Row 0, Seat 0: When Spanish football came together for the player who slept

Dear Friend,

You won’t be able to read this letter. For the past three years, you haven’t been able to read anything. For the past three years, you have had a son you haven’t even been able to get to know.

Unless God works some miracle —you will never read these things, kiss your son, watch the swallows at sunset, or feel the rain on your face on an afternoon of football.

I have to confess to having a lump in my throat, and I would give anything to have not begun to write this. I have to admit that my longing for life is so overwhelming that thinking of you pains me greatly. 

I know that you’re not a unique case. In fact, in Madrid, another guy has spent over a year in a hospital, neither dead nor alive. But you are famous; he is unknown. You have a selfless wife who never leaves your bedside; he has only his mother. In reality, I’m writing to you both, but I address it to you as your name that has been the catalyst for a wave of compassion and camaraderie. Last night, when I watched your son on television kicking the ball to start the game, I had to use all my strength to choke back the tears.

God bless those who still feel the urge for charity. But for me, this noble game was less an effort to raise funds but more an expression of your name, youth, and the sporting world’s solidarity. You were a footballer, and it was in your work that you suffered the injury that has left you in a hospital bed these three years. So many have made an effort to be by your side. If the human will cannot give you back your smile, health, and movement, then at least it has given us a glimpse of an affection that will never be forgotten.

Tomàs Salvador 
La Vanguardia, 20th June 1967

Tall, powerful and topped with a distinctive burst of thick red hair, Miguel Martínez stood out on the football fields of Barcelona, not just for his striking appearance but also for his assured defensive abilities. Comfortable in defence or midfield, or often simply detailed to mark the opposition’s most talented player, Martínez progressed steadily from youth to the semi-professional ranks of Catalan football. From third-tier football with Granollers, he moved up to the second division with Sabadell before signing for CD Condal — a club affiliated to FC Barcelona.

A call-up for military service in the summer of 1961 threatened to stymie that progress, with Martínez sent to serve in the marine corps in Cadíz. But, far from a hindrance, Martínez’s time in Andalusia proved life-changing. A loan spell with local side San Fernando allowed him to continue playing in Segunda and brought him into the orbit of first-division Real Betis, whose scouts urged the club to sign a player they felt would be in demand. 

It was also in San Fernando that Martínez met his wife, Josefina, the daughter of the town’s leading furniture company, Muebles Marquez.

Martínez took to life in Primera with ease and joined a talented group of players at Betis. The club was reinvigorated after finally reemerging from a spell in Segunda and had finally found the means and self-confidence to purchase their own stadium.

Martínez on the front cover of Real Betis magazine Verde y Blanco, 1962

Early in Martínez’s second season at the club, Betis travelled to Real Madrid as league leaders, where Martínez was tasked with shutting down Ferenc Puskás. While the Madrid public were not impressed by Betis’ obdurate approach to the game, Martínez’s role in helping Betis grind out a share of the points drew plaudits from the press.

Betis eventually finished third, and their efforts were noticed by the incoming Atlético Madrid president, Vicente Calderón, who was attempting to rescue a season which had seen his club slump to seventh place. Calderón brokered a deal to sign three Betis players in time for the cup, which was then played as an epilogue to the league season.

The transfer included Martínez, the full-back Colo, and the attacking midfielder Luis Aragonés. All three immediately contributed as Atlético reached the final of the cup, where they were defeated by Real Zaragoza.

In the longer term, Aragonés would go on to become one the most influential figures in the history of Atlético Madrid, playing for a decade before retiring to take over as manager. Colo gave five seasons of exemplary service in defence, helping Atlético win a first league title in 15 years and talented enough to be occasionally called up for the Spanish national team. 

But while his teammates were gaining international caps and accumulating silverware, Martínez’s four cup appearances would tragically prove to be his last. 

For Atlético Madrid, the summer of 1964 followed the typical pattern of a high-profile Spanish club. After a few weeks of rest, the team embarked on a tour of South America. Such tours were an escape from the relentless heat of the Spanish summer but, more importantly, a lucrative source of funds.

Atlético’s tour was an ambitious one, a month-long and taking in six different countries. They began in Buenos Aires with a 1-0 defeat to Racing Club before the squad crossed the Río de la Plata to Montevideo, where a superb Peñarol side beat them by the same scoreline in front of a crowd of 60,000 in the Estadio Centenario.

Back at the team’s Columbia Palace hotel, the players dined together before going their separate ways for the evening. While some headed out to sample the local nightlife, others retired to the lounge to play cards. As a core member of the card school, Martínez was in the latter group, but after just a few hands, he left the game, telling his companions that he felt unwell and thought it best to get an early night.

A few hours later, when Colo returned to the room the two ex-Betis teammates shared, he found Martínez unconscious, unresponsive and with an alarmingly grey complexion. Colo immediately raised the alarm and scrambled to wake the club doctor. Martínez was rushed by ambulance to the Hospital Británico, where neurologists diagnosed a meningoencephalitis that had caused Martínez to fall into a coma.

A stunned Calderón relayed the news to Martínez’s family in Barcelona and his wife in Cádiz, arranging for them to be brought to Madrid to await the next flight to Montevideo.

That a strapping and apparently healthy 23-year-old could fall so suddenly and gravely ill mystified doctors and club staff. Calderón reported the player to have been in good health, noting that Martínez had been fearful of the long flight across the Atlantic but in good spirits and enjoying his first week in South America.

Discussion eventually centred around two incidents that occurred during Martínez’s time at Betis.

The first happened during Martínez’s Betis debut against Barcelona two years previously. The player had taken a heavy blow to the head early in the game and had reportedly passed out at half-time. Despite not being able to complete the game, Martínez dutifully took his place in the starting line-up the following week.

A more serious episode took place during a pre-season tour of Galicia a year later. Martínez again suffered a blow to the head, which this time led to a seizure. Club doctors referred Martínez to a neurologist who advised Martínez that he shouldn’t play until further tests had taken place. But a second opinion was sought, which allowed Martínez returned to the team after missing just a handful of games, bypassing the diagnostics altogether.

The latter case drew speculation of possible legal action between the two clubs and forced Betis president Benito Villamarín onto the defensive, insisting his club had done everything in the best interests of the player’s health. In the absence of clear legislation, Calderón decided against a protracted legal route, instead continuing to support the player at the club’s expense.

After a brief hiatus, Atlético’s tour continued with the squad travelling through Paraguay, Bolivia, Ecuador then Venezuela, receiving daily updates on their stricken teammate. At first, the team were buoyed by reports of an improvement, but that hope proved short-lived. At the beginning of August, after three weeks in a coma and with no prospect of surgical intervention, the decision was made to bring Martínez back to Spain.

Flying Martínez home was a complex operation, one which required collaboration between Atlético, the Spanish Embassy in Montevideo, health services on both sides of the Atlantic and even the national air carrier, Iberia — who provided an aeroplane. Martínez, along with his family and entire Uruguayan medical staff, was flown to Barajas airport in Madrid, where he was met by an ambulance and taken across the city to the Clínica de la Concepción.

On the tarmac, Calderón pledged the club’s ongoing support to the player and his family: “We have done, and will continue to do, everything necessary to help save his life. We will not spare any effort nor put any limit on our help.” Calderón’s quotes were carried in the following day’s newspapers along with the affecting images of the inert Martínez being carried from the aeroplane on a stretcher.

Martínez’s care was passed to the distinguished neurosurgeon, Doctor Sixto Obrador, who told reporters that he agreed with the prognosis of his Uruguayan colleagues. “I’m pessimistic. There’s no case for surgery — if there was, we would do it immediately. For now, the only thing we can do is think in the long term and place our hopes in the patient’s youth.”

Martínez’s case gradually faded from the public’s consciousness as the news cycle moved on. Weeks became months, months became years as time passed silently in room 466 of the Clínica de la Concepción. Martínez’s young wife devotedly continued her bedside vigil while her parents raised the couple’s young son.

“If one day — God willing –– science achieves the miracle of waking Miguel Martínez, the Atlético Madrid player would hardly know who this boy is climbing up to kiss him.” 

A picture of Miguelín Martínez clambering up on a hospital bed to plant a gentle kiss on his father’s head took up most of page ten in ABC on the morning of the 14th of June 1967. After three years, the story of the player who slept was back in the news.

“The time has arrived for the fans to demonstrate their support for Miguel Martínez. Tonight his Atlético teammates will play ‘The Rest of Spain’ –– a team containing a host of stars. Young Miguelín will wear the Atletico colours as he kicks off the match played in homage to his father.”

With Martínez’s Atlético contract expiring and no prospect of any improvement in the player’s condition, Calderón had decided a new effort was needed to be made to pay the ongoing medical bills and support the player’s family in the longer term. He enlisted the help of the influential Catalan journalist Morera Falcó, and the pair arranged for a Spanish national selection to play Atlético at their brand new home on the Rio Manzanares. 

It was a type of game that was a relatively common way of rewarding a long-serving player. But given the circumstances, this particular match was sure to draw much wider attention than a regular benefit game. Falcó was keen to capitalise on that goodwill and developed an ingenious concept. As well as the usual match tickets, a special category allowed anyone in Spain to pay for a symbolic ticket that gave no actual entry to the ground. These were printed as ‘Row 0, Seat 0’ and were distributed through the regional federations.

Poster advertising tickets for the benefit match

The idea caught on. One organiser reported receiving an envelope from two young brothers containing the correct 100 peseta fee. Alongside it was a note asking for the ticket not to be sent in case their parents found out how they had spent their pocket money.

Calderón and Falcó’s persuasiveness extended to institutional level too. RTVE, the national broadcaster, paid a sizeable fee to show the game live, while the Spanish Football Federation and the player’s union also made donations.

