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

Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Embed from Getty Images
Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Acknowledgements

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

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

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

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

Shutterstock/Bolbik

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

Christian Bragarnik, who worked at the store, noticed that Leyland did well with the latest blockbusters — Ocean’s Eleven, Hannibal and Jurassic Park III flew off the shelves. Older and less mainstream titles were less in demand which left Bragarnik with hundreds of redundant VHS tapes and a lot of time on his hands. With some basic editing skills, Bragarnik began making compilations of football matches and player highlight reels, taping over old cassettes.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Shutterstock/Lunamarina

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

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

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

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

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

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

FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images

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

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


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

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

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

Popperfoto via Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AFP/AFP via Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PA Images / Alamy 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maxisport

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It shook a city too. Literally.

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

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


Acknowledgements

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

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

Illustration courtesy of Alistair Williams

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

However, on Friday 26th September, a Franco-led meeting of the Council of Ministers confirmed five of the death penalties. Seemingly the only concession being that in place of the regime’s hitherto preferred method of execution — the garrote — the condemned five would face firing squads the next morning.

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

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

He expressed one last hope. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Acknowledgements

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

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

Dos brazaletes contra el franqusimo – Arnau Segura, Panenka

Futbolistas de izquierdas – Quique Peinado

366 historias del fútbol mundial – Alfredo Relaño

Sergio Manzanera Interview – Cayetano Ros, Las Provincias

The strength behind Julen Lopetegui

A young Julen Lopetegui alongside his father Aguerre II holding twin daughters Miriam and Idoia. Photo by Paco Mari licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

The beginning had been warm and emotional. The end, though expected, was cold and brutal.

Julen Lopetegui’s unveiling as Real Madrid manager had been a poignant affair. “If yesterday was the saddest day of my life, since the death of my mother,” he said, choking back tears, “then today is the happiest”. Madrid and their president, Florentino Perez, put their arm around him — figuratively and literally — welcoming Lopetegui ‘home’.

The statement that communicated his dismissal, just 137 days later, was stark. Haughtily outlining the quality of the playing squad in contrast to results on the field, before signing off with the most perfunctory of best wishes to Lopetegui and his staff.

The beginning had come barely 24 hours after one of the most dramatic chapters in Spanish football history. Livid with the handling of his appointment as the future Real Madrid manager, Luis Rubiales, the Federation’s president sacked Lopetegui as head coach of the Spanish national team on the eve of the 2018 World Cup.

The end came the day after a humiliating 5-1 defeat to a Messi-less Barcelona in Camp Nou sank Madrid to ninth in the table, seven points behind their greatest rivals.

Ten league games had separated the two.

For the general public, it was an episode consigned to football trivia forever. For Lopetegui it was crushing, having spent years climbing steadily to the summit of the management world only to come tumbling down. He had lost two of the most prestigious jobs in Spanish football in a matter of months.

In the midst of it all, there had been some support. On the morning of that fateful clásico, El Mundo carried an interview with an elderly, broad-shouldered gentleman in the town of Asteasu, a small town in the region of Gipuzkoa — around 30 minutes from San Sebastián.

“They lack a goal scorer. They haven’t brought in anybody. They have taken away 50 goals from him,” he argued, referring to a Portuguese forward who had left the club in the summer.

More personally, he vouched for the character of the embattled head coach. “He has always been strong.”

And if anyone knew anything about strength, it was Julen Lopetegui’s father.


Lopetegui was born and raised in that same Basque town, where he had somewhat of a unique upbringing — certainly by footballing standards.

His father, José Antonio, was widely known as Aguerre II* — a formidable, record-setting levantador de piedra, a stone lifter competing in a sport popular throughout the rural Basque country.

Aguerre had modernised the traditional training methods used in the sport at the time, incorporating a more rounded level of general fitness. Around the end of the 1960s, he had become a star turn, once lifting a 100kg cylinder 22 times in one minute. So widespread was his reputation, that when General Franco decided it was a good time to ‘manufacture’ a heavyweight boxing champion, he and his coterie naturally looked to the Basque country — the home of the legendary Paulino Uzcudun — and to Aguerre.

