Interview with Football Philosopher Jorge Valdano "The Pitch Is a Jungle"

Jorge Valdano, is considered the superbrain of football. Here he talks about capitalism and creativity.

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Valdano the entrepreneur: A romantic and a capitalist
Montserrat Velando/Contacts/Agentur Focus

Valdano the entrepreneur: A romantic and a capitalist

Jorge Valdano knows the sport inside out: as a Real Madrid player, he won both the Spanish championship and the UEFA Cup twice in the 1980s. As an international, he scored one of Argentina's three goals in the 1986 World Cup Final against Germany. As a coach, he led Real Madrid to the Spanish league title in 1995. As a manager, he turned the club into a global enterprise and invested €200 million in the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and David Beckham. And because he describes his obsession with the sport in newspaper columns and books, happily quoting Shakespeare and Jorge Luis Borges, he is fondly referred to in South America and Spain as the philosopher of football. He has just published his latest volume on the subject entitled On Football. Valdano (50) studied law and now works as a corporate consultant in Madrid. In October he will be taking up his post as director of Escuela de Estudios Universitarios, a soccer college established by Real Madrid and the European University of Madrid.

SPIEGEL: Señor Valdano, most employees at your company Make-A-Team are exsportsmen and -women, including Spain's former goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta. What can the world of commerce learn from football?

Jorge Valdano: The idea behind my company is to apply the principles of football management to the business world. We show the executives of major Spanish corporations how to motivate and provide leadership, resolve conflicts and nurture talent. The analogies between the sport and business are fairly obvious. Companies need to earn money and achieve their targets. But the world we live in is full of frustration, anxiety and stress, all of which subverts these goals and strategies. In my view, football can offer solutions to all of these problems. Ultimately, it is just a metaphor for life.

SPIEGEL: That sounds suspiciously like a cliché.

Valdano: Not remotely! A company's workforce is no different from a sports team. Both are microcosms of humankind. Football helps us understand who we are. It reflects what is happening in our cities: the commercialism and the competition, the ugly and the beautiful aspects. And why is it so compelling as a metaphor? Because it is a world of exaggeration, of excess. It produces powerful images, images we can all relate to.

SPIEGEL: Changing ends for a moment: What could football learn from business?

Valdano: First and foremost, the ability to manage yourself well. For example, clubs might learn to spend less than they make.

SPIEGEL: As manager of Real Madrid, you splashed out over €200 million for stars like Figo, Zidane, Ronaldo and Beckham.

Valdano: That's right. But it worked. When we took over back in 2000, the club had 40 professionals in its squad. Their salaries accounted for 97 percent of its annual budget. Real were €300 million in debt. We sold club real estate to reduce our debts and introduced a new concept: the galácticos, the extraterrestrials. The plan was to buy a world-class player every year, thereby creating a global brand identity for the club, and simultaneously integrate budding stars from our youth academy. Today, salaries make up just 50 percent of the budget, and are almost covered by our merchandising income. Real Madrid accomplished something that ought to be the norm. Today the club has €100 million in the bank. Last year alone it earned €50 million. Not in spite of the stars, but because of them.

SPIEGEL: Yet Real Madrid haven't won the league title since 2004 and have gone through four coaches in the process. How long can a club keep raking in €50 million profit without picking up any silverware?

Valdano: Hold your horses. Through 2003, we won seven trophies. What's more, in my view, the final scores often cloud the reality. People think it's a disaster whenever a team loses - although the club might be in sound financial health. I ask you: Isn't the other way around more absurd - when a team wins title after title but piles up debts in the millions?

SPIEGEL: You resigned 18 months ago. Why?

Valdano: Restructuring the club was like running a revolution. It was draining. Back then I was the club's only spokesman. I was highly visible, only too visible. At the end of the day, I was worn out. And I probably wore out everyone around me as well. Throughout my career - as a professional, coach and manager - I have always made a point of taking a breather every three or four years.

Valdano's friend Maradona

Valdano's friend Maradona

SPIEGEL: Do you still believe in the concept of the galácticos? President Florentino Pérez, your fellow "revolutionary," stepped down in February. It seems like an era has come to an end.

Valdano: Real will certainly need to realign its priorities now. Zidane, for example, is in the twilight of his career. Time takes its toll on everyone, whether you're an extraterrestrial or a mere mortal. Right now Real Madrid need stability. It's a not-for-profit organization that needs to keep its fans happy and stay out of debt. €100 million is now being invested in new players for next season. Not in galácticos, but instead in solid international quality. Real will be focusing more heavily on young players too. As in business, the renewal process never starts until it's too late. And it inevitably takes longer if the old guard includes stars like Zidane or Roberto Carlos.

SPIEGEL: In 1975, at the age of 19, you left Argentina to sign for a Spanish team. Can you remember how much money you were making back then?

Valdano: Only that it was 10 times as much as in Argentina. To put it in perspective: I could have bought four mid-sized cars a year with my salary. That wasn't exactly a fortune, and my team - Deportivo Alavés - was languishing in the second division to boot. But I was desperate to get away, so I grabbed the first opportunity that came along.

SPIEGEL: What made you want to leave?

Valdano: A need to escape. From the chaos in Argentinean football and the chaos that consumed the whole country. Argentina was preparing to host the World Cup at the time and - needless to say - that was a big deal for the military junta. To move to a foreign team, I had to sign a waiver agreeing to my exclusion from the World Cup squad. I was on the fringes of the national team at the time, so it was a tough decision. I spoke to César Luis Menotti, the team's coach. He said, "Stay and you can be sure of being in my squad for the Finals." Then he added, "But who knows what the future holds. Somebody else might be managing the team next week." Nothing was certain in Argentina at the time. The country was falling apart.

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