The ceremony on the evening of the game began with a visit to Martínez’s hospital room. Juan Antonio Samaranch, the government’s delegate for sport, awarded the player the Silver Medal of Sporting Achievement, which was pinned to his bedsheet alongside medals from Atlético and Betis.

Four kilometres further south, at the Estadio Manzanares, the two captains, Spain’s Paco Gento and Atlético’s Enrique Collar, emerged onto the field holding hands with Martínez’s son who was dressed in a miniature Atlético kit, his father’s number six printed on the back. 

After Miguelín took the honorary kick-off, the two captains laid flowers on a sideline seat set up to represent those that had donated by purchasing Row Zero tickets.

The game finished in a 2-0 win for the Spanish selection. But it became apparent early on that there were swathes of empty seats, and the attendance, when announced, was barely 10,000 — a fact that infuriated Falcó.

“I have a reputation in Barcelona for being firm but fair. Here I have to be the same. Frankly, I’m disappointed and feel totally let down by the Madrid public from whom we expected much better. Especially in a case of this nature. Rather than come along and lend their support, fans in Madrid have chosen to stay at home and watch TV.”

An exasperated Falcó pointed out that the two million pesetas raised from the gate receipts, broadcasting rights and other donations would only support Martínez and his family for a couple of years.

It took Falcó a few days to calm down, but when he did, he received some somewhat more positive news. When the returns from the regional federations had been collated, they showed that an astonishing figure of 31,000 Row Zero tickets had been sold across the country. 

What Falcó had devised as a way of supplementing the main gate receipts had, in fact, outstripped them by a factor of three to one. The donations from fans with no intention of attending the game pushed the grand total to over five million pesetas: a figure in line with – if not surpassing – what Falcó and Calderón had envisaged.

Once again, the case of Miguel Martínez made the newspaper headlines and led the newsreels, then once again, attention drifted elsewhere. His wife, Josefina, remained at his bedside — always with the same line for whoever asked. “One day, he’ll wake up, and he’ll look straight at me and say: ‘Wow, what a sleepyhead I am!’”

Josefina’s vigil continued for another five years until, at 6.30am on Wednesday, the 28th of September 1972, Martínez passed away at the age of 33. The cause of death was recorded as kidney failure, unrelated to the condition that had kept him in a coma for over eight years.

When news reached Atlético, that morning’s training session was cancelled. Players, coaches and board members made their way to room 466 of the Clínica de la Concepción, where they paid their last respects to their teammates and condolences to his family. That Sunday, Atlético took to the field at home to Espanyol wearing black armbands as a mark of respect.

Two days later, Martínez was laid to rest in the Cementerio de la Almudena, the main cemetery of Madrid. The city where he’d been for nearly a decade but hardly knew.

Josefina continued to fight her husband’s cause, bringing two cases to court in an attempt to have the death classified as a work accident, something that would title her and her son to draw down a pension. Her testimony highlighted the two head injuries Martínez suffered while playing for Betis, but the judge ruled against her on both occasions.  

For the son Martínez barely got to know, that night in 1967 would not be the only time he took to a football field in homage to his father. In the early 1980s, Miguelín followed in his father’s footsteps playing two seasons in defence for San Fernando — a touching echo of one of the happiest years of Miguel Martínez’s short life.

From World Series to the waste bin: The extraordinary rise and fall of Leganés president Jeff Luhnow

Jeff Luhnow, CD Leganes’ new president Sipa US/Alamy Live News

The baseball men sat there, silently seething.

In front of them stood a man in his early sixties with thinning, grey hair with a sketch pad in hand. Behind him on a screen with the lecture title: “Classic Mechanics: A Throwing Model Based on the Construction of the Motions of Great Historic Pitchers.”

The man flicked through his illustrations of some of the great pitchers of baseball past in a vain attempt to convince the baseball men that the mechanics of modern-day pitchers could be fine-tuned for efficiency and, crucially, to avoid injury.

The baseball men sat disinterested and unmoved, bulging arms folded. They’d been in baseball for years, and they weren’t about to start taking lessons in pitching from a cartoonist.

Eventually, the talk reticently drew to its conclusion, and the baseball men filed wordlessly out of the room. Resentment for this most recent waste of time was reserved not for the kindly baseball illustrator but for the man who seemed to have a never-ending list of crackpot ideas. The bespectacled business school graduate who apparently thought he could waltz into one of the sport’s blue-blooded organisations and tell everyone there were better ways of doing it.

But time would prove Jeff Luhnow right. Though his communication was undoubtedly clumsy, many of his ideas proved to be innovative and were adopted by the St Louis Cardinals. Soon, he was put in charge of the Cardinals’ player recruitment and was responsible for a series of drafts which proved to be the most successful in the league.

As the Cardinals and his astute player selections won titles, Luhnow moved on –– to the worst team in the league. The new owner of the Houston Astros had given Luhnow the chance to run an entire baseball operation precisely the way he liked. Powered by Luhnow’s analytical decision-making, the Astros rose from unwatchable laughing stock to the best team in baseball.

But then Luhnow’s world came crashing down as the Astros were engulfed in the biggest cheating scandal in modern-day baseball. Luhnow would pay the price — suspended by Major League Baseball, then sacked on the very same day by the ownership that had once placed complete trust in him.

Left on the outside of baseball once more, Luhnow has since resurfaced in the most unlikely of places — in the southern Madrid suburbs as the newly installed president of CD Leganés.

Jeff Luhnow was born in Mexico City in 1966 to American parents who had been dispatched south of the border by their employer, the advertising behemoth McCann Erickson. Brought up in a football-mad city, it proved a challenge to follow the family love of baseball, but Luhnow and his younger brother would spend hours pitching and hitting in the backyard and found some competitive action in the city’s Liga Azteca youth baseball divisions.

But it was trips to America that would really instil Luhnow’s love of baseball. Summer camps in Texas gave him regular opportunities to visit Houston’s space-age Astrodome. Then later, when Luhnow moved to California to complete his schooling, he would catch as many LA Dodgers games as possible.

By the time Luhnow completed his studies, gaining an MBA from Chicago’s Northwestern University, he had developed a deep knowledge of baseball. His many afternoons spent watching the city’s long-suffering Cubs at Wrigley Field inspired him to produce an academic paper on how to turn the team’s fortunes around.

Luhnow’s MBA naturally led him into the business world, where he joined the management consulting firm McKinsey and Co before setting up Archetype Solutions. One of Archetype’s early successes was producing a subtle intervention that provided customers of tailor-made clothing companies with better-fitting clothes. Archetype’s analysis found small but significant biases in customers’ self-reported measurements. An algorithm was introduced into the manufacturing process that subtly corrected the sizing, making customers happy and clothing companies relieved at not having to constantly process returns.

While Luhnow’s innovative use of data propelled him upwards in the business world, America’s favourite pastime remained just that to him. In fact, it didn’t even cross Luhnow’s mind that his skills would be helpful to a baseball team. Baseball remained a closed shop, with owners largely happy to let the baseball lifers do their thing.

But 2003 would prove to be a seminal year in baseball with the publication of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. The book detailed how the low-budget Oakland Athletics had punched above their weight by exploiting weaknesses in established baseball methods and thinking. Key to the Athletics’ success had been the hiring of a Harvard economics graduate named Paul DePodesta. DePodesta helped the organisation develop alternative metrics that identified players likely to be productive for the team but available on lower salaries due to their underperformance on traditional statistical measures or their lack of visual appeal to the scouting fraternity.

The immediate effects in baseball were twofold. Suddenly there were highly-educated baseball fans with years of experience in business who could now see a route into the game they loved. And now, club owners were scrambling to revamp recruitment and create entirely new analytics departments.

Jeff Luhnow epitomised those in the former category; the St Louis Cardinals’ owner Bill DeWitt Jr was very much in the latter. Through a mutual McKinsey connection, Luhnow was hired by the Cardinals as the vice-president of baseball development in September 2003.

Luhnow’s arrival inevitably caused friction in the organisation with those who had been happily doing it their way for years. But with the backing of the owner, Luhnow’s influence grew, and many of the ideas that had been met with hostility eventually became standard practice. Luhnow was an early proponent of extreme defensive shifts — moving fielders far away from their traditional positions — based on data analysis of the specific batter they were facing. Managers had been reluctant to adopt the strategy, but over time it became standard practice across the league.

Even Luhnow’s cartoonist, dismissed out of hand during his presentation, was vindicated. His ability to identify pitchers at greater risk of injury led to him becoming a pitching consultant for around a dozen teams in the MLB.

But it was consistent recruitment success that had marked Luhnow out and turned heads around the league. Luhnow had hired Sig Mejdal, a biomathematician who worked at NASA optimising astronauts’ sleep patterns, to help him with draft preparation. Mejdal and Luhnow’s analysis gave the Cardinals an edge in the early rounds and the ability to keep finding value even in the very late rounds of a draft.

That ability was particularly desirable to teams looking to rebuild. And there was no team in baseball in more need of reconstruction than the 2011 Houston Astros.

Despite being the worst team in baseball, the Astros were bought for $680m by the logistics and shipping magnate Jim Crane. Crane immediately contacted Luhnow with a view to him becoming the Astro’s new general manager. So enticed was Luhnow by the prospect of running a baseball team entirely by his own methods that he immediately sent Crane a 24-page dossier setting out his vision. When Luhnow met Crane, he asked him what limitations would there be on his management. Crane slid a piece of paper across the desk, completely blank on both sides.

The Astros began a new chapter, but Crane and Luhnow were smart enough to know that in the short-term, the Astros would get worse, not better. Building a winning squad through the draft would take years, and the emphasis on the future meant that anyone of value on the Astros roster would be sacrificed to accumulate future draft picks.

