Real Madrid, more so than any other club on Earth, have a reputation for 'ruining' great players. The FIFA Club of the Twentieth Century and the most valuable sports team on the planet, Real are renowned for their high-profile transfer dealings. Always at the forefront of securing the world's top talents, going back as far as the 1950's, it has been most observable since the implementation of the 'Galacticos' policy by club president Florentino Perez, which began in 2000.
The theory is that every summer Real sign at least one high-profile and/or world class player. Some 'Galacticos' include the likes of David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, Toni Kroos, Gareth Bale and Kaka. The advantage of this policy is that Real recruit some of the most talented footballers in the world. The negative is that it often leads to players having huge pressure on them and being given very limited opportunities to prove their worth.
Most players find it difficult to turn down the lure of the Bernabeu and playing for one of the most illustrious and successful teams in sport. So many players have seen their careers go downhill at Real that it has its own term, the 'Bernabeu Bite'. By 'ruined' we mean the player was not the same in a Real shirt as previously. Some came back after their failure in the Spanish capital, others never recovered and were truly ruined.
Here are the top 15 soccer stars who were ruined by Real Madrid:
15 Asier Illaramendi
The most expensive Spaniard that Real Madrid have ever bought, Asier Illaramendi's time at the Bernabeu was rather forgettable. Having become a mainstay in Real Sociedad's midfield at the age of 20 and a member of Spain's U-21 Euro 2013 winning squad. In the summer of 2013, he joined Real Madrid. In two years at the club, starts were rare, and one of the best prospects in Spanish football became a forgotten man. He rejoined Sociedad in 2015, with Real making roughly a $25 million loss on the midfielder.
14 Fabio Cannavaro
One of only three Ballon d'Or winning defenders in the history of the game, Fabio Cannavaro was one of the finest defenders of his generation. In 2006, he captained Italy to victory at the World Cup, and joined Real Madrid the same year. His Los Blancos career started brightly, and he was very popular with the clubs supporters. But like so many players, his Real career was short-lived. In his final season, Cannavaro was labelled too slow and old, at the age of 34. He returned to Juventus in 2009 for a final season in Serie A, before having one last payday in Dubai with Al-Ahli FC.
13 Klaas-Jan Huntelaar
The best strikers have a coolness and calmness in front of goal, sometimes described as being "ice cold" when a chance presents itself to them, and this lends to them being particularly clinical. There are few finer in this respect than Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Having scored 76 goals in 92 games for Ajax, Huntelaar was signed by Real. The Dutchman was given just a season, and 8 goals in 20 games was deemed unsatisfactory, so he moved on to AC Milan. Now 32, Huntelaar has a career record of 306 goals in 511 games.
12 Rafael van der Vaart
A compatriot and teammate of Huntelaar's in both the Real Madrid and Dutch national team was Rafael van der Vaart. A recipient of both the Golden Boy Award and the Dutch Football Talent of the Year award as a youngster, awards previously won by the likes of Marco van Basten, Romario and Lionel Messi, it's clear van der Vaart was quite the talent. He joined Real Madrid from Hamburg in 2008, but was immediately used as an impact sub, prompting suggestions of a fallout between player and management. He left Real for Tottenham in 2010 and has never quite hit the heights his talent suggested he could have.
11 Javier Saviola
When it comes to not having hit the heights one's talents suggest they should have, van der Vaart and many others are blown out of the way by Javier Saviola. When he broke Diego Maradona's record as the youngest ever Argentine Golden Boot winner, he was being touted as the heir to El Diego himself. He joined Barcelona at 19, and scored 60 goals in his first three seasons for the Catalan club. In 2007 he signed for Real on a free transfer, but on a huge wage. In two years, he played 17 games, and scored 4 goals. He later scored prolifically for Benfica, but always fell short of the expectations once hoped of him.
10 Walter Samuel
Real Madrid struggled for a number of years to find a solid central defensive partnership, so it should come as no surprise that two central defenders make this list. Walter Samuel joined Los Blancos at the age of 26, having played more than 300 games for Newell's Old Boys, Boca Juniors and Roma, as well as having 50 caps for Argentina to his name. Yet Samuel was only given a season to prove his worth, and with the club still shipping goals, he returned to Serie A with Inter Milan. Now aged 38, Samuel is currently playing for Basel in Switzerland.
9 Michael Owen
Michael Owen was an absolute sensation when he first announced himself in the late 1990's. He scored a world class goal against Argentina in 1998, averaged more than a goal every other game over 8 years at Liverpool and won the Ballon d'Or in 2002. After all that, there was of course one likely destination, the Bernabeu, and in 2004, Owen joined Real Madrid. Disrupted by injuries, Owen scored 13 league goals, but was let go the following season. Owen played 8 years of football either side of his stint at Real, scoring 158 goals before and 48 after, a telling indication of what the move and injuries did to his career.
