‘Paz olimpica’ : How the Barcelona Olympics brought gold and a brief moment of unity to Spanish football

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As he climbed to his feet, detaching himself from the celebratory heap of bodies below, Pep Guardiola could see his prediction been wrong. “I’m confident there will be about 60,000 there, but filling it is impossible.”

He’d seen it packed before, of course. But this was different, surreal even. The entirety of the 95,000 crowd inside Camp Nou was on its feet, with seemingly every other person twirling a Spanish flag in celebration. In the presidential palco, the royal family stood: relaxed and beaming, having even received an ovation upon their arrival. An arena that had rarely ever hosted a Spanish national side — and never has since — intoxicated by the scene on the field as the team in red wildly celebrated the last-minute goal, which left them just a few precious seconds away from Olympic gold.

That sultry Saturday night in August 1992, Barcelona was the centre of the sporting world. A night that was the culmination of a hugely successful Olympics that showcased Barcelona as a beautiful, compelling and progressive city. A night when everything just fell into place. Like the royal party being whisked across the city — having witnessed Fermin Cacho’s 1500 metre triumph in the Olympic stadium — in perfect time to see the Spanish footballers’ comeback at Camp Nou that clinched Spain’s 13th gold medal of the games.

Spain, and Barcelona, had triumphed. And for a few weeks at least, Spanish and Catalan identities functioned in relative harmony: a paz olimpica — an Olympic peace. Careful deployment of the Catalan flag, anthem and language throughout the games fostering a duality that culminated in the scenes at that iconic Gold Medal match.


While FC Barcelona were basking in the glow of their first-ever European Cup win, the Spanish national team was somewhat in the doldrums. Eliminated in the last sixteen of Italia ’90 by Yugoslavia, they failed to qualify for the 1992 European Championships in Sweden. That dismal form saw head coach Luis Suárez dismissed, with Vicente Miera put in brief charge before being shunted aside for the arrival of Javier Clemente. Instead, Miera was given the job of constructing an under-23 squad for the forthcoming Olympics.

It was a task he took to assiduously. The Cantabrian took the squad away from the bright lights and the mounting excitement to prepare in the cool and quiet of Cervera de Pisuerga in the Palencine mountains, just south of his native region. It was impossible to escape everything, though. Clemente was an unwelcome visitor whose forthright observations irked the quiet and cerebral Miera.

Although the team would be forever associated with that night in Barcelona, they barely set foot in the city until the day before the final. After that long training camp in the mountains, the team were based in Valencia, where they would play their games in a mainly half-empty Mestalla.

Miera had a talented squad at his disposal. Toni Jiménez had won the goalkeeping spot despite strong competition from Santi Cañizares. The Atlético Madrid pair of Roberto Solozábal and Juanma López were joined by Abelardo of Sporting Gijón in a three-man central defence. Barça and Real Madrid provided the wing-backs in Albert Ferrer and Mikel Lasa. Guardiola — in an incongruous number nine shirt — pulled the strings in midfield alongside Tenerife’s Rafa Berges, allowing Madrid’s Luis Enrique to break forward in support of his club-mate Alfonso and Kiko Narváez, then of Cádiz.

The opening match saw little by the way of Olympic spirit. A bad-tempered game against a talented Colombian side, spearheaded by Faustino Asprilla, saw a remarkable four red cards and 11 bookings. Amid the mayhem, Spain ran out handsome 4-0 winners.

Aside from dodging Clemente, the players spent their downtime in Valencia happily playing cards and cheering Miguel Induráin’s relentless march to a second Tour de France. But the urge to see a bit more of the glitz and glamour of the games led to a request to attend the opening ceremony that was initially declined by Miera and the Federation. This led to a somewhat tense stand-off before the Federation eventually relented, chartering a plane for the players to join the Parade of Nations and witness the emblematic lighting of the Olympic cauldron by Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo.

It kept the squad happy. “To have missed a night as special as that would have been unforgivable,” said Ferrer, “To be there amongst the best sportspeople in the world was something very unique.”

Back in Valencia, they cruised through their group, accounting for Egypt and Qatar without conceding a goal. That set up a huge quarter-final against Cesare Maldini’s Italy that featured the likes of Demetrio Albertini, Dino Baggio and Guissepe Favalli. A cool finish from Kiko and an incorrectly disallowed late Italian goal saw Spain through to the semi-finals, within sight of Barcelona and the podium.

The semi-final drew 38,000 to Mestalla as the team finally registered on the general public’s radar. A clinical 2-0 win over Ghana propelled them from the middle to the front pages of the sports dailies as the country sensed the prospect of another Spanish gold.

They could finally pack their bags for the centre of the universe — Barcelona — arriving the day before the final, checking in to the Hotel Rey Juan Carlos I, just off the Avinguda Diagonal. The star-struck squad were delighted to rub shoulders with the array of sports stars and celebrities that came and went through the hotel’s lobby. Guardiola, in particular, finding it hard to hide his delight at meeting Steffi Graf.

An even more authentic Olympic experience awaited them after the game. The sheer number of dignitaries arriving for the closing ceremony meant the hotel could not accommodate them for a second night. Win or lose, the team would take up lodging in the Olympic Village. That was something that Miera sounded less than impressed with: “I’m told it’s pretty much bedlam there every night, but we don’t have any other choice.”

At Camp Nou, Spain started strongly, but their opponents, Poland, were proving to be durable opposition and took the lead on the stroke of half-time — the first goal Spain had conceded in the tournament.  

Abelardo’s powerful header drew the teams level before Kiko bullied the Polish defence to put Spain ahead. Still, Poland would not conform to the script and equalised, leaving the game headed to a nervy period of extra-time as Spain won a corner in the 90th minute.

Ferrer’s poorly hit cross fell to Luis Enrique. His low drive was blocked but fell for Kiko, who took one touch with his left before calmly lofting the ball over the goalkeeper with his right, dissecting the two players on the goal line to give Spain gold.  

Kiko collapsed to his knees. Ferrer was the first to join him, followed by Abelardo, then Luis Enrique, then seemingly everyone. Guardiola joined them before rising again, taking in the stadium he was so familiar with rapt in scenes it would never see again.

“I’m over the moon,” grinned Ferrer, “A gold medal in your own home ground! The truth is I doubted there would be so many people here, but I also thought there could never be an empty Camp Nou.”

The squad patiently lined up to receive Spain’s first-ever football gold, waiting for their medals beneath a giant scoreboard that subtly displayed the scoreline in Catalan: ‘Polonia 2 Espanya 3‘. They then turned to face the Spanish flag as Camp Nou — a stadium where the nation anthem is regularly drowned out by boos — respectfully stood for the rendition, even applauding as the royal family appeared on the big screen.

As the players finally jumped off the podium, 11 kilometres away in the satellite town of Badalona, the US basketball team featuring Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Larry Bird were just tipping off on their way to the most inevitable and star-studded gold of the games. As if it were even needed, the ‘Dream Team’ had added yet another layer of glamour and would ultimately lend a nickname to the host city’s swaggering European champions, who were in the middle of four domestic titles in a row.

But club loyalties and old antagonisms were far from the minds of those celebrating the gold medal win. At the post-match celebrations, Barça president, Josep Luís Nuñez, and his Madrid counterpart, Ramón Mendoza, for once toasted the same victory — Barça vice-president Joan Gaspart joining the Real Madrid table to clink glasses with Mendoza.

The party rolled on, well into the night. A conga wound around the room, featuring the famously reserved Miera and his assistant, László Kubala. Nuñez led the singsong, starting with the usual party staples before the entire room belted out ‘Que viva España’ as one. In the spirit of the occasion, that was immediately followed by a raucous version of the patriotic Catalan classic ‘El meu avi.

Amid the revelry, a high ranking Federation executive joked: “Maybe we should move all of those national team games we’ve been playing in Valencia and Seville to here.”

The sardonic response from a Barça board member would prove to be more prophetic: “Don’t worry. Real Madrid are here in a few weeks for the first game of the season. It’ll all be back to normal by then.”

“He’ll just think that’s his level. That it’s where he belongs. That’s just Robert.” The rise and rise of Robert Sánchez

RUI VIEIRA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

“We’re going to try and give you the list, as we do, in an original way. Let’s start with the goalkeepers”.

Spain head coach, Luis Enrique Martínez, stood in a mocked-up changing room, iPad in hand, angling it up to scan the first of a series of QR codes pinned to the wall. On his screen appeared three faces, the first two familiar to the Spanish public — the third not so much, “David de Gea, Unai Simón, Robert Sánchez.”

Brighton and Hove Albion’s Robert Sánchez had never been named in any Spanish squad before, at any level, by any method. Now, barely a year after playing third-tier football, he was suddenly in the running to be part of a major tournament.

In England, congratulations were swiftly posted by former clubs, Forest Green Rovers and Rochdale.

In Spain, the news caught even some seasoned reporters by surprise, and the scramble for information was on.

Google Trends measures search interest on a scale of 0 (‘insufficient data’) to 100 (‘peak popularity’). Once Luis Enrique had made his ingenious reveal, Spanish-based searches for ‘Robert Sanchez’ which had never previously risen above a measure of 5, instantly hit the top of the scale.

Sánchez did not feature in those March World Cup qualifiers but retained his place as the same three goalkeepers were announced in Spain’s Euro 2020 squad at the end of May. What’s more, with Simón and De Gea having both endured complicated ends to their domestic seasons, Cadena Ser’s Antón Meana was soon reporting that 23-year-old Sánchez was not just along for the ride, but that Luis Enrique was seriously considering him as Spain’s first-choice.


Mark Anderson was the man who recommended a 15-year-old Queens Park Rangers prospect called Raheem Sterling to Liverpool. It was in his capacity as Brighton’s Head of Academy Recruitment that his head was turned on a 2014 trip to Valencia. Scouting another prospect on Levante’s youth team, Anderson couldn’t help but notice the boy from Cartagena who stood out with his fine physique and confident use of both feet.

A 17-year-old Sánchez arrived in Brighton with barely a word of English but quickly adapted at a club where Spanish players have a long history of settling well. Another signing from the Valencia goalkeeping scene, albeit an Australian, would take the gloves on Brighton’s promotion to the Premier League. Mat Ryan became a fan favourite for Chris Hughton’s side, often performing heroics behind the equally committed pair of Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk.

Sánchez earned some valuable first-team experience with a loan spell at Forest Green at the start of the 2018/19 season. Despite some errors, his 6ft 5in frame stood up to the physical nature of League Two football and he caught the eye with his willingness and ability to deal with aerial balls.

That loan was curtailed as Ryan’s call up for his national side in the Asian Cup had left Brighton short on cover. The following season, he was back out earning first-team minutes again, this time with a loan to League One Rochdale, under the tutelage of manager Brian Barry-Murphy.