Luhnow had taken over a team that had lost 106 games. In 2012, his first season, the Astros lost 107. In 2013 they lost 111. By the beginning of the 2014 season, the Astros had become quite literally unwatchable, with one game registering a 0.0 Nielsen rating — a figure that meant the TV ratings provider couldn’t detect that anyone had tuned in to watch the game at all.

Still, Luhnow and Crane held their nerve, and 2014 was to provide some hints of a recovery and a famous magazine front cover that more than hinted at a brighter future for the Astros.

In that same early-season where fans could barely bring themselves to watch, a Sports Illustrated journalist named Ben Reiter embedded himself with the Astros. Wowed by Luhnow’s analytical processes and how the Astros had restructured, Reiter returned to the magazine to produce the article. His editors were so persuaded by the piece that the entire front page of the 30th June 2014 edition was dedicated to it, with the boldest of headlines — “Your 2017 World Series Champs: An Unprecedented Look At How a Franchise Is Going Beyond Moneyball To Build the Game’s Next Big Thing.”

The cover drew a fair amount of derision, and popular culture had long since decreed that appearing on the front page of Sports Illustrated was more of a curse than a blessing. But it was a prediction that would come true and, for all the analytics and data science behind it, in the most emotional of ways.

The intervening years had seen the Astros improve, but 2017 was proving to be the best yet. By the end of August, the city of Houston was abuzz as the Astros led their division, already almost guaranteed a play-off spot and with a real shot at a World Series win that October.

Then, disaster struck as Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas and Louisiana causing catastrophic flooding and damage on a par with that of Katrina in 2005. With much of Houston underwater, the Astros were forced to play home games on the road until the authorities deemed it safe enough to return to a city in desperate need of a morale boost.

Wearing patches on their shirts in support of the victims of the hurricane, the Astros blazed through the rest of the regular season and through the play-offs. In a decisive game seven, the Astros beat the LA Dodgers to win their first-ever World Series title. Just three years after three straight 100-loss seasons had made them the worst team in baseball, Luhnow’s rebuild had propelled them to the very pinnacle of the sport.

Luhnow’s work had laid the foundations for sustained success. The Astros reached World Series again in 2019; once more, the series went to a decisive game seven. This time it wasn’t to be, as the Washington Nationals prevailed, but the Astros were now consistent contenders, as Luhnow had envisaged all along.

But that game would prove to be Luhnow’s last in baseball.

“The Astros stole signs electronically in 2017.” 

The headline of the article in The Athletic on the 12th of November 2019 was as matter of fact as could be.

Sign-stealing — figuring out the signal that a catcher gives to his pitcher in order to provide the batter with knowledge of what type of pitch to expect next — was almost as old as baseball itself. Done organically, it was a legal and accepted practice – almost an art – that mainly came into play when a batting side had a runner on second base. From there, the runner had the perfect view of the opposing team’s catcher, and if he could decode the signals, he could let his own batter know if the next ball was likely to be a fastball or a slower changeup.

But sign-stealing by any other method was illegal and frowned upon, and using electronic equipment to convey information was explicitly prohibited by MLB rules. That did not stop rumours of the practice swirling around the league. 

The article in The Athletic outlined the scheme that the Astros had used in 2017. Their sources were four people who had been with the Astros in 2017, including pitcher Mike Fiers. The set-up was simple. At Astros home games, a camera was set up in centre-field that focussed exclusively on the catcher. Pictures were relayed to a TV screen positioned in the tunnel just behind the Astros dugout. Players and other employees would watch, and when they believed they knew what pitch was coming next, it was communicated to their man at-bat by loudly banging on the rubbish bin in the tunnel. No bang usually meant a fastball was coming; a bang meant the batter should expect a slower pitch.

The story caused a sensation — a very 21st-century sensation. Within hours of the story breaking, a video was posted on YouTube by an account called ‘Jomboy’ of a sequence of play detailed in the article. To date, the video has over 7 million views.

The incident featured Chicago White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar, who came in to pitch late in a game away to the Astros at the tail-end of the 2017 season. It was gone 10pm on a Thursday night, meaning most of the crowd had gone home, and the stadium was relatively quiet. When winding up to throw, Farquhar noticed a banging sound and felt that the batter he was facing had been unusually alert to what type of pitch was coming. When his catcher called for another changeup, Farquhar again heard the banging, broke off his motion, and went to talk with the catcher. The pair set a trap where a fastball would be signalled but a changeup thrown. Sure enough, the batter swung too early, and the slower delivery struck him out.

Farquhar was livid and let the Astros bench know what he thought. But no member of the press approached him to ask about it after the game, and his teammates put it down as pitcher paranoia. It took two years before reporters putting The Athletic article together finally called him to ask about that night.

The Astros were the perfect target for public opprobrium. Despite the emotional nature of their World Series win, the organisation had gained a reputation as one that would put positive baseball outcomes above all else. They had negotiated contracts in bad faith with some of their draft picks, and several former employees had complained about a toxic workplace culture.

Eyebrows were raised when the Astros signed pitcher Roberto Osuna at the end of a 75-game suspension for domestic violence. For businessmen like Crane and Luhnow, they were simply buying a distressed asset at a low price. Then the matter went to another level when Astros assistant general manager Brandon Taubman ranted bizarrely at three female reporters about the player. Taubman was eventually sacked but only after a series of typically tone-deaf responses by the Astros.

Reviewing tens of thousands of emails and text messages and interviewing 68 witnesses, Major League Baseball’s disciplinary enquiry was thorough. Its verdict, for Luhnow, was stunning. Despite the report stating that there was no evidence to suggest that Luhnow was aware of the scheme, he was suspended from baseball for a year for what had occurred on his watch.

The same day, Astros owner Crane went one step further, firing Luhnow along with the other man punished by the league, the team manager A.J. Hinch. “Neither one of them started this, but neither did anything about it,” read Crane’s statement.Confusingly, the report concluded that the sign-stealing scheme was “player-driven and player-executed”, yet a few paragraphs later stated that it would “not assess discipline against individual Astros players.” The Wall Street Journal subsequently reported that the league had struck a deal with the players’ union that granted immunity to players who testified. 

For some, Luhnow was the fall guy, the man who paid the price for a player-driven scheme in a league that was terrified of punishing players. For others, Luhnow had made his own bed by creating an organisational culture that put the pursuit of a competitive edge beyond all else.

But as the din of the permanently indignant social media debate raged on, one cold hard fact remained — the man who had worked in the sport he loved and won three World Series rings was now a baseball outsider once more.

When Luhnow spoke to KPRC Houston in his first public interview after his sacking and suspension, it was clear he felt his future lay away from the diamond.

“The opportunity to apply business practices, analytics and technology exists in many sports. My skills aren’t stuck in baseball — they could easily be transferred to another sport. I’m considering all my options at this point.” Luhnow went on to mention European football as one area of consideration.

It was a process that saw Luhnow arrive on the southern outskirts of Madrid and the quirky satellite town of Leganés with its streets named after AC/DC and The Scorpions, spectacular sunsets, and a roundabout dedicated to a giant sculpture of the Loch Ness Monster.

The town is also home to CD Leganés, a popular and tidily run club in Spain’s second division, seeking promotion to the top flight they recently played in for four seasons before being relegated in unfortunate circumstances.

For the bilingual Luhnow, the club and the league provided the perfect fit for the Blue Crow Investment Group that he heads. “We believe the league has the most growth potential, with the financial controls and the recent deal with CVC. Leganés has the best combination of what we searched for: location, fans, stadium and growth potential.”

The 99% stake acquired in Leganés made the club the second football acquisition after the purchase of FC Cancún of Mexico’s second division.

Analytics will undoubtedly be a significant part of Leganés’ future. “We want to use technology to create advantages. We have people who have used technology in the Premier League and MLS. Leganés can certainly take advantage of that. We believe football is a little behind in that respect, but that is something that is going to change.”

The new president will be as focused as ever on the process but will hopefully take time to appreciate those incredible sunsets over the Estadio Municipal de Butarque. Preferably without the distraction of someone banging on a dustbin.

When the man who could organise anything nearly met his match: Raimundo Saporta and the 1982 World Cup


He was the man who could organise anything. The man on top of every little detail. That’s why they put him in charge of this.

He was the man who changed the course of Spanish football history by signing Alfredo Di Stéfano for Real Madrid from under the noses of Barcelona. The man who then helped add Paco Gento, Raymond Kopa, José Santamaría and Ferenc Puskás to the squad. 

He was the man who, not satisfied with creating the greatest Real Madrid side of all time, then helped launch the competition that later defined them — the European Cup.

He was the man that revolutionised basketball in Spain and then Europe, creating the Spanish League and then the European Cup. Then, of course, revitalised Real Madrid’s basketball team so successfully that they came to dominate both competitions. 

He was the man so implicitly trusted by Real Madrid president Santiago Bernabéu that he was eventually left to run the club almost by himself.

That’s why they’d given him this job, and he’d been only too happy to take it. After all, this was a man used to creating competitions from scratch — how hard could organising a football tournament be?

But here, just weeks before the tournament was due to start, Raimundo Saporta was feeling the strain. So overwhelming were the demands that the phone in his apartment seemed to ring non-stop, with the answering machine long since filled to capacity. 

Newspapers speculated upon his state of health, reporting regular stays in Switzerland where he undertook medical checks accompanied by his mother. El Pais noted behavioural changes in Saporta — “a man so usually discreet who has begun to make the front pages with strident statements and continuous mentions that his only boss is the King. Those close to him claim that he has been prescribed medication that relaxes him but sometimes gives him an unusual euphoria. Drowsiness at certain public events seems to confirm these symptoms.”

But Saporta persevered with the task, admitting to extreme fatigue but otherwise dismissive of what was being printed by the newspapers — “The press has been very difficult to deal with.”

There was, though, one thing they could all agree on: the 1982 World Cup was proving way more challenging to organise than anyone had anticipated.

