“You can’t judge a person on one mistake” – Palop’s beautiful homage to Arconada

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Andrés Palop’s giddy explanation wasn’t necessary, Michel Platini had recognised it straight away. Twenty four years had passed but he hadn’t forgotten the shirt. He hadn’t forgotten its former wearer either — the man that Palop was paying tribute to. “He’s here somewhere, I invited him,” he beamed.

Seated a few blocks away, Luis Arconada looked up at the giant screen in Vienna’s Ernst Happel Stadium and saw it. It was unmistakable; with its navy blue shoulders and cuffs, dark green body and bright red Spanish Federation badge on the chest. It was the shirt that had been worn on the most painful night for one of Spain’s most iconic players. Now that famous number one shirt was being worn by Spain’s number 13. On one of Spain’s most glorious football nights, Palop had chosen to remember the goalkeeper he had idolised as a child and to make a gesture that, he hoped, would help turn a page in history once and for all.

In the summer of 1984, Andrés Palop was a 10-year-old boy growing up on the outskirts of Valencia. As an aspiring goalkeeper, his hero was naturally Spain’s captain, Luis Arconada. Arconada had led Real Sociedad to the pinnacle of the Spanish game, captaining them to successive league titles and was the undisputed number one choice for the national team.

Arconada stood out for his agility and reflexes and often made saves with his feet. In stature and style, there were similarities between Arconada and a future Spanish goalkeeper and captain, Iker Casillas. This was no coincidence. Casillas tells the story of when his mother would encourage him to eat fish by recounting a fictional conversation she’d had with Arconada’s mother about the importance of sardines in a young goalkeeper’s diet. Eager to emulate his hero, he would clean the plate.

Arconada’s popularity was such that the best selling Christmas gift for several years in early 1980s Spain was the Arconada goalkeeping jersey. “In sky blue (the best seller), orange or green but always with the famous navy shoulders,” wrote Alfredo Relaño in El Pais — “In those years every boy in Spain wanted to be Luis Arconada.”

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Casillas was a little too young to remember but Palop was of that perfect impressionable age when the Spanish team made the short journey to France for the 1984 European Championships. 

After a disappointing performance as hosts of the 1982 World Cup, expectations were low. Indeed it had taken a remarkable result to scrape through qualification. A loss in the penultimate game in Rotterdam left Spain with the improbable task of needing to beat Malta by 11 clear goals to qualify. The unlikely looked impossible after 24 minutes when a Maltese goal drew the teams level at 1-1. But 60 barmy minutes later, Spain had a 12-1 lead. There was even time for a 13th goal to be disallowed before the final whistle blew and fans poured onto the pitch at the Estadio Benito Villamarín.  

At the finals, Spain were drawn with Romania, West Germany and Portugal — thus avoiding the hosts and favourites, France. They were pooled with Yugoslavia and the talented Belgium and Denmark sides.

After two draws, Spain’s final group game became decisive.

Opponents West Germany knew a point would qualify them for the semi-finals. Spain’s needs depended on the result in the other game. Topping the group carried the additional incentive of avoiding France, who had cruised to the last four with three wins and nine goals — including seven from Platini.

Arconada was unusually hesitant in a first half where Spain had to contend with an injury in defence and some pinpoint German set-pieces which left their crossbar shaking. As newspaper ABC noted, using a Spanish idiom, a more recognisable Arconada emerged in the second half — “He removed the thorn of the first half with several magnificent saves.” 

Shots from Rudi Völler and Klaus Allofs — twice — were beaten away before a superb reflex stop denied Karl Heinz Rummenigge, who had freed himself brilliantly to shoot high and hard from close range.

On 80 minutes, news filtered through that Portugal had taken the lead in Nantes. Mere survival for Spain would not be enough. Although there was some confusion, Mundo Deportivo reported that head coach, Miguel Muñoz, initially gave the signal to his players to hold the ball and settle for a draw. It took a frantic relay of information from the Spanish press corps to get word to the bench that, as things stood, Spain would be eliminated.

