“To suddenly call up a Real Madrid player and ask them to come to your club when you’re still in the second division — well, you have to be a dreamer.”
In the summer of 1995, when the Real Madrid office staff told Emilio Butragueño to expect a call at home from a Mexican club, he presumed when the phone rang he would be talking to the owner of Club América or maybe Cruz Azul. But the accent on the other end of the line was Asturian, not Mexican, and he declared himself to be the owner of a club that Butragueño had never heard of. Mind you, even in Mexico not many had heard of Atlético Celaya.
The voice on the phone outlined his grand plans for the club on the brink of promotion. Butragueño was unconvinced, but Enrique Fernández was as insistent as he was persuasive. Multiple calls per day eventually swayed Butragueño into hopping on a flight to come and see for himself. Boarding the plane, he almost felt like he was wasting his time. He was convinced his future lay east, not west — Japan’s shiny new J League had been his preferred destination — a new challenge with the added benefit of never having to play against his beloved Real Madrid.
But after three days in Guanajuato, the people, the weather, the pace of life and the overtures from Fernández had changed his mind. Butragueño called his father and told him he would sign for Celaya. “If the team can more or less function, then it will be fine. We’ll move here.”
Butragueño signed for one season but stayed for three: “From a family point of view, it was probably the happiest three years of my life.” On the field, things were more than just functional. In Butragueño’s first season, newly-promoted Celaya nearly achieved a fairytale, coming within a flick of that familiar blonde head of winning the 1996 Mexican championship in the Estadio Azteca.
Butragueño would be joined in Mexico by two more members of the Quinta del Buitre in Michel and Rafa Martín Vázquez, as well as the man who provided more goals than anyone else to that Real Madrid side that won five consecutive titles, Hugo Sánchez. Key members of one of the most revered Real Madrid sides of all time reunited by Fernández’s vision and audacity.
Heck, he even persuaded Emilio Butragueño to play against Real Madrid.
The 1983-84 season saw Real Madrid in somewhat of a funk. The previous season had ended with Madrid finishing as runners-up in no less than five separate competitions. The gloom was not helped by a first-round UEFA Cup exit to Sparta Prague. But the Madrid public found solace in the emergence of a generation of players that had powered the club’s B team — Real Madrid Castilla — to the top of the second division.
In November of that season, El Pais carried a full-page profile that detailed Castilla’s remarkable progress under manager Amancio Armario. The article was headlined ‘Amancio y la Quinta de ‘El Buitre” — ‘Amancio and the Vulture Squad’ and would become almost a sacred artefact in the annals of Real Madrid.
Journalist Julio-César Iglesias picked out for particular praise a quintet of players with a combined age of 94 years. Midfielders Michel and Martín Vázquez were joined by the winger, Miguel Pardeza, and then defensive midfielder, Manuel Sanchís, in the Quinta del Buitre. But readers were left in no doubt as to who was the pick of the bunch — Butragueño, the blonde boy who had already scored 14 goals in 10 games that season and had already been christened with one of football’s most enduring nicknames. “The Vulture has demonstrated a thousand times in Castilla that the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line. He advances in zig-zags, or more precisely: zig-zags of silver, like flashes of lightning. His runs into the area are like a flash — an explosion of the most rapid, dazzling light.”
The article concluded with a flourish, urging first team manager Alfredo Di Stefano that: “now is the time to mobilise the Quinta del Buitre. To call for their imagination, discipline and quality.”
While Di Stefano didn’t exactly conform to Iglesias’ suggested timeframe of “two to three games”, each player was gradually introduced, and within a year, four of the five were regulars in the first team — by then managed by Amancio. Pardeza was the only one of the five who struggled to graduate, eventually going on loan and then permanently to Real Zaragoza.
The remaining quartet helped form the nucleus of a team that defined an era. Supported by established veterans such as Juanito, Paco Buyo, José Camacho and Rafael Gordillo and the signings of Hugo Sánchez and Jorge Valdano, Madrid won back-to-back UEFA Cups before winning five consecutive Spanish titles scoring unprecedented amounts of goals. Their tally of 107 goals in 1989/90 — 38 of which were scored by Sánchez with a single touch — would not be bettered until some two decades later.
The emergence of the Quinta del Buitre coincided with an explosion of the music, arts and nightlife scenes in a Madrid finally free from the conservatism and repression of the Franco era. With the city culturally liberated by the scene known as the Movida Madrileña and economically thriving during a period of unprecedented growth, it seemed the only thing missing for Madrileños of a Real Madrid persuasion was an elusive seventh European Cup.
But three consecutive semi-finals were as far as the side went. The third of which saw Madrid dismantled in the San Siro by Arigo Sacchi’s Milan, who repeated the feat six months later, dumping Madrid out of Europe in October. To make matters worse, another rising force — Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona — were about to end the Quinta’s domestic hegemony on their way to them becoming the side that brought the European Cup back to Spain for the first time in 26 years.
By the end of the 1994-95 season, Butragueño was struggling to hold down his place in the side with the emergence of a 17-year-old named Raúl González. Refusing a one-year contract extension on much reduced terms, Butragueño took to the field at the Bernabéu for the last time in a specially arranged tribute game against Roma. He spent the summer pondering whether he should uproot his young family and take up the offer from Japan or explore other avenues. Then the phone rang.
Flushed with business success and living in the afterglow of the wildly successful 1970 World Cup, Enrique Fernández surveyed the Mexican football scene for a club to buy.
Fernández had departed his native Langreo in Asturias three years previously, at the age of 27, to take charge of the Gigante chain of supermarkets in Mexico City. It didn’t take him long to strike out on his own, and Fernández soon founded Productos Alimenticios Asturias, a company that supplied bakeries across the country and was well on its way to becoming the publicly listed Lastur.
Along with some business associates, Fernández took a controlling stake in a second division club called Toros de Texcoco which over the decades went through various mergers and mutations under Mexican football’s bewildering franchise system. In 1994 a three-way merger resulted in the creation of a new club called Atlético Celaya, which held a license to play in Mexico’s second-tier and Fernández as majority owner.
Remarkably, the new club won promotion at the first time of asking, beating one of Mexico’s oldest clubs, Pachuca, with the only goal of a two-legged play-off final in June. A month previous, Fernández and a fellow director had been watching Butragueño’s farewell against Roma on TV when someone in the room mentioned trying to sign him. Figuring they had nothing to lose, Fernández got to work, and while Celaya were steadily progressing through the play-offs, their owner was making daily calls to Madrid trying to woo one of the world’s most famous players into playing for a club that barely anyone knew of.
With promotion secured and Butragueño finally sold, Celaya announced the signing to the world. “We were so moved when we watched his farewell game on TV that we thought maybe we could try and sign him. Back then it was a dream, but every now and then a dream comes true,” beamed Fernández, who, true to form, had even managed to work a friendly between Celaya and Real Madrid into the deal — the only time El Buitre ever faced the club of his life.
Butragueño explained his thoughts on the move to the assembled press. “It’s been a very difficult decision to make — to leave Real Madrid and take my family to a different country. But I have good friends in Mexico and it’s has always been a big part of me since I had one of the games that marked my career there.” Butragueño was referring to Spain’s 5-1 demolition of a brilliant Denmark side at Mexico ’86, in which Butragueño had scored four. That game had taken place in Querétaro, just a short distance from his new home in Celaya.
While his family settled into their tranquil new life, Butragueño got down to acclimatising to the altitude, his teammates and a club that, while ambitious, was still a little haphazard — certainly in comparison to the palatial life at Real Madrid.
The club had yet to acquire a training ground, meaning sessions were rotated around often bumpy factory sports facilities. Most lacked changing rooms which meant a teenager on a moped would call daily at Casa Butragueño to drop off and collect training kit.
A memorable incident occurred in an away game at León, where a forgetful kit-man realised to his horror that he hadn’t packed their star man’s shirt. Fortunately, by that point, Butragueño’s shirt was one of the best-sellers with the country’s enterprising hawkers, and a replacement was sourced from a stall outside the ground. Butragueño scored twice in the counterfeit shirt — the only shirt on the field to bear a player’s name — and the relieved kit-man began a tradition of purchasing a knock-off number seven shirt at every away game.
Results on the field, though, were anything but dodgy. After a 34-game regular season, Celaya qualified for the Championship play-offs alongside the usual giants América, UNAM Pumas and Cruz Azul. A brace of away goals from Butragueño edged Celaya past Monterrey before an astonishing 6-1 aggregate demolition of Veracruz in the semi-final.
A 1-1 draw in Celaya in the first leg of the final against the reigning champions, Necaxa, sent the title to be decided on the biggest stage of them all. 110,000 spectators crammed into the Estadio Azteca with a remarkable level of support for the club that had captured the public’s imagination, their ranks swelled by a significant number of Spanish ex-pats eager to cheer on Butragueño.
Celaya spent much of the first half under the cosh, stretched by Ecuadorean legend Álex Aguinagua’s midfield promptings and surviving a scare when Mexican international Alberto García Aspe crashed a volley against the post. As the game wore on, their opponents dropped deeper, but stifling defence denied Celaya a clean sight of a historic winning goal. Until that was, the 86th minute when Celaya won a free kick on the right. As the ball was delivered, Butragueño was positioned on the penalty spot and shaping to run towards the near-post. But in a zig-zag flash of movement that invoked that famous El Pais article, when the ball arrived, Butragueño was at the back-post, six yards from goal and completely free.
But the header was poor. Seeking to flick the ball inside the far post, Butragueño didn’t apply quite enough contact, and the ball glanced horribly wide. Both hands sank deep into that curly thatch of fair hair before he quickly snapped back into professional mode, hunting down the ball for the resultant goal-kick.
La falla de Butragueño que le pudo dar el título de liga al Atlético Celaya en la temporada 95-96— Pase de Gooooool ⚽🥅 (@PaseDeGooooool) April 28, 2021
Minuto 40 segundo tiempo de la final 🆚️ Necaxa marcador global 1 x 1 pic.twitter.com/cmdmtMD3hH
Necaxa held on. Atlético Celaya decades later more fondly remembered as runners-up than their opponents who won three titles in four years.
Butragueño wasn’t finished there. And nor was Fernandéz, who went on the trail of recruiting more of the Quinta del Buitre. First came Michel –– the man who played more games with Butragueño than anyone else. Rafa Martín Vázquez joined them briefly as his career, beset by injury, wound down. Hugo Sánchez was persuaded to abandon the fledgling MLS, reuniting the strike force that had combined so potently in Madrid.
Although the addition of superstars was fun, it was no guarantee of success, and though Celaya survived in the first division, they would never again reach the play-offs.
Michel and Sánchez both retired at Celaya — Sánchez typically bowing out with a one-touch screamer. Butragueño soon followed. After three seasons and 91 appearances for the club that he had never heard of, he took to a field for the final time in the spring of 1998 with an injured Martín Vázquez watching on against a Puebla side that included Pardeza — the only one of the Quinta that had played less than 300 games for Real Madrid.
An uneventful 0-0 draw left both teams safe from relegation. Pardeza and Butragueño left the field together, the latter pausing to tell the waiting reporters that: “Everything has a beginning and an end. I can tell you with 99% certainty that I’m now an ex-footballer.”
In Amsterdam, just over a month later, the last member of the Quinta still with Real Madrid would finally get his hands on the trophy they had so strived for. Sanchís captained Real Madrid to a seventh European Cup that had been 32 years and several generations in the making.
Celaya would continue on in the topflight until a bizarre episode in 2002 when their license was purchased by airline magnate Jorge Rodríguez Marié. Rodríguez renamed and moved the team across the country before racking up a mountain of debt and having the franchise stripped just six months later.
Football returned to a Celaya when a new club, spiritually if not legally linked to the Atlético of the nineties, was born. Sadly, attempts to rename their stadium in honour of Butragueño ended typically bogged down in local politics and were blocked in 2018.
In that same year, former owner Fernández died at the age of 68 at his home in Cancún. His ashes were split, with one half sent to his native Langreo. The other half scattered in the town he put on the footballing map the day he picked up the phone and dialled the number of one of the most famous players in the world.
Con enorme tristeza lamento el fallecimiento de Don Enrique Fernández, gran empresario, arriesgado y deecho; socio del Atlético Español, dueño del Atlético Celaya y responsable de las contrataciones de Michel y Butragueño. Mi primer Presidente en Texcoco y quien me llevó a Celaya pic.twitter.com/BSJisaO02o— Felix Fernandez (@Felixatlante12) March 26, 2018