Uzcudun had fought the toughest heavyweights of the 1920s and 1930s, Joe Louis and Max Schmeling included, and was himself a convert from a traditional Basque sport — that of wood-chopping. Predictably enough he carried the nickname of the Basque Woodchopper throughout a 69 fight career.

With his strength and enlightened training methods, Aguerre was identified as the ideal candidate to convert to the noble art and an intermediary, Miguel Almazor, was dispatched to persuade him of the fame and fortune that would await. Unconvinced, Aguerre refused the offer, preferring the life he had in Asteasu with wife Julita and young sons Joxean and Julen.

Almazor quickly moved on to his second option, another stone lifter, 20km away. José Manuel Ibar took up the opportunity and was swiftly converted from rural Basque sportsman into the pseudo superhero ‘Urtain’.

Urtain quickly rose to world level and for a few glorious years gave the regime the idol they craved — becoming the only ever Spaniard to appear on the cover of The Ring magazine. Ultimately, poor boxing fundamentals and a lack of genuine stamina caught up with him, and the losses arrived with frequency. Indebted and forgotten, Urtain died a tragic death before his 50th birthday.

Urtain on the cover of Ring Magazine, July 1970 (Photo by: The Ring Magazine via Getty Images)

Aguerre had chosen the quieter life in Asteasu. Although the quiet life was rather busy. The Lopetegui family has something of a talent for business and at that time had a hostel, a fleet of buses and a bustling local restaurant on the go. Aguerre somehow also found time to be the town’s mayor, and it was in that capacity he received a pair of journalists keen to chronicle a day in the life of the local legend. The famous photo that emerged from that report was that of Aguerre holding aloft his twin daughters Miriam and Idoia with a young Julen standing devotedly at his father’s side.

Despite his successes, Aguerre was at heart a frustrated pelotari, and in the Lopetegui household, the game of pelota was king — to the exclusion of football, a game in which Aguerre held scant interest. Julen would spend his mornings on the pelota court — practising the sport in which his father hoped he would play professionally — before slipping away in the afternoons to keep goal. While his brother, Joxean, became an influential personality in the pelota world (where he went by his father’s nickname), Julen was progressing through the youth ranks at Real Sociedad almost unnoticed by his own household.

It took until 1985 and an international youth tournament organised by la Real for Aguerre to first watch Julen play. Even then it was purely because the local Basque TV station, ETB, had chosen to broadcast the final. Julen put in an outstanding performance as la Real lost 0-2 to Real Madrid. Aguerre finally realised his son’s goalkeeping talent just as Real Madrid reached the same conclusion, whisking him away to the capital.

Lopetegui’s playing career was, in some ways, portentous of his coaching career — tantalisingly close to hitting the heights. A story of opportunities slipping away at crucial moments.

After a few seasons developing at Real Madrid in the B team, Castilla, he was unable to dislodge Paco Buyo in the first team. He moved on to Logroñes where three impressive seasons earned him a ticket to USA ’94 as the third-choice goalkeeper in the Spanish squad.

That recognition earned him another shot at the big time, and he signed with Barcelona to compete for the departing Andoni Zubizaretta’s number one shirt. His rival for the job, Carles Busquets (father of Sergio), auditioned smoothly with a clean sheet in Zaragoza in the first-leg of the Spanish Super Cup. Lopetegui, however, fluffed his lines disastrously. In the second-leg at Camp Nou he conceded five before being sent off late in the game as Barça barely clung on to what should have been a commanding advantage. After three seasons as a back-up in Barcelona, he finished his playing career with a spell at Rayo Vallecano.

Rayo would be his first foray into management in 2003. Still, it would be a few years before Lopetegui made eye-catching progress within the Spanish Federation coaching set up, winning the UEFA u19 and u21 Championships. When the historic Vicente Del Bosque era finally came to an end, the Federation turned to Lopetegui. He guided the senior side smoothly through World Cup qualification and twenty games unbeaten before the events of those fateful few days in Moscow and the subsequent misadventure in Madrid.


Just as he had done throughout his playing career, Lopetegui dusted himself down once more, and this season he was back. Sevilla’s sporting director, Monchi, had returned from his spell in Rome to a club in transition and had chosen his fellow ex-goalkeeper to partner him in the rebuilding process.

