Why Manchester United are now the new ‘Galácticos’
Gary Lineker was right when he tweeted that Paul Pogba’s world record transfer to Manchester United was a watershed moment for English football. Lineker accredited it to being the first time that a ‘huge foreign star in his prime has come to England’. But the implications of this are further reaching. Pogba’s transfer, if anything, was ‘watershed’ because it finally cemented Manchester United as the new modern Galácticos in world football.
Defined, created and characterised by Florentino Perez, the reigning president of Real Madrid, the term ‘Galáctico’ refers to a group of ‘superstar’ players at a given club, purchased through an aggressive transfer policy with highly extortionate fees. These players are then marketed to the extreme to reinforce the club’s status as the greatest and most powerful in the world, with an illusion created that the finest footballers in the world will inevitably become ‘Galácticos’ in a ‘super-team’.
The policy’s principles are based as much around club ‘image’ and ‘status’ as it is about on-pitch footballing quality, with the strategy as a whole being supplemented by heavy merchandising, extravagant sponsorship and millions of global shirt sales. It’s too pain-staking to remember that the original Galácticos at Real Madrid allegedly chose to sign David Beckham over to-be World Player of the Year Ronaldinho because the Brazilian was considered ‘too ugly’ to be merchandised and marketed globally.
This transfer window has been utterly crazy, with conventional market practices thrown out of the window as the decadence of the English Premier League’s new TV deal has bankrolled crazy spending sprees. Trickle down economics, like Juventus’ Pogba sale financing the contentious signing of the £75m Higuain, has meant that Serie A, La Liga and the Bundesliga have all contributed to this ridiculous fun fair of money-throwing.
But United undeniably stand out in and amongst the pandemonium. At the beginning of Louis Van Gaal’s reign two years ago, there was tabloid-talk of Ed Woodward getting ready to bankroll the new ‘Van Gaaláticos’, which culminated in the British transfer record of Angel Di Maria joining in a spree that totalled £150m. Since the club has failed to retain its Premier League pedigree and sponsorship channels have remained lucrative, Woodward’s only reached deeper into his bottomless pocket to find on-pitch solutions to the club’s stagnation. With the Glazers utilising their American links to sponsor just about every aspect of the club combined with the club’s floating on the New York stock exchange, the policy, despite its risk, remains financially viable.
It’s taken just three years, and near half a billion pounds to assemble their current squad, a figure that you feel would well have been inflated further if David De Gea had failed to sign a new contract last summer, and so far its justified the axing of two managers, yielded one FA Cup, and one Champions League qualification.
By products of the policy include the marginalisation of youth products (Danny Welbeck), which contradicts so much of a club whose blue print was built upon a culture of opportunity for its academy. Barring Iker Casillas who Perez eventually threw under a bus anyway, and Raul, Madrid have had no such youth products make a lasting impression on their first team since Perez implemented the policy. Barring Marcus Rashford, who already looks like he’ll be playing fiddle to Zlatan, and to a lesser extent Jesse Lingard, the prospective picture has never looked bleaker for United’s academy players.
More pertinently though is the idea that Madrid are likely to change their transfer policy when Perez’s presidential reign comes to an end. While Ed Woodward is employed by United and serves a board of directors and stakeholders, Perez was elected internally, and the policy was an extension of a manifesto as such. When Perez left at the end of his first spell, Madrid were barren in their market, until his return in 2009 which initiated ‘Galácticos round 2’ (when Kaka and Ronaldo both joined for world record fees). Perez’s time at Madrid is limited and Galácticos as a whole is an extension of him. Woodward, correspondingly, has a much longer shelf life and will continue to pull the purse-strings from the boardroom, meaning United will more likely carry this policy moving forward.
True, Man City, Chelsea and Barcelona, amongst others, have been equally aggressive with signings and can also be deserving of the title. However, while Barcelona maintain their ideological alliance to La Masia and youth, City and Chelsea remain streets behind United on a global commercial basis. United have a greater global fanbase and sell more shirts. As explored in another Football Faculty article, Forbes have valued United as the fifth most valuable sporting entity in the world at around $3.32bn, while City (28th, $1.92bn) and Chelsea (35th, $1.67bn) are somewhat behind. For now, Chelsea and City’s financial power has been built on sugar-daddy investment, while United’s has been more commercially constructed, which lends itself more to the marketing aspects of the Galácticos’ off-pitch strategy.
While the overall Galácticos’ policy is defined by breaking world transfer record fees and United have only managed this once, if the last three years have taught us much under Woodward, little is going to change as United attempt to re-ascend to the top of the European footballing hierarchy. With Perez’s time at Madrid coming to an inevitable end while United continue to reap the rewards of the huge Premier League TV rights deal, it’s likely that the term ‘Galácticos’ will refer to a collection of superstars in Manchester, instead of Madrid.