Mihir Bose: From Beckham to Bale, a tale of two transfer eras

Gareth Bale may be the first British galectico that Real Madrid have signed since David Beckham in 2003, but the differences between the two transfers shows how the world of football has moved on in the last decade. In a sense there has been a revolution in the way transfers are done and mega million transfers of high profile players have truly come of age.

It shows how much more skilful agents are, how a chairman like Daniel Levy, for all the brickbats he gets, can mould things to his own liking, even when the club he is pushing is Real Madrid, and that Real Madrid, living up to its status as the world’s biggest club, no longer feels the need to justify what it does, certainly not try and curry favour with the press of a foreign country. It also shows how players have changed, at least in their public utterances when it comes to such transfers.

To understand that we need to look back at that transfer, almost exactly a decade ago. Way back then when I researched the transfer for my book Manchester DisUnited, I was struck by three aspects of the story. One was how the transfer was shaped by David Beckham falling out with Sir Alex Ferguson. The second was how hard Real Madrid worked to get the British press on its side and through them convince the British public that Madrid was the place for Beckham. And finally how Manchester United had to drum up a rival bid from Barcelona for Beckham to squeeze more money out of Real Madrid.

After the transfer Manchester United denied that the fall out between Beckham and Ferguson was the reason for the transfer. But that was always Old Trafford spin. The fall out, which included Ferguson kicking out at a stray boot in the dressing room and striking Beckham, following an FA Cup defeat at the hands of Arsenal, was so dramatic that within four months Beckham was at Madrid.

The incident would have enormous repercussions. Victoria Beckham was outraged and wanted to sort it out there and then with Ferguson, but her husband persuaded her against it. However the story of the incident soon got out.

There had been other incidents in the dressing room which indicated that Ferguson had not been getting on with Beckham for quite some time. So during the previous FA Cup match when United had beaten West Ham 6-1 at half-time Ferguson had a go at Beckham. At full-time he had run into Beckham’s mother Sandra. She knew the problems her son was having with Ferguson and discussed it with the manager which prompted Ferguson to tell her: “Do you know Sandra the trouble with David is that everybody sucks up to him.” The exchange further infuriated Beckham who felt that even at 27 he was being treated as the callow youth who had come to Old Trafford and needed his mother to intervene with the boss.

Even before this back in the summer of 2000, Ferguson had contemplated life at Old Trafford without Beckham and made an audacious bid to sign Luis Figo from Barcelona offering Beckham in exchange. That came to nothing and Figo joined Real Madrid later that summer. However Barcelona was to play a huge part in Beckham moving to Madrid in 2003.

The problem for United was Madrid’s first offer was derisory and Peter Kenyon, then United chief executive, knew he had to create a market to make Madrid believe it had a rival and here Barcelona came in very handy.

A lawyer called Joan Laporta was seeking to overthrow the regime of Josep Lluis Nunez, long the ruler of Barcelona. In the summer of 2003 he was standing to become Barcelona President and he saw Beckham as a sure election winner. At the end of May, a few days before the launch of his two week campaign, he contacted Kenyon. Kenyon told me: “To be honest, we’d created a market for Beckham by talking to Barcelona on the back of the Laporta election. Because Madrid was offering €15 million and Laporta required a major name I did a sort of pre-election deal that got the money up to over £25 million. Then Madrid had to come in and despite and at the end of the day, the player saying ‘I don’t want to go to Barcelona’ at least we had created a market.”

Madrid had been watching what Barcelona and Manchester United got up to with great interest. And they decided they had to make their case in the British press. Beckham was then the England captain and they did not want the English to feel those dastardly Spaniards were stealing their captain. So not long after news began to emerge that Beckham was bound for Barcelona Shimon Cohen, a prominent City PR man, who had long had interests in football and acted for many in the game, was summoned to Madrid. There Jose Angel Sanchez, marketing director of Real Madrid confidently told him, “We have signed David Beckham.”

When Cohen replied, “No you have not Barcelona have got him,” Sanchez responded, “Just ignore everything you read in the paper we got him. We will announce the signing of David Beckham when we are ready to announce.”

He then spelled out the Madrid strategy, “The first thing that has to happen is the British media have to start saying is what a great tragedy it is Beckham is leaving Manchester United, where can the England captain go to play football after Manchester United? There can be only one club in the world – Real Madrid. When the British media start saying that then we will announce we have got him.”