In November, as the final whistle of the Seville derby finally blew, Lopetegui exploded with relief at his first signature win. “He wore a wild look in his eyes and punched the air with the kind of force that dislocates shoulders.” wrote Sid Lowe for The Guardian. That victory on the home turf of their bitter rivals, Real Betis, put Sevilla fourth and just a point behind the league’s leaders.

That evening as Lopetegui prowled the technical area of the Benito Villamarin, slightly bemulleted and in a black, hooded tracksuit, there was more than a hint of the boxer about him. A look that wouldn’t be at all out of place in a montage of Rocky Balboa’s opponents in a fictional 1980s heavyweight division.

The son of the man who could have been a contender was back on his feet once more.


*To avoid confusion after initial introduction, Julen Lopetegui’s father, José Antonio, is referred to as Aguerre — his widely known stone lifting nickname

A kidnapping, a failed Real Madrid medical, a piss-up by a brewery team and duelling festivities – the strange weekend in which Sergio Agüero made his professional debut

Marco Iacobucci Epp / Shutterstock.com

An eventful weekend in Argentine football some 17 years ago. La Leche was lucky enough to be in Buenos Aires to witness it all.


Saturday July 3rd 2003

He’d watched just over an hour of insipid, end-of-season football and Oscar Ruggeri had seen enough. His Independiente side were trailing 0-1 to San Lorenzo in what was ordinarily a big game – a clásico. But this mattered little. An abject Clausura campaign from both clubs had reduced this final match to a dead rubber. The home side were auditioning some reserves while San Lorenzo had rotated with eyes firmly fixed on an upcoming Recopa Sudamericana in sunny Los Angeles. Here on a chilly Saturday night in Buenos Aires, Ruggeri — no stranger to Argentine football lore as a World Cup winner himself — decided it was time to give the people a little bit of history.

It was fairly routine for Ruggeri to dispatch Pepe Sosa, the ballboy who stood near the home bench, to tell those warming up that it was time to come on. This time, however, was a little different as Sosa bounded excitedly down the sideline to tell his friend that his time had come.

“He has a baby face although the legs not so much,” observed the TyC Sports commentary duo as Ruggeri gave some final instructions, his arm around the shoulders of the young substitute in his blue tracksuit top — oversized even by the fashions of the time. “Here then, is a historic event in Argentine football. A boy who has just turned 15 making his debut in the first division.”

15 years and 34 days to be precise. 322 days younger than the previous record — held by a certain Diego Armando Maradona. Wearing number 34 on his back and coltishly taking up a position just behind the central striker was Sergio ‘El Kun‘ Agüero.

Sosa watched on intently — eager for his friend to get involved. He soon was — making a swift interception but misplacing his pass and setting San Lorenzo on a counter attack that he had to thwart himself. Agüero’s first meaningful action in the professional ranks a crude but necessary hack in central midfield.

Soon though, he was making highlights for the right reasons. A lovely dummy-and-go exposed San Lorenzo on their right flank and when the ball was eventually worked back to Agüero — played to him in-behind an 18-year-old Pablo Zabaleta — he was able to send a decent cross to the far post.

300km away in Rosario, a 16-year-old on his holidays was following the game on TV, his interest piqued by the mention of a boy a year younger than him making his professional bow. It would be a couple of years yet before the paths of Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero would meet. They teamed up for the first time in Argentina’s 2005 FIFA u20 World Cup triumph — Zabaleta lifting the trophy after Messi and Agüero had combined for the decisive goal in the final.

Back in Buenos Aires, what remained of the Saturday night crowd gave half-hearted applause as Independiente completed their season with a defeat. Agüero’s debut had been a portent of the rebuilding that needed to be done and the squad’s most valuable asset — centre-back Gaby Milito — had said his goodbyes as he was substituted late in the game. The home fans replied with a generous ovation — partly a plea to stay but mainly an acceptance that their captain was almost certainly the next departure for Europe.

