All the King's men

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:20 AM ET

Just what is Real Madrid and why is the local soccer populace moving heaven and earth, or at least real grass, for its visit this Friday?

"They are the sport's aristocrats," said Colin Jose, Canadian soccer Hall of Fame journalist. "I don't think it exists in North America, a team so steeped in history on and off the field.

"Their great players are legion and there's just something about their stadium (Santiago Bernabeu once held 125,000, before reducing to a much safer 80,000) and their all-white uniforms that has people in awe."

The equivalent over here might be taking the lore of the Montreal Canadiens' 24 Stanley Cups, the fat bankroll of the New York Yankees, the notoriety of the Dallas Cowboys, combining that with the fervent fan base of the Oakland Raiders and Saskatchewan Roughriders and the loyal longevity of the Chicago Cubs.

All that still can't do justice to the fascination with FIFA's "Team of the 20th Century" on 47 million Spaniards and 1,800 fan clubs worldwide. With every new signing, Kaka, Raul Albiol, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, they break the bank.

Even the Vatican's newspaper weighed in, opining whether $300 million US in summer transfers for Kaka, Ronaldo and Benzema was sending the wrong message in troubled times.

But club president Florentino Perez, who just missed luring Franck Ribery from Bayern Munich for $121.9 million this week, seems unperturbed about bolts of lightning hurled his way.

Never mind Stephen Harper dropping by for the odd Calgary Flames game, Madrid carries the endorsement of the monarchy after King Alfonso XIII bestowed the Real (Royal) title upon it in 1920 with the royal family's crest part of the logo. And the Battle of Ontario is a pillow fight compared to the distinct regional rivalry when the Castilian supporters of Madrid meet their Catalan enemies from FC Barcelona, a centuries-old feud, heightened by the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. 'El Clasico' games between the two are often an excuse by the Catalans to push an agenda for independence.

Today, Madrid's 70,000 season ticket holders range from model citizens to a small group of right-wing extremists who have been investigated for racial taunting of players. But they all vote for the team executive and no matter what political stripe, such unwavering support helps make Madrid the second most valuable pro sports franchise in the world according to Forbes.com, at $1.35 billion US, just behind Manchester United.

Real had much more humble beginnings in 1897, as a Sunday morning university team formed in part by Oxford and Cambridge graduates studying in Madrid. After some splintering, Madrid FC was born in 1902, still owned and operated by its club members, winning its first national crown 104 years ago. A record total of 31 La Liga titles would ensue, plus 17 Spanish Cups, nine European Cups and two UEFA Cups, while Real became a founding member of both FIFA and UEFA.

Bernabeu's arrival as club president in 1945 began the true golden era for the club, re-building the stadium destroyed in the Civil War and embarking on the first big-name off-shore star search. It began with Argentine Alfredo di Stefano in 1953 and later Hungarian Ferenc Puskas, both of whome were in the lineup on Aug. 25, 1961 when Madrid beat Toronto City 5-1 in Vancouver.

The unlikely foes were brought together then because of Real's desire to visit the new Disneyland Park. But coming all the way to California for one exhibition game against a U.S. team seemed a waste, until L.A. restaurateur and soccer fan Jean Leon suggested adding a Canadian date, initially against B.C.'s amateur all-stars.

But the ECPSL pros at Toronto City, then stacked with U.K. ex-pats such as Tommy Younger, Stanley Matthews, Johnny Haynes, Jack Mudie and Danny Blanchflower, seemed the country's best choice to fly west and face mighty Madrid.

"There was a $30,000 payment to Madrid to appear," recalled Vancouver Province sports writer Jeff Cross. "Every one wanted their percentage of the profits; Madrid, the B.C. Soccer Federation, the Canadian Soccer Association and Toronto.

"By that time of the year, most of the English stars had gone home so Toronto didn't do as well as a B.C. team might have. But for all the politics, they drew a good crowd (about 24,000 to the 30,000-seat Empire Stadium) and Madrid put on quite a show, with an excellent game by di Stefano and Puskas."

Tied 1-1 at the half on goals by di Stefano and Toronto's Alec Marshall, Madrid surged to a 5-1 lead on two Puskas strikes.

"After the game, di Stefano was making a fuss, pointing to the program where it said the scorer of the game's first goal would win a new wristwatch," Cross said with a laugh. "It actually said the first Canadian goal, but our B.C. chairman, Dave Fryatt, drove to a jewellers, bought him a watch and he was very happy."

Between 1956 and 1960, while the Habs ruled the NHL, Madrid won the European Cup five times, and another in 1966 with an all-Spanish lineup, dubbed the "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah" team, after four of its stars posed in the popular Beatle wigs.

The 1970s saw more glory, but also the death of Bernabeu during the 1978 World Cup, a passing significant enough for FIFA to declare three days mourning in the midst of the tournament in Argentina. After a brief dip in the early 1980s, Madrid rebounded with another home-grown lineup, featuring four players known as the Vulture's Cohort, eventually supplanted by new star imports such as Mexican Hugo Sanchez.

By the turn of this century, it had become difficult for Real to keep out-bidding rivals for such high-priced transfers as Luis Figo. That is until building magnate Perez boldly re-zoned the team's hallowed training ground, selling the valued land to raise money for the next star-studded team, dubbed Galacticos: Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Figo, Roberto Carlos, Raul and David Beckham.

This summer, with Perez entering his third term, Real broke the world transfer record when Portuguese-born Ronaldo signed for $132 million US, with Brazil's Kaka brought in at $91 million.

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TROPHY CASE

Real Madrid's championships

la liga (31 titles)

1932, 1933, 1954, 1955, 1957, 1958, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1972, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1995, 1997, 2001, 2003, 2007, 2008

copa del rey (17)

1905, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1917, 1934, 1936, 1946, 1947, 1962, 1970, 1974, 1975, 1980, 1982, 1989, 1993

EUROPEAN CUP (9)

1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1966, 1998, 2000, 2002

intercontinental cup (3)

1960, 1998, 2002

european super cup (1)

2002

uefa cup (2)

1985, 1986

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TRIP ITINERARY

Real Madrid's North American visit

According to Real Madrid's official English-language website (www.realmadrid.com), here is the team's schedule for its trip to North America:

Thursday

Noon: Arrive at Pearson airport

Late afternoon: News conference

7 p.m.: Light workout, BMO Field (Tickets $15)

Friday

7:30 p.m.: Toronto FC vs. Real Madrid at BMO Field

Saturday

1:15 p.m.: Arrive in Washington.

Afternoon: News conference and training session, FedEx Field

Sunday

3 p.m.: DC United vs. Real Madrid at FedEx Field.

Early evening: Leave for Madrid.


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