Muñoz duly sent Antonio Maceda forward and the German defence fatally failed to account for the centre back as he headed a 90th-minute winner completely unmarked from Juan Señor’s perfect cross. 

The unlikely group win set up a semi-final against Denmark in Lyon.

The Danes would not afford Spain the luxury of another nervous start. After just seven minutes Arconada acrobatically tipped a looping header on to the crossbar only for Søren Lerby to crash the rebound over him for the opening goal.

Spain attempted to react but found themselves outmatched in both skill and physique. “It was not a battle, more an attempt to bring down a colossal statue with kicks to the shin,” reported ABC. Arconada kept Spain alive with a double save before once again the saviour was the unlikely figure of Maceda, who rifled home a loose ball to level the game. Even then, Spain only survived to extra time after Arconada dived full length to keep out Michael Laudrup’s low drive. 

In the very last action of extra time itself, Denmark won a free-kick which Preben Elkjær struck viciously, forcing another astonishing double save from Arconada who scrambled to his feet to block the follow-up opportunity. 

It was on to penalties. Arconada thought he had made the breakthrough, saving Laudrup’s attempt. But referee, George Courtney, instructed a retake and Arconada was booked for his protests. Laudrup gladly took advantage of the reprieve.

As the shootout effectively reached sudden death, Elkjær skyed his penalty allowing Manu Sarabia to send an unconvincing Spain to the Parc des Princes for the final.

In the other semi-final, France had beaten Portugal in an all-time classic. With home advantage and featuring the midfield Carré Magique or ‘Magic Square’ of Luis Fernández, Alain Giresse, Jean Tigana and Platini, France were firm favourites. But as so often is the case, the occasion was nervy with few chances.

Little of note had happened until the moment that would go down in history. Just before the hour mark France were awarded a generous free-kick for what little contact Salva had made with Bernard Lacombe barely a yard outside the Spanish penalty area. So close to goal, Platini opted not to flight the ball over the wall but to drive it to Arconada’s side. Anticipating the former, Arconada motioned to his right. But the shot was weak enough that he had no problem readjusting to make a comfortable dive to his left to meet the ball. 

Disastrously, the ball dipped slightly and squirmed under the body of that famous jersey — sending it trickling towards the goal line. Arconada made one last desperate stretch but to no avail.  Platini sunk to his knees as his teammates engulfed him in celebration. Arconada sprung to his feet, booting the ball downfield in bewildered self-reproach.

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Spain desperately sought an equaliser but Bruno Bellone clipped a late second goal on the break to confirm a first major tournament trophy for the hosts — the crowning achievement of a classic French vintage.

As France celebrated, a generation of young Spaniards were heartbroken as Arconada’s mistake overshadowed the heroics he had performed to drag his team to the final.

It would cast a shadow over the remainder of his international career. In a World Cup qualifier against Wales the following April, a mix up involving the two heroes of Euro 84 — Arconada and Maceda — gifted Ian Rush the simplest of goals. Unbeknown to Arconada, the last of his then-record number of Spanish caps came in that grisly 0-3 loss at the Racecourse Ground in Wrexham.

The spectre of the Paris mistake had been raised and a spooked Muñoz decided to pass the gloves to Athletic Bilbao’s Andoni Zubizarreta. Although it was denied that Arconada’s omission from the squad was permanent, the situation became more clear cut when he suffered a severe knee injury in September 1985.  Arconada was out of the reckoning for the 1986 World Cup squad and no longer an issue that Muñoz had to field questions about.

Despite regaining a high level after his recovery and his relative youth, Arconada was never again selected for Spain. An unsatisfactory ending to one of the most enduring international careers.

Of course, not all of Spain’s budding Arconadas from the early eighties would become future title-winning goalkeepers like Palop and Casillas. At some point, most would have to accept that the realms of elite sport were beyond them and pick other career paths.

A boy from Jerez named José Miguel Muñoz was one case in point.