Embed from Getty Images

On the same night, just a few kilometres away, the team from the brewery were having a piss-up — sort of. Quilmes Atlético Club, sponsored by their namesakes and neighbours the Quilmes brewery, had secured an emotional and long-awaited promotion after a goalless second leg at Argentinos Juniors. In classic Argentine football scenes, the players — stripped to their underwear — celebrated in front of the 12,000 travelling supporters on a pitch carpeted in ticker tape. The start of the match had been held up while one poor soul with a leaf blower attempted to rediscover the grass.

“Champagne to celebrate?” “This is Quilmes Papá – beer for everyone”, chimed Diario Olé who dedicated their front cover and decidedly more Sunday edition column inches to Quilmes’ feat than their more illustrious counterparts who had played that Saturday night.

Front cover, Diario Olé, Sunday July 4th 2003

Sunday July 4th 2003

Whilst Quilmes were waking up with a headache, many in Buenos Aires were just getting ready to party. Indeed the central theme of that Sunday was who could party hardest and crow the loudest.

The previous weekend, Manuel Pellegrini’s River Plate had clinched the Clausura, having reeled in their eternal rivals, Boca Juniors, on the run-in with four straight wins. The result of their one remaining game, at home to Racing Club, was irrelevant. Nevertheless the Estadio Monumental had sold out with fans eager for the presentation and celebrations.

Boca, however, had upped the ante in the intervening midweek — convincingly beating a Santos side that included the likes of Robinho and Diego Ribas over two legs to seal a fifth Copa Libertadores win. Returning from Brazil they announced their intentions to celebrate too — selling 45,000 tickets for a Sunday night soiree in La Bombonera. The fact that they had a fixture three hours away against Rosario Central at exactly the same time was regarded as mere trivia. The kids would go to Rosario; everyone else would be at the carnival. And it had better be bigger and brasher than whatever River had planned.

Embed from Getty Images

For all the festive atmosphere in the Monumental, the game between River and Racing started on a solemn note. Beneath the firework smoke and the vast scoreboard proclaiming ‘River, Campeon‘, the players paused at kick-off in silent protest against the level of violence in Argentine society. Ten minutes later, one of the victims of that violence, River’s centre-back and captain, Leonardo Astrada, advanced into an unfamiliar attacking position and blazed a shot high and wide. Turning promptly on his heel, he warmly shook the hand of the nearby referee, removed the captain’s armband and strode off the field in tears and into retirement. Embraced by his teammates, he kissed and held aloft the famous River colours he had defended for over a decade and a half. The T-shirt he wore beneath bore the picture of his father – Rubén, kidnapped eleven days previously, alongside the message “Papá we are waiting for you”.

Astrada left the stadium immediately, returning home to continue negotiating for the release of his father having urged his colleagues not to ease up on the celebrations on his part. After a distracted 1-3 defeat, his teammates granted Astrada his wish, celebrating extravagantly with music, wigs, pyrotechnics and some feats that would likely have given the club’s insurers a few weeks of sleepless nights.

Embed from Getty Images

Over the other side of town, Boca had turned La Bombonera into something that more resembled a U2 concert, with a gigantic screen hovering above a massive globe of a central stage. Various bands and DJs span through sets before the players were eventually introduced on stage one by one. Then as a group, they took that famous trophy on an obligatory lap of honour. Carlos Bianchi’s return as coach had led them once again to South America’s biggest prize, spearheaded by a 19-year-old Carlos Tevez who had been outstanding in both legs of the final.

Amid the revelry and mandatory baiting of River, it is unknown as to whether it dawned upon anyone at any stage to check in on how things were going in Rosario. The answer was very badly.

Central were taking full advantage of the shadow side that Boca had sent. Luciano Figueroa, in particular, had decided to fill his boots. An unprecedented five-goal haul propelling him to the top of the scoring charts and catching the attention of one particular Premier League club. Central’s 7-2 win a bizarre footnote in an odd weekend.


The Postscript

When the hangovers cleared and the ticker tape and toilet roll were finally all swept up, what would become of the protagonists of this most whimsical of weekends?

The boy from Rosario and the boy on the TV would play for their country 77 times together — dragging the Albiceleste so close to history but more often through muscle wearying disappointment. They would win Olympic gold together in Beijing in 2008 on one of their happier travels together.

