The year Real Madrid became a football team again

When Real Madrid flew into Japan last week they were greeted by hundreds, possibly thousands, of fans at Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport. Usually reserved for pop stars and Hollywood A-listers, this is the kind of reception the Galacticos have become accustomed to. Real Madrid, after all, have always transcended football.

But by winning the Club World Cup Real Madrid put the finishing touches on 12 months that completely overhauled the club’s identity. Under Zinedine Zidane they lost just twice, with their last defeat coming against Wolfsburg in last season’s Champions League quarter-finals. Since then Real Madrid have gone unbeaten.

For so long the epitome of footballing volatility, the capital club have found a certain consistency that they have yet to be shaken from. But Real Madrid’s on the field success under Zidane has been the result of a more holistic, comprehensive transformation. 2016 was the year Real Madrid became a football team again.

Of course, Real Madrid are still a global brand, arguably the biggest club in the world, attracting fans from every corner of the globe, but the past year has seen them refocus their efforts on the footballing side of things. They remain in the business of selling shirts and shifting merchandise, but that is no longer the tail that wags the dog. The dog has taken back control.

For the first time in eight years, there was no Galactico delivered to the front door of the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in the summer transfer window, with Real Madrid instead choosing to make use of what they already had. Alvaro Morata returned from Juventus, but that too was a shrewd move, with his cut price 30 million euro buy-back clause activated.

It was a ballsy move given Real Madrid’s looming transfer ban, but Zidane has subsequently established a route between the club’s youth ranks and the senior team, with Lucas Vazquez, Mariano Diaz, Nacho Fernandez and Marco Asensio all treading a path that not so long ago didn’t exist. He might not be Real Madrid’s Pep Guardiola, as so many tried to suggest he would be, but Zidane has made more progress in joining the dots of Real Madrid’s entire set-up than anyone before him.

That in turn has given Real Madrid a sense of self again. That is something they have lacked for the best part of a decade, especially when placed alongside Barcelona, who boast perhaps the strongest sense of self in all of European football. Whether he has imposed one of his own or simply restored one that had been lost over time, Zidane has given Real Madrid an identity once more.

From a coaching perspective, Zidane has similarly made a profound impact. He is a manager who manages his team, and Real Madrid haven’t had one of those for a long, long time, perhaps since the days of Fabio Capello. Cristiano Ronaldo has been substituted a number of times this season, something that would have been simply unthinkable in seasons gone by. Vazquez was preferred to Karim Benzema for last month’s win over Atletico Madrid. The untouchables are no longer undroppable.

There is a culture of competitiveness within the Real Madrid squad again, with nobody assured of their place. Take James Rodriguez, for instance, who has had to make do with the odd fleeting cameo from the bench or Copa del Rey appearance against lower league opposition. Isco, too, has had to prove his worth, only recently forcing his way back into the fold.

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