It was in London in the summer of 1966 when FIFA confirmed their plans for three future tournaments. Spain stood aside for West Germany to host the 1974 edition, which meant they were automatically selected when the competition returned to European soil eight years later.

In the mid-1960s, the notion of hosting a World Cup seemed almost quaint. The cosy 16-team tournament lasted less than three weeks, was broadcast in sleepy black and white, and its 32 matches were mainly attended by curious locals.

By the time 1982 came around, the tournament was well on its way to becoming a modern-day global technicolour jamboree. FIFA had eagerly expanded the competition meaning Spain would host the biggest tournament yet — a 24-team, month-long extravaganza requiring more host cities and accommodating more fans than ever before.

If the World Cup had evolved in those intervening years, Spain had changed immeasurably. Franco’s death in 1975 led to a period of rapid but fragile transition. A new Spain aspired to become a modern democracy, but the process was complex and hindered by distrust between competing interests on either side of the political spectrum.

On the periphery of the process, political violence reached alarming levels. Terrorist atrocities and incidents formed a depressingly regular part of the news cycle. ETA, in particular, became more malevolent than ever, and their spectre hung heavily over the World Cup. Just weeks before the start of the tournament, the Basque separatist group attempted to wipe out the telecommunications of an entire city, blowing up the eight-storey headquarters of Telefónica in central Madrid, taking 20,000 lines and 700,000 telephones off the network in the capital.

An act during the tournament seemed almost inevitable, particularly when a Guardia Civil officer was murdered by ETA in Gipuzkoa on the day of the opening ceremony.

The political upheaval seemed to entirely distract from a troubling economic picture. An economy heavily reliant on foreign oil was reeling from successive oil shocks, sending prices spiralling upwards. Organisers now found themselves trying to organise a World Cup in an environment that saw inflation constantly in double digits.

Unemployment soon rocketed, leaving a fledgling government floundering, unable to take any meaningful action while budgetary deficits swelled to dangerous levels and foreign exchange reserves depleted rapidly.

Financing a World Cup became a nightmare. As well as the usual stadium and local infrastructure upgrades, there was the unwelcome discovery that Spain’s entire television network would have to be upgraded to broadcast the tournament at a cost of 17.5 billion pesetas (€105 million).

As if there was not enough to worry for organisers about, the outbreak of the Falklands War brought four of the qualified teams into conflict with each other. A 2014 release of United Kingdom government archives revealed anxious deliberations over whether to withdraw England, Scotland and Northern Ireland from a tournament that featured Argentina as holders and was hosted by a country where the public opinion was overwhelmingly against the UK’s claim to the Falkland Islands, given Spain’s position on Gibraltar.

The government decided the three teams should travel to Spain as planned, but only after myriad discussions that included the bizarre highlight of Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine calculating the various permutations of the rather complex World Cup draw — “Scotland could play Argentina in the second round, but Northern Ireland and England can only meet them in the final,” he concluded.

That draw had been a shambles that did little to settle the host’s jitters. Taking place shortly after Christmas in Madrid’s Palacio de Congresos, the creative minds amongst the organising committee decided to theme the draw along the lines of Spain’s Christmas lottery, using both the distinctive golden cages used to draw the numbers and the purple-sashed pupils of the San Ildefonso school who famously sang the results.

The event quickly descended into farce, with the presiding FIFA delegates apparently forgetting their own fairly basic stipulations, drawing Belgium and then Scotland into the wrong groups. “Quite extraordinary,” exclaimed Barry Davies in typical fashion on the BBC’s coverage of the draw, “They went to great lengths to explain the procedure, but when it’s come to the draw, they’ve not adopted their own plans.”

Even after correcting the errors, the draw dragged on interminably. FIFA officials grew increasingly impatient with the amount of time it was taking the schoolchildren to extract the balls and deliver them to their table. Matters got even worse when the miniature two-piece Adidas Tango balls containing the teams’ names began to break apart inside the cages. This led to the unedifying spectacle of fingers being poked into the machinery in an attempt to get them moving.

When the draw finally ended, it was left to those on the organising committee to take the positives. “Spain have a good chance to qualify for the second round. After that, we’ll see. I think the tournament is guaranteed to be a financial success. On the field, we’ll have to see, but whatever the outcome, we’ll support the players,” was the upbeat verdict of the president of the Royal Organising Committee, Raimundo Saporta, who’d been appointed the most important job any Spanish football administrator had ever been given.  

Not a bad achievement for someone given their chance in football mainly because he knew precisely nothing at all about it.

Saporta’s journey to the heights of Spanish football was an unusual one. Indeed, there is mystery surrounding where it even began with his place of birth the subject of debate among Spain’s most eminent football historians. Most official documents stated Saporta was born in Paris in December of 1926, but a detailed investigation by the football history association, CIHEFE, concluded it was more likely he was actually born in Constantinople (now Istanbul).

What’s for sure is that Saporta was born to Sephardic Jewish parents who were both born in the Ottoman Empire. By the early 1940s, the family had long been settled in Paris, with Raimundo happily studying at the prestigious Lycée Carnot. But when German boots reached Parisian streets in the early part of the Second World War, the city became a precarious place for anyone even suspected of being Jewish, with families regularly taking measures to conceal their ethnicity. CIHEFE found evidence that Saporta’s school records had been edited to remove any reference to Constantinople, quite probably as part of the family’s attempts to avoid Nazi scrutiny.

Taking advantage of the Spanish citizenship they held — in 1924, Spain had made citizenship automatically available to Sephardic Jews — the family secured safe passage to a new life in Madrid. Tragically, soon after the family settled in the city, Raimundo’s father Jaime was struck fatally by a tram. 

Heartbroken, the family continued on in their alien surroundings, although they afforded themselves some familiarity by enrolling both sons in the Lycée Français de Madrid. The French school had a lively basketball scene that Saporta very much enjoyed. Realising his physical talents would never guarantee him a place on a squad, he began helping out in administrative roles and was soon named the team’s official delegate.

Saporta’s exceptional organisational talent soon turned heads at the Spanish Basketball Federation. The governing body’s president, Colonel Jesús Querejeta Pavón, was so taken by Saporta that he immediately sought to add him to the board but was frustrated by the Federation’s own rules, which stated directors must be at least 21 years old. Saporta continued to work in an unofficial role until being installed as vice-president upon reaching the required age in 1947.

Saporta set about improving and restructuring Spanish basketball and was held in such regard that when, in 1952, Santiago Bernabéu began looking for someone to organise a basketball tournament as part of Real Madrid’s 50th-anniversary celebrations, he received exactly the same answer from whoever he asked: Raimundo Saporta.

With minimal fuss, Saporta arranged an impressive four-team tournament, including international opposition in the form of Racing Club of Paris, the Puerto Rican national team and a talented team of Suffolk-based American serviceman named the Lakenheath Pirates. In the final, Real Madrid rallied from a huge deficit to beat an excellent Puerto Rican team, who ABC described as: “possibly the finest team to have ever played basketball in the city of Madrid.” 

Delighted by the tournament, Bernabéu immediately recruited Saporta to his board. Saporta pointed out that he knew absolutely nothing about football, “That’s good,” countered Bernabéu, “There are far too many around that think they do.”

Saporta’s creative problem-solving and attention to detail saw him implicitly trusted with some of the most important matters of the club. When Bernabéu observed the impasse in Barcelona’s attempt to sign Alfredo Di Stefano, it was Saporta he dispatched to Colombia to convince Millionarios that dealing with Madrid would be far simpler and more lucrative than talking to Barcelona.

Eventually, Real Madrid won the day. Even by the time Di Stefano made his Madrid debut, Saporta had been at the club barely a year.

Saporta became Bernabéu’s right-hand man, and the pair worked closely together for a quarter of a century, each complementing the other’s character. Where Bernabéu was authoritarian, impulsive and prone to fits of rage, Saporta was collegiate, assiduous and avuncular. 

Bernabéu had the grand visions, but it was Saporta who could get things done. That was something that L’Equipe came to learn when attempting to launch their idea of the European Cup. The newspaper had been frustrated in their attempts to get the project off the ground until someone suggested a phone call to Saporta might get things moving. Sure enough, the idea had become a reality within a few days as Saporta worked his magic.

Saporta took care of some of the tiniest details. As Justo Tejada, who won two league titles with both Barcelona and Real Madrid, remembered to Panenka magazine: “Barça will always be the club of my heart, but at Madrid, they looked after every little detail. You couldn’t even forget your wife’s birthday as a bouquet would show up for her with a card that said: ‘From the office of Raimundo Saporta’ ”.

Remarkably, Saporta combined the football club’s vice-presidency with the basketball operation’s presidency. There he helped create a basketball version of the European Cup and established the Spanish basketball league as one of Europe’s most successful. 

The tournament that started it all in 1952 even lived on, eventually morphing into the Torneo de Navidad, a four-team tournament that attracted top international teams and some of America’s most storied basketball colleges and became a staple of Spanish Christmas TV viewing for decades.

By the time of Santiago Bernabéu’s death in 1978, Real Madrid had won six European Cups in both football and basketball. Most assumed the vice-president who had done so much to deliver that success would replace Bernabéu, but the man himself had other ideas.

“Don Santiago always told me not to accept the presidency if he died. And that’s what I’m doing. Firstly, because of a lack of personal ambition, and secondly, because he told me I would suffer a lot in the role.” With that, he walked away from the club he’d worked at for some 26 years. 

But just months later, the Spanish Federation, shocked by the announcement by FIFA of an expanded World Cup, suddenly realised the committee they had assembled was not up to the task. There was only one person to call. Within days, Royal Decree number 2346/78 declared Raimundo Saporta as the president of the Real Comité Organizador de la Copa del Mundo, reporting directly to the King. It was as prestigious a title and role as could be, but one that really would make him suffer.