“I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like him in the air before,” Barry-Murphy tells Fútbol es la Leche, relating an away game at Rotherham by way of example. Beset by injuries and forced to field a youthful line-up, Rochdale were bracing themselves for the physical and aerial bombardment that came but weren’t quite expecting the result. “They had 38 crosses in that game, and Robert caught something like 31 of them. By the end, they were just trying to keep the ball as far away from him as possible — the crosses were barely hitting the box.” Against the odds, Rochdale took a valuable three points with the only goal of the game.

Despite not being much of a fan of the Spotland playing surface — “He hated our pitch and our training ground was even worse!” — Sánchez also impressed Barry-Murphy with his ability to play out, “He’s very good with his feet. If teams start bringing huge high pressure, he can just go beyond that. I don’t think we’ve fully seen the range of his passing yet.”

He describes Sánchez as a ‘perfectionist’ when it comes to goalkeeping, even down to the acoustics of a well-timed save. “He used to say to me, ‘Boss, I want the sound when the ball hits my gloves to be perfect’”.

Barry-Murphy hails from a part of Ireland where the people famously do not lack self-confidence. As the joke goes, the Cork person with an inferiority complex thinks they are only slightly better than everyone else. But even Barry-Murphy hadn’t seen anything quite like his young goalkeeper. “Even when we were struggling down the bottom of League One, he’d be telling us he was convinced he’d play for Spain. And we would just say, ‘Yeah, he’s probably right.’”

That self-confidence and larger-than-life personality ruffled the occasional feather in the dressing room. Still, Sánchez was well-liked, particularly with a specific section of the North West public. “Every kid in the region was obsessed with Robert. Honestly, he was like the Pied Piper at times,” laughs Barry-Murphy, “He had so much time for kids, he was always chatting to them or away presenting something or other. Even my daughter absolutely adores him.”

An easily recognisable figure around town, it wasn’t unusual for Sánchez to be recognised in the street and end up extending the chat in a local café.

When lockdown struck and the EFL season was cut short, Sánchez returned to Brighton. There, Graham Potter’s front-foot philosophy was crying out for a different style of goalkeeper. After a 3-0 loss at Leicester in December, Potter turned to Sánchez to replace Ryan, and the team has benefited from Sánchez’s calm presence ever since.  

Plaudits followed, and broader recognition became just a matter of time. Indeed, it became somewhat of a race if reports are to be believed that Gareth Southgate’s England set-up began making serious inquiries about Sánchez’s availability. Regardless, Luis Enrique put the matter to rest, naming Sánchez in that March squad, the first since he had earned the starting spot at Brighton.

While Barry-Murphy thinks Sánchez’s emergence is “a great story”, it’s not something that surprises him. “We always said that once people saw him, it would happen — there’s nothing really like him around. Particularly in Spain.”

A long time admirer of Spanish football, with family ties to Spain, Barry-Murphy is particularly excited to see Sánchez making his international debut.

Asked if Sànchez will be daunted if he was thrown straight into action for one of the world’s biggest football nations in one of the world’s biggest football tournaments, Barry-Murphy is unequivocal: “He’ll just think that’s his level. That it’s where he belongs. That’s just Robert.”

Pig farming, fleeing presidents and Helenio Herrera’s underpants: The bizarre story of Johan Cruyff’s spell at Levante

Johan Cruyff completes some paperwork at Levante alongside club president Francisco Aznar (right) EFE / EFE

The shrill ring of a telephone breaks the mid-morning silence in a trendy Amsterdam apartment. Enjoying a restorative lie in after a nasty bout of flu, a woman climbs out of bed, wearily ruffles her blonde, bobbed hair and pads through to the living room to pick up the phone.

“Hello?”

“Sorry, he’s not here right now. He’s gone to a meeting at Ajax.”

“Yes it is Danny. Hi. Actually, wait a second. He said you might call — I think he’s left a statement for you. Let me see if I can find it.”

“Here it is, I shall read it for you:

“The negotiations with Levante have not broken down but we have still not come to an agreement. My father-in-law will arrive late tonight due to problems with his flights. We will then have all the information we need, and tomorrow, over dinner, we will discuss them. I will therefore give my definitive response tomorrow night or at the very latest by noon the following day.”

“Is that ok?”

“Great.”

“Well, look — personally, I love Spain and would love to go back, and everyone has told us what a beautiful city Valencia is.”

“Yes. Well, he’s had a lot of offers, but unless there’s a twist, he will go to Levante. Like the statement said, he will clarify it tomorrow one way or the other.”

“No problem. You’re welcome. You too, bye.”

As promised, when the phone rang the following evening, it was Johan Cruyff himself who answered and gave the most decisive of answers.

“We have studied the offer at length and read the reports from the club. We believe the deal can benefit everyone. So, it is decided, I will play 19 games for Levante with the objective of gaining promotion. After that — we will see.”

The following day’s newspapers excitedly broke the news, even reporting a possible debut that Sunday against Sabadell. But soon, that typically clear and direct Cruyffian intention met the more opaque and muddled world of Segunda division club finances. It would be another month, one involving the Spanish Federation, the players’ association, Leicester City, and a cameo from Barcelona coach Helenio Herrera’s underpants, before a 33-year-old Cruyff finally arrived as the most unlikely recruit in Levante’s promotion push.


Exhausted by life in Barcelona, Cruyff bid farewell to Camp Nou in May 1978. He flirted with retirement, but was besieged by mounting debts from a spectacularly bad pig farming investment and a tax bill that incoming Barça president Josep Lluís Núñez refused to pay. Cruyff was soon listening to overtures from the North American Soccer League. The Los Angeles Aztecs offered him the opportunity to reunite with his mentor, Rinus Michels, while also overtaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as California’s highest-paid athlete. Despite six months of inactivity, Cruyff completed paperwork in Spain before boarding a flight and making his NASL bow at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena that very evening. Cruyff and Michels barely had time to get reacquainted before Cruyff hurried out on to the pitch, scoring two goals in his first seven minutes of stateside action. 

Cruyff take the field for the Washington Diplomats PA Images / Alamy

Body and mind reinvigorated by the California sunshine and a spell with the Washington Diplomats, Cruyff returned to Europe at the end of 1980 feeling there was plenty more football ahead of him. He was even eyeing up a return to the Dutch national team, who were midway through their 1982 World Cup qualification campaign. Remarkably, on the club scene, the first to show interest were Dumbarton, of Scotland’s second tier. Manager Sean Fallon even flew to Amsterdam in an attempt to pull off an amazing coup but he was unable to tempt Cruyff to the chilly banks of the Clyde. 

Nevertheless, second-tier football was not something that Cruyff was dismissing out of hand. Indeed, despite interest from Arsenal, Chelsea and Espanyol, it was Levante of Spain’s Segunda division that emerged as the club most likely to strike a deal.

Levante possessed an audacious dealmaker of their own in club president, Francisco Aznar. Where others saw the prohibitive wage demands of an ageing superstar, Aznar visualised packed stadiums, a surge in club membership, prestige friendlies and a lucrative tour of North America. Involved in a tight promotion tussle, Aznar believed Cruyff’s arrival would be the perfectly timed boost to separate themselves from the pack. Cruyff and his agent and father-in-law, Cor Coster, agreed, and Cruyff prepared to fly to Spain to make his debut on the 1st of February in Levante’s Nou Estadi. 

There was one problem. For all of Aznar’s glimmering visions of the future, he hadn’t been a particularly timely settler of debts in the past. Levante owed the current squad and former players close to 13 million pesetas (€78,000) in unpaid wages. The Spanish Federation felt more than a little uncomfortable with proceedings and refused to sanction the transfer.

Despite that and further issues with Cruyff’s preferred sportswear supplier, Aznar was adamant: “He will play for Levante. I’m not some kid doing all this as a stunt.” Convinced that Cruyff’s Spanish comeback game would draw a huge crowd, Aznar was keen for record gate receipts to remain in Levante’s coffers. He assured reporters that Cruyff would arrive in time for the club’s next home game against Getafe on the 15th of February.

Others were less convinced that the deal would be done. The topic of Cruyff’s future was, naturally, a constant at Barcelona press conferences, something that manager Helenio Herrera eventually found some humour in. Unconvinced that Cruyff would end up in Segunda, the iconic coach declared to reporters: “I bet my underpants that Cruyff will not sign for Levante.” 

As February wore on, it seemed increasingly likely that those undergarments would remain snugly around Herrera’s waist. By Valentine’s Day, Cruyff was still in the same Amsterdam apartment, answering calls from Spanish journalists with an increasingly exasperated tone. “There’s nothing happening. Levante’s attitude just doesn’t seem serious and I’m tired of waiting. I’ve seen no signs of life from them at all.”

Into the void arrived Jock Wallace and Leicester City. Wallace had convinced the board that Cruyff could help lift his young side out of the relegation zone while packing out Filbert Street in the process. Reports put City’s offer at £5,000 per game, doubling the previously unheard of figure Hibernian had lured George Best back from the NASL with. Wallace’s grand vision of Cruyff orchestrating his young side never came to pass. Indeed, the club’s young striker, Gary Lineker, would have to wait a few more years before Cruyff was directing him to a position on the right-wing.

Aznar had tested Cruyff’s patience to the limit, but the Leicester link had finally concentrated minds at Levante and lawyers were dispatched to Amsterdam to finally sign a deal. On Friday the 27th of February, Cruyff was back on Spanish soil at last. Touching down at Barcelona’s El Prat, he was whisked through the arrivals lounge — a carrier bag with his customary two duty-free cartons of Camel in hand. He briefly stopped to speak to the journalists who had been running up their newspaper’s phone bills with daily calls to Amsterdam. 

“I’m finally here – the negotiations dragged on, but finally, everyone is happy. I’ve decided to play for Levante because life in Spain is good. The football is high quality and the weather is amazing. It’s true that playing in Segunda seems a little strange for a player of my quality, but not everything in life is about money or prestige. Levante offers a nice life, a good sum of money and a chance to get back into the business world. I can’t really ask for more”

Pinning the Levante club crest on Cruyff’s lapel was a beaming Aznar, who was only too keen to proclaim victory over those who had doubted the deal, “With this deal, I’ve shown I’m not just some bluffer. The debts? Oh please! We owe nothing. The Federation has received the necessary payments and the squad has been paid. Right now, we have 5,000 members, but with promotion we will have at the very least 21,000. I’m certain of that. And we already have the tours of Europe and America arranged.” 

With that, Cruyff and Aznar went speeding down the Mediterranean coast to Valencia. While Cruyff met his new teammates and settled into his beach villa at Platja del Saler, Aznar was still frantically trying to get the transfer sanctioned by the Federation. Finally, just after 10pm on Saturday night, Cruyff was officially registered and able to make his debut in the following day’s fixture at home to Palencia. 

As Sunday morning broke, Helenio Herrera was the recipient of a surprise visitor as he sipped his morning coffee. An enterprising photographer had stopped by to ask for a snap of Herrera’s underwear. Herrera took it all in good humour —“I lost the bet! You have to recognise that Levante have pulled off a great signing. Congratulations to them.”