Embed from Getty Images

The ballboy, Pepe Sosa, would travel the world too. A constant companion who would help Agüero settle first in Madrid and eventually in Manchester.

Agüero’s captain on that first night, Gaby Milito, would be announced three days later as Real Madrid’s second summer signing. The centre back agreed to a four-year contract to join David Beckham as a new addition to Carlos Queiroz’s squad of Galacticos. Madrid’s medical staff, however, voiced concerns over the health of Milito’s right knee and the transfer was abruptly terminated. Real Zaragoza, though, took a chance and ten months later Milito capped an excellent season with a dramatic Copa del Rey win over a Real Madrid fielding Raul Bravo at centre back. He would go on to play 174 games over four seasons in Zaragoza before Barcelona came calling.

Embed from Getty Images

Quilmes not only stayed in Primera but briefly thrived. Within two seasons El Cervecero (The Brewers) were mixing it with the likes of Colo-Colo, Universidad de Chile and São Paulo in the Copa Libertadores before the party ended and they sunk slowly back down the divisions.

Embed from Getty Images

Leonardo Astrada would get his father back. Rubén Astrada liberated, unharmed and in good health onto the streets of Buenos Aires 16 days after his son left the Monumental in tears and a total of 27 days held captive. Astrada would soon return to River for an 18-month spell as manager, succeeding Pellegrini in January 2004. Pellegrini apparently exasperated at the break up of his squad with the likes of Andrés D’Alessandro, Martin Demichelis and Matias Lequi having departed for Europe after the title celebrations.

Embed from Getty Images

Luciano Figueroa’s five goals against the superpower of South American football — albeit a Boca reserve team — tempted Birmingham City to splash out a £2.5m transfer fee for the striker. City boss Steve Bruce was enthusiastic about his new signing. “He’s someone I believe will be a terrific signing for us. He’s just broken into the full national side and, with players like Batistuta, Crespo and Lopez around, you’ve got to be pretty good to do that. In the last game of the season, he scored five against Boca Juniors, who were just pipped to the Argentine championship.”

The five-year contract, however, was cancelled by mutual consent that December after Figueroa saw just four minutes of Premier League action.


Acknowledgements

Sergio Kun Aguero: Born to Rise by Daniel Frescó contains some of the details used above especially in the Foreword by Lionel Messi

“You will see me at Atocha, applauding la Real” – Juan Alcorta, the man who said no to ETA

Real Sociedad v Athletic Club, Estadio Atocha 1976 photo by Argie.eus licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

The way he saw it, he had four options — and he had discarded the first three. He wouldn’t pay, he wouldn’t negotiate, he wouldn’t flee.

It was April 1980 in San Sebastián, summer was on its way and Real Sociedad were top of the league — within touching distance of a first-ever title. Life was good, or at least it should have been, but Juan Alcorta, a 60-year-old local businessman, had been preoccupied of late, ever since the letter had arrived. The envelope bearing that unmistakable stamp — a snake wound around an axe alongside the motto “ETA bietan jarrai“, “ETA keep on both” — the serpent symbolising the political struggle and the axe the armed.

That axe had been sharpened of late. Spain was transitioning into a modern, western democracy at last but ETA’s violent pursuit of Basque independence had become more bloody than ever. Over a quarter of all ETA killings occurred in the period between 1978 and 1981.

Such an onslaught required resources and the most common ETA tactic was to look amongst their own, targeting businesses small to large throughout the Basque Country demanding the payment of a ‘revolutionary tax’.

Alcorta was, in many ways, a classic target. A successful businessman, he was the founder and president of Bankoa bank, Koipe – an olive oil brand and Savin – a group of wineries that mass-produced even now recognisable supermarket brands such as Campo Viejo. There was even an Alcorta wine brand which continues to this day — their latest label designs paying homage to its founder’s personality.

