How Real Madrid and Barcelona became the same team

David Beckham played for Real Madrid because, well, of course David Beckham played for Real Madrid.

Madrid signed soccer’s first — and perhaps only — pop superstar from Manchester United in 2003 for €35 million. Like so many of the Galacticos-era moves from president Florentino Perez’s first stint as club president, the transaction only seemed vaguely connected with “wanting to win soccer games.” Beckham was insanely famous, so Perez had to have him.

It all seemed inevitable in hindsight, but it really wasn’t.

In 2003, current Barcelona president Joan Laporta was elected to his first term after running on a platform of “I will sign David Beckham.” He got elected by the supporters, but failed to follow through. Ferran Soriano, Laporta’s then-VP and now the CEO at City Football Group, later admitted that the club also missed out on signing an 18-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo from Sporting Lisbon that same year: “We thought €18 million was too high a price.”

Can you imagine if Barcelona had signed both Beckham and Ronaldo in the summer of 2003?

From that point on, the clubs seemed to fork off in opposite directions. As Madrid gobbled up every superstar in sight, Barcelona built from within and cultivated an extreme identity around always having the ball. It’s hard to envision such a strong divergence with Ronaldo and Beckham wearing the blaugrana, but it’s not hard to envision what the past 20 years might’ve looked like in that alternate reality.

It would have looked like what we’re going to see on Sunday (10:15 a.m. ET, ESPN+) — two wealthy clubs that are starting to look a lot like each other.

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