Down in Valencia, the turnstiles clicked round at an unprecedented rate as Levante took gates receipts of 5.5 million pesetas — five times their usual match-day takings. Cruyff took to the field in an uncannily familiar, azulgrana striped shirt and managed the full 90 minutes in a 1-0 win. Despite the result, he and his teammates seemed on different pages for most of the game. “We certainly lacked some understanding, but that’s natural as we only trained together for half an hour. But I’m convinced we can get promotion as long as my teammates understand my play and listen to my recommendations.” 

The points took Levante third, just a point behind the co-leaders, Rayo Vallecano and Castellón. It was a promising start for Aznar’s masterplan but as the media spotlight was drawn away by the dramatic kidnap of Primera’s leading goalscorer, Barcelona’s Quini, matters became more complicated for Levante.

Granada welcomed Levante and Cruyff to town with open arms. The bumper crowd and the extra charge levied on club members were enough to clear that season’s outstanding bonuses and debts. What’s more, the home side cruised to a 1-0 win with Cruyff and his colleagues again on different wavelengths. It was Granada’s best performance of the season, seemingly inspired by the buzzing atmosphere, a point picked up by reporters and Levante coach Pachín. Pachín’s observations did little to curry favour with Aznar or Cruyff, and he was soon replaced by a former Barça teammate of Cruyff, Joaquim Rifé.

Wins became scarce as Cruyff failed to click with teammates on or off the field. Levante soon faded to 10th in the table and there were some odd happenings at away fixtures.

While the exact details of Cruyff’s financial arrangements with Aznar were never known. It was widely presumed that Cruyff took a healthy cut of the extra gate receipts his presence had generated. Levante were welcome to make those arrangements for home matches, but it was rumoured that for away fixtures, Aznar, Cruyff or both believed they were due a cut of the paydays their hosts were enjoying and negotiated to that effect. 

Cruyff habitually travelled to away games with Aznar, arriving long after the rest of the squad. On the eve of Levante’s fixture in Vitoria against Alavés, Cruyff returned urgently to Valencia, citing his wife’s ill health. Marca, though, relayed a story that Aznar had requested a payment of a million pesetas from the Alavés board for Cruyff to appear. Eyebrows were raised, but Cruyff also withdrew from the Dutch squad that midweek — his first call-up in four years. Whatever had happened behind the scenes, the Alavés board was in no position to negotiate with their gate receipts embargoed to resolve a dispute over Jorge Valdano’s transfer to Zaragoza.

The fans in Vitoria were quietly disappointed, but the Andalusian public were far less forgiving a few weeks later. Cruyff was mysteriously scratched from the starting line up at the very last minute leaving the rest of his teammates to take the field to a cacophony of boos from a huge home crowd. The subsequent 3-1 defeat to the ten men of Linares finally put paid to Levante’s faint promotion hopes. 

If Aznar had harboured dreams of being carried aloft by delirious supporters celebrating a famous promotion, then the reality was a far more ignominious experience. Levante’s final home game of the season and Cruyff’s last game for the club came in a passive 0-2 defeat to relegation-threatened Recreativo de Huelva. Sections of the home support were convinced that Levante had sold the game. Remarkably, even manager Rifé publicly doubted the integrity of his own goalkeeper. As the game drew to a conclusion, Aznar was surrounded by hordes screaming, “Tongo, tongo” — ‘fix, fix’.

On the day he once thought he was destined to lead Levante triumphantly to the next level, Aznar ended up fleeing through the neighbouring tennis club in fear of his own safety. 


With the club in disarray, Cruyff returned to Amsterdam. An international comeback had been rendered moot by the Netherlands’ failure to qualify for the forthcoming World Cup, but Cruyff felt there was still some top-level football in him. And he was right. A glorious return to Ajax yielded back-to-back league titles and a Dutch Cup. As well as a fairytale end to his playing career, it was a lucrative move. Cruyff and his father-in-law convinced Ajax to agree to a rather familiar-sounding deal. The club would split the additional gate receipts Cruyff generated, paying half the amount directly into his pension fund.  

By the end of the second season, Ajax were regularly drawing crowds of 50,000 to the city’s Olympic Stadium. The club’s board told Cruyff he was earning far too much money. “But aren’t you earning as much as I am? You’ve never had so many spectators,” came the reply.

Feyenoord were only too willing to match the deal. “That was very interesting, of course, because they had a stadium for 47,000 people,” recalled Cruyff of his move to Rotterdam. There he delivered one of the biggest ‘up yours’ in football history — winning a league and cup double with Ajax’s bitterest rivals in his final season as a player.

If Cruyff had returned to winning ways, back in Valencia, Levante were slipping back into old habits too — racking up debts off the field while struggling for points on it.

The same afternoon that Cruyff and Jesper Olsen were playfully tapping home a two-man penalty routine in Amsterdam en route to another title, Levante were toiling to a 2-2 draw at UD Vall de Uxó in Spain’s fourth tier. Unpaid debts had finally exhausted the patience of the authorities and Levante suffered an administrative double relegation.

As for Aznar, he had resigned just days after fleeing through the tennis courts, leaving behind a financial mess. Players and staff barricaded themselves in the stadium for nine days and nights demanding the payment of outstanding wages. What remained of the board sought to avoid them, holding meetings at the now infamous tennis club. 

Despite everything, a photograph of Cruyff in Levante colours hangs proudly in the boardroom at the club’s Ciutat de Valencia stadium. Francisco Aznar primarily remembered, through that sepia lens of time, as the man who once brought Johan Cruyff to Levante.

Talent, tantrums and tragedy: The story of Canito — once the future of Barça but forever Espanyol

EFE/Archivo‚3

He didn’t particularly like the comparisons with John Travolta but stood there at his presentation, tall and handsome, in an immaculate white jacket and plunging, open-necked shirt, you could see why they made them. He was certainly no stranger to the nightclubs — a regular at the iconic Bocaccio on Carrer Muntaner, always impeccably dressed and hospitable company to be in.

Barcelona’s expensive new signing, José Cano, known by the diminutive ‘Canito’, epitomised late 1970s glamour — designer clothes, fast cars and a revolving cast of girlfriends. Naturally blessed with the skill and physique that made him a classy operator on the field, a fact recognised by his recent international call up, Canito had the world at his feet.

Yet, just like Tony Manero, Travolta’s seminal character from “Saturday Night Fever” — life away from the bright lights was an altogether more complex affair. The road he had travelled had been humble and heartbreaking. To have overcome that to be plastered over every newspaper as the future of FC Barcelona was remarkable. Sadly, the journey that lay ahead was no less complicated and was ultimately tragic.


“I was lucky enough to spend the afternoon with him and to me, he seems a phenomenal person.” Barcelona director Albert Parera was keen to assuage any doubts about the character of their young signing. “They say he’s hot-headed, but with some love, the boy will fit in well with us.”

Tucked away in the following day’s edition of Mundo Deportivo was maybe the biggest clue to how things would fare out for Canito the other side of the Avinguida Diagonal. The Espanyol correspondent detailed Canito’s farewell to the club that had plucked him from the lower reaches of Catalan football. Canito had gathered together every single club employee to thank them. “Rarely has there been such a gesture in the Espanyol family.”

For Canito, Espanyol really was the closest thing to family. 

Born in the Pyrenees, Canito lost his father at an early age and with his mother unable to cope, he was left in the reception of La Salle de Nuestra Señora in the port area of Barcelona. There, from the age of six, he was brought up amongst the orphaned and abandoned in the school that was nicknamed the ‘Port Asylum’.

With little interest in his studies, manual work around the port was the best Canito could find as he struggled to scrape a living for himself. Football provided an escape and some extra income as he turned out for Penya Barcelonista Anguera in the local leagues. In an era when Franz Beckenbauer was in his pomp, scouts were alive to the sight of a defender elegantly bringing the ball forward and Canito was soon moving up the pyramid, attracting the attention of first division clubs.

Barcelona’s enthusiasm was checked by tales of Canito’s temper and eccentricity. Real Madrid also showed interest but it was a former legend of theirs, José Santamaria, who made the decisive move, signing Canito for Espanyol. Santamaria immediately sent him on loan to Tercera division Lleida to a manager he believed would instil some discipline in the 18-year-old.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Exasperating his coach, arguing with local journalists and refusing to play unless the club bought him an all-white suit were all highlights of an eventful season that nearly saw the loan ended on several occasions. On the pitch though, he showed enough for Santamaria to incorporate him into the Espanyol first team in the 1976/77 season.

Military service interrupted Canito’s progress at Espanyol after a good first year. Keen for him to continue his development, they came to an agreement for him to be loaned to Cádiz, near where he was stationed. Cádiz were relegated, but Canito further enhanced his reputation — in particular with a man-marking job on Johan Cruyff in a 1-1 draw at Camp Nou.

Back at Sarría the next season, Canito excelled. Capped by Spain in December, by March the papers bubbled with speculation about who was in prime position for his signature. As Mundo Deportivo reported, “Although the majority of sources take it as a given that Canito will transfer to Real Madrid, the promising defender is squarely in the orbit of FC Barcelona. Ultimately his destination will be whoever arrives first with the 40 million peseta asking price.”

A three-game spell at the end of that 1978/79 season typified Canito. Superb and the scorer of the only goal of the game as Espanyol beat Valencia live on national television, he was again on the scoresheet as they held leaders Real Madrid to a draw a fortnight later. In-between was a bizarre 2-0 loss in Salamanca in which he was booked for arguing with his own teammate, Marañón, who had expressed some frustration at Canito’s selfish play. “After that, Canito was a bag of nerves, of which anything could be expected. He rattled the crossbar with a shot a few minutes later before then asking to be replaced despite Espanyol already having used both of their substitutes,” read the match report in Mundo Deportivo.

That summer, the cordial relationship between Barça president Josep Lluís Nuñez and his Espanyol counterpart Manuel Meler won the day and Canito crossed the city to sign for Barcelona. Although some thought that a move to Madrid would have been the true making of Canito, taking him away from those habits and friendships that often led him astray in his native city.

Life at Camp Nou started well. Canito’s home debut featured two goals from defence in a thumping 5-0 win over Real Betis that had the press purring over a young Barça largely in reconstruction since Cruyff’s departure for Los Angeles. 

By Christmas though, Canito had lost his place in the side and his behaviour became ever more erratic — often late for training, occasionally accompanied by his dogs and rarely inclined to listen to his bemused manager, Helenio Herrera.

It was Canito’s enduring love for Espanyol that lay behind the most infamous incident in his time at Camp Nou. Towards the end of his first season, he had earned a start for Barça’s game against Athletic Club, who were direct competitors for a European place. Just before the hour mark, the scoreboard broke the news of an Espanyol goal in their crucial relegation match-up against Hercules. Canito put his arm in the air to celebrate, to the dismay of some supporters in Camp Nou.

