Vend it like Beckham

Mumbai: Built on the legend of a glittering past and the glories of a splendid present, Real Madrid are the world's greatest football club. But the Spanish giants are not, commercially speaking, the world's biggest football entity. That tag is currently attached to the English club Manchester United. Real's stated goal is to usurp the No 1 position, and their decision to buy David Beckham, the most famous face in modern-day football, is indicative of this ambition. Interestingly, the selling party in a deal more dramatic than any in the game's history is United.

David BeckhamThe character at the heart of the transfer soap opera is almost a caricature. Beckham is a 28-old-old blessed with outstanding football talent and even-greater 'brand' appeal. With his clean-cut lifestyle, showbiz looks and celebrity pop star wife, former Spice Girl Victoria 'Posh' Adams, Beckham is a global phenomenon and an advertising icon. His recent schedule included a meeting with Nelson Mandela and a jaunt to the MTV awards in Los Angeles. Coming up: an audience with United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan and an investiture ceremony where he will be honoured by Queen Elizabeth.

Real Madrid realise the value a dream package such as Beckham brings, in marketing and merchandising as much for the kicking bit, perhaps more so. The club's sporting director, Jorge — pronounced 'whore-gay', said a helpful London tabloid — Valdano was candid in his estimation of Beckham's worth. Speaking in Madrid on 16 June, two days before the transfer was sealed, he said: "These days football clubs are marketing brands, not just teams. It is no longer just a case of doing well or not on the pitch; that is not the only thing that matters now. The more [merchandise] you can sell, the better."

Valdano is viewed as a maverick in the football world. A vital member of the Diego Maradona-led Argentine team that won the Mexico World Cup in 1986, he settled down in Spain after his playing days to life as an acclaimed television analyst and philosophy-spouting columnist. That was but a prelude to his true calling in life: as a transfer strategist who has turned the world game on its head by luring football's finest to the Bernabeu, Real's home stadium in Madrid.

Zinedine ZidaneAmong the galaxy of stars parading their skills for the club are Portuguese midfielder Luis Figo, poached from archrivals Barcelona in 2000 for a then world-record price of $56 million. A year later Valdano went one better, engineering the transfer of Frenchman Zinedine Zidane, arguably the world's best player, for a new world-record fee of $65 million. He topped that last year by bringing Brazilian superstar Ronaldo to Madrid. Now comes Beckham to complement a squad that also boasts homegrown hero Raul and Roberto Carlos, the free-kick specialist from Brazil.

Three months back Valdano called Beckham Real's "new project". Speaking on 18 April, the day the project came to fruition, Valdano said: "You can never have too many stars. Beckham is very versatile and we're building a squad, not just a team. It's a perfect signing because it keeps both the marketing and sporting departments at Real Madrid extremely happy." It is significant that "marketing" came before "sporting" in Valdano's assessment. Real had shown their hand.