Cohen returned to London to set the Madrid plan in motion in the British press. Within weeks everybody was talking about Beckham going to Real Madrid. In the middle of this a secret meeting between Kenyon, who was on holiday in Sicily, and Jose Angel Sanchez in Sardinia leaked out. Cohen working with Stewart Higgins – the former Sun editor who had gone into PR and was acting for Manchester United on the deal – worked out a line. The line was the marketing director of Madrid was meeting with chief executive of Manchester United to discuss matters relating to the Champions League and the possibility of joint ventures regarding the marketing programme. The Cohen-Higgins spin kept the deal hidden for a few more days, but in reality the Sardinian meeting was to finalise Beckham’s transfer to Madrid.

But although the fine points of the deal had been sorted out in the Sardinian harbour, it could not be announced immediately for at that time the elections in Barcelona had not taken place and Madrid wanted to score a political victory over its deadly rival. As Cohen put it to me, “There was no way Madrid was going to announce the signing of David Beckham until Laporta had been elected. He would not have been elected had the truth come out. He looked a complete Charlie afterwards because he got elected on that platform and then it proved not to be true. So although the deal was done the announcement was held back until after the election.”

In his book Beckham describes his anger when he heard news that Manchester United had done a conditional deal with Barcelona. The news had surprised Tony Stephens, his then agent, and the anger seems genuine. However Beckham seems to have spun the story of his relationship with Real Madrid when he describes how on Sunday June 15, three days before the deal was announced, he rang Kenyon about his future at Manchester United, followed by a call to Perez. Kenyon told him, “Well David if I’m honest with you, it seems to us that the relationship between you and the manager might never be the same again.”

Beckham concluded the call by saying, given what Kenyon had said, and in particular the feelings of Ferguson, it was time for him to move. An hour later he rang Perez for the first time. In a throwaway line he says, “Although Tony had met Senor Perez before it was the first time I’d ever spoken to him.” By the end of the call, as Beckham puts it, “I knew what David Beckham the footballer needed to do next.”

This is Beckham trying to argue that he did not want to leave United and was forced to do so because Ferguson and the club wanted him to go. Virginia Blackburn, clearly in the Beckham camp, would even write a book on the transfer calling it The Great Betrayal, a title that requires no elaboration on its viewpoint about Beckham’s move to Real Madrid.

Beckham’s public statements and much else he said later presented this as the classic story of the footballer who does not want to leave but, having been told by his club that the manager is no longer keen and another club is very keen, he decides to go to the other club.

Now contrast this with the Bale saga. For a start Tottenham cannot be said to have discovered him, although they did make sure he fulfilled his promise and become a world class player. Bale as far as we know has had no fight with any of the Tottenham managers he worked with. He is not a brand like Beckham, though he might become one at Madrid, and his shy, introverted, personality is in complete contrast to that of golden balls.

Also unlike Beckham, Bale has had no problems making it known that he always wanted to play for Madrid having fallen in love with the club when he was nine. He had kept this a secret but after the transfer was happy to reveal it. And in trying to engineer the transfer Bale effectively went on strike not playing or even training with Tottenham for weeks.

This may explain why Madrid did not try and work up media interest in Bale. This was confined to comments of Madrid ambassadors like Zinedine Zidane, small beer compared to the concerted press campaign they launched when they wanted Beckham. The lack of much Madrid PR may also reflect the fact that Beckham’s status as England captain was very different to Bale’s international position.

And what is fascinating in all this is the role of Jonathan Barnett, Bale’s agent. After it was concluded he revealed discussions had been on going for 110 days. However during this time he never put his head above the parapet. And at the end of it while Bale had a slight dig at Levy, Barnett was all sweetness and light towards Levy. He knows he still has to work with the Tottenham chairman.

Of course what has not changed is we do not know whether Bale will prove to be the great player Madrid hopes he will be. And we do not know if Levy, having spent in advance all the Madrid money, has spent it wisely.

In that sense all transfers are always speculation. But then that is the nature of all business deals. The only difference is emotion rarely comes into play in business deals while they overlay all transfers and make rational discussions, let alone judgements, impossible.

Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 28 books. His latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World was published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99.