Asked about the gesture after the game, Canito was keen to brush the incident off although ultimately he couldn’t betray his delight for his old club. “I was just asking for water and I certainly heard no boos from the crowd afterwards. The most important thing is that I thought I played well and getting the win. Besides I’m very happy that Espanyol won in Alicante.”

Those sentiments came as no surprise to his Barcelona teammates. Years later, in his time as presenter of El Día Después, Lobo Carrasco revealed that Canito regularly trained with an Espanyol shirt underneath his Barça gear.

Despite the arrival of László Kubala as manager in the summer of 1980, Canito’s second season at Camp Nou quickly faded into insignificance. Kubala had given Canito his chance at international level and in the future would reflect that Canito “could have been the best sweeper in the history of Spanish football”. Even with a coach that appreciated his talents, by December Canito was reduced to early-round cup appearances and even then grabbed the headlines for the wrong reason.

Seven minutes into a second-round tie against Lleida, an opponent’s sardonic remark to Canito that he could see why he was only picked in the cups was met with violent retribution and Canito was sent off. Jeered by his own supporters, Canito returned fire with sarcastic applause. At the end of its tether, the board instructed Canito to stay away from all club facilities. 

As the season ended, Canito wasn’t waiting around to find out his fate. Although still officially registered as a Barcelona player, he boarded a flight with his former club and featured in all six games of Espanyol’s South American tour. A midfield cameo that kept Diego Maradona in check in a goalless draw against Boca Juniors was a reminder of Canito’s quality.

President Meler was once again able to smooth a deal with Nuñez to officially bring the prodigal son back to Sarría but it wasn’t to be a happy return. Just days after signing the contract, Canito exploded spectacularly during a pre-season tournament in Badajoz against Atletico Madrid. One of four Espanyol players to be sent off by some dubious officiating, Canito stormed to the dressing rooms and launched all of the referee’s belongings into a running bath. The Extremadura Federation handed Canito a four-month ban for his actions.

The fallout from the ‘Battle of Badajoz’ lasted for days with debates over whether such lengthy suspensions could be handed out for unofficial tournaments. In his column in Mundo Deportivo, Andrés Astruells opined that “The only one who can see the events in good humour is Barça president, Josep Lluís Nuñez, who can breathe yet another deep sigh of relief for having got rid of Canito.” Some diplomatic manoeuvring by Espanyol, including committing to an exhibition game, eventually reduced the ban.

Despite strong performances on the field, the 1981/82 season proved to be a tempestuous one as Canito regularly clashed with his manager, José María Maguregui. In the final game of the season, Canito initially refused to travel with the team to play Sevilla only to be talked round. A 4-1 defeat did little to improve Canito’s mood and he clashed violently with Maguregui and a club masseuse after the game.  

Once destined to star for Spain as they hosted the World Cup, Canito spent the summer of 1982 disillusioned and threatening to walk away from the game. “The only thing that interests me about the World Cup is the Rolling Stones,” he told an interviewer who had tried to engage him in football talk.

The saga of Canito’s future rumbled on all summer. Banished from the squad, at one point he looked poised to join the New York Cosmos. Improbably, by August he had found his way back into the fold at Espanyol, making conciliatory noises and even taking the captain’s armband in a pre-season friendly. Although when the league resumed, Maguregui’s refusal to name him in the first team squad brought matters to a head and Canito delivered an ultimatum to the board that either Maguregui went or he would walk. 

The board duly annulled the player’s contract. “Espanyol is the team of my life. My departure is down to my incompatibility with the manager, who has made my life impossible. The club is more important than personal issues and I respect that because I love the club. One day I’ll be back – even if it’s to play for free.”

As fate would have it, Canito was back just a fortnight later. Signed by Real Betis, his debut came in their win at Sarría. As the ground filled up, it was evident whose side the Espanyol support were on as chants of “Canito si, Magu no”, rang out. Betis’ two late goals left Canito’s nemesis, Maguregui, under intense pressure.

Canito’s two seasons in Seville were mostly happy ones. He was once more impressive against Maradona in Betis’ meetings with Barcelona. A glitzy wedding in Seville’s famous cathedral was testament to some stability in his personal life. As was always the way, there were fabled stories from his time in the south. From the time he handed out a 100 peseta note to each kid that asked for his autograph to the legend that he tore up his final cheque from Betis as he disagreed with the figure.

Unhappy spells at Zaragoza and in Portugal with Belenenses rounded off Canito’s time at the highest level. At the age of 30, there were no longer any elite clubs willing to take on the baggage that came with him. A career that had promised so much and had its moments sadly never fulfilled its potential. 

Canito returned to his native Barcelona, falling back down the leagues and into bad company.


A lavish and generous spender during his playing days, it wasn’t too long before money became an issue for Canito and he fell into the seamier side of Barcelona nightlife.

Drugs took hold — first cocaine, then heroin. By the mid-1990s, Canito was almost unrecognisable, surviving from day-to-day and spending nights in homeless shelters or bank lobbies. As someone who had always been benevolent to those in need, he was hurt to find himself abandoned. The friends that had been there when the champagne flowed had long since disappeared. 

“People have shunned me, I don’t think that I deserve that. But I need to hold on to the sense that, before anything else, I’m still a person,” he told Interviu magazine in 1996.

“Those who used to say hello, now call me a pain and slam the door in my face. It’s the poor people that have helped me more than the rich. That has been hard for me to take because when I had money, I would give a lot to anyone who asked for it.”

Desperation had reunited him with his older sister, Fina, who had helped him battle his addictions. “I owe her my life. My mother abandoned me totally and the relationship with my wife broke down when my problems with drugs began.” 

Clean at the time of the interview, Canito was under no illusions how tough staying that way would be. “Right now I’m not involved in drugs but I can’t guarantee that I won’t fall again.”

Those words were sadly prophetic and Canito fell deep into drug use once more. Four years later, taken in by his sister, Canito’s body was ravaged by drugs. The legs that once carried the ball so majestically from defence to attack were now riddled with circulation problems and barely able to support him as he crossed a room.

On the 25th November 2000, Canito died in the arms of his sister. He was just 44 years old.

“Everybody said he had everything to succeed. And that’s true of his football skills and his heart as a person. But the rest was very hard: no parents, a failed marriage and people around him that took advantage of him,” lamented Fernando Molinos, his former teammate at Espanyol to El Pais.

Canito would always be remembered at the club he held dearest to his heart. In 2015 he was voted by supporters as one of the top 15 Espanyol players of all time and two years later the most vocal section of their stadium was named the ‘Grada Canito’ in his honour.

A huge tifo display regular flutters across the stand featuring the image of Canito and his easy smile in the shirt of the club that was his only mainstay in a turbulent and tragic life.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Two excellent articles in particular were a great help in putting this article together

Quince años sin Canito. El rebelde que fue futbolista by Daniel Badía for CIHEFE

Un Perro Lobo Perico en Can Barça by Laia Cervelló in Líbero magazine

“Rafa no me jodas,” — the human side of the celebrity linesman

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“El Día Después” recently celebrated 30 years. The programme has established a unique place in Spanish football’s sprawling mediascape by seeking out the human and the idiosyncratic. The show is more likely to feature club employees diligently going about their work or a sweet exchange between fans than a pixel-by-pixel replay of a disputed offside call. After a misguided hiatus in the mid-2000s, the programme was thankfully restored and continues in the spirit of its most influential presenter — Michael Robinson.

Robinson was poignantly remembered as the programme began the new season by looking back over its three decades. As the montages relived moments from the annals of the show, one occasion inevitably featured. A remarkable interaction between a referee and his linesman captured by the Canal+ microphones that would forever be known by a phrase that was never actually said. One that changed the life of one of the protagonists forever.


It was September 1996 and Bobby Robson’s Barcelona were struggling in a steamy and raucous Romareda. Real Zaragoza had taken a distinctly physical approach to defending and on the break had found the perfect outlet. Gustavo López was shredding Barcelona, scoring twice as well as planting the opening goal on the head of Gus Poyet.

A sublime Luís Figo goal and a trademark Ronaldo finish had given Barça a foothold in the game. Midway through the second half, they trailed 3-2 as Xavier Aguado thundered through the calves of Iván De la Peña, earning a booking. The free-kick allowed Barça an opportunity to put the ball into the Zaragoza box which temporarily became home to the game’s numerous feuds. Referee Manuel Mejuto González had to intervene in one dispute between Barcelona’s Giovanni and Zaragoza’s Vladislav Radimov – firmly telling the Russian to get up after making the most of some minimal contact.

Figo’s cross was poor and easily claimed by the goalkeeper. However, as Juanmi cleared the ball downfield several players tangled in the box and the linesman, Rafael Guerrero, immediately raised his flag. The suspicions of the commentary team, which included Robinson, initially centred on the spat between Giovanni and Radimov. However, the alleged culprit and the recommended punishment were soon very publicly known as Mejuto went across to consult his linesman.

An orange bibbed member of the TV production crew carrying a state-of-the-art effects microphone had made his way towards the scene. Shrewdly, he’d positioned himself at enough distance to avoid being shooed away but close enough to pick up a stunningly clear and chaotic conversation between referee and linesman. The exchange would become legendary.

“Penalty and sending off.” 

“Fuck, Rafa. I shit on my mother*. Sending off for who?” 

“Number 6. He’s hit Couto clearly on the head from behind. Clearly hit Couto from behind with his hand.” 

“What number?” 

“Number 6. Ask Camblor [the other linesman] if he has seen anything. For me, it was number 6.” 

“Penalty and sending off?” 

“Yes, yes, yes.” 

*a commonly used expression of exasperation in Mejuto's native Asturias

Mejuto marched away, red card in hand before a wave of doubt suddenly washed over him. Spinning around, he walked back towards his linesman to seek clarification. Swarmed by players, it took what seemed like an eternity before the pair were finally given the space to speak again.

“Let’s see. Was the ball in play when…?” 

“The ball was clearly in play.”

“But when I spoke to you, the ball was already out?”

“When you spoke to me?”

“Of course. Where was the ball?”

“Ah! When you spoke to me, the ball was out of play. Then that would be a sending off and no penalty. But if the ball is in play, it’s a penalty.”

“Let’s see…”

“When the foul occurs the ball is in play, that is, the ball is in play when a foul occurs, therefore…”

“Penalty and red card.”

The stadium din lulled as Mejuto strode back on to the field, holding up six fingers. Zaragoza’s number six, Aguado, duly stepped forward and was shown the red card, collapsing to the ground in disbelief. Mejuto pointed to the spot and chaos ensued. At one point, Poyet was seen encouraging his teammates to leave the field. Guerrero took his position for the penalty accompanied by security personnel as Zaragoza players hounded him.

A red card was not an unfamiliar sight to Aguado — on this occasion, though, he was innocent. Guerrero had confused him with his defensive partner Jesús Solana. The pair had tangled with Fernando Couto, who had kicked Aguado. Solana, immediately behind them, instinctively cuffed Couto on the back of the head by way of retribution. Couto, of course, took the cue to go down. That it was a simple case of mistaken identity was a fact lost in the wave of indignation that swept the Romareda. Indeed, a detail that became largely forgotten in the months and years to come.

