Real Madrid Spends Millions To Buy Top Players

A soccer team in Spain is spending more than $200 million to sign some of the best players in the world. Real Madrid hopes the new players will help boost the team's win record.

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A soccer team in Spain wants to sign some of the best players in the world, and it's spending more than $200 million to do it. Of course, it's not just any soccer team. It's Real Madrid. Jerome Socolovsky reports.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: Real Madrid has been doing pretty badly the last couple of years, so its fans were burning with envy last month when the team's nemesis, FC Barcelona, did what no other Spanish soccer club has done: Win the biggest national trophy as well as the European Champions Cup.

Unidentified Man #1: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: So Madrid went one up with a buying spree never seen before in the history of professional soccer. First, it paid $90 million for the Brazilian star known as Kaka, who was world player of the year in 2007.

Unidentified Man #2: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Then last week, Spanish media announced a record,$130 million deal to buy Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United. He was world player of the year in 2008.

Real Madrid fan David Marino(ph) says the new players have scored a victory without even touching the ball.

Mr. DAVID MARINO: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: We've stolen the show from Barcelona, he says. Now it is we who are in the limelight.

Real Madrid has long had a pension for star players, and its president, construction magnate Florentino Perez, has been willing to pay astronomical sums for them.

During an earlier stint as president, he shelled out more than $100 million to create soccer's dream team, which included David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo.

But this time around, Spain's economy is imploding. Unemployment is above 17 percent, and panhandlers are multiplying on the streets of Madrid. Gabriella Tiel(ph) is from Germany, but lives in Madrid. She disapproves of Real Madrid's costly acquisitions.

Ms. GABRIELLA TIEL: (German spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: I think it's not okay, she says, because the gap between rich and poor here in Spain is awfully big. And perhaps it would be better to help the weakest members of society, like we do in Germany.

Similar criticism is being heard from a host of influential figures, from the soccer field to the floor of parliament. Some say Real Madrid has an unfair advantage over clubs that can't make big money on TV rights and merchandising.

Others question how banks can finance the team's costly talent search when ordinary people can't get loans. Juan Ignacio Gallardo is the deputy managing editor of the Madrid-based sports daily Marca. He doesn't share the criticism.

Mr. JUAN IGNACIO GALLARDO (Deputy Managing Editor, Marca): (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Is it worth it to pay tens of millions of dollars for a Picasso painting or van Gogh? he says. Soccer is a spectacle, and the public is willing to pay to see Ronaldo play in Real Madrid's stadium. Does anybody debate whether it's moral for a Hollywood actor to earn what he gets paid for a movie?

As a matter of fact, part of what Real Madrid seeks is the celebrity factor that it lost when David Beckham moved to the Los Angeles Galaxy two years ago. And on that standard, the investment is paying off.

Gossip columns have been abuzz over photos of Cristiano Ronaldo partying last week at a nightclub in L.A. with Paris Hilton.

For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Madrid.

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