As Italy’s Dino Zoff held the World Cup aloft, just a few feet away in the stadium that bore his old boss’ name, Saporta could finally afford to let out a sigh of relief. It had been a success.

It had certainly not been easy, and the stresses on Saporta as the cornerstone of it all had been enormous. At one stage, a row with the host cities escalated to such an extent that Saporta offered his resignation, causing an almighty panic in the government, the Spanish Federation and FIFA and front-page headlines that Spain was on the verge of giving up the World Cup. His resignation was refused, and the cities were swiftly brought into line.

The off-the-field factors that Saporta had so feared miraculously subsided. ETA’s guns fell silent, and the Falklands War concluded early in the competition, with none of the teams crossing each other’s paths.

Financially, the tournament even technically reported a profit with the infrastructure debt either covered by lottery funding or creatively kicked down the road by accountants.

On the field, it would prove to be a World Cup that lived in the memory, serving up a combination of compelling football and skullduggery in equal measure in matches attended by over two million spectators. The only thing missing was a strong showing from the hosts, who were desperately disappointing and eliminated after winning just one of their five matches.

Saporta was widely commended for his work. In their review of the year, ABC called the World Cup the biggest success of 1982, lauding Saporta as the “mastermind behind the event.”

Saporta though, would publicly acknowledge the adverse effects that the World Cup had on his health — “It did me harm” — and a heart attack in 1987 took a further toll. He died in 1997, still involved in basketball, helping plan the European Cup’s revamp to the Euroliga.

At his funeral, the Real Madrid president, Lorenzo Sanz, lamented the loss of a man “only behind Santiago Bernabéu as the most important person in the history of Real Madrid.”

Remarkably, in the forty years since that 1982 World Cup and despite the country’s standing in world football, Spain has never since hosted a major tournament. Perhaps maybe, because they’ve never found anyone else quite like Raimundo Saporta.


Fernando Arrechea and Victor Martínez Patón’s superb investigation into the country of Saporta’s birth helped with this article

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

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

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

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

But then the phone rang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Carmen: How Celta Vigo’s Wonder Woman helped change the face of Galicia

Carmen Avendaño at the presentation of Néstor Araujo EFE/Salvador Sas

A woman hurries her youngest son through Vigo’s Casco Vello on their way to the city’s main market. As she looks up, she notices a man staring at her as he smokes in the doorway of the bar he owns and the pair lock eyes.

The woman feels her legs begin to tremble as her mind races with a thousand urgent thoughts before one imperative emerges: she must not be the one to look away.

She steels herself as she draws closer. Then, just as she approaches the bar’s terrace, the man drops his gaze to the ground and stubs out his cigarette.

A wave of relief washes over her, followed by a powerful realisation: it is their turn to be scared of us now. She has picked the biggest fight of her life, but she is certain she will win. 

Just the day before, the man’s name had been one of 38 that she had read out in front of a room packed full of press and local politicians — bars and their owners that were brazenly peddling hard drugs to the city’s youth. The women that had called the meeting had had enough. They were fed up with seeing lives all around them destroyed while others prospered from the tonnes of narcotics that flowed in unhindered along the region’s coastline.

Carmen Avendaño’s intervention would spark a profound shift, piling pressure upon those in authority that had been complacent or complicit with Europe’s biggest drug cartels to finally take meaningful action. It would take her years of unrelenting campaigning — surviving intimidation and attempts on her life. But it was she that would emerge victorious as Galicia’s clans were eventually dismantled.  

Years later, Avendaño would become a fixture on the board at Celta de Vigo. A football club once run by the region’s smugglers now represented by the woman who had defeated them.

It was 1986, and Vigo was awash with drugs. Over 1,000 miles of coastline made up of tiny islands and the famous, rugged inlets known as rías, combined with a proud seafaring tradition, made Galicia the perfect gateway for cartels seeking access to the old continent. Local knowledge and Latin American supply made for a powerful alliance, and it was estimated that during the 1980s, up to 80% of Europe’s cocaine supply was arriving via Spain’s northwest corner.

Smuggling was nothing new to the region. In the decades after Spain’s Civil War, alcohol, fuel and even medicine arrived secretly along Galician shores until contraband tobacco emerged as the staple. Fishing crews began supplementing their income by bootlegging cheap cigarettes from Cuba and Portugal during the 1950s, before more organised operations started to involve themselves in a practice that was lucrative, socially accepted and weakly legislated against.

An eccentric former Republican military pilot named Celso Lorenzo Villa was one such operator, becoming wealthy and popular enough to become the president of Celta Vigo in 1959. Celso Lorenzo was known for flying over Balaidos in his propeller plane during games, as the crowd below puffed away on cut-price cigarettes courtesy of their president.

His vice-president was Vicente Otero — nicknamed ‘Terito’ — the man that would become the lynchpin of smuggling operations in Galicia. That brief period became known as el Celta de Marlboro. But while the club’s dire finances were quickly fixed, on-field success proved more elusive. Despite travelling to away games in a luxurious state-of-the-art Dodge team bus — a gift from the president’s connections in Havana — the team narrowly missed out on a return to Primera with successive play-off defeats.

Tobacco continued to be a golden goose for decades. The local clans that controlled the rías ticked along discreetly, with those in authority bought off or unconcerned by what most considered a relatively harmless pursuit. But the arrival of the 1980s saw a new generation of trafficker on the scene: younger, more ambitious and with contacts in Colombia. The foremost of these was Sito Miñanco, a son and grandson of sailors, whose budding bootlegging career was interrupted by a six-month term in Madrid’s notorious Carabanchel prison. By chance, his spell there coincided with two of Colombia’s most powerful drug barons in Jorge Luis Ochoa Vázquez of the Medellín Cartel and Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela of the Cali Cartel.

Miñanco’s return to Galicia supercharged smuggling in the rías. Cocaine now flowed in, with clans old and new getting in on the act. Miñanco’s audacity and innovative use of technology to coordinate shipments saw him rapidly accumulating power and wealth. Inevitable comparisons were drawn between Miñanco and Pablo Escobar, with similarities evident in both style of dress and a philanthropic streak that naturally extended to football. 

Miñanco took control of the humble Club Juventud Cambados from his native village. His patronage powered the side from Spain’s fifth tier to the verge of Segunda, where at their peak, they were involved in a promotion race against the likes of Getafe and Leganés. Tales of lavish cash bonuses, off-season tours of Central and South America and promotion parties attended by Manuel Noriega (Miñanco was in a long-term relationship with the Panamanian dictator’s niece) were fabled throughout the glory years. Eventually, Miñanco’s attentions were drawn elsewhere, and the club slid back down the regional leagues.

But while some were enjoying the spoils of the flourishing joint venture with Colombia, many lives in Galicia’s towns and cities were being destroyed by drugs. A parallel boom in heroin was causing alarming levels of addiction. It was a drug that very rarely arrived via Galicia’s shores — usually routed to Spain through Rotterdam — but rising overall drug use and common distribution networks meant that its devastating consequences were something that families all over the region were rapidly confronted with.

Meetings of the residents’ association in the working-class barrio of Lavadores in Vigo usually centred around matters like noisy neighbours, parking issues and refuse collection. But topics on the agenda had taken a graver tone, with heroin use on the rise and families desperately trying to cope with the damage of a drug they knew little about. Even the associations’ committee — mainly comprised of the neighbourhood’s most conscientious parents — were not immune as many of their own children tumbled like dominoes into addiction.

One of those to fall was a young man named Jaime, the second son of committee member Carmen Avendaño. Along with other mothers, Avendaño began reading and seeking as much information as possible about the drug. An association emerged, named Érguete — Galician for ‘Rise Up’. And an ethos too: those who had fallen to addiction were victims who needed support. And that a spotlight should be shone on those profiting from the arrival of drugs to the region with impunity.

Local meetings soon became public declarations — beginning with that naming and shaming of Vigo’s bar owners in 1986. There were tours around the region, sparsely attended at first — particularly in the rías villages, with the audience mainly made up of connections of the local clans curious about what the group of mothers had to say. 

Within two years of their establishment, Érguete had 38 local branches and had more than captured the public’s imagination. Las madres contra la droga –– the mothers against drugs — led by Avendaño proved a compelling storyline for the media: a group of heartbroken mothers fearlessly taking the fight to the region’s drug traffickers. Quite literally, in the case of Érguete’s most famous demonstration — the 1994 storming of Pazo Baíon, the historic country mansion that was the home of clan leader Laureano Oubiña. Police were unable to control the crowds of women that shook the estate’s gates almost off their hinges while aiming cries of ‘murderer’ and’ thief’ at Oubiña.

It wasn’t just the baying crowds that Oubiña and his associates were now under siege from. The sea change in public opinion had finally moved the authorities into taking meaningful action. Érguete and Avendaño had played no small part in that shift. Indeed, so persuasive had they become that they now had a direct line to both the region and the country’s most powerful politicians.

Avendaño often recalls her first meeting with the President of Galicia, Manuel Fraga, a man more accustomed to characterising drug addicts as pariahs than victims. As she and other mothers recounted their experiences, Fraga sat motionless with his head bowed for so long that they presumed he had fallen asleep. It was only when they had all finished speaking that it became evident he had spent their entire talk in tears.

Avendaño’s role as the face of Érguete and her fearless public pronouncements inevitably placed her in danger. On three separate occasions, the brakes on her car were cut, and acts of intimidation were commonplace, but Avendaño remained unwavering. The only moment that came close to abandoning the fight was the harrowing discovery that another of her sons, Abel, had fallen into addiction. Those closest to Avendaño in Érguete quickly rallied around her, convincing her to continue campaigning.