Eventually, six minutes after the incident had taken place, something approaching calm was restored. Barça’s Gheorge Popescu stood poised to take the penalty. Even then there was a brief delay as police frogmarched a home supporter in a bright red cap and a ‘Hooligans Zaragoza’ t-shirt behind the goal. Finally, Popescu levelled the game.

The episode turned the game on its head. Zaragoza immediately withdrew Lopez, by far the night’s best player, seeking to shore up the defence. As Mundo Deportivo reported, it was to no avail. “The nature of the equaliser unhinged Victor Fernández’s side, who, with a man less and having lost their lead were a simple toy for Barcelona.” Goals from Luis Enrique and Ronaldo completed a 3-5 win for Barcelona.

As the stadium emptied in the last ten minutes, a hardcore of Zaragoza supporters congregated on the first row of the Tribuna Este to barrack Guerrero. If the embattled linesman was desperately wishing for the game to finish, he would have to wait. A farcical ending saw a succession of balls go missing leading to the bizarre sight of exhausted players sitting on the pitch for three minutes waiting for a replacement to be sourced.

As an intense evening drew to a close, at the post-match press conference Zaragoza coach Fernández bemoaned Guerrero’s intervention. “I can’t understand how a linesman can take such responsibility in an incident he can’t even see properly and has gotten wrong. Things like that happen 200 times a game and in both areas.”

Barcelona were understandably more philosophical. With Robson unwell, his assistant, José Mourinho, told the press that his only issue with the refereeing that evening had been Mejuto’s permissiveness of Zaragoza’s “violent play.”


Even in the pre-digital age, the events of that Sunday night in the Romareda had all the ingredients to go viral. The sports press dedicated multiple pages to the fallout for days. But it was the audaciously captured audio of the incident that propelled it to a broader audience. The sheer novelty of access to such a conversation and the colourful nature of the dialogue featuring Mejuto’s exasperated choice of language made for compelling entertainment.

All of that was encapsulated perfectly by the production team of “El Día Después”. Hilariously, they broke the play down scene by scene, backed dramatically by the soundtrack from “The Usual Suspects.” It was a brilliant summation of the episode that helped seal its place in the public consciousness, forever captured by a four-word phrase that was never actually said — “Rafa no me jodas,” “Rafa – don’t fuck me about.”

It was a phrase that launched a public persona. Rafael Guerrero Alonso, a second season Primera linesman from León, became known simply as ‘Rafa’ — the most famous man to run the line in Spanish football history.

Curly-haired, slightly ungainly and with a hint of Screech from “Saved By The Bell” about him, Guerrero was easy for fans to spot. While at times it felt like he sought the spotlight, there was undoubtedly a self-fulfilling element as cameras continually sought more footage of the continuing exploits of ‘Rafa’.

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Elements of it were good fun, even for Guerrero, who remembers fondly some of the good-natured moments, such as the reception he received from Athletic fans at San Mamés upon emerging from a month-long cooling off period after the Romareda.

A touching note to the story was even provided by the innocent party of the night. Xavier Aguado drove from Zaragoza to León, asking around town for where he could find Guerrero until he tracked him down to tell him there were no hard feelings and that he felt sorry for what Guerrero was going through. The two became good friends.

Others had arrived in León less well-intentioned. Guerrero’s family home was besieged by the press in the aftermath of the game and the sadly inevitable threats of malice towards him arrived by post.

Amid the chaos and the questioning of his competence, it was somewhat ironic that Guerrero found some escape when he received notification that UEFA had promoted him to matches at a European level. At the same time as being sidelined in Spain, he was flying to Istanbul to run the line during Manchester United’s 2-0 Champions League win over Fenerbahçe.

Indeed, domestically he would always carry the stigma of Zaragoza — he would forever be ‘Rafa’. Internationally, however, he made discreet progress. He racked up an impressive tally of European club games and was chosen alongside Mejuto to go to Euro 2004. Nearly eight years after that infamous night the pair were officiating on the biggest stage.

The ghost of that night in Zaragoza was never too far away though. Similar incidents had a habit of cropping up — even thousands of miles from home. When Guerrero was selected to go the African Cup of Nations in 2000, he found himself in the unenviable position of witnessing the home nation’s idol, Jay-Jay Okocha elbow Mbaye Badji at the end of Nigeria’s epic quarter-final win over Senegal in Lagos. As he always has done, he dutifully raised his flag. There was no sound effects crew on hand to record the conversation with the Zimbabwean referee but the fallout from the subsequent red card was equally if not more spectacular. He was besieged once more and forced to change hotels before eventually deciding that returning to Spain was a more pressing priority than waiting around for full payment of his tournament fee.

Guerrero’s flight home took him over the Sahara desert, a place that held a special connection for him. One that reveals another side to his character, far away from the publicity-seeking, comedy linesman that he had come to be portrayed as.


In the summer of 1996, just a few months before that night in Zaragoza, Guerrero received a call from a lady named Pilar. Pilar was in charge of a programme that brought children from Saharan Algeria to León for the summer to lodge with families. Three families had been forced to back out and she called Guerrero to see if he knew anyone that could help. “I don’t. But one can stay with me,” was the reply. Later that day, a boy from a family of nomads, Jalil, arrived and would never return to the desert.

Fostered by Guerrero and his wife, Salomé, Jalil became part of the family. “Just another one of us, who I’m proud to say has me on his phone as ‘Papa’,” Guerrero told “Vamos a ver” — a slightly mushier version of “This Is Your Life” for people from Castilla y León.

On the show, Guerrero came across as a big-hearted man. His tireless work for charity was attested to by his best friend, former referee Iturralde González. Guerrero seems instinctively drawn to the less fortunate in society, supporting them either individually or through his involvement as founder of Desafío Solidario, which organises fundraising sporting weekends.

Whether he actively sought out his fame as ‘Rafa’ or whether it was thrust upon him following a unique turn of events can be forever debated. What is beyond doubt is that Guerrero has played the hand he was dealt mainly for the benefit of others. A point illustrated by his involvement in a TV advert in 2004. The bungling figure of Rafa is bundled into the back of a shiny new Renault van and deposited deep into the wilderness. Flag in hand and in full linesman garb the van drives off. The punchline being that, out there, he can no longer spoil the games.

That a linesman was chosen to front an advertising campaign for a multinational car manufacturer tells one story. That the €2,500 fee went directly to Médecins San Frontières tells quite another.

“I fell for the club in a really big way” — Howard Kendall’s love affair with Athletic Club Bilbao

Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images

The ink was barely dry on Howard Kendall’s two-year contract to coach Athletic Club Bilbao but he was regretting the decision already. “I honestly thought I’d made the biggest mistake of my life.” 

His new club had flown him out to watch the 1987 Copa del Rey Final between Atlético Madrid and Real Sociedad in Zaragoza. Kendall found it almost impossible to concentrate on the game and the trio of Basque players that he was supposedly there to evaluate. The presence of the royal family and bizarrely, Real Sociedad supporters’ audible support for Yugoslavia’s u17 side in a game against their Spanish counterparts, had heightened tensions between the two sets of fans.

Missiles rained down on the pitch and a public announcement was made threatening to abandon the match. “I remember sitting back in my seat, closing my eyes and wondering what I had let myself in for. I just didn’t know what I was going to do if every game was played out against such an intimidating backdrop.”

Fortunately for Kendall, such scenes were rare and a somewhat more genteel form of crowd management was all that exercised him as he settled into life at Athletic’s Lezama training complex.

“I don’t want anyone watching the training sessions,” he told sporting director Fernando Ochoa who responded with a shrug of the shoulders. Kendall soon found that there was no way the 100 or so elderly Basque men in berets would be prohibited from their daily routine of taking in training before retiring to the club bar for an afternoon of playing cards.

As with so many traditions and rituals at Athletic, Kendall quickly embraced it. “I soon loved having them there. The more of them that came, the better.”

So began the love affair between Kendall and Athletic, one that never faded. Even years after his departure Kendall remained wide-eyed when talking about the club that he felt nothing but affection for.


Kendall arrived at a time when British coaches were somewhat of a fashionable commodity in Spain. The opening weekend of the 1987/88 season saw four British managers in charge of Primera sides.

John Toshack was well established at Real Sociedad and had just led them to victory in the Copa del Rey final that had so horrified Kendall. 

Terry Venables was coming to the end of his three-year spell at Barcelona. He’d brought a long-awaited league title to Camp Nou. Still, the subsequent season’s European Cup final penalties defeat to Steaua Bucharest had cast somewhat of a depression over his tenure.

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Down in Seville, John Mortimore had arrived as the new Real Betis manager having just won a league and cup double with Benfica.

It could and probably should have been more than a quartet of British coaches on the sidelines that weekend.The Seville derby was due to pit Mortimore against Jock Wallace but Wallace had been sacked as Sevilla boss just days before. A miserable pre-season had confirmed the existing doubts of the board.

Wallace was irate, but if anyone had the right to feel a sense of injustice at missing out that season it was Colin Addison. Addison had guided Celta Vigo to promotion but was cruelly dismissed by Celta president José Luis Rivadulla after taking a few days away from pre-season preparations to look after his sick mother. Addison would eventually get a taste of Primera action the following season when he arrived at Atlético Madrid with Ron Atkinson. 

Kendall’s own Spanish adventure could have been very different. The Barcelona board were unabashed admirers of the man who had guided Everton to the top of the English game and to European silverware. When Venables looked set to leave Barcelona at the end of the 1985/86 season, it was Kendall who they turned to as his replacement. A provisional contract was signed but Venables chose to continue. 

Nevertheless, a seed had been sown and with the ban on English clubs in Europe depriving Everton of their place in the European Cup, Kendall was certain he would take an opportunity abroad soon.

The chance arose just as Everton were clinching their second title in three years. Athletic sent a delegation to Liverpool and found Kendall more than ready to listen. Far from being deterred by the Basque-only selection code that Athletic firmly outlined, Kendall saw it as an opportunity to become a training ground manager once again. 

As a keen cricket fan, Kendall also understood the policy in the context of an example from that sport. At that time, Yorkshire Cricket Club were still five years away from breaking with their own equivalent of the rule with the signing of a 19-year-old Sachin Tendulkar.


Kendall certainly got his wish to spend more time at the training ground. Having decided against uprooting his family, he was wary of being closeted away in a city centre hotel. The club’s vast training facilities featured some spartan accommodation, principally designed for players to rest between pre-season training sessions. Kendall struck an agreement with the family that ran the block to rent a room and so woke up each morning to the views of the rolling hills around Lezama and the shortest of strolls to training.

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Kendall spent his spare time at the complex engrossing himself in the history of the club. He was delighted to discover its connections to his native north-east. He was further intrigued by the succession of Englishmen that had managed the club during its early years including the legendary, bowler-hatted figure of Fred Pentland. 

