Florentino Pérez: the emperor who wanted more but lost for once

Sid Lowe in Madrid
·10-min read

There was a moment during the first and last television appearance Florentino Pérez made as the figurehead of a project he had been working towards for three years when he was asked how long he would be president of the super league. “Until they kick me out,” he replied. There was a laugh from president and presenter, something revealing in that reaction: this is not a man to give up power nor one easily removed, a man rarely denied. But, as it turned out, the correct answer was: about 24 hours.

Pérez doesn’t give many interviews – “I prefer to have informal relationships with journalists,” he said once – but the following day he spoke to L’Equipe. Asked if he feared some of the other 11 clubs involved might back out, he replied: “No.” By the time his words were published, just before 8.30pm on Tuesday, theyalready were backing out. That night Pérez didn’t turn up for a radio interview with El Larguero; he was, they said, in a meeting, trying to hold it all together.

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He failed. The project is over, at least for now, although Pérez is not one to accept defeat with good grace and revenge will already be on his mind, a determination to see this through. When he did turn up at El Larguero the night after, he declined to be introduced as “president of the Super League” but still clung to the idea that this rebellion could be resurrected, even as he stood alone.

One by one they had deserted, leaving him exposed. On Wednesday morning the Juventus chairman, Andrea Agnelli, admitted defeat; the “pact of blood” in pieces. Not long after midday, Atlético Madrid crept out with a short, unapologetic statement. At the Camp Nou, there was silence. Pérez claimed no one had gone as none of the penalisations to leave had been paid, but every club bar two had made public statements stepping back. Only Barcelona and Madrid were left, beaten by what Pérez considered a betrayal, particularly from his English partners – “old people who got scared”. At 74, Pérez is older than any of them.

What, if anything, had been achieved remains to be seen and there may still be successes, but so far none of it looks good for Madrid or the Spanish clubs they took with them. There may be punishment – rebels rarely escape that – or perhaps there will be concessions, an attempt at rapprochement. Power looks likely to have shifted towards Bayern and Paris Saint‑Germain, while a relaxation of financial fair play will serve to strengthen Manchester City, Chelsea and PSG, the clubs Madrid always felt had an unfair advantage. They are a fan‑owned club, for whom oligarchs and sheikhs and petrodollars are a threat and an obsession.

Pérez had been revealed as a failure and projected as a villain by some. Grateful Madrid supporters launched a hashtag backing him, convinced he was right then and the victim now – a freedom fighter against the corrupt cabal of Fifa, Uefa, La Liga, the RFEF and the VAR. Familiar journalists came to his aide, echoing those accusations and effusive in their adulation. But in Cádiz the team were met chants of “money-grabbers!” and “capitalists!” as if this was their decision. And the front page of Marca, rarely critical of Madrid’s president, ran: “Super ridicule: the project led by Florentino Pérez fails in 48 hours”.

Pérez had gone into the interview on Monday with a presenter he knew would lend a sympathetic ear, the most significant of his sycophants. That would allow him to explain the ESL as he liked, but it had not been successful and did not adequately explain, still less convince. Ultimately, what was left was the extent of the crisis, that apocalyptic vision. He had said football was in “freefall”, at a “critical moment”, “ruined”.

The word he kept repeating was “save”: they had to save football. Above all, they had to save themselves. “If we don’t so something, we won’t last long,” he insisted. “In 2024, we’re dead.” And then they had watched the English clubs pull out – one was never really convinced, Pérez later claimed – the project fall down, so now what? Does this mean there are only three years left?

This, remember, was the only public appearance so far from any of the clubs, who were busy hiding behind statements. Pérez had at least fronted up, shown his face, but that may not have helped. Some partners could not believe it when they watched him. This was not the messaging they sought – humble, open to dialogue – and nor was it the image.

A super league, a huge global concern, and this was how it was presented to the world? Not with a press conference, a united front, but with one man offering a circular, unconvincing performance on a tacky late-night show on a cheap set? An appearance over 90 minutes for a generation you say won’t watch a full football match? A message that was a curious combination of the arrogance of power, messianic, and also the vulnerability of desperation? The ultimate, elite competition, a modern billion-dollar industry that would change the media and fan landscape and this is how you’re selling it?

It didn’t look like a strong, successful, unstoppable revolution; it looked weak, or worse, that line about kids not liking football instantly becoming a meme. The saviour, sinking. The emperor, naked.