Renewed political vigour brought about a 1990 investigation by Spain’s highest criminal court aimed at purging trafficking in Galicia and entrusted to a young judge named Baltasar Garzón. Operación Nécora — ‘Operation Crab’ proved to be spectacular if not emphatically successful. A 1994 trial at Madrid’s Casa de Campo saw 54 suspects brought to trial. Avendaño attended each day and testified against Oubiña, who was sentenced to 12 years for money laundering. 

The operation marked the beginning of the end for Galicia’s clans. Those who escaped Nécora were brought down in subsequent operations or captured while on the run. Sito Miñanco, who had successfully fled from Nécora, was eventually arrested in 1991 when police found him coordinating the arrival of two-and-a-half tonnes of cocaine to Galicia with nautical charts and a satellite phone from a chalet in suburban Madrid.

Avendaño and Érguete’s work continues some three decades on. In 2008 they returned to the scene of their most celebrated stand, the Pazo Baíon. The estate that was once an ostentatious success symbol of the drug cartels had been seized from the Oubiña clan by the state. Symbolically, the first chosen to burst through those gates that were once shaken with fury was Avendaño. She smiled broadly, taking the opportunity to highlight the progress made and thank those who had sacrificed so much to get there. Pazo Baíon now welcomes wine tourists to the area, with its reinstated vineyards producing a fine version of that more noble product of the rías — albariño wine.

Unsurprisingly, more than one screenwriter has been drawn to Avendaño’s extraordinary story. A 2005 film, Heroina, was based on her story. Avendaño gave up much of her time to consult on the script, but she admits finding it too painful to watch the final version. The Antena 3 series Fariña (since distributed by Netflix as Cocaine Coast) based on the journalist Nacho Carretero’s book of the same title extensively features Avendaño as it tells the story of the Galician smuggling scene of the 80s and 90s.

For over a decade, Avendaño has sat on the board of Celta Vigo for the most part as the only woman — “And the only from the left too,” she quipped in an interview with La Voz de Galicia, “They are quite a conservative bunch.” 

As a lifelong socialist, she admits that her beliefs have brought regular clashes with the board. Like the time she was the only director to oppose the club’s move to buy the Balaidos from the city: “A city should not be selling off its public assets.” 

But it seems that Celta’s famously stubborn board like having her around. “I once tried to resign, but they wouldn’t let me and I can say exactly how I feel about matters.”

Avendaño is a regular at player presentations — the new signings usually completely unaware of the incredible backstory of the kindly lady helping them hold up a shirt for the camera.

Many of the more established squad have a close relationship with Avendaño. Celta’s first team is based heavily on a nucleus of Gallegos from precisely the same neighbourhoods and villages as Avendaño and the fraternity of Érguete.

In February 2021, Celta Vigo took the field at Balaidos for their game against Elche in black armbands. They stood for a moment of solemn silence to remember the life of Abel, one of Avendaño’s sons that had struggled with addiction during the 1980s, who had died at the young age of 50. A poignant reminder of the dangers the youth of Galicia once faced. 

A Celta side featuring six local-born players provided a fitting tribute with a 3-1 win. The goals scored by young men from those same barrios of Vigo that Avendaño fought so valiantly to protect.


Nacho Carretero’s brilliant book, Fariña, provided information for this article.

It is available to buy in both Spanish and English.

Testicle tugging and gallivanting goalkeepers: When the cream of Colombia came to Real Valladolid

Gonzalo Gonzalo, Carlos Valderrama and Francisco Maturana shake hands at Valderrama’s presentation, June 1991 EFE/Agustin Cacho

“Independent of the mistake, he’s brilliant — fundamental and decisive.”

He’d said pretty much the exact words a month previous, in the heat of Naples, where he backed his goalkeeper, René Higuita, after the error that would become one of the iconic vignettes in World Cup history. Positioned a lot closer to the halfway line than his own goal, Higuita attempted to remedy an imperfect first touch by dragging the ball away from the incoming Roger Milla with his studs. Milla stole the ball and raced away towards the empty goal, then to the corner flag. He just about managed a brief wiggle of those hips before being mobbed by ecstatic Cameroon teammates.

The goal sealed Colombia’s exit, but head coach Francisco Maturana was phlegmatic. After all, it was the first World Cup Colombia had qualified for since 1962 and the furthest the team had ever progressed. They were a goal down, deep into extra-time, and Higuita was being aggressive — as Maturana had always asked him to be. The pair had conquered a continent together; Maturana wasn’t about to abandon him now.

Quite the opposite. Now stood in the calmer environs of an empty José Zorrilla stadium discussing his new project as manager of Real Valladolid, Maturana openly told reporters that negotiations to sign Higuita were ongoing and that he saw him as a fundamental part of his plans.

It would take a year for Higuita to finally sign — only one of Maturana’s targets, midfielder Leonel Álvarez, was available immediately — but Higuita would arrive alongside the most famous Colombian footballer of all. Carlos Valderrama tempted across the Pyrenees to join the Colombian colony in Castile and León after three years in Montpellier.

The four Colombians’ arrival was part of an ambitious new president’s plan to propel a useful Valladolid side to European level. It would, though, be a gamble that quickly unravelled, leaving behind a club in relegation trouble and one of the most indelibly odd images in Spanish football history.

Serious, orderly and conservative: Maturana’s new home city of Valladolid stood in sharp contrast to the sprawling tropical mayhem of his native Medellín. There, Maturana had gone to secondary school with a certain Pablo Escobar but chose the more conventional career path of dentistry. He would see patients at his surgery in the afternoons, leaving mornings free to train with Colombia’s biggest club, Atlético Nacional, for whom he played a decade in defence for.

That ability to combine two jobs would come in useful as Maturana progressed into football management. After just one season in charge of Once Caldas, Maturana was appointed as head coach of the Colombian national team in the summer of 1987. Remarkably, he was soon courted by Nacional and ran the two roles alongside each other — basing the national side on the nucleus of his club squad.

It was seen as a controversial design, but one that was soon paying dividends. In May of 1989, Nacional became the first Colombian side to win the Copa Libertadores. Five months later, seven of that side featured for Colombia in a World Cup qualification play-off win over Israel that returned Colombia to football’s biggest stage after an absence of nearly three decades.

Progress through the knockout stage of Italia ’90 pushed Maturana’s stock higher. Still, he wasn’t an obvious choice for a European side to appoint. The obvious, though, was not something that regularly concerned Valladolid’s president-elect Gonzalo Gonzalo, a man who had made his money by marketing lighting solutions in countries like the USSR — markets that no regular Spanish business executive would consider viable. Gonzalo saw Maturana as a coach on the rise and moved quickly to bring him to Valladolid.

Gonzalo was also the owner of the city’s basketball team and had swiftly elevated them from mid-ranking plodders to European contenders. A pair of Lithuanian signings had been the key. No sooner had Arvydas Sabonis and Valdemaras Chomicius set foot off the plane from Vilnius than they were averaging over 40 points per game together as the side rose up the rankings.

It was perhaps that concept of importing a bloc of players that drove the arrival of Valladolid’s Colombians. The squad that Gonzalo and Maturana inherited was a reasonably talented one. Despite Fernando Hierro’s departure for Real Madrid, a young José Luis Caminero was attracting attention from bigger clubs while Gregorio Fonseca and Onésimo Sánchez formed a decent strike partnership. Maturana instantly added Álvarez, the general of his Nacional and Colombia midfield — with the longer-term intention of bringing in more of his compatriots.

Maturana’s first season saw Valladolid comfortably cruising in mid-table. By spring, Maturana had attracted the attention of Real Madrid, who were off the pace in the league and cycling through managers. A pre-contract was signed for Maturana to become the new Madrid head coach the following season. But Radomir Antić revived the side, rattling off eight wins from nine, including victories over Barcelona and Atlético Madrid, which bought the Serb a further season in charge. Maturana’s agreement was quietly filed away in an office drawer.

Unperturbed, Maturana looked ahead to the 1991-92 season, driving on his project at Valladolid. Prising Higuita away from Nacional had again become a convoluted process, but there were no such problems in tempting the other face of Colombia’s World Cup campaign. So keen, in fact, was Valderrama to join up with Maturana, he left Colombia’s preparations for the upcoming Copa America to fly to Spain to complete the deal.

Valderrama was the picture of relaxed, Santa Marta beach cool as his beaded wrists jangled to join a three-way handshake with Maturana and Gonzalo for the benefit of the cameras. But the smiles betrayed the storm that was blowing up back in Colombia. Valderrama’s unauthorised departure from camp had infuriated the Colombian Federation president, León Londono, who threatened to throw his captain out of the squad. It took a phone call from Maturana to defuse the situation — calmly talking his old boss down: “I just explained to him that suspending Carlos made no sense, and the country wouldn’t stand for it.”

Higuita finally set foot in Valladolid just as the pre-season was ending. Although he’d been reluctant to move from Nacional and his home city of Medellín, his eventual transfer proved something of a relief, as Higuita had caused a scandal in Colombia by paying a visit to his new manager’s old classmate, Escobar, in prison. The goalkeeper gave his new public an instant showreel of what to expect. In a friendly at home to the Brazilian side Internacional, Higuita was at fault for two goals and escaped a red card for dragging an opponent down in midfield. Though in typical fashion, in the resultant shoot-out he saved two penalties before converting the decisive kick himself.

As a club, Real Valladolid habitually flew under the radar, but the signing of the three Colombians had attracted a buzz around Spain as the season got underway. Moustachioed and corkscrew-haired, the trio made for an exotic sight as they posed for photographers alongside the manager they were excited to play for once more.   

Valladolid’s only other permitted overseas player, veteran goalkeeper Mauro Ravnić, was certainly not seen as glamorous enough to ask along to a photoshoot. The Croatian had agreed to stay on as a backup after the previous first-choice, Ángel Lozano, departed for Burgos, irked by the club’s pursuit of Higuita.

