Why Real Madrid Can’t Beat Barca on the Field, But Leads Comfortably in the Market

Real Madrid's New Theme Park-Resort in the Persian Gulf targets well-heeled, emerging market

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Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty Images

A general view of a model of the Real Madrid Resort Island is visible during a presentation at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on March 22, 2012 in Madrid, Spain.

The target market for Real Madrid’s new theme-park and resort venture in the Persian Gulf is not the tens of thousands of Spanish fans who fill the club’s Santiago Bernabeu stadium and, together with tens of thousands of Catalan rivals, turn their team’s frequent showdowns with arch-rivals Barcelona into a passionate ritual reenactment of the Spanish Civil War. Instead, the billion-dollar Real Madrid theme-park and beach resort in the tiny Gulf Emirate of Ras al-Khaimah appears to be aimed predominantly well-to-do Asian and Arab fans of more recent vintage. Barca may dominate in head to head meetings, these days, but by the measure of global revenues that is increasingly fundamental to a football club’s well-being, Real has a comfortable lead.

Real on Thursday announced the venture with a slick marketing video, from which it’s not exactly clear what the million punters they expect in its first year will get for their lucre: There’ll be a Real Madrid museum — Christiano Ronaldo’s sweat-stained shirt, anyone? Perhaps a diorama depicting coach Jose Mourinho gouging a Barcelona coach’s eye? There’ll also be holographic football game, and a stadium open to the sea (don’t expect to see Real Madrid playing there, of course, except, perhaps, during their pre-season warm ups). And, of course, a  yacht basin shaped as the Real Madrid logo. For the rest, it appears to be garden variety gulf resort, with marina, yacht club, beaches and expensive digs.

(Read TIME’s exclusive interview with Leonel Messi)

At least fans of Argentinian giants Boca Juniors know, when they buy a plot in that club’s cemetery, that there’s a chance their remains may one day be joined by those of Diego Maradona, Boca and Argentinian football’s most famous son. But the connection with the real Real Madrid at Ras al-Khaimah is unlikely to be any more real than the “Manchester United Experience” at Macau’s Venetian casino.

So allow us an indecent cackle at this particular piece of crass commercialization. Sure, Real is a club with history — but some of it rather unfortunate. Their 1950s side that featured the likes of the Argentine Alberto Di Stefano and Hungary’s Ferenc Puskas may have been one of the finest ever assembled, but it was also a trophy  (as in “trophy wife”) touted by Spain’s erstwhile fascist dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who saw its dominance of Europe in the 1950s as a way of prettifying his unlovely regime.

Loathing Real also squarely aligns us with Barcelona, currently the repository of all that is beautiful about the contemporary game (even if the umpteenth Messi hat trick can get a little boring). Barca, as its motto proclaims, is “more than just a club” — for decades after the Spanish Republic had been crushed by Franco’s coup, the Camp Nou stadium remained a liberated zone, the only venue in which Catalan resistance to the regime and the crown could be openly expressed. For the Barca faithful, beating Franco’s team has always symbolized a triumph over his regime and what it represented.

Anti-fascist history aside, though, Barca today plays the football of the angels. It is the team of the age, and it represents something distinct in footballing values. The team’s creative core — Messi, Xavi, Iniesta — along with goalkeeper Victor Valdes, captain Carles Puyol and other key players were all nurtured from adolescence in the club’s academy where the exquisite Barca short-passing game known as tiki-taka was instilled as the basic grammar of the game: Pass and move, always keeping the ball away from the other side, pressing high up the field to win it back the moment you lose it, moving it about with a spatial awareness of the whole field and how the adversaries lines are being shifted by the passage of the ball and the movement of your teammates, playing the decisive series of passes at the first hint of a breach in his lines to set up a scoring opportunity. It is, quite simply, a joy to watch.

And in the recurring showdown known as El Classico, Real Madrid — to the increasingly cartoonish pique of coach Mourinho — simply finds it unplayable. The personnel around Messi and company can change; the game remains the same. Already, an equally gifted next generation is coming through, having been taught to play the same way as their illustrious first team, which formed the core of the Spanish national team that won the 2010 World Cup. (Eight Barca players saw action in the final, and just two from Real.)

Real, by contrast, fields a team of “Galacticos” — it simply buys many of the best players from leagues across the world. It’s current star performer, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, was acquired from Manchester United for a record-breaking $127 million. Every other player in its typical starting lineup, aside from goalkeeper Iker Casillas, was an established international star at a different club before coming to Real. They may well, this season, win the league title that Barca has all but owned in recent years. But in the head-to-head, to the delight of most neutrals, they can’t best Barca — and their frustration not infrequently boils over into what Americans call “bench-clearing brawls” and English football fans simply call “handbags”.