And a notable personality he was around the beautiful beach resort of San Sebastián in the 60s & 70s. Well-known and well connected to say the least. His brother, Patxi, was a bar owner popular with the sportsmen and celebrities that flocked to his establishment ‘Irutxulo’, the place to be in the Old Town. Revellers invariably left happy, merry from the hospitality and the good Basque wine — the lucky few with Patxi’s trademark gift, a classic Basque beret, perched upon their heads. 

Patxi had also invented a unique tradition that still survives on match-days in San Sebastián. To allow the fishermen in the Bay of Biscay to follow la Real at sea, he struck upon the idea of launching fireworks after each goal — one if the away side had scored, two if la Real had. Local police, unimpressed, regularly fined Patxi until the tradition caught on and continues to this day.

With his business acumen and popular in the social circles of the day, Juan Alcorta was in ETA’s eyes a ‘bourgeoisie’ and as such a more than legitimate target for the revolutionary tax. Indeed, according to Alcorta, that was the sole justification contained within their demand for a payment of 20 million pesetas — a sum equivalent to around €600,000 today.

These extortionate demands were certainly not rare. Mikel Segovia of El Independiente reports that around 10,000 such threats had been made to the Basque business world up until the point that ETA declared a ceasefire in 2010. Despite their ubiquity, the effect on the recipient was usually to push them into a pensive solitude — weighing up their options in silence and hiding the threat from their families, business partners and even close friends.

If the price of compliance was high so too was the potential price of refusal. By the time ETA had laid down their arms for good they had murdered 33 local businessmen and kidnapped a further 86. Alcorta would have been only too aware of the mortal danger. Horrific stories such as that of Angel Berazadi, the first businessman to be murdered by ETA, his body bound and dumped — rosary beads in hand — on a rural road after almost three weeks of captivity in April 1976 were not uncommon.

Alcorta, however, had weighed up his options and had chosen the last, the only thing that remained was to draw a line under his silent suffering and send his response.

On Tuesday the 29th April 1980, seven separate newspapers published throughout the Basque Country and Navarra carried an open letter from Alcorta to ETA.

“I find the idea of having to pay to save your life revolting.” he wrote. “I’m not a hero – I don’t want to be. I know that with this decision I’m endangering the years I have left to live. But there is something in my conscience, in my way of being, that I prefer anything to giving in to the blackmail which is destroying my land, my people and my country. We have always said that we Basques are not cowards. And as a good Basque, I do not want to be a coward.”

“I have four alternatives in the face of the threat that is literally stated in the letter:

First: Pay up and go on living (for now).

Second: Negotiate, beg for a discount through intermediaries 

Third: Escape, flee.

Fourth: Not to pay, not to negotiate, not to run away and to continue living (a lot or a little, I don’t know), although with undoubted anguish, obviously.

I have decided on the fourth”

Alcorta’s powerful letter continued on, urging Basque society to focus and take measures against ETA’s extortions. After a delightful detour where he contested the label of a bourgeoisie he concluded with a flourish.

“ETA: I will continue to live as I have always lived. You will see me at the companies that I am responsible for. You will see me at Atocha applauding la Real. You will see me at a game of pelota. You will see me in some popular society having dinner, happy, with my friends. But perhaps, with a gesture of sadness and tiredness that I didn’t have until now. That you already have achieved.”

“So, you won’t have to look for me, as you say in the letter. I think I must go on with my normal life, so perhaps, and unfortunately for me, it will be very easy for you to find me.”

Five days later, Alcorta was true to his word. He was pictured by several newspapers at Atocha as la Real cruised to a 3-1 win over Malaga that maintained them on top of the league with just two rounds of games remaining — still unbeaten and with a historic first title within their grasp.

Alcorta (left) at Atocha five days after his letter – Diario Vasco 6th May 1980

The following week, however, la Real faltered disastrously — losing 2-1 at Sevilla to a team that finished the game with nine men. That loss handed the league on a plate to Real Madrid, who duly took care of formalities clinching the title in the final week.

It was a shattering blow for la Real — one still dwelt upon. But just like Juan Alcorta, this superb la Real side was going nowhere. In the following two seasons they gave Alcorta much to applaud with back-to-back titles. The first of which iconically clinched by Jesús María Zamora’s last gasp equaliser in the pouring Gijón rain.