Remarkably, by January, Ravnić was the only foreign player that remained at the club. A tumultuous few months had seen his Colombian colleagues depart for home, while speculation around Maturana had long since switched from who was attempting to poach him to when he would get sacked.

For all the optimism, Valladolid made a disjointed start to the season at home to Sporting Gijón. A good first half gave way to a nervous second, particularly after a Sporting free-kick squirmed through the defensive wall, leaving Higuita scrambling in vain to keep the ball out. Fans left Zorrilla disgruntled as Maturana’s men failed to react and lumbered to a 0-1 defeat.

Next was a trip to Real Madrid where Valladolid lost by the same scoreline — again to a goal where Higuita was unconvincing. But the performance was transformed, and Valladolid deserved more from a full-blooded contest where Valderrama imperiously pulled the strings.   Madrid had to resort to hacking him down and some rather comical time-wasting from Paco Buyo to preserve the scoreline.

But the balance of play nor Valladolid’s domination of midfield was not what featured in the headlines, because as Mundo Deportivo put it: “Michel starred in a porn scene that will go down in the annals of history”. Valderrama and Real Madrid’s Michel had clashed several times throughout the game, and as they awaited a Valladolid corner, they clashed again, with the referee stepping in to restore order. Still intent on provoking his opponent, Michel switched tactics, grabbing Valderrama’s testicles — once almost tentatively, then again much more assiduously. Valderrama stood hands on hips, bewildered, quickly glancing downward to check that what he felt was happening really was happening.

The clarity of the pictures caught by cameras, the high profile of the two players and the sheer oddity of it all were a perfect storm, and the incident became a sensation that was talked about for weeks on end. Initial reaction centred around Valladolid’s call for disciplinary action and Michel’s attempts to brush the episode off: “It was just a joke. One of those things that happen in football that people don’t understand.”

Unable to see the funny side was José Javier Forcén, of the Competition and Discipline Committee. He handed Michel a 500,000 peseta (€3,000) fine for a ‘lack of decorum’, namely: “manipulating in public the gift that is exclusively given to males by nature.”

Valladolid’s improved showing at the Bernabéu proved to be something of a mirage and it took the side until October to register their first win. The mood was also growing sombre off the pitch, as an astonishing debt of 700 million pesetas (€4.2m) owed by tax authorities became public knowledge. It seemed that while the board had spent the summer negotiating the signings of some of the most glamorous players in world football, those in charge of the numbers had been desperately pleading the tax authorities for a moratorium on their debt just to stay solvent.

Tension transmitted itself to the stands, and Higuita’s alternative take on the goalkeeping position was soon drawing opprobrium. The Zorrilla crowd, tired of basic errors, grew intolerant of Higuita’s sorties downfield or attempts to flick the ball over oncoming forwards’ heads. Higuita began to be jeered whenever he left his box.

A broader debate on his style was taking place. Don Balon magazine ran a survey entitled: “Is Higuita an acceptable goalkeeper for Spanish football?” canvassing opinions from fellow first division goalkeepers and greats such as Luis Arconada. Far from fuelling the debate, the answers were sympathetic, with the goalkeeping fraternity unwilling to criticise the Colombian.

Despite the support, it eventually became too much for Higuita. After another error-strewn display in the final game before the Christmas break, Higuita made straight for the centre circle to wave goodbye to the home fans. In an improvised press conference, he declared he was returning home: “I wish the team all the luck in the world and I hope they can improve without me. It just hasn’t gone how we hoped. My head is just all over the place — the rest of my body too.” And with that, he was gone.

Higuita returned to Nacional — who Valladolid had yet to pay a single peseta of his transfer fee.

The new year brought no respite. Indeed the Colombian project blew up spectacularly during Valladolid’s visit to Barcelona. After 27 minutes, Valderrama fed the ball forward to Álvarez, who was clearly tripped. Valladolid players stopped in anticipation of the free kick, but none was forthcoming. Instead, the ball was whisked downfield, where Michael Laudrup played in Julio Salinas for the opening goal.

Valderrama and Álvarez were incandescent and made their feelings plain to referee Andújar Oliver. But Andújar held a reputation throughout the league of being particularly intolerant of dissent and haughtily produced yellows, then reds for both players.

The image of the pair sitting dejectedly on the floor in front of the Camp Nou dugout would be the last of them in Valladolid colours. Just ten days later, the club announced the receipt of much-needed two bank transfers. A total of $710,000 had arrived from Independiente de Medellín and América de Cali for the transfers of Valderrama and Álvarez respectively.

Maturana limped on without his countrymen. A February victory over Real Madrid was a rare highlight, but in early April, with the club fourth from bottom, Maturana was sacked.

The Colombian experiment was over.  But things did not improve for Valladolid, who slipped to joint-bottom of the table and were relegated for the first time in over a decade.

Maturana wasted no time getting back into the swing of things, appointed as manager of América de Cali and immediately winning the title. Colombia called once more, and Maturana was re-appointed as head coach ahead of the 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign. The qualifiers were played over an intense one month period. It was a format that seemed to suit Colombia, who hit a strong vein of form and travelled to Buenos Aires for their final game assured of at least a play-off position and needing a draw to seal automatic qualification. After intense Argentine pressure throughout the first half, Freddy Rincón put Colombia ahead just before half-time. Colombia then picked Argentina apart in a scintillating display of precise attacking football, running out 5-0 winners –– a result that went down as the most celebrated in Colombian football history.

While Maturana, Valderrama, and Álvarez were receiving an ovation by the Argentine fans at the Estadio Monumental, fellow Valladolid defector Higuita watched on television from his cell at La Modelo prison in Bogotá. Higuita was being held without bail on charges of kidnapping. His involvement in negotiating the release of a teenage girl had broken Colombia’s strict new anti-kidnapping laws. Higuita claimed he was being punished for the visit he had paid to Escobar and even went on hunger strike to protest his incarceration.

After his eventual release, Higuita was in no shape to make the Colombian squad that travelled to USA ’94 as what many people — including, famously Pelé — considered genuine contenders. But the weight of expectation and a horrifying backdrop of threats made against individual players saw the team eliminated after just two games. The subsequent murder of Andrés Escobar, the defender who had put through his own net in the decisive defeat to the USA, starkly illustrated the malevolent force that drug cartels had become in the country’s football scene. 

Drug money had, as in the rest of society, long been a feature of Colombian football, swelling club coffers directly or indirectly, allowing clubs to hold on to talent that usually departed for foreign shores. But after Pablo Escobar’s capture and killing, Colombia became unstable and ever more violent. Something that even the successful national team, which had become the symbol of hope, succumbed to.

Back in Valladolid, the man whose ambition had brought the Colombians together in the northwest of Spain had long since left the presidency. Gonzalo lasted barely as long as his star signings had after the eye-watering level of debt forced him to make way for a new board with a plan to manage the situation.

Some three decades later, only one memory will be conjured up if you mention to any Spanish football fan the Valladolid de los Colombianos. The enduring image of one of Real Madrid’s greatest players grabbing Colombia’s most famous player by the balls.

Ingeniously, in 2017, the magazine, Libero, revisited the incident with Valderrama to highlight the importance of testicular self-examination in the early detection of cancer. Alongside the slowed down footage, Valderrama demonstrates the correct way to inspect for lumps. 

“I want to thank you, my dear friend. For touching my balls in three simple steps. Like we all should do to prevent testicular cancer.”

“Gracias, Michel,” he concludes with that famous smile.

La Quinta del Reboot: When the Vulture Squad descended on Mexico

David Leah – Mexsport

“To suddenly call up a Real Madrid player and ask them to come to your club when you’re still in the second division — well, you have to be a dreamer.”

In the summer of 1995, when the Real Madrid office staff told Emilio Butragueño to expect a call at home from a Mexican club, he presumed when the phone rang he would be talking to the owner of Club América or maybe Cruz Azul. But the accent on the other end of the line was Asturian, not Mexican, and he declared himself to be the owner of a club that Butragueño had never heard of. Mind you, even in Mexico not many had heard of Atlético Celaya.

The voice on the phone outlined his grand plans for the club on the brink of promotion. Butragueño was unconvinced, but Enrique Fernández was as insistent as he was persuasive. Multiple calls per day eventually swayed Butragueño into hopping on a flight to come and see for himself. Boarding the plane, he almost felt like he was wasting his time. He was convinced his future lay east, not west — Japan’s shiny new J League had been his preferred destination — a new challenge with the added benefit of never having to play against his beloved Real Madrid. 

But after three days in Guanajuato, the people, the weather, the pace of life and the overtures from Fernández had changed his mind. Butragueño called his father and told him he would sign for Celaya. “If the team can more or less function, then it will be fine. We’ll move here.”

Butragueño signed for one season but stayed for three: “From a family point of view, it was probably the happiest three years of my life.” On the field, things were more than just functional. In Butragueño’s first season, newly-promoted Celaya nearly achieved a fairytale, coming within a flick of that familiar blonde head of winning the 1996 Mexican championship in the Estadio Azteca.

Butragueño would be joined in Mexico by two more members of the Quinta del Buitre in Michel and Rafa Martín Vázquez, as well as the man who provided more goals than anyone else to that Real Madrid side that won five consecutive titles, Hugo Sánchez. Key members of one of the most revered Real Madrid sides of all time reunited by Fernández’s vision and audacity. 

Heck, he even persuaded Emilio Butragueño to play against Real Madrid.

The 1983-84 season saw Real Madrid in somewhat of a funk. The previous season had ended with Madrid finishing as runners-up in no less than five separate competitions. The gloom was not helped by a first-round UEFA Cup exit to Sparta Prague. But the Madrid public found solace in the emergence of a generation of players that had powered the club’s B team — Real Madrid Castilla — to the top of the second division. 

