckham,” the ex-Liverpool winger said.

“It’s difficult, [Beckham and Luis Figo] both play in the same position and Luis is a good friend of mine as well as being a fantastic player.”

Some thought the England man had been signed as a celebrity vehicle. Real president Florentino Perez did nothing to dispel that with his words at the 28-year-old’s unveiling, calling the England skipper “a symbol of modern-day stardom.”

The nature of the club’s pre-season didn’t help either, with an 18-day tour of Asia being criticised by players and pundits alike, who believed it was more a marketing exercise for ‘Brand Beckham’ than an effective way of conditioning the group for the campaign ahead.

Finally, there were those who believed he wouldn’t settle, with rumours circulating that Del Bosque’s replacement in the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu dugout – Carlos Queiroz – had only been brought in to help their new £25million recruit find his bearings.

But Beckham – as he had always done – let his feet do the talking.

He helped his new side win the Spanish Super Cup in August, scoring a header as Madrid beat Real Mallorca. He scored again after just three minutes of his La Liga debut. And he went on to notch five times in just his first 16 outings.

He also fitted in well on the right of a midfield diamond which saw Esteban Cambiasso at the base, Figo on the left and Zinedine Zidane at the tip. Los Merengues were in contention for domestic and European honours. Or at least there were right up until the spring when disaster struck.

On March 17 at the Montjuic Olympic Stadium in Barcelona, Queiroz’s men lost the Copa Del Rey final to Real Zaragoza, despite Beckham opening the scoring in the first half.

Then in early April, they went out of the Champions League to Monaco on away goals, losing 3-1 in the principality after taking a commanding 4-2 lead at the Bernabeu. To make matters worse, Fernando Morientes, on loan at Monaco from Madrid, scored in both legs.

Finally – and most painfully – they capitulated in the La Liga home straight, losing an unthinkable seven of their last ten matches to end up fourth, behind champions Valencia, Barcelona and Deportivo La Coruna.

With a squad high on quality but short on quantity, minds went back to that fateful jaunt around Asia that seemed at least partly responsible for their untimely end-of-term fatigue.

But if the silverware hadn’t arrived – for which Queiroz paid the price with his job – Beckham had at least been excellent individually in his first year in Madrid.

And that – coupled with the impression that McManaman had made before him – not only showed the Madrid hierarchy that English players were worth their salt, but it also showed fellow members of Beckham’s golden generation back in England that succeeding in Spain was possible.

By Rob Hemingway

This is the first in a three-part series telling the story of the four English players who went to Real Madrid in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Stay tuned to Planet Football for the second and third instalments, featuring Owen, Woodgate and a bit more Becks. You can never have too much Becks.


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