More epic nights in Atocha were to come with Celtic and Sporting Lisbon put the sword in a European Cup run that ended agonisingly with a late semi-final loss to the eventual champions in Hamburg.

La Real’s two year title reign was ended by neighbours Athletic Club who extended what was a golden era of Basque football with back-to-back championships of their own.

That la Real side would live long in the memory – an incredibly talented team that supplied the spine of the Spain side that hosted the World Cup in 1982. Title clinching hero Zamora featuring in Spain’s opening match alongside club-mates Luis Arconada in goal, Periko Alonso — father of future World Cup winner Xabi — in midfield, Jesús Satrustegui and Roberto Lopez Ufarte in the forward line.

Indeed for all the mayhem that ETA were causing it was somewhat of an irony that Spain when hosting the world, would open the tournament with a Basque contingent making up a majority of the starting line-up (Bilbao native José Ramón Alexanko, then of Barcelona, joining the five from Real Sociedad).

The five Real Sociedad players that started for Spain v Honduras in the 1982 World Cup / España 82, Panini – Author’s Own Collection

Alcorta would live on too. Uncertain of how much time his decision would afford him he must have savoured those glorious days and nights in old Atocha applauding la Real at their peak. ETA’s threats, thankfully, never came to pass and Alcorta lived another twenty-four years — sadly succumbing to Alzheimer’s on the 12th December 2004 at the age of 84.  

By some quirk of coincidence or fate, on the night of his death, another talented incarnation of his beloved la Real were in Madrid to face a malfunctioning Real Madrid side. With the two teams level at 1-1 in the 88th minute the game was suspended due to a bomb threat. The Basque separatist newspaper Gara, had received a warning call from ETA who had been active in the Madrid area around that time. The stadium was swiftly evacuated, with the surreal sight of players — still in full kit — waiting in the streets around the Santiago Bernabéu.

Bizarrely, la Real had to return to Madrid a month later to complete the six remaining minutes of game. Real Madrid — now with a different manager in charge— found a winner from the penalty spot in a frenetic sprint finish.

Alcorta was finally at peace. ETA, sadly, were still causing problems.


A full translation of the letter is available here.

Several sources were useful in putting together this article.

The various obituaries in El Mundo, El Pais, ABC

“Creo que me van a matar”, la historia no contada del empresariado vasco ante ETA by Mikel Segovia in El Independiente

Mi abuela y diez más by Ander Izagirre

Farewell Wakaso – you will be missed

EFECREATA.COM / Shutterstock.com

It’s a crisp, sunny, January afternoon in Vitoria where the hometown team, Alaves, hold a 1-0 lead as their visitors from the south, Real Betis, attempt to turn defence into attack. A square pass is delivered infield to Sergio Canales who, sensing pressure behind him, deftly lets the ball run across his body and to his left. And then it arrives — late. A thundering challenge through Canales’ right calf that sends him tumbling to the ground, crumpling in a heap. A clamour of pink-shirted arms shoot to the sky in disgust followed soon by that of referee Mateu Lahoz who doesn’t even need to move from his spot to show the offending party the inevitable yellow card.

The culprit, to his credit, is quick to acknowledge his misdeed and offers immediate apology to the prone Canales. Although when a further admonishment arrives in the form of a terse word from Betis captain Joaquin, repentance quickly turns to rancour.  Our protagonist responds angrily, pacing after the veteran, firing a verbal volley of his own before swiftly turning back to check on Canales’ wellbeing again — not once but twice.

The scene ultimately ends amicably, indeed comically, as after some confusion over the restart, a typically theatrical blast of the whistle from referee Lahoz startles the Alaves captain Manu Garcia stood just inches away.

It was the 101st and, probably, the last yellow card of Wakaso Mubarak’s eclectic career in Spanish football. He is substituted on 85 minutes, having been in many observers’ eyes lucky to have not seen red for once again chopping down Canales on almost the very same blade of grass. The following week Wakaso duly serves out his third suspension of the season before departing for Jiangsu Suning of the Chinese Super League.

La Liga will miss the unique character of the Ghanaian international. By all accounts an extraordinarily humble and likeable individual off the field, on the field Wakaso brