As Barcelona has risen to club-soccer supremacy over the last half-decade, it supposedly scored a victory for those who believe the purest way to win is to raise players through a club's youth teams, or at least recruit them from within the country.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
That philosophy has begun to take hold at a number of top clubs, as the cost of importing the world's best players has soared over $100 million.
But that message hasn't traveled 400 miles west to the Spanish capital, where, true to its roots, Real Madrid has stuck with an unapologetically imperialistic approach to dominating the game.
Of the 15 core players who receive the most playing time for Real Madrid, 11 are from foreign countries. Since the days of former dictator Francisco Franco, Real has tried harder than any other club to promote Spanish superiority through domination on the pitch; today, it is making its latest attempt with a lineup filled with players from regions where the Spanish empire once flourished.
There are Brazilians, Germans and Frenchmen. There are Argentines and a star striker and a coach from neighboring Portugal, calling to mind the era some 400 years ago, when the Spanish empire stretched through the Americas, into the East Indies and to parts of modern-day Italy, Germany and France.
Just one problem: Barcelona may still be better.
"Real Madrid is sitting at the top of the world with the biggest money pot, and they've never cared how enormously in debt the club goes to sign the best players," said Ray Hudson, the former player and manager who is now a commentator for GolTV. "But now in Barcelona they're running into the obstacle of perhaps the greatest team that's ever been assembled, and it isn't working."
"This is the sort of team that goes back to the glory days of Real Madrid in the 1950s, when they became the first club to base its team on stars from other countries," said Jimmy Burns, whose forthcoming book "La Roja" details the rise of Spanish soccer to the pinnacle of the sport.
Jose Mourinho, Portugal
The idea, Burns explained, is to pay through the nose for foreign stars—Real paid around $130 million for Cristiano Ronaldo, for example—and let those players pay you back through merchandising, popularity and tournament victories. Real's Santiago Bernabeu stadium was one of the first grand soccer palaces when it opened in 1947. Through the 1950s it would be the home of the greatest team in Europe, winning the continental championship each year from 1956-60 under the leadership of Argentine Alfredo Di Stefano, who headed a cast of world all-stars.
"The problem is the strategy hasn't delivered as much as they might have hoped it would in recent years," said Burns.
This week, Real Madrid's current cast of mercenaries is getting its sternest test yet. The club faces archrival Barcelona on the road Saturday in a match that may determine supremacy in Spain's La Liga, which Barcelona has won the past three years. Real is atop the league table, four points clear of second-place Barcelona with five matches to go, but Barca won the first league meeting, 3-1, in Madrid in December.
Meanwhile, in Champions League, Europe's famed continental club competition, Real lost 2-1 Tuesday in the opening leg of its semifinal duel with Bayern Munich. Coach Jose Mourinho played down the loss, and suggested Spanish imperialism was alive and well. "It's not like we have to make a historical comeback," Mourinho said after the game. "What we have to do is very achievable."
Barcelona dropped the first leg of its semifinal with Chelsea 1-0 Wednesday, jeopardizing Spanish hopes of turning the Champions final into "El Clasico," the name given to matchups between Real and Barcelona.
Of course, none of the four teams still standing in Europe's foremost club tournament would have gotten this far without foreign talent. Such a feat is largely impossible in the world of professional soccer, where the best teams in the most successful leagues invariably use their riches to hog the best players. Barcelona and Bayern Munich have at least seven foreign players at their top of their roster, though some, like Barca's Lionel Messi, essentially grew up in their club's academy.
Chelsea flaunts 11 top foreigners, including Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba and Czech goalkeeper Petr Cech. But Chelsea's approach has little to do with the rebirth of British power. Rather, it is more closely tied to the psyche of its owner, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, and his fixation with winning the Champions League.
The long-held view of Real Madrid, conversely, is that domination in soccer speaks to a larger sense of national supremacy. Real is the world's most successful club by revenues, collecting €630 million (about $828 million) last year, $150 million more than England's top team, Manchester United. Executives from Real Madrid declined to comment for this story.
Gonzalo Higuain, Argentina
For the most recent version of Real Madrid's Galacticos (Spanish for star spectacle), the final piece arrived in 2010, when the Portuguese coach Mourinho joined the club to try to secure the Champions League trophy he won in previous stints with Inter Milan and FC Porto. To hear people talk about Mourinho's strategy is to hear the sort of language associated with generals who have run roughshod over defenseless countries with a scorched-earth approach. To put it bluntly, Mourinho—known for defensive tactics that disrupt the flow of the opponent—doesn't try to win accolades for advancing the style of soccer.
"He's not worried about beauty," said Warren Barton, a former England international who is now a commentator for Fox Soccer. "He says look what I've won, and this is how we are going to do it again."
"Jose Mourinho is good at destroying soccer, not constructing soccer," said Jorge Ramos, a Uruguayan commentator for ESPN Deportes. "When they play good teams, they try to destroy them. They don't ever try to propose their own style. They have no style."
In Ramos's view, and that of millions of other devotees of the beautiful game, soccer isn't just about winning. It's also about advancing the game's aesthetic and producing players that can represent their club's home country on the national team.
Of course, Mourinho and Real Madrid don't particularly care much about those issues at the moment. They want to topple Barcelona, and Bayern, and then win the Champions League, no matter what it takes.
As Fernando Palomo, another ESPN Deportes commentator puts it: "Jose is the ideal coach for a group of fans who are just hungry for trophies. It's like driving down the highway and you're hungry for something to eat and all there is is fast food, so you eat it. He serves a fast-food style of football."
This year, that just might prevail, behind the overwhelming power of Ronaldo's 53 goals in all competitions this season.
But it's going to take more than the effort Real put forth against Bayern, where they lost the possession battle 54%-46% and earned six yellow cards. Barton said midfielder Xabi Alonso has to help control the ball, which would help Madrid's superior athletes flourish.
"They're the most athletic team in the world," Barton said. "They try to overpower you physically, where Barcelona is more patient. This team emulates what their manager is, and that's ruthless."