But it was tales of the title-winning homecomings of 1983 and 1984 through the city, along the Nervión on the club’s own barge — La Gabarra — that made Kendall eager to bring success. “I was shown a video of it and it was unbelievable. I wanted some of that.”

That desire made Athletic’s early elimination in the Copa del Rey a disappointment but Kendall’s first season was nevertheless a success. After a strong run of results around the turn of the year, Athletic finished fourth. Qualification for the UEFA Cup gave Kendall back those European nights he so craved. 

There was much to toast during the long Basque lunches that Kendall became fond of. Though his living arrangements were of the budget variety, the weekly board meetings that rotated around the city’s many fine restaurants afforded him some luxury. “Do you like the house red, Howard?” was the question asked with a wink as the best wine in the establishment arrived in a humble jug — just in case any eagle-eyed fans objected to the board’s expenditure on Gran Reserva.

Kendall’s second season was to prove a more challenging proposition. Barcelona, who had finished below both Real Sociedad and Athletic, raided la Real signing José Mari Bakero, Txiki Begiristain and Luis López Rekarte. That swoop had the dual effect of weakening la Real while taking away transfer targets from Athletic. Kendall could not help but admire their ruthlessness.

There was another dispiriting cup exit and the UEFA Cup campaign quickly became complicated when they were drawn against the might of Juventus in the second round. Athletic started the first leg nervously in Turin and were torn to shreds by Michael Laudrup and Alessandro Altobelli in a 5-1 defeat. Despite a second leg victory which briefly threatened to panic Juventus, Athletic were eliminated.

With a seventh-place finish the season was by no means a disaster. Indeed, with Kendall courted continuously by other clubs, Athletic happily offered a contract extension for a third season.

Despite a solid start to that season, November brought a brutal stretch of games culminating in a 4-0 defeat to Real Madrid’s Quinta del Buitre in the Santiago Bernabéu. At a tense post-match press conference, Kendall struggled with the tide of questions coming his way and unwittingly walked out before the end, causing a minor diplomatic incident.

That night, Kendall had dinner with his wife, Cynthia, and some friends who had flown over for the game. He confided in them that he felt his time in Spain was up.

With the board midway through a re-election campaign, they too were keen to make a change. Kendall’s departure was amicably agreed at the regular Tuesday board meeting after which he and president Pedro Aurtenetxe held a press conference to announce the news.

With a tear in his eye, Kendall addressed the press in his Geordie tinged Spanish. “Athletic is the best club in the world. Any club I go to, in England or elsewhere, is a step down. This club is the best there is.”


His send-off was befitting of the mutual appreciation that had grown between Kendall and the club. The board hired Kendall’s favourite restaurant for a farewell party and even managed to find a singer that could play a few Roy Orbison numbers — Kendall was a huge fan. Kendall stayed on for Athletic’s next game and was given a standing ovation as he took his seat for the 2-0 win against Real Zaragoza at San Mamés.

That was a scene that was repeated many times over the years as Kendall frequently returned to visit old friends, catch up with the latest happenings at Lezama and take in a game at his beloved San Mamés. He was able to glimpse the future of the club as he visited the new San Mamés in 2014 for Athletic’s 3-0 victory over Malaga just over a year before his death.

Whilst Kendall always treasured the experience of managing Athletic over 100 times, he always regretted not being able to bring a trophy to the city — “I never did get my boat-trip down the river.”


Acknowledgements

Both of Howard Kendall’s autobiographies provided information and quotes for this article.

Only the Best is Good Enough by Howard Kendall and Ian James Ross

Love Affairs & Marriage: My Life In Football by Howard Kendall

From video shop assistant to Maradona’s agent: Elche owner Christian Bragarnik’s eventful rise to power

Shutterstock/Bolbik

Leyland Video Club, close to the intersection of Yerbal and Avenida Boyacá in the Buenos Aires barrio of Flores was a fairly typical neighbourhood video store. Members would pop in, browse the rows of latest releases and take their choice to the counter. A chunky VHS tape was snapped into a generic branded case, the customer paid and went home to enjoy their selection.

Christian Bragarnik, who worked at the store, noticed that Leyland did well with the latest blockbusters — Ocean’s Eleven, Hannibal and Jurassic Park III flew off the shelves. Older and less mainstream titles weren’t so popular which left Bragarnik with hundreds of redundant VHS tapes and a lot of time on his hands. With some basic editing skills, he began making compilations of football matches and player highlight reels, taping over old cassettes.

When video club member and Talleres winger Marian Monnroy mentioned one day that he was looking for a new club, Bragarnik put together a promotional tape. Ingeniously, he asked another Leyland member, Eduardo Fuentes, an ex-professional who had played in Mexico to circulate the video amongst his Mexican contacts.

Monrroy was signed by Mexican club Irapuato for an impressive fee of $400,000. More significantly, the move set in motion a chain of events that catapulted Bragarnik to the top table of Argentine football. Nearly twenty years later, Bragarnik is regarded as one of the most powerful figures in the Argentine game looking after the interests of over 100 players and several high profile coaches.

That influence now even extends to Spain’s top flight. In December of last year, Bragarnik took a 58% stake in Segunda side Elche. By July that stake had increased to 93%. A month later, at the very end of one of the most bizarre and chaotic Segunda seasons on record, Pere Milla’s winner sent Elche to Primera. 

The clerk from the video store in suburban Buenos Aires was now a football club owner in one of the world’s biggest leagues. His journey there saw him encounter a cast of characters that wouldn’t have been out of place on some of the movie posters on the walls of the Leyland Video Club.


Player representation was undoubtedly more of a natural fit for Bragarnik than collecting late fees at Leyland Video Club. He’d graduated in law from the University of Flores and had played to a decent standard at fifth level Yupanqui. In the final game of the 1999 Primera D Apertura, Yupanqui beat Atlas 7-2 to drag themselves off the bottom of the table. Bragarnik played up front that day but couldn’t get on the scoresheet. In fact, he hadn’t netted all season. He figured that if he couldn’t score when his team hit seven, it was probably time to hang up his boots.

The Monrroy deal in 2001 proved to be a revelation and drew admirers from all sides. Irapuato’s parent club, Querétaro brought Bragarnik to Mexico as an adviser and he was soon made president of the ambitious football operation. The burgeoning enterprise came to an abrupt halt, though, when it was revealed that Querétaro’s ultimate source of funding was Tirso Martínez Sanchez – an associate of drug baron Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán. At Guzmán’s 2019 trial in New York, Martinez Sanchez – nicknamed ‘El Futbolista’ – testified that he’d helped smuggle 30 to 50 tonnes of cocaine into the United States between 2000 and 2003 on Guzmán’s behalf. 

Bragarnik returned home to Argentina, working with second division clubs and players. His work soon saw him fall in with Julito Grondona, son of Julio Grondona who was the president of the Argentine Football Association for some 35 years until he died in 2014. Grondona senior was a Godfather-like figure in both Argentine and South American football. He even rose to become Sepp Blatter’s right-hand man as vice-president of FIFA. Indeed his legacy is so storied that a recently released eight-part Amazon Prime drama, El Presidente, features Grondona as the primary narrative device.

Bragarnik’s work with the Grondonas’ beloved Arsenal de Sarandí led him back to Mexico once more. He travelled north to watch Arsenal’s impressive 3-1 victory over Guadalajara in the 2007 Copa Sudamericana. At the game, Bragarnik was introduced to Jorge Alberto Hank, president of the newly established Club Tijuana.

Bragarnik was recruited as an advisor to the ambitious club, who would be guided to an Apertura title in 2012 by future Celta Vigo manager Antonio Mohamed. Mohamed being one of several Argentine coaches from Bragarnik’s stable to have taken charge of los Xolos.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Tijuana if there wasn’t a colourful tale to tell. President Jorge Alberto Hank is one of the 19 children of Jorge Hank Rhon, owner of Grupo Caliente a vast sports betting and casino operation and the owners of Club Tijuana.

Hank Rhon is one of Mexico’s richest men and a former mayor of Tijuana. An almost mythical figure, Hank Rhon is essentially a composite of the characters you would find when browsing for a new series on Netflix. Widely known for his extravagance, he maintains a populist touch — as evidenced by the 150 or so local children per day treated to visits of his private zoo around the time of his election as mayor. The zoo reportedly houses over 20,000 exotic animals, five times that of the San Diego Zoo just a few miles across the border.

In 2011, soldiers raided the Hank Rhon compound, seizing 88 guns, 9,298 bullets, 70 ammunition clips and a gas grenade. But much to the dismay of anti-crime activists, after nine days in custody Hank Rhon was released with no charges

In a rare interview, given to La Nación in 2016, Bragarnik addressed the questions that had been raised due to his Mexican connections. “I am a lawyer in sports law and I advise the club and that pays me a salary. Given my previous situation in Mexico and what Tijuana signifies in Argentina, the public imagination runs wild with the theme of drug trafficking.”

Bragarnik has established himself as the main conduit between Mexican and Argentine football. Something that has proven to be immensely profitable. When Bragarnik brokered Darío Benedetto’s move from Club América to Boca Juniors in the summer of 2016, he chose to forego any commission on the deal. Instead, he negotiated a higher cut of any future transfer — a move that paid off handsomely when Benedetto was purchased by Marseille for €14 million three years later. As well as a handsome commission, the Benedetto deals drew Bragarnik into the inner circle of Boca president Daniel Angelici. 

His connections have even provided Diego Maradona with one of the more tranquil and successful spells of his management career. Bragarnik was the driving force behind Maradona’s season at Dorados de Sinaloa —another Grupo Caliente club — where they narrowly missed out on promotion.

Back in Argentina, Bragarnik’s empire has continued to grow. His partnership with Defensa y Justicia helped the club rise from the second division to title contenders and Copa Libertadores qualification — and increased demand for his services. Bragarnik now partners several clubs either officially or less formally in a style similar to that of the Portuguese super agent Jorge Mendes.

Naturally, Bragarnik’s rapid and colourful rise to the top has drawn some suspicion. But Bragarnik remains phlegmatic in the face of rumours of his overreaching influence, as he explained to La Nación. “We live in a time when it is difficult to recognise that someone does well from hard work. It is always easier to say that you are doing well because you did something dirty or ugly. This happens a lot in Argentina.”

Answering allegations that Defensa y Justicia was being used to launder money he told Infobae: “That makes no sense. Defensa has one of the lowest budgets in the league. If we were bringing in players from River and Boca, then yes, maybe you could ask questions. The only money that gets laundered at Defensa is any cash that players forget to take out of their tracksuit pockets.”


The city of Elche is somewhat of a hidden gem. Particularly for the crowds that land at the nearby airport and head in the opposite direction for the coast. Arriving at Elx Parc station, a stroll through a vast and beautiful palm grove takes you into the Moorish old town. More palm trees decorate Plaça Glorieta, the main square lined with cafes and restaurants.