8 Esteban Cambiasso and Fernando Gago
Combined in eighth place are two Argentine defensive midfielders, Esteban Cambiasso and Fernando Gago. They arrived from Argentina's two footballing superpowers, Boca Juniors and River Plate, only to see their careers stall at Real. Cambiasso recovered from this, with 10 highly successful years at Inter Milan. Gago though, who could have been one of the finest midfielders of his generation, saw his time in Europe come to an end at the age of 27, and is now the linchpin in Boca Juniors' midfield once more.
7 David Beckham
Whether David Beckham was 'ruined' by Real Madrid is up for debate, but few would argue that he came close to his Manchester United days while playing in the white of Real. A world class right sided player for United, Los Blancos pushed Beckham into a central position in his second season in the club, playing him alongside Figo and Zidane in a 5-3-2 formation. This limited arguably Beckham's finest attribute, his crossing ability from wide areas. Beckham arrived at Real as a World Player of the Year nominee, and left, aged 32, for the MLS.
6 Nuri Sahin
Nuri Sahin is a superb midfielder. Born in Germany to Turkish parents, he began life at Borussia Dortmund, and when he left the club for Real Madrid in 2011 at the age of 23, he had already played 104 games for the club, as Dortmund won the Bundesliga and Sahin was named Bundesliga Player of the Season in his final season. This was a player surely destined to be an all time great. Yet in three years at Real, Sahin played 4 league games, being loaned out twice. Since rejoining Dortmund on a permanent deal, Sahin was ruled out for a year with injury, but is now back and finally looking a class act once more.
5 Antonio Cassano
Anyone who is a fan of Serie A and saw Antonio Cassano turn out for either Bari or Roma between 1999 and 2006 won't need reminding just how good a player Cassano was. Gifted with incredible technique and vision, Cassano could well have gone down as one of the finest players of his generation, instead he went down as a talented but tainted star, better known for his poor attitude and short temper than beguiling defenders and making supporters jaws drop.
This is in no small part down to having been ruined in two years at the Bernabeu. From the freedom he was afforded in Rome to playing under a disciplinarian in Capello in Madrid, it was a match made in hell. He scored 4 goals in 29 games and swiftly returned to Italy. Aged 33 and back at Sampdoria, Cassano will never reach the heights he should have, and things may have turned out so differently were it not for the lure of the Bernabeu.
4 Wesley Sneijder
Real Madrid don't waste time offloading players once they're deemed surplus to requirements, and Wesley Sneijder was no exception. He joined Real at 23 from Ajax, where he had been named the club's player of the year. The club gave him two seasons, before splashing the cash on Kaka and telling Sneijder he was free to leave. He joined Inter Milan, where he won a historic treble in 2010, as well as reaching a World Cup final. Sneijder came fourth in the Ballon d'Or that year, ahead of any Real player, including Cristiano Ronaldo, whilst Kaka didn't even make the longlist of 23.
3 Nicolas Anelka
Mercurial French forward Nicolas Anelka may go down as a bit of a journeyman, but the fact remains he was a quality footballer, capable of gracing any team. He first announced himself at Arsenal as an 18-year-old, scoring 23 goals in 65 games for the Gunners before moving to Real at the age of 20. He wasn't given game time at the Bernabeu though, unable to dislodge Raul or Fernando Morientes. In one season, he scored 2 goals in 19 games, before rejoining PSG. Anelka went on to have a very successful, if nomadic, career with the likes of Man City, Fenerbahce and Chelsea, winning 11 trophies all told.
2 Arjen Robben
Arjen Robben joined Real Madrid from Chelsea in 2007, and spent two years in the Spanish capital. Groningen's Player of the Year at 17 and the Netherland's Young Player of the Year at 19, it was always clear Robben was a talent of some distinction. Yet Real were happy to cast-off the Dutchman in 2009 after they signed Cristiano Ronaldo. At Bayern Munich Robben has reached new heights, winning 12 trophies in 7 years and being named the fourth best player in the world in 2014.
Of all the players 'ruined' by Real Madrid, none come close to Kaka. The Samba star arrived at the Bernabeu as one of, if not the, best player on the planet, and left a broken man. A World Cup, Champions League, Serie A, Ballon d'Or and World Player of the Year winner prior to joining Real. His only honors since leaving the club are being an MLS All-Star and an MLS All-Star MVP, rather lesser achievements, with all due respect to North American soccer, especially for a player of Kaka's caliber, who was only 31 when he left the club.
The 2002 World Cup winner became the second most expensive footballer in history when he joined Real Madrid in 2009 from AC Milan. The combination of pressure, injuries and the introduction of Mesut Ozil made the move a major flop. In the four years Kaka spent at Real, Barcelona reigned supreme. He made a total of 120 appearances, scoring 29 goals, and left to return to Milan in 2013, but failed to reignite his career. Kaka is now playing in the MLS for Orlando City.