With its successful League of Nations squad crammed full of world-class players, Real Madrid revels in its official status as European champions and self-appointed status as World’s Most Glamorous Club™. The World Cup serves as a glorified player recruitment expo for the club’s publicity-hungry President and he duly moves to expensively acquire a couple of the competition’s stand-out performers.
One is South American and the other European. One is a World Cup winner, a highly effective midfielder and sublime passer of the ball, the other a young and skilful goal-scoring forward with an outstanding future ahead of him. Both are ostentatiously anointed as the club’s newest galactico signings. Welcome to the gilded world of Real Madrid – the Madrid of 1958 rather than 2014.
The club President here is Santiago Bernabéu, the World Cup had just taken place in Sweden and the big-name signings were a Brazilian, Didi, and a Swede, Agne Simonsson, but broadly the parallels between 1958 and 2014 are uncanny. Fifty six years on and it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same at the Spanish giants. The story of those 1958 deals should offer a cautionary history lesson to modern-day Madrid as to why expensively acquiring players because of a handful of good World Cup performances often makes poor football sense. This appears a lesson stubbornly unlearned.
Projecting an illusion of glamour, grandiosity and power was as important for Real Madrid in 1958 as it is today, albeit for quite different reasons. Contemporary Madrid is a frightening eleven-headed hydra that devours the souls of brilliant footballers for marketing-driven sustenance. It’s not the most noble of existences but it does just about represent a step-up from being a co-opted sporting and cultural tool of positive foreign diplomacy for the Franco regime.
Sustaining regular success on the pitch, whether to fit hubristic publicity campaigns or bring legitimacy to a backward regime, needs the same raw materials: world-class footballers, and in a team that already featured stars like Alfredo Di Stéfano, Ferenc Puskás, Héctor Rial, Raymond Kopa, Paco Gento and José Santamaría, only the most talented of newcomers could stand a chance of flourishing in such exalted company.
Pelé may have been Brazil’s breakthrough player in Sweden (and Madrid would make repeated attempts over the years to bring him to Spain,) but the mastermind of the World Cup win was their captain, Didi. A long-established star for both Botafogo and his country, Didi was the man who bent the tempo of matches to his will. A consummate passer of the ball over short and long distances, he was particularly renowned for his ability from set pieces and even boasted his own trademark dipping free kick style named the folha seca.
Bernabéu pressed ahead with the deal to acquire him and Didi arrived in early 1959 to great fanfare. New player unveilings at Real Madrid then as now were extravagant, showy events and Didi was introduced to Madrid’s supporters as ‘a world champion and the world’s greatest player’. The Brazilian was 26 years old and, significantly, 6 years younger than Di Stéfano whom he was expected to initially complement then ultimately replace.
Madrid’s succession policy would be dashed to pieces on the unyielding rock that was their Argentinian playmaker though. A fiercely proud and deeply obstinate man still playing at the peak of his considerable powers, Di Stéfano openly bristled at the very thought he might be eased towards the exit by the new incumbent. On Didi’s first day at the club a photographer asked the two South American midfielders to pose shaking hands for the camera. Di Stefano took Didi’s hand and without the remotest flicker of a smile said quietly to his new teammate: “I hear you’re my successor. Well, you’re too old and you’re not good enough”.
This precipitated a self-confessed campaign by Di Stéfano to undermine the Brazilian at every opportunity, one aided in large part by Didi’s own struggles to adapt to Madrid’s complex team hierarchy. For much of his career Didi had been at the fulcrum of whichever team he was playing for and teammates were selected based upon how they dovetailed with his playing style. This arrangement had strong parallels with the earlier careers of his new teammates Puskás and Kopa, both of whom had similarly been the creative hubs of their respective club sides before moving to the Spanish capital. That that pair had prospered in Madrid came about only because they were willing to curb their natural games and defer to the seniority of Di Stéfano.
Didi either did not realise he would have to adapt to suit this structure, or he wasn’t capable of doing so. Certainly the pace and the physicality of the Spanish game appeared problematic for him and his confidence wasn’t helped by Di Stéfano repeatedly grumbling at him for slowing Madrid’s build up. When the Argentinian started to contemptuously take possession of the ball off the foot of his Brazilian teammate during games, it was clear there was a major problem. The two players were competing rather than complementing each other and this was a war that could have only one winner.
After just 19 appearances Madrid’s management concluded that Didi couldn’t flourish in a team cast almost entirely in Di Stéfano’s image. The Brazilian was loaned to Valencia and it was no coincidence that he started to show some of his World Cup form playing again for a team that was happy to look to him for a creative lead. Valencia seemed enthusiastic to sign Didi permanently, but Madrid would only sanction a return to Botafogo. His time in Spain lasted less than 12 months but Didi prospered back home and would remain a key figure for Brazil when they retained the World Cup in 1962. Real Madrid found a better midfield balance with the arrival of the younger, stronger and less stellar Luis Del Sol from Real Betis as his replacement.
Real Madrid’s second galactico signing from the 1958 World Cup was Agne Simonsson, a clever ball-playing centre forward as adept at creating goals as he was scoring them. Simonsson had caught the eye with fine form and goals all the way through to the Final against Brazil, but with Didi taking the available foreigner slot the Swede would have to wait before his Madrid move was finalised. That wait did not take as long as he might have expected.
While Didi’s career with Madrid was floundering, the 23-year-old Örgryte forward was going from strength to strength that same year winning the 1959 Swedish Golden Ball and being voted Sweden’s Sportsman of the Year. The highlight of his season came at Wembley with two well-taken goals and an all-round outstanding performance for his national side as they outclassed England.
Substantially enriched by the sizeable £14,000 signing on fee he received for this first professional contract, Simonsson finally joined up with Madrid early in 1960 but soon faced the same daunting Di Stéfano shaped obstacle in his path that had reduced Didi to irrelevance. The intention had been to make Simonsson Madrid’s main attacking focus and allow Di Stéfano to concentrate on playing a deeper role to preserve his ageing legs, but this was given short-shrift by a player who remained Madrid’s best forward as well as their best midfielder. While not actively hostile to Simonsson in the same way he had been with Didi, Di Stéfano still rendered him a peripheral figure by continually making runs into the same areas of the pitch the Swede occupied. Simonsson made just three appearances before dropping to the bench and spending the following season out on loan at Real Sociedad. By 1963 he too, like Didi, was back in his homeland at his former club with only his bank account richer for his Spanish experience.
Both these acquisitions were the right players at the right time for the wrong club. Di Stéfano’s dictatorial command over Real Madrid’s team was well-established and readily accepted as a small price to pay for the phenomenal success he inspired. Bringing in the right new players was a strategy that needed to be executed with delicacy, but Santiago Bernabéu eschewed clever team balancing for some quick World Cup driven headline grabbing. Fast forward fifty-six years and the purchases of 2014 World Cup stand-outs Toni Kroos and Jamés Rodriguez seem to follow a similar pattern: both are fine players but not necessarily ones who will fit seamlessly into Real Madrid’s team, particularly Jamés.
Madrid’s impulsive and ultimately ill-judged 1958 galactico spree cost £150,000 in transfer fees and wages, a vast amount of money back then but just one thousandth of the total financial outlay the club has committed to with their key 2014 signings. Didi and Simonsson managed just 22 first-team appearances between them and Madrid’s current management will be fervently hoping Kroos and Jamés Rodriguez can make a greater impact. Or perhaps just sell a lot of replica shirts. It’s hard to know what barometer Real Madrid use to gauge success these days.