In November of that season, El Pais carried a full-page profile that detailed Castilla’s remarkable progress under manager Amancio Armario. The article was headlined ‘Amancio y la Quinta de ‘El Buitre” — ‘Amancio and the Vulture Squad’ and would become almost a sacred artefact in the annals of Real Madrid. 

Journalist Julio-César Iglesias picked out for particular praise a quintet of players with a combined age of 94 years. Midfielders Michel and Martín Vázquez were joined by the winger, Miguel Pardeza, and then defensive midfielder, Manuel Sanchís, in the Quinta del Buitre. But readers were left in no doubt as to who was the pick of the bunch — Butragueño, the blonde boy who had already scored 14 goals in 10 games that season and had already been christened with one of football’s most enduring nicknames. “The Vulture has demonstrated a thousand times in Castilla that the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line. He advances in zig-zags, or more precisely: zig-zags of silver, like flashes of lightning. His runs into the area are like a flash — an explosion of the most rapid, dazzling light.” 

The article concluded with a flourish, urging first team manager Alfredo Di Stefano that: “now is the time to mobilise the Quinta del Buitre. To call for their imagination, discipline and quality.”

El Pais, 14th November 1983

While Di Stefano didn’t exactly conform to Iglesias’ suggested timeframe of “two to three games”, each player was gradually introduced, and within a year, four of the five were regulars in the first team — by then managed by Amancio. Pardeza was the only one of the five who struggled to graduate, eventually going on loan and then permanently to Real Zaragoza.   

The remaining quartet helped form the nucleus of a team that defined an era. Supported by established veterans such as Juanito, Paco Buyo, José Camacho and Rafael Gordillo and the signings of Hugo Sánchez and Jorge Valdano, Madrid won back-to-back UEFA Cups before winning five consecutive Spanish titles scoring unprecedented amounts of goals. Their tally of 107 goals in 1989/90 — 38 of which were scored by Sánchez with a single touch — would not be bettered until some two decades later.

The emergence of the Quinta del Buitre coincided with an explosion of the music, arts and nightlife scenes in a Madrid finally free from the conservatism and repression of the Franco era. With the city culturally liberated by the scene known as the Movida Madrileña and economically thriving during a period of unprecedented growth, it seemed the only thing missing for Madrileños of a Real Madrid persuasion was an elusive seventh European Cup. 

But three consecutive semi-finals were as far as the side went. The third of which saw Madrid dismantled in the San Siro by Arigo Sacchi’s Milan, who repeated the feat six months later, dumping Madrid out of Europe in October. To make matters worse, another rising force — Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona — were about to end the Quinta’s domestic hegemony on their way to them becoming the side that brought the European Cup back to Spain for the first time in 26 years.

By the end of the 1994-95 season, Butragueño was struggling to hold down his place in the side with the emergence of a 17-year-old named Raúl González. Refusing a one-year contract extension on much reduced terms, Butragueño took to the field at the Bernabéu for the last time in a specially arranged tribute game against Roma. He spent the summer pondering whether he should uproot his young family and take up the offer from Japan or explore other avenues. Then the phone rang.

Flushed with business success and living in the afterglow of the wildly successful 1970 World Cup, Enrique Fernández surveyed the Mexican football scene for a club to buy. 

Fernández had departed his native Langreo in Asturias three years previously, at the age of 27, to take charge of the Gigante chain of supermarkets in Mexico City. It didn’t take him long to strike out on his own, and Fernández soon founded Productos Alimenticios Asturias, a company that supplied bakeries across the country and was well on its way to becoming the publicly listed Lastur.

Along with some business associates, Fernández took a controlling stake in a second division club called Toros de Texcoco which over the decades went through various mergers and mutations under Mexican football’s bewildering franchise system. In 1994 a three-way merger resulted in the creation of a new club called Atlético Celaya, which held a license to play in Mexico’s second-tier and Fernández as majority owner.

Remarkably, the new club won promotion at the first time of asking, beating one of Mexico’s oldest clubs, Pachuca, with the only goal of a two-legged play-off final in June. A month previous, Fernández and a fellow director had been watching Butragueño’s farewell against Roma on TV when someone in the room mentioned trying to sign him. Figuring they had nothing to lose, Fernández got to work, and while Celaya were steadily progressing through the play-offs, their owner was making daily calls to Madrid trying to woo one of the world’s most famous players into playing for a club that barely anyone knew of.

With promotion secured and Butragueño finally sold, Celaya announced the signing to the world. “We were so moved when we watched his farewell game on TV that we thought maybe we could try and sign him. Back then it was a dream, but every now and then a dream comes true,” beamed Fernández, who, true to form, had even managed to work a friendly between Celaya and Real Madrid into the deal — the only time El Buitre ever faced the club of his life.

Butragueño explained his thoughts on the move to the assembled press. “It’s been a very difficult decision to make — to leave Real Madrid and take my family to a different country. But I have good friends in Mexico and it’s has always been a big part of me since I had one of the games that marked my career there.”  Butragueño was referring to Spain’s 5-1 demolition of a brilliant Denmark side at Mexico ’86, in which Butragueño had scored four. That game had taken place in Querétaro, just a short distance from his new home in Celaya.

While his family settled into their tranquil new life, Butragueño got down to acclimatising to the altitude, his teammates and a club that, while ambitious, was still a little haphazard — certainly in comparison to the palatial life at Real Madrid. 

The club had yet to acquire a training ground, meaning sessions were rotated around often bumpy factory sports facilities.  Most lacked changing rooms which meant a teenager on a moped would call daily at Casa Butragueño to drop off and collect training kit.  

A memorable incident occurred in an away game at León, where a forgetful kit-man realised to his horror that he hadn’t packed their star man’s shirt. Fortunately, by that point, Butragueño’s shirt was one of the best-sellers with the country’s enterprising hawkers, and a replacement was sourced from a stall outside the ground. Butragueño scored twice in the counterfeit shirt — the only shirt on the field to bear a player’s name — and the relieved kit-man began a tradition of purchasing a knock-off number seven shirt at every away game. 

Results on the field, though, were anything but dodgy. After a 34-game regular season, Celaya qualified for the Championship play-offs alongside the usual giants América, UNAM Pumas and Cruz Azul. A brace of away goals from Butragueño edged Celaya past Monterrey before an astonishing 6-1 aggregate demolition of Veracruz in the semi-final.

A 1-1 draw in Celaya in the first leg of the final against the reigning champions, Necaxa, sent the title to be decided on the biggest stage of them all. 110,000 spectators crammed into the Estadio Azteca with a remarkable level of support for the club that had captured the public’s imagination, their ranks swelled by a significant number of Spanish ex-pats eager to cheer on Butragueño.

Celaya spent much of the first half under the cosh, stretched by Ecuadorean legend Álex Aguinagua’s midfield promptings and surviving a scare when Mexican international Alberto García Aspe crashed a volley against the post. As the game wore on, their opponents dropped deeper, but stifling defence denied Celaya a clean sight of a historic winning goal. Until that was, the 86th minute when Celaya won a free kick on the right. As the ball was delivered, Butragueño was positioned on the penalty spot and shaping to run towards the near-post. But in a zig-zag flash of movement that invoked that famous El Pais article, when the ball arrived, Butragueño was at the back-post, six yards from goal and completely free.

But the header was poor. Seeking to flick the ball inside the far post, Butragueño didn’t apply quite enough contact, and the ball glanced horribly wide. Both hands sank deep into that curly thatch of fair hair before he quickly snapped back into professional mode, hunting down the ball for the resultant goal-kick. 

Necaxa held on. Atlético Celaya decades later more fondly remembered as runners-up than their opponents who won three titles in four years.

Butragueño wasn’t finished there. And nor was Fernandéz, who went on the trail of recruiting more of the Quinta del Buitre. First came Michel –– the man who played more games with Butragueño than anyone else. Rafa Martín Vázquez joined them briefly as his career, beset by injury, wound down. Hugo Sánchez was persuaded to abandon the fledgling MLS, reuniting the strike force that had combined so potently in Madrid.

Although the addition of superstars was fun, it was no guarantee of success, and though Celaya survived in the first division, they would never again reach the play-offs.

Michel and Sánchez both retired at Celaya — Sánchez typically bowing out with a one-touch screamer. Butragueño soon followed. After three seasons and 91 appearances for the club that he had never heard of, he took to a field for the final time in the spring of 1998 with an injured Martín Vázquez watching on against a Puebla side that included Pardeza — the only one of the Quinta that had played less than 300 games for Real Madrid. 

An uneventful 0-0 draw left both teams safe from relegation. Pardeza and Butragueño left the field together, the latter pausing to tell the waiting reporters that: “Everything has a beginning and an end. I can tell you with 99% certainty that I’m now an ex-footballer.”

In Amsterdam, just over a month later, the last member of the Quinta still with Real Madrid would finally get his hands on the trophy they had so strived for. Sanchís captained Real Madrid to a seventh European Cup that had been 32 years and several generations in the making.

Celaya would continue on in the topflight until a bizarre episode in 2002 when their license was purchased by airline magnate Jorge Rodríguez Marié. Rodríguez renamed and moved the team across the country before racking up a mountain of debt and having the franchise stripped just six months later. 

Football returned to a Celaya when a new club, spiritually if not legally linked to the Atlético of the nineties, was born. Sadly, attempts to rename their stadium in honour of Butragueño ended typically bogged down in local politics and were blocked in 2018. 

In that same year, former owner Fernández died at the age of 68 at his home in Cancún. His ashes were split, with one half sent to his native Langreo. The other half scattered in the town he put on the footballing map the day he picked up the phone and dialled the number of one of the most famous players in the world.

‘Paz olímpica’ : 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 had 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 olímpica — 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 for the first game of the season in a few weeks time. 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

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“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

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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.


“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?”


“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.