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Jude Bellingham’s decision to join Real Madrid and disappoint his many suitors in England is a huge boost for La Liga. It shows there are some things that Premier League and state-owned club money cannot buy.

Manchester City and Liverpool have been actively interested in signing Bellingham, the hottest young English talent around and a midfielder who would have improved the squad at any of Europe’s top clubs.

But the 19-year-old is believed to have had the Bernabeu as his preferred destination for a while and on Wednesday The Athletic’s David Ornstein exclusively revealed that Madrid had reached an agreement to pay Borussia Dortmund in excess of €100million (£86m; $107m) for him.

Personal terms are believed to have been agreed and Bellingham will soon become the latest emerging superstar to prefer Spain over England — following Cristiano Ronaldo, Cesc Fabregas, Gareth Bale, Neymar and Luis Suarez over the past 15 years.

This can be taken as a blow to the idea that the Premier League is the most attractive and powerful domestic league in Europe and a victory for those in Spain (and Catalonia) who believe their football heritage and culture can help them attract talents, even if their relative financial power has waned.

Just over a decade ago, there was no doubt La Liga was the place to be. The national team were winning three consecutive international tournaments and was packed with stars from the Clasico clubs, including Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas.

Meanwhile, La Liga clubs were dominating UEFA competitions. Between 2006 and 2018, Barcelona or Madrid won eight of 13 Champions Leagues. From 2008 to 2017, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo shared the Ballon d’Or between them.

Stars at all other teams in all other leagues were desperate to join Barca or Madrid and pushed hard to leave big clubs elsewhere. This included players from backgrounds as different as Ronaldo, Bale, Fabregas, Suarez, Luka Modric, James Rodriguez, Neymar, Toni Kroos, Philippe Coutinho and Eden Hazard. Even those playing for the top teams in the Premier League found Barca or Madrid impossible to turn down.

From outside, some might have felt Bale did not enjoy his time at the Bernabeu, that the former Wales star might have regretted his decision to move to the Spanish capital. But there was no sign of that as he regularly rejected attempts to bring him back to the Premier League, most publicly to Manchester United when Jose Mourinho was manager at Old Trafford.

“Madrid are the biggest club in the world,” Bale said in 2016. “When you have the chance to play for them, you do not turn it down. I came here to progress as a footballer and I’ve definitely made the right decision. We’ve won two Champions Leagues in three years. That is something I want to continue to keep doing, winning trophies, and Real Madrid can offer that; they match all my ambitions.”

Bale went on to win another three Champions Leagues, even as fitness issues and questions over his attitude limited his contribution to the team. By his last Champions League win in 2022, he had received all kinds of abuse from local fans and pundits — not that he cared. What mattered much more was the status that came with being at what he and his peers believed was the most glamorous club in the world and winning the biggest trophies possible.

Although, the contracts now on offer at Madrid and Barcelona are not quite as market-leading as the likes of Bale received, with both clubs having had financial issues that have been exacerbated by COVID-19 and new stadium renovation plans.

Over time, La Liga has been losing stars. Many players’ careers have wound down — Xavi went to Qatar, Iniesta to Japan and David Villa to MLS. Ronaldo’s departure from Madrid in 2018 was a trauma and Messi leaving Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain in 2020 was even more difficult to take. Some of the Clasico duos’ transfer decisions have not gone well either, with Coutinho and Hazard flopping in Spain.

In recent years, Madrid and Barca have accepted that they are no longer able to match PSG or the richest Premier League clubs when it comes to wages or transfer fees. That has been a big driver for them being the only two teams still pushing the Super League project, which presidents Florentino Perez and Joan Laporta argue would level the playing field again.

Madrid have become smarter in the transfer market by concentrating not on superstars at their peak. Instead, they have gone for the best youngsters — deals such as Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo, Eduardo Camavinga and Aurelien Tchouameni — or taken advantage of market opportunities, getting established stars such as Toni Kroos, Thibaut Courtois, David Alaba and Antonio Rudiger as their contracts were almost over or finished.

Last summer at Barcelona was another big example of how the top La Liga sides have retained their allure despite their financial issues. The Barca hierarchy wanted to force out Frenkie de Jong and Manchester United and Chelsea would have increased his wages, but the Dutchman preferred to stay in the Catalan capital. When leaving Leeds United, Raphinha could have earned more money at Chelsea or Tottenham Hotspur, but he and his agent, Deco, held out for their preferred destination.

Other players Barca targeted — including Chelsea club captain Cesar Azpilicueta and then Sevilla defender Jules Kounde — were keen to move to Barca, even when it was not certain they would be able to be registered to play in La Liga or the Champions League. Robert Lewandowski had only one destination in mind when he decided to leave Bayern Munich.

Madrid’s success during the 2021-22 campaign was important in showing that La Liga’s best could match or overcome the Premier League’s richest teams, with Los Blancos enjoying thrilling victories over Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City.

Another sign of the prestige of La Liga has been Modric and Karim Benzema winning Ballon d’Ors in recent years. Only two Premier League players — Ronaldo (2008, Manchester United) and Michael Owen (2001, Liverpool) — have won its vote in 22 years. Such individual awards count for players, their entourage and when sponsors and commercial partners are making decisions.

Missing out on Kylian Mbappe in the summer of 2022 was a hammer blow to everyone at the Bernabeu and especially Perez, who had made a personal pursuit of the France forward. That was put down to PSG’s financial and political muscle having been just too strong before the World Cup in Qatar last December. It was also bad timing for another reason, given Madrid missed out on a good chance of beating Manchester City to sign Erling Haaland due to focusing on Mbappe instead.

Madrid losing out to City and Haaland in the Champions League semi-finals recently cut deep, too, but it was not completely unexpected, as even the proudest fans are aware that they cannot win all the time.

But the Real hierarchy still believes they are the smartest operators around, that their mix of glamour, prestige, experience and a lot of money gives them the best chance of attracting the top players and building the best teams.

Bellingham’s decision to prefer a move to Spain over a return to his home country shows Madrid are not wrong about that.

(Photos: Getty Images; Design: Eamonn Dalton)



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