The peaceful ambience there belies the fact that Elche is a decent-sized, working city. It’s an important hub in the footwear industry and its two universities attract a student population of over 20,000. The entire Elche-Alicante metropolitan area is home to over 800,000 people. With Hercules of Alicante floundering in Segunda B, Elche potentially commands a vast catchment if they can consistently bring Primera football to the area. 

Shutterstock/Lunamarina

That sort of potential was no doubt what Bragarnik was explaining to his good friend Angelici as they took in Elche’s 1-1 draw with Lugo at the beginning of last season. The pair viewed the game from the presidential palco of Elche’s 33,000 Estadio Martínez Valero — the 12th biggest in the country and a regular stopping point for the Spanish national team. Coincidentally or not, the stadium would play host to the Argentine national team a month later as Bragarnik prepared to take a controlling stake in the club that December.

With that stake increased now at 93% and with Elche’s surprise promotion to Primera, it will be intriguing to see how Bragarnik’s management of the club develops. Some eyebrows were raised when Pacheta, the coach that had led them to Primera from Segunda B, was replaced by the Argentine Jorge Almirón. Almirón comes highly rated, having taken Lanús to a league title and a Copa Libertadores and is one of the most trusted coaches Bragarnik represents.

Despite Almirón’s appointment, Bragarnik explained to Las Provincias that his ownership is not merely an exercise in filling the squad with Argentine players. “The idea is to bring the best players in Spain, within the constraints of the budget. There are Argentine players who could help, but you have to be careful. This is another type of football, the grass is shorter and watered. The game is faster and it takes time to adapt.”

For all of the conjecture and colourful history that surrounds Bragarnik, it was an answer that implied a fundamental understanding of the details of the game. Bragarnik seems a serious football man who eschews the spotlight – something which stands in stark contrast to some of the takeovers in Spanish football in recent history.

Whatever happens, it’s been a remarkable journey from a video store clerk in the barrio of Flores to the agent of Diego Maradona. Although, perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise that someone from Flores could work their way up to represent a deity. After all, in 2013, local priest Father Jorge Bergoglio was inaugurated as Pope Francis.

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

FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images

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.”

Popperfoto via Getty Images

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.

PA Images / Alamy 

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.”

The Gazpacho Game — The night Ronaldinho gave Barcelona back its smile

Maxisport

Given his reputation, it was perhaps appropriate that Ronaldinho announced his arrival in Barcelona with a sway of the hips in the early hours of the morning. Receiving the ball midway inside his own half from a Victor Valdés throwout, two twists took him dancing away from the Sevilla midfield before an arrow of a shot arched over the goalkeeper and shook the crossbar. The ball crashed downwards, its rebound exquisitely bulging the roof of the net, sending Camp Nou into rapture.

It was a goal that would prove to be a seismic moment in more ways than one — a goal that came at 1.26am.


It was September 2003 and it was Barça’s first home game of the season. The fresh breeze of Joan Laporta’s presidency had brought an air of optimism to Camp Nou. Laporta and his cadre of sure-footed young professionals cut a striking contrast to the shambling disaster of his predecessor, Joan Gaspart.

Gaspart’s final season had started with the unpopular managerial reappointment of Louis van Gaal and a Copa del Rey elimination to third-tier Novelda. He resigned the presidency in February, with Barça positioned alarmingly on both the league table and on the balance sheet — two points from relegation and many millions in debt. 

The Laporta era started with the breaking of a key electoral promise although not one that anyone had ever truly believed, nor one that ever drew recrimination. Precisely the opposite. Midway through the election campaign, Laporta and his right-hand man Sandro Rosell announced they had agreed a deal to sign David Beckham. What’s more, they had a letter from Manchester United and a PowerPoint presentation to prove it.

It was a transfer that had no chance of ever happening. It was one thing to have an agreement with a club but quite another to have reached one with a player. Beckham’s transfer to Real Madrid was, by that point, so set in stone that the blaze of publicity to the contrary didn’t ruffle a feather in Madrid. Nevertheless, the Laporta campaign had grabbed significant airtime and an aura of credibility — they could go to the biggest clubs and negotiate for the biggest names.

On the 15th June, that gravitas combined with the crucial endorsement of Johan Cruyff delivered a landslide election win that installed Laporta as the new Barcelona president. Three days later, Manchester United announced to the London Stock Exchange that Beckham would be transferring to Real Madrid. That was soon forgotten by fans and media alike a few weeks later with the signing of Ronaldinho from Paris Saint-Germain, a player that would transform the club.

A fresh coach, Frank Rijkaard, arrived too. Although not the board’s first choice, the Dutchman personified the club’s new direction, combining Cruffyian DNA with a cool, modern style. 

As club shops morphed into megastores and fusty offices were transformed into airy, open-plan, co-working spaces, the new board were soon also taking a novel approach to one of the more enduring traditions of La Liga — that of bickering over kick-off times.


After the opening weekend, the league had scheduled a midweek round of games that butted awkwardly against the forthcoming international break. Barça’s fixture on Wednesday night fell, problematically, within the window in which club sides had to surrender their players to their respective national teams. 

Fearing being shorn of many of their squad on a gala night at Camp Nou, Barcelona made the request to their opponents, Sevilla, for the game to be switched to Tuesday night. Sevilla refused, pointing out that such a change would give their players less than the mandatory minimum of 48 hours recovery time after their Sunday night fixture at home to Atlético Madrid.

Barça’s suggestion that Sevilla bring that game forward to Saturday night, thus creating a 72-hour respite, was rejected by the Sevilla president, José María Del Nido. He stated that Sevilla were contractually obliged by the television company, Sogecable, to play in the Sunday night slot. Rosell called Sogecable, only to be told that wasn’t the case.

Ever the lawyer, Laporta found the solution that gave Barça the outcome they sought, while abiding by the very letter of the law. They would play on Wednesday — five minutes into Wednesday, at 12.05am. Sevilla were furious — “Barcelona’s attitude is disgraceful.” thundered Del Nido, “They’ve thrown a tantrum like a bunch of little boys. They think the whole world revolves around them.” But he was powerless to stop it.

With the bizarre kick-off time confirmed, there was plenty of work to do. Scheduling a game to finish around 2am could embarrassingly deplete the attendance. That fear was heightened when the city of Barcelona announced it was unable to extend the metro service beyond midnight at such short notice. Audiovisual Sport, the TV rights holders, didn’t much care for continuing their own service into the witching hours either and pulled their live coverage of the game. Without some inventive thinking, there was a real risk the board’s bold move could backfire.

The answer was to turn the game and the circumstances into an event and to convince fans that they were actually golden ticket holders to a unique footballing occasion rather than being obligated to attend a game at an ungodly hour. It worked.

Gates were opened at 9.15pm and a local production company, El Terrat, was commissioned to direct the pre-match festivities. Their irreverent show, ‘Insomniac Football’, incorporated live video link-ups with club legends such as Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov as well as various Cátalan celebrities. 

A further masterstroke was the idea to supply the entire crowd with a ‘picnic’ as they entered the stadium. It was supposedly themed on their Andalusian opponents, but in truth, the menu was more a result of which companies would supply at low cost and at short notice. Nevertheless, it was a hit and provided the crowd with a perfect boost of blood sugar at the time of night bodies were usually flagging. The first item on the menu even lent the occasion its eventual nickname — El Partido del Gazpacho, ‘The Gazpacho Game’.

The playing staff too were adapting their dietary habits for the night. On the morning of the game, in Mundo Deportivo, club doctor Lluís Thil had detailed the meal plans for the day including dietary supplements “such as caffeine. And always within the legal limits.”

A few pages on in that day’s edition, one of Laporta’s smart, young marketing executives, Esteve Calzada, detailed the measures the club had taken to entice supporters to the game. With everything that had been put in place, he estimated an attendance of somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000. As Tuesday ticked over to Wednesday, Calzada was proven wrong, there were 80,237 in Camp Nou.


Looking back, the teamsheets of that night make for interesting reading. Both sides were at the very genesis of what would become golden eras. Although not everyone on the field would share in the success that followed, there are comedies, histories and tragedies everywhere you look. 

He had packed out the stadium, but Laporta’s manoeuvring hadn’t been enough to save Barça’s five-strong Dutch contingent. Despite last-minute negotiations, the Dutch Federation had been steadfast that the players reported for camp on Tuesday night. Likewise, Javier Saviola, returned to Buenos Aires to prepare for Argentina’s game against Chile, leaving Barça very much stretched and reliant on youth players to fill out the squad.

Although the Turkish superstar, Rüstü Reçber, had recently arrived, a 21-year-old Victor Valdés continued in goal having taken over the position the previous season.

Carles Puyol was a rugged and established presence at right-back. The centre-back pairing of Rafa Marquez and Patrik Andersson was unique, never starting a game together before or again. Marquez, making his debut, was very much on his way in while Andersson was very much on the way out after an underwhelming couple of seasons.

Xavi was already a fixture in midfield where he was partnered by Gerard López, whose early promise at Valencia was starting to wane with the accumulation of injuries. 

Also making a Camp Nou debut was the very epitome of the flashy winger, Ricardo Quaresma — a one-man mission to change the world’s beliefs in how a football should be kicked. His performance on the night “combined high-level technique with moments of surprising clumsiness”, according to Mundo Deportivo. Quaresma would go on to score just one goal in Barça colours before falling out with Rijkaard and returning to Portugal.

Fellow newcomer, Ronaldinho, was faring a whole lot better and Luis Enrique, entering his final season, brought an element of experience and fight.

With the absences at centre forward, there was an opportunity for the ‘pearl of the B team’, Sergio García. “A brilliant start for a youngster who promises so much. Quick and with an eye for goal last night he just lacked a bit of luck in front of goal.” gushed Mundo Deportivo. Sadly, García would never score for Barça, but he moved on to play for an excellent Zaragoza side and became part of the furniture at Espanyol. He would be part of Spain’s Euro 2008 winning squad too.

From the bench, there was another B teamer transitioning to the senior squad. A 19-year-old Andrés Iniesta earned some token minutes as the hour hand approached two.

Sevilla, for their part, were bedding in a young loanee at right-back. Having barely started a game in the previous season, Dani Alves was given a rebaptism of fire with consecutive games against Atlético, Barcelona and Deportivo setting him on the road to becoming an all-time great at the position.

In the heart of the defence, the side was led by the notorious Pablo Alfaro and his heir apparent, the equally uncompromising Javi Navarro, who would go on to lift two UEFA Cups and a Copa del Rey as captain.

Further forward, a formidably sized defensive midfielder was being inventively repurposed as an attacker. Julio Baptista had scored just ten goals in four seasons with his native São Paulo, yet Sevilla coach Joaquin Caparrós had seen something that led him to experiment with him in a more attacking role. Baptista ended his first season in Spain as La Liga’s second top scorer with 20 goals. Another chunky Brazilian would be the only player to outscore him in that campaign.