El Clasico may be a uniquely Spanish-Catalan ritual whose intensity is born of a civil war whose scars run deep, but satellite TV has made it a global spectacle whose meaning obviously changes. When the rival Palestinian movement Hamas and Fatah last April announced an historic reconciliation deal, there were crowds waving flags on the streets of Ramllah. The flags were neither those of Fatah or Hamas, however, they were those of Barcelona FC — the unity announcement couldn’t compete with local Palestinian elation of Barca’s victory over Real.

And those Ramallah viewers were part of a global TV audience that evening of 400 million. The points of identity with the teams in far flung regions are quite different from those in Spain; it’s certainly clear, for example, that Real’s popularity in the Arab world in part is a function of the starring role played in its success by the Algerian Frenchman Zinedine Zidane. While there has lately been a trend among Arab oil sheikhs and Russian oligarchs to buy European football clubs as vanity investments, the world’s two most iconic football brands, Real and Barca, are off-limits because of their unique ownership structure.

While Barcelona has shown some concern for the Wretched of the Earth by carrying the UNICEF logo on its shirt for free (although it more recently sold the sponsor’s rights to the Qatar Airways Foundation) Real’s branding tends to be more focused — with the quality of the team’s performance not always being the absolute priority. That much became obvious a decade ago when Real declined to buy the Brazilian boy wonder Ronaldinho, allegedly on the grounds that the black, buck-toothed jheri-curled genius from the favelas was “too ugly” for the club’s image.

Instead, Real opted to buy the pedestrian (but remarkably handsome) English midfielder David Beckham. Beckham was never half the footballer Ronaldinho was — he managed an average of a goal every nine or ten games for Real between 2003 and 2007, whereas over the same period, Ronaldinho, who had instead signed for Barca, managed to score, on average, every second game. But signing Beckham wasn’t really a footballing decision; it was a commercial one — Beckham sold replica shirts by the tens of thousands, particularly in Asia, European football’s key emerging market.

As the Asia-based British writer Martin Jacques indelicately explained, “This is a region of the world that has a profound hang-up about colour. People want to be as pale as possible: they yearn to be white. Put bluntly, it would be quite impossible for a black footballer to be the recipient in these parts of the kind of adulation that Beckham receives. He has a huge following in countries like Japan and South Korea, and indeed throughout the region. That’s the main reason why Real Madrid bought him: one of their top officials boasted that the whole of Asia wanted to shag Beckham.”

Real Madrid current sells around 1.5 million shirts a season at $110 a piece. Barca sells around 1.2 million. Real claims, in fact, that the $127 million paid for Cristiano Ronaldo has already been recouped in sales of the shirt bearing his name. Real is currently the world’s top-earning team, with revenues at around $636 million.

It’s worth noting here that the unique stadium chemistry that makes European football such a compelling spectacle to a global TV audience — try watching with the sound off and see if the visuals generate anything close to the emotional engagement generated by the crowd’s response — is based on local passions that intersect with and reflect decades old affinities of social class, sect, region and political orientation. But the clubs’ revenues are based less on home-game ticket sales than on their share of the fees for TV rights in markets across the globe, and on their ability to monetize their brand by selling replica shirts and other merchandize, and licensing their brand to everything from beer commercials and Hollywood movies  to ventures like the Real Madrid resort. And Asia, as football fan culture’s largest emerging market, is clearly the focus.

As José Angel Sanchez, then head of marketing for Real Madrid, told Jacques in 2004, “Eventually you may get just six global brand leaders. People will support a local side and one of the world’s big six. We have to position ourselves for that.” And what’s being sold in that global banding effort is not simply great football and the club’s history and traditions. “We’re content providers,” Sanchez added, “like a film studio – and having a team with [Zinedine] Zidane in it is like having a movie with Tom Cruise.” Thus the Galactico philosophy.

And there’s no question that whatever happens on the football field, Real tops the global revenue table. Still, Barca is catching up, fueled less by marketing than by the exploits of its outrageously talented homegrown players — although it, too, has to buy in a number of expensive stars to complement the core and keep it competitive. It’s currently revenues are around $600 million, although the club is heavily in debt.

Real and Barca both play in European Champion’s League quarter finals in the coming week, with the draw set up to allow an epic Classico final should both teams win their quarters and semis. And that will be watched by at least a billion people world wide, both the well-heeled Emiratis who might one day moor their yachts at the Real Madrid resort, and the Wretched of the Earth everywhere from Mogadishu and Bamako to Baghdad, and the rising masters of the universe in Beijing. And Real will be hoping to edge out Barca in the race to cash in on their attention.