Under the presidency of Florentino Perez before the 2002-03 season, Real Madrid broke the world transfer record to sign Luis Figo from Barcelona and Zinedine Zidane from Juventus. For Perez, however, there was one ‘Galactico’ centre-forward missing from the puzzle to partner Raul, and he identified ‘O Fenomeno’ Ronaldo as his latest big-money signing. As well as collecting the signature of a former Ballon d’Or winner, Perez would put one over on Barcelona by signing one of their former greats.
Valencia were aiming to retain their championship after winning their first title in 31 years the previous campaign.
Los Blancos had signed the mercurial talents of Zidane one year previous, and although this paid off via a Champions League triumph, they lost out in the league to Rafa Benitez’s Valencia. In line with his ‘Galactico’ transfer policy, Perez signed former PSV, Barcelona, and Inter sensation Ronaldo, fresh off a World Cup win with Brazil in the summer of 2002, for a fee of €45 million. He would be the only major acquisition for Madrid in that pre-season.
In a bid to get Barca challenging for the league again like they had did just a few seasons ago, they brought back Louis van Gaal, but the Dutchman’s midas touch was not the same and he eventually lost his job in January. Two replacements followed in the form of Antonio de la Cruz and Radomir Antic, but neither performed much better. Van Gaal, in his only transfer window, brought in Juan Roman Riquelme from Boca Juniors and Gaizka Mendieta on loan from Valencia.
Defending champions Valencia failed to build on their playing squad from the previous campaign and only signed the likes of Jean Dorothee and Anthony Reveillere on free transfers.
The surprising big spenders were Deportivo, who signed Albert Luque, Jorge Andrade, and Robert Acuna for fees which totalled up to over 37 million euros.
Sevilla, meanwhile, picked up a little-known young Brazilian full-back by the name of Dani Alves.
Valencia started the defence of their title in solid fashion as they defeated Mallorca 2-0 away at the start of September, with the season starting later than usual because of the World Cup in Japan and South Korea. They followed that up with a win against Recreativo and a draw against Malaga before losing their first match - at home to Celta.
Benitez’s men stuttered throughout the year and eventually could only muster up a fifth-placed finish, thus putting them out of Champions League qualification.
Madrid won their first two matches in convincing fashion against Espanyol and Osasuna before drawing away at Real Valladolid. Enter then, Ronaldo, as the Brazilian scored two cracking goals on his debut for the Blancos as they destroyed Alaves 5-2. After R9’s debut they would draw against Betis before losing versus Racing Santander, but thereafter they would remain unbeaten for 15 matches. In that run, they would humble Valencia 4-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Barcelona, meanwhile, were in crisis mode. Unter the returning Van Gaal, they only won five matches between September and the turn of the year - a run which ultimately cost the head coach his job. Even though Barca were unbeaten in both Clasico matches and had a good run towards the very end of the campaign, they lost an incredible 12 matches over the season. They ultimately finished sixth, despite Patrick Kluivert and Javier Saviola chipping in plenty of goals.
La Liga’s surprise packages were undoubtedly Real Sociedad and Celta Vigo, who bested Barcelona and Valencia to make the top four. Deportivo admirably finished third, but had won the championship just before the Millennium.
Sociedad was were the real story was. The Basque outfit had not won the Spanish top-flight since 1981 but found themselves now in a race, and actually led the standings from September until February.
Powered by the goals of Nihat Kahveci and Darko Kovacevic, the supreme passing ability of Xabi Alonso, and guided by the coaching of Raynald Denoueix a dream championship win looked on the cards, but failing to win against Valencia and Celta in June allowed Madrid to push ahead even though Sociedad defeated them in their previous encounter.
It would come down to the last game of the campaign. Madrid were taking on Athletic Bilbao, while Sociedad needed a victory against Atletico Madrid and beg for a Blancos slip-up. It did not come, and Vicente del Bosque led his team to the championship with a 3-1 win with Ronaldo hitting the headlines with a double.
It would prove to be a positive season for Atletico Madrid. Down in the Segunda the previous campaign, the Colchoneros got back into the top-flight and quickly established themselves again by finishing twelfth. They would go on to become an elite European and domestic force again.
It was a disappointing season for Recreativo, Alaves, and Rayo who all suffered the ignominy of relegation.
SPANISH PLAYER OF THE SEASON
The talented Spaniard was nowhere near the peak of his powers during this campaign, but his precision passing and finesse on the ball allowed for Sociedad to see out key wins.
FOREIGN PLAYER OF THE SEASON
The Turkish hitman hit 23 league goals as he fired Sociedad to their closest championship assault since 1981.
MANAGER OF THE SEASON
The Frenchman put together an outstanding, vibrant team which very nearly put the Galacticos of Real Madrid to the sword.
ROY MAKAAY - 29 GOALS
The Dutchman was in incredible form for Deportivo, as he fired 29 goals past opposition goalkeepers as his team finished third to qualify for the Champions League.
MOST EXPENSIVE TRANSFER
Inter to Real Madrid
KEY MOMENT OF THE SEASON
At Balaidos, Celta took on Real Sociedad. Denoueix’s men went down 2-0 only for Nihat to grab back to make it 2-1. However, the home side broke the hearts of the championship contenders to go 3-1 ahead through Mido, and even though Nihat scored again to make it 3-2, Celta held on and Sociedad lost, handing the title initiative to Real Madrid, who took full advantage.