Completing the Sevilla forward line were two free spirits of the game who would come to have something genuinely tragic in common. Europe’s top clubs were keenly eyeing José Antonio Reyes, already with over 60 first-team appearances. This game arrived between his 20th birthday and his first full cap for Spain. The peroxide blonde Uruguayan, Darío Silva, lined up alongside him. Shockingly, despite their talent and verve, both would ultimately be remembered for the car crashes that cost Silva his leg and Reyes his life.

Those two combined for the opening goal. Silva brought down by Valdés with Reyes converting from the penalty spot after only ten minutes. That set up a full-blooded game in which Reyes was superb and Sevilla made Barcelona suffer for a share of the points. Tempers flared on several occasions not least with the spectacular sight of an enraged Luis Enrique taking on both Alfaro and Navarro after a tangle in the Sevilla penalty area.

Barcelona’s Luis Enrique goes at it with Sevilla’s Javi Navarro and Pablo Alfaro (LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)

Indeed the game was indicative of the season that lay ahead with Barça having to survive some testing times before finishing — if not with outright success — then a renewed sense of optimism. A loss at home to league leaders Real Madrid in December saw them slump to 13th. Humiliating defeats in Malaga and Santander left Rijkaard on a knife-edge. Still, the rookie board held their nerve and were rewarded with a 17 game unbeaten run including a cathartic win at the Santiago Bernabéu. Barça finished second to Rafa Benítez’s Valencia while Madrid endured a miserable second half of the season as the Galactico project began to fray.

The foundation had been laid for the titles that followed. The disastrous recruitment of the previous regime was gradually reversed with the arrival of the likes of Samuel Eto’o and Deco. La Masia was bearing fruit too with the emergence of Iniesta while a diminutive Argentine was making eye-catching progress with 31 goals in 21 games for the Juvenil A team.

But it was one night and one moment that would go down as marking a new chapter in the annals at FC Barcelona’s sleek and highly profitable museum. Ronaldinho’s intoxicating dance through the night air that shook an arena that has struggled to recreate an atmosphere quite like that ever since.

It shook a city too. Literally.

Some 4.5km north of Les Corts stands the Observatori Fabra. On the night shift, at precisely 1.26am and 28 seconds, the seismometer recorded just over a minute of tremor in the city. The epicentre had been Camp Nou. 

Thanks to the arrival of Ronaldinho, Barcelona would become the epicentre of world football for some years to come.


Acknowledgements

Graham Hunter’s excellent book Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World was helpful in telling the story of the election of Joan Laporta

“I have no regrets, nor does Aitor. I did my tiny bit for democracy.” The teammates’ humble gesture of defiance

Illustration courtesy of Alistair Williams

Amid the clatter of studs and the shouts of encouragement, the players of Racing Santander filed out of the home dressing room and into the tunnel to face their opponents, Elche. All of them, that was, except two.

Aitor Aguirre and Sergio Manzanera lingered behind their teammates before ducking furtively into the empty shower area. Each tied a single bootlace around the arm of the other, creating rudimentary black armbands.

Aguirre, an imposing centre forward, had led the attack for Racing for several seasons, his goals had powered their return to the top flight. Sergio, a hard-working winger, was a summer arrival from his native Valencia — where he’d won the title as a rookie under the guidance of Alfredo de Stefano. The two linked up well in the Racing forward line and had clicked off the field too.

In the now-empty changing room, they exchanged one last glance before swiftly rejoining the rest of the starting eleven, none of whom had noticed their delay.


Spain in 1975 was perched on shifting sands. Franco’s deteriorating health was encouraging those who hoped for change to escalate activity and push the boundaries of expression. The regime was increasingly isolated internationally and became ever more reactive. That August, hastily passed legislation re-established military tribunals with the authority to impose the death sentence for crimes considered ‘terrorism against the state’. 

The new law was immediately and retrospectively applied to several existing cases. Over four tribunals, eleven suspects were convicted of the murders of police and civil guards and handed down death sentences — three members of ETA and eight of the Revolutionary Antifascist Patriotic Front (FRAP).

The convictions sparked an international reaction from demonstrations in cities and at countless Spanish embassies to petitioning at the very highest levels. The Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme, led a march in Stockholm. Mexico motioned that Spain be dismissed from the UN Security Council. Pope Paul VI publicly called for clemency and privately telephoned El Pardo — only to be told that Franco was sleeping and would not be woken.

Nicolás Franco had even appealed to his younger brother, “You are a good Christian; you will regret this later.” 

It was all to no avail, as on Friday 26th September, a Franco-led meeting of the Council of Ministers confirmed five of the death penalties. Seemingly the only concession being that in place of the regime’s hitherto preferred method of execution — the garrote — the condemned five would face firing squads the next morning.

As he awaited his fate, one of the five, José Humberto Baena, wrote a farewell letter to his parents in Vigo from his cell in Hoyo de Manzanares, Madrid. 

Mamá, Papá,  They will execute me tomorrow. I want to give you encouragement. I will die, but life goes on. Papá, you told me to be brave, like a good Galician. When they shoot me tomorrow, I have asked not to be blindfolded so I can face death head-on.” 

He expressed one last hope. 

“Do you remember what I said at the trial? May my death be the last to be pronounced by a military tribunal. That was my wish. But I’m sure there will be many more.”

On the following morning, Saturday 27th September, over the course of an hour and a half the five men were executed. Àngel Otaegui, in Burgos at 8.30 followed by fellow ETA member Juan Paredes Manot, in Barcelona at 8.35. In Madrid, Baena faced the firing squad at 9.20, followed by Ramón Garcia Sanz at 9.40 and José Luis Sánchez Bravo at 10 o’clock. 

That night at the Hotel Rhin on Santander’s seafront promenade, the Racing players gathered to spend the night in concentración before their game the following day. Aguirre and Sergio shared a room and also a worldview. 

Aguirre had grown up in Sondika, just outside Bilbao, in a Basque nationalist family. As a child, he’d been told to be careful of what he spoke of outside the family home. As a teenager, he’d been unjustly shaken down by police when prohibited Basque flags mysteriously appeared when the Spanish Cycling Championship came to Vizcaya.

Sergio was from a republican family in Valencia. Due to his political persuasion, his father had been stripped of his job in the postal service. His mother, a teacher, had been an active member of FUE, a left-leaning student organisation. Sergio had developed a keen social conscience and was adamantly opposed to the death penalty.

In their room, they scoured the radio frequencies, navigating the static before finally finding the faint but recognisable signal of Radio España Independiente. Distrustful of the regime’s control over the mainstream media, the roommates preferred to take the evening news from the pirate station operated by the Spanish Communist Party. The report confirming the executions troubled them deeply and they discussed what they, as professional sportsmen, could do to demonstrate their objection.

They opted for that most simple gesture of mourning — the black armband. 


Just before kick-off at El Sardinero, the pair crouched together in the front row of the obligatory team photo, the makeshift armbands visible but still unnoticed by anyone else on the field. Once the whistle had blown, the two displayed their connection once again with Sergio setting up Aguirre for the only goal of the first half. 

It was business as usual.  Behind the scenes, though, their gesture had been noticed and the Racing president was facing awkward questions from the government’s match delegate. As the players left the field at half time, they were greeted by a strange sight. A dozen members of the Fuerzas de Policía Armada — popularly known as los grises, were crowded in the tunnel.

“Everyone thought there had been a bomb threat.” Aguirre recalled to Informe Robinson — “But we knew why they had come.” 

The police gave Aguirre and Sergio an ultimatum. They could keep the armbands on and be arrested immediately, or they could surrender them, go back out for the second half and report to the station the following day. Figuring they had made their point and keen to help the team, they untied and handed over the pair of black bootlaces and returned to the field.

Elche were proving stubborn opposition and drew level with just a quarter of an hour to play. Despite that, Aguirre shook off any lingering distraction to head an 88th-minute winner for Los Verdiblancos.

The win capped an excellent first month back in the top flight. September had yielded three wins and just a single defeat away to Real Madrid on the opening day. But life was about to become a little more complicated for Racing and especially so for Aguirre and Sergio.

Upon arrival at the police station on the Monday afternoon, the two were separated and interrogated under anti-terror laws. According to Quique Peinado’s Futbolistas de izquierdas, the police could understand Aguirre’s motivation but were less able to comprehend Sergio’s. “He’s a Basque. We get it. But you’re from Valencia, why on earth are you getting involved?” 

The Racing board had suggested using the anniversary of a former club president as an explanation. The previous day, the Athletic Club board had hastily concocted a similar cover story when their entire team took to the field at Granada in black armbands. Improbably, it worked and Athletic escaped censure. Even so, Aguirre and Sergio never thought it would fly and after their interviews they were brought before a judge.

The pair were fined 100,000 pesetas each and judicial proceedings were opened with the state prosecutor asking that each serve five years and one day in prison. 

Until the cases came to trial, they were free to play football and were supported fully by Racing’s president, the magnificently named José Manuel López Alonso Polvorinos, who encouraged them to train and play as usual but warned them to be careful when away from the club. 

He was proved correct. Death threats arrived and their mail was tampered with. Aguirre sent his young family home to Vizcaya and Sergio moved in. For a period they slept with shotguns under their beds and were advised to check beneath their cars before taking a drive.

Despite presidential support, even life at the club was at times problematic. On the 11th October, ABC reported that a training session had to be suspended when a large number of fans barracked Aguirre after he’d objected to a bad tackle. “It seems from now on the sessions will be held behind doors.” the article concluded.

Despite the threats, the pair played on during those difficult few weeks. Perhaps it was more liberating away from Santander — at least for Aguirre, who scored at both the Camp Nou and the Vicente Calderon.

The 25th November brought more permanent relief. Franco’s death would change Spain forever. Although the country’s transition would take time, matters were resolved much more quickly for the two teammates. Proceedings were dropped, fines were returned and they were soon able to visit a cafe or bar without looking over their shoulder.

The pair played on another season together in Santander before Aguirre transferred to Athletic. Upon hanging up his boots, he ran a quintessentially Basque asador restaurant in Getxo for many years.

Sergio retired at the age of 27 due to injury. He retrained as a dentist in his home city of Valencia.

Despite the passing of time and the miles between them, the two still share a unique bond.

“I have no regrets. Nor does Aitor.” Sergio reflected in a typically thoughtful recent interview in Las Provincias — “I did my tiny part towards democracy.”


Acknowledgements

The below articles and books were helpful putting this article together as well as the episode of Informe Robinson, Brazaletes and the related Acento Robinson podcast. Both, of course, from the brilliant and sadly missed Michael Robinson.

Los cordones de luto – Raúl Gómez Sampeiro, El Diario Montañes

Dos brazaletes contra el franqusimo – Arnau Segura, Panenka

Futbolistas de izquierdas – Quique Peinado

366 historias del fútbol mundial – Alfredo Relaño

Sergio Manzanera Interview – Cayetano Ros, Las Provincias