That was a surprise: even Pérez’s critics attack him precisely for his success rather than his shortcomings; they criticise and covet his ability to control. He is seen as a brilliant businessman, a highly competent administrator. A billionaire who has built a huge empire, he is as powerful a man as there is in Spain, with unrivalled leverage in business, politics, the law and media as well as football, able to get whatever he wants from whoever he wants – and aware of that.

When he promised to force through the sale of the club’s former training ground at the turn of the century, he insisted: “Trust my powers of negotiation, in my good relationship with the mayor of Madrid and the head of town planning. My power of persuasion is infinitely higher than the outgoing board.”

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That worked, as so much else has over wildly successful years at Madrid, made into the most powerful club on the planet, or so everyone thought. But this plan didn’t work. This project had been three years in the making but the final phases had been completed in a hurry, documents signed and promises secured under pressure. As it unravelled, much of it looks unexpectedly poorly planned, devoid of real content or unity, liable to break under pressure. Fifteen founders were in fact 12 and that coalition came apart quickly.

Things that are easily achieved and controlled in Spain proved to be more difficult elsewhere, where culture, context and power structures are different. “It wasn’t hard to persuade [the Barcelona president] Joan Laporta,” Pérez said publicly, his great rivals depicted as his dependents. He and Agnelli had thought it wasn’t hard to convince the others, too – and momentarily they had, no small feat – but the promises they made were soon broken.

The attempt to launch a breakaway league, enshrining their entitlement in perpetuity, has failed – for now at least. And that is not a feeling with which Pérez is familiar. He took the lead and risks that others didn’t, helping conduct a coup with Agnelli. Perhaps it was a miscalculation and it seems odd they did not adequately anticipate the reaction. Yet Pérez sounded baffled at the idea that anyone would not embrace this and this is a man for whom opposition, where there is any, is invariably overcome – in Spain at least, which may be part of the point.

Seemingly untouchable and rarely denied, whether through fear or favour, he may never have been as exposed as this. Which is not to say he is alone, without supporters, or that the pressure now will be impossible to withstand. Still less that his position is at risk like so many of those burnt by these past three days. From the outside the impression may be worse than in Spain, or at least there is a greater willingness to say so, but he remains popular among Madrid fans domestically. Pérez has won the past three elections unopposed, the latest of them not coincidentally just in time for this. The statutes, which he altered, make it virtually impossible to stand against him and if anyone did, they would surely lose.

Yet listening to him, you could hear this hurts. While some clubs could come on board and then leave the ship again and do it all in silence, pretending it never happened, Pérez can’t. For him, this was particularly significant and all the more so when he spoke up – the president and, with Agnelli, the public face of this project.

This is something he has wanted for a long time – he had talked about a super league more than a decade ago – and something he said his club needed now. That need – acute in Madrid and Catalonia; less so in England, as Pérez himself admitted – cannot be overlooked. Madrid made a small profit last year, but did so having imposed austerity and cut spending. Income was down by €300m and there were none of the huge signings that has characterised them. This league was a swift fix, a short-term solution and a long-term plan.

There was also something deeper. Pérez has always been driven by the idea of legacy, his place in the history of a club he supports – and it is often overlooked how much of a fan he is, his attitudes not an act. There is in him a sense of mission, of rescuing his club from a financial crisis to which they have now returned. “I saved Madrid, now we have to save football,” he said on Monday.

David Beckham (left) signs his contract with the Real Madrid president, Florentino Pérez, in July 2003.
David Beckham (left) signs his contract with the Real Madrid president, Florentino Pérez, in July 2003. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

There is also a sense of emulating, even surpassing Santiago Bernabéu, something almost Freudian in it: from the stadium redevelopment to the construction of a new training ground, a project predecessors could not complete, and the galácticos policy. Luís Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and David Beckham can be seen as a 21st-century Alfredo Di Stéfano, Ferenc Puskas, Raymond Kopa and Francisco Gento.

Bernabéu took Madrid into the European Cup, where their identity was forged, a competition they consider their own. Even as they sought to replace the Champions League with something bigger that would ultimately eclipse and end it this week, Pérez insisted they would be taking those 13 trophies with them. Bernabéu had coveted a competition broadly like this, too. “We would support without hesitation any move for a European League which, speaking personally, I am convinced one day will come,” he told English interviewers in a 1961 book that is effectively a manifesto of madridisimo. “Imagine it! Tottenham, Manchester United, Real, Barcelona, Reims, Juventus and a host more.”

Bernabéu could not make it happen. Seventy years on and for one day only, Pérez could. But then they started falling fast: Tottenham, United, even Juventus. Until in the end it was only him, the president of the biggest club in the world and a league that no longer existed.