El Centenariazo: The night Super Depor gatecrashed the biggest birthday party of all time – and even stole their dinner reservation

Goalscorers Sergio Gonzalez and Diego Tristán with Juan Carlos Valerón REUTERS/Sergio Perez PH/CRB

Preparations at Asador Donostiarra on Madrid’s Calle de la Infanta Mercedes were in full swing. The labyrinth of dining rooms buzzed as an army of waiters frantically buffed cutlery and polished glasses; sommeliers double checked there were enough bottles of cava on ice and enough reserva for later; while the chefs decided it was about time to light the charcoal under those famous grills. 

The restaurant had been selected to host the feast for the biggest birthday party the city had ever seen. It was well used to hosting the great and the good of Madrid, but this was going to be something special, something historic. They would need to clear some space on the walls for some more photos after this.

But then the phone rang.

The call was short. The manager who picked it up barely saying a word before slowly replacing the receiver. The news quickly filtered through the restaurant — “They’ve cancelled: it’s off,” — causing everyone to stop what they were doing. Staff stood about or slumped on chairs, waiting to be told what to do next. In the kitchen, they began silently putting the kilos of chuletón back in the fridge. 

Then, barely ten minutes later, the phone rang again. 

The conversation this time was disjointed — even farcical, as the Galician accent on the other end of the line struggled to make itself heard over the din behind until finally finding a quiet corner: “We heard they cancelled. Don’t worry — we’ll come instead. We’ll be there in an about an hour. Oh — and we’re thirsty!”

2002 was Real Madrid’s centenary year, and they had big plans to celebrate it. Florentino Pérez’s election as president in 2000 had revived the club’s finances and heralded the beginning of the Galáctico era. Reinvigorated, they began honouring their 100th year in a style befitting the most successful club in European football.

The razzmatazz began on the 6th January — El Día de Reyes — when the club’s basketball team hosted a Magic Johnson All-Star team. A largely knockabout event that saw Magic himself switching to play for Real Madrid midway through the game.

A special theme park was set up in Madrid’s huge Casa de Campo park, with a mock-up of the Plaza de Cibeles — where Real Madrid traditionally go to celebrate trophy wins — greeting visitors as they arrived. Inside, patrons could visit an exact reproduction of the Real Madrid dressing room — where an empty jacuzzi displayed footage from the club’s history; ride bumper cars painted in club colours; try to navigate a hall of mirrors without bumping into images of legendary players; or try a virtual reality simulator which put the user in the novel role of a ball during a Real Madrid game. On opening night, candles on a birthday cake large enough to serve 4,000 portions were blown out.

The Spanish post office issued the almost obligatory set of commemorative centenary stamps, and the route of the 2002 Vuelta a España was drawn up to conclude with a final stage time trial with the finish line at the Santiago Bernabéu. The stadium would also play host to a match in December between Real Madrid and a FIFA Rest of the World XI, complete with Placido Domingo singing the club anthem to round off the year of celebrations. A rather lofty request that no other football games be played anywhere in the world that day went largely unobserved — much to the mirth of the Catalan sports press who gleefully published a full schedule of the day’s other fixtures on the morning of the game.

Despite the packed calendar, there was a spectacular list of events that Carat — the ‘global media and marketing agency’ entrusted with running the centenary festivities — couldn’t quite pull off. A mobile exhibition aboard a ‘Centenary Train’ stopping off at Spain’s major cities never quite got on track. A fashion show featuring the world’s top dozen supermodels parading Real Madrid inspired garb along a catwalk at Plaza de Cibeles and a head-to-head match play golf challenge between Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia featuring a final hole in the Bernabéu both also failed to materialise. And the biggest moonshot of all — a plan to project the club’s crest onto the surface of the moon via the Hispasat satellite — proved to be exactly that and was eventually deemed logistically near impossible. 

If Tiger Woods, Naomi Campbell and the curvature of the earth had all proved impossible to negotiate with, the Spanish Federation proved a great deal more pliable when Madrid laid out their proposals for that season’s Copa del Rey.

The Copa del Rey Final was usually the last act of a Spanish season, often played long after the rest of European football had downed tools for the summer. The previous year’s final had taken place on the last day of June. But Madrid successfully lobbied the Federation to allow them to host the final while also bringing the entire tournament schedule forward so that the match would fall on the exact day of their 100th birthday on the 6th March 2002.

For a club that primarily identified itself with the European Cup, the domestic cup was not usually a priority. Indeed, in the previous eight seasons, they hadn’t managed to make it to a final. But the playing staff were soon fully aware that this season had to be different, and — despite scares in Tarragona and Bilbao — they duly delivered, reaching the final to set up a gala night.  

With everything in place, all that was needed was some opponents. At one point, the cup had looked like becoming a procession for Madrid with big guns tumbling out at in bizarre circumstances. A crisis-torn Barcelona were humbled by Segunda B’s UE Figueres, and then Rafa Benitez’s Valencia made the fatal error of illegally introducing a fourth non-EU player as a late substitute against Novelda and were kicked out of the competition. 

Madrid’s eventual opposition would be Deportivo La Coruña, who had an eventful time of it themselves. A row over the suitability of L’Hospitalet’s artificial pitch ended with the Federation ordering the game to be switched to Barcelona’s Mini Estadi and L’Hospitalet refusing to play, allowing Depor a walkover to the last eight. There they had to go to extra-time with Real Valladolid before only narrowly defeating Figueres in the semi-final.

Despite a less than convincing run to the final, Depor were a serious proposition. In a golden era of their own, Super Depor had followed up a famous league title win with a second-place finish and were going toe-to-toe with elite opposition in Europe as the continent woke up to the talents of a side that included the like of Djalminha, Mauro Silva and Juan Carlos Valerón. The talented and steely group of players were more than game for the challenge of ruining the biggest birthday party in world football. And their fans were pretty up for it too.

A queue snaked all the way from the Estadio Riazor to the city’s old town on the day that Deportivo’s allocation of 25,000 tickets went on sale. A Wednesday night kick-off and the prospect of a 14 hour round trip were not enough to quell the enthusiasm of supporters who were more than happy to buy into a narrative of ruining Real Madrid’s big night.  

Sticking it to the establishment was a prominent feature of the Galician psyche at the time. While Madrid and Barcelona boomed, Galicia had felt forgotten as the region’s traditional industries declined. A situation that was beautifully illustrated by the award-winning film Los lunes al sol highlighting the plight of Vigo’s shipbuilders and the debasing effects of unemployment.

The region’s reputation had been dealt a further blow by the dismantling and prosecution of the region’s prolific drug cartels, and jibes of ‘drug addicts’ or ‘drug dealers’ were commonly aimed at fans of the Galician clubs at away games.

As the huge convoy of coaches rolled out of A Coruña before dawn on the morning of the game, some fans jokingly likened it to feeling like an army on a special mission. Any self-respecting army needs a flag to rally around, and it just so happened that Depor fans had found pretty much the perfect one. As a response to the patriotic Spanish flag with a silhouette of a bull common at sporting events, designer and Depor fan Antón Lescano had come up with a tongue-in-cheek design that superimposed a giant Galician dairy cow onto the flag of Galicia. The result was a hit, chiming perfectly with the irreverent Galician sense of humour and becoming a symbol of the occasion with hundreds spotted around Madrid as the bars and plazas filled up with the masses from the northwest.

While the fans enjoyed themselves, the Depor players and staff focused squarely on the game, although some irritants were proving difficult to block out. During the press conference on the eve of the final, Depor head coach Javier Irureta did his best to remain polite when he was ludicrously asked if the squad had remembered to pack their nappies.  

Further incidents would ensure that Depor went into the game with more of a sense of irritation than fear. The restaurant where Depor had their pre-match meal was festooned with Real Madrid flags, and upon arrival at the stadium, it soon became evident that the allocation of tickets given to the Depor players’ families was in a far inferior part of the ground to that of their counterparts.  

Even a routine interaction between friends served to stoke Depor’s ire. As Real Madrid’s Flavio Conceição casually chatted with Mauro Silva and Djalminha before the game, he lamented to his fellow Brazilians that it was a shame they wouldn’t be able to meet up after the game — what with all the receptions and celebrations the Madrid players were expected to attend.

As kick-off drew closer, Real Madrid’s special programme of pre-match entertainment got underway, though it seemed the promoters had misjudged the crowd dynamics somewhat. Depor fans had already arrived to fill their sections while Madrid fans stuck to their usual pre-match routines, arriving just minutes before the game. The result was a succession of acts playing to a quarter full stadium — and to Depor fans more intent on piss-taking than earnest audience participation.