Despite growing up almost as far away from San Sebastián as it was possible to be in mainland Spain, José chose to support Real Sociedad based purely on his admiration of their legendary goalkeeper.

Whenever la Real visited Andalusia, José would be there. Not only at the games but such a frequent visitor to the team hotel that Arconada would crack a smile every time he saw the familiar face bound up to him for yet another autograph. 

José, of course, would not become the Andalucian Arconada. But his passion for football led him into sports journalism and to Madrid with notable outlets such as Don Balón, Onda Cero and Marca. He returned south as editor of Seville’s sports daily Estadio Deportivo before a falling out with Real Betis president Manuel Ruiz de Lopera saw him move to work for Sevilla’s in house media team.

It was an excellent time to join. Sevilla were playing scintillating football and won back to back UEFA Cups in 2006 and 2007, alongside a Copa del Rey. All while laying down a genuine title challenge.

They even had a charismatic goalkeeper of their own. In a team that liked to bomb forward, they were often thankful for the interventions of Andrés Palop at the back. 

He memorably bailed them out at the other end too. As UEFA Cup holders they were moments from elimination in Donetsk when Palop’s headed goal rescued them. They won the tie in extra time and eventually progressed to an all Spanish final in Glasgow.  

At a soggy Hampden Park, Palop kept Espanyol at bay with a string of saves before stopping three of four penalties in the shootout.  Sevilla retained their title and Palop picked up a deserved Man of the Match award.

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José had noticed Palop’s preference for wearing white socks whenever possible. On further enquiry, as suspected, Palop revealed it was a tribute to Arconada, who habitually wore them even when he had to veto the officially designated kit to do so.

The two fellow Arconadistas bonded and Palop was intrigued by how José’s childhood adoration had matured into a friendship with Arconada and his family. Palop’s eyes lit up when José mentioned that Arconada had gifted him the jersey he had worn that fateful night in Paris.

An injury in the winter of the 2007/08 season kept Palop on the sidelines for almost two months. He had been on course for a place in Spain’s Euro 2008 squad as Spain’s third-choice goalkeeper but feared his absence may leave him out of the frame. José did his best to keep his friend’s spirits up and amid their many conversations, they struck a pact. If Palop could get fit and earn his spot in the squad, the two would devise a tribute he could make to their mutual hero. 

Palop regained fitness and duly took his place in the squad, although little did they know how perfectly their plan would work out. Spain breezed through their group with three wins then eliminated Italy in the last eight on penalties. Russia were brushed aside in the semi-final giving Spain their first final appearance since Paris in 1984.

Although the final in Vienna was won by the narrowest of margins, Spain controlled the game and Germany struggled to contain Fernando Torres, then at the very peak of his powers. His goal after 33 minutes proved to be the winner as Spain comfortably saw out the game and indeed looked more likely to add to their advantage.

As the final whistle blew, the Spanish bench rushed on to the field. All except Palop, that was, who ran in the opposite direction and to the dressing room. He retrieved that carefully folded old shirt from his bag and slipped it over his head. There was a distinctly retro feel to it but the jersey looked magnificent — indeed better than the shirt he had worn on the bench all tournament. The manufacturer’s logo had been tactfully covered over to avoid any dispute.

He dashed back out to the presentation. It certainly hadn’t occurred to him nor José during those injury-plagued winter months that the man who would present the trophy, would be the man that broke their hearts all those years ago. The man who had inadvertently cast a pall over the career of a goalkeeper he had so much respect for. Michel Platini, now UEFA president, had been sure to invite Arconada as soon it was known that Spain would be in the final. 

As Palop stood with a European Championship winner’s medal draped over those famous navy blue shoulders with Arconada watching on, a page in history had finally been turned by a boy who cried that night in 1984 when his hero’s legacy was tarnished.

“I was able to pay my little homage, a gesture to set things straight. You can’t judge a person on one mistake – you have to look at their whole career, their titles and their achievements.”

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