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Original Issue

Eyes on the Prize Real Madrid, the most compelling club soccer team ever, comes to U.S. TV

Feisty Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane, a former amateur
boxer, is one of the proudest, most feared soccer players in the
world. Yet when asked last week about the talent assembled by
Real Madrid, futbol's answer to the Dream Team, Keane turned
pale. "They're the best team I've ever played at the club level,"
the veteran captain told SI. "There's a magic about Real Madrid.
With the players they've got, with the experience they've got,
it's frightening."

How scary? Over the past two years Real Madrid has spent $159
million acquiring the Bonds, McGwire and Sosa of the sport:
Brazilian striker Ronaldo, French midfielder Zinedine Zidane and
Portuguese winger Luis Figo, all three of whom have won FIFA's
World Player of the Year award. Throw in a handful of World Cup
stars, led by Spanish forward Raul and Brazilian wingback Roberto
Carlos, and you have a collection of artists worthy of the Prado.

From Zidane's artful passing to Figo's zig-zagging runs to
Roberto Carlos's cannonball 40-yard free kicks, Real Madrid is a
team whose skills even the most soccer-phobic U.S. couch potato
can enjoy. This month viewers can see Real in a European
Champions League semifinal match on ESPN2 (against Italy's
Juventus on May 6) and, if form holds, in the final, against A.C.
Milan or Inter Milan on May 28. The audience isn't likely to be
let down. So captivating was Ronaldo in Real's quarterfinal match
against Manchester United--scoring a hat trick at Old Trafford on
April 23--that the opposing fans gave him a standing ovation.
Real lost the game 4-3 but won the home-and-home series 6-5. And
therein lies the appeal. In a sport often constipated by
defensive play, Real barrels forward with abandon. "When you
score four goals at home, you expect to go through, but you can't
legislate for someone like Ronaldo," said Man U manager Sir Alex
Ferguson after listening to his fans chant, "Fergie, Fergie, sign
him up!"

"At Real Madrid our strategy is very clear," says team president
Florentino Perez. "We have to have the best." Real's been able to
afford the best, thanks to the 2001 sale of its practice facility
for $400 million, an ownership structure that defrays debt among
more than 100,000 club "members" and Perez's philosophy of rarely
spending money on players below the superstar level. Real Madrid
has the world's best core but a relatively thin supporting cast.

Transfers are dependent in part on players' wanting to go to a
team, which is why the better Real Madrid gets, the more
attractive it becomes to stars. Even Manchester United, the
world's most popular team, has felt Real's influence--and not
just on the field. British tabloids were abuzz last week that
Real was angling to buy England's national treasure, Man U winger
David Beckham, for $60 million at the end of the season. Nearly
lost in the talk was this remarkable fact: With all of Real
Madrid's talent, Beckham might not make its starting
lineup. --Grant Wahl


COLOR PHOTO: JEAN-MARIE HERVIO-FLASH PRESS/DPPI (FIGO) JUGGLER'S DUES Figo is just one of Real Madrid's many millionairestars.