If the build-up had been interminable, Depor were in no mood for hanging around when the game finally got underway. They immediately forced the tempo, relentlessly attacking the goal behind which their fans were massed and flying into tackles whenever Madrid had the temerity to attempt possession.

Diego Tristán had already nearly opened the scoring before he combined smartly with Sergio González, sending his midfielder in behind the Madrid defence to finish neatly and send the Depor fans into scenes of absolute bedlam.  

The game was just five minutes old. And Depor continued to swarm forward.

A few minutes later, Madrid sought respite with a Roberto Carlos-led counter that arrived at the feet of Raúl, who was clattered in quick succession by Lionel Scaloni then Mauro Silva. A mass confrontation ensued in which Mauro Silva furiously sought out Raúl. While the Brazilian was held back, Jose Molina had charged from his goal to deliver a chilling warning to the Madrid forward. “I’ll punch you so hard that it’ll kill you. Touch my teammate again, and I will tear your head off.”   

That Raúl had done so little to merit such menace was testament to Depor’s emotionally-charged approach to the game, completely unwilling to give Madrid a moment to breathe.  

The onslaught continued, and by halftime, Depor had doubled their lead. Valerón found space behind a dishevelled Madrid backline and fed Tristán, who swept the ball home and celebrated wildly in front of the Depor fans, whipping off his shirt to display a vest with “Riazor Blues On Tour” emblazoned on the front.

That both goals had gone through the legs of goalkeeper César only served to heighten Real Madrid’s creeping neurosis. César had surprisingly been preferred to 20-year-old Iker Casillas, who had seemingly emerged as the club’s number one until that point. TV pictures now repeatedly cut to an increasingly distraught Casillas, who was also the perfect personification of Madrid’s distress as the night unravelled. The young goalkeeper was inconsolable by the end of the game.

The second half proved to be very different to the first. Raúl pulled a goal back just before the hour for Madrid, and Depor were forced to dig deep. Once again channelling the energy from their fans — this time positioned behind them as they defended for their lives.

When the final whistle eventually arrived, Scaloni picked up the ball and booted it high into the stands. The Depor players and staff gathered in front of their fans, an entire end bouncing.  

It was the only end still populated as Depor captain Fran had weaved his way up to the presidential palco, past Florentino Pérez, past Sepp Blatter and all the way to the king who presented him with the cup. 

Back down on the field, celebrations continued until Depor’s 25,000 supporters came to the collective realisation that they had totally forgotten their manners. Using the last of what voices they still had left, they serenaded their hosts with an ironic rendition of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ before spilling out of the stadium into the Madrid night. Some lucky fans cruising down the Paseo de la Castellana for free, courtesy of delighted Atlético Madrid supporting taxi drivers who refused to take their money. 

“I think you can say that the 6th March 2002 will go down as an exceptional date in A Coruña sporting history but a dark one for productivity,” joked reporter Xosé Pereiro on TVE1’s Telediario as he stood on the Rúa Cantón Grande detailing Depor’s bleary-eyed homecoming to the city the following afternoon.

The cup was paraded around the Riazor stadium with larger-than-life president Augusto César Lendoiro roaring: “The isn’t a cup like any other. This is the cup of the centenary of Real Madrid,” to raucous applause.

Amongst the delirium, seemingly the only one cognisant that the business end of the season was still to come was the old sage, Irureta. “The season isn’t finished yet, and I hope this is just a prelude to more triumphs.” 

His words seemed to work. Five days later, an unchanged eleven took the field at Highbury and demolished an Arsenal side that included Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp, with a performance still remembered as one of Super Depor’s apogees. 

Real Madrid picked themselves up, and, as so often, the Champions League provided the trophy they demanded. Zinedine Zidane’s emblematic volley at Hampden Park also provided the moment of the centenary year. 

Two decades on, any reminiscence of Real Madrid’s centenary year is usually summed up by a single word. A term that plays on the famous failure of Brazil’s 1950 side to clinch the World Cup on home soil that was christened the Maracanazo.

El Centenariazo: The night that Depor gatecrashed the biggest birthday party of all time. And even stole their dinner reservation. 

Acknowledgements

Marcos Gendre’s excellent book, Branquiazul: Historia oral de los años dorados del Dépor, provided information for this article.

It is available to buy in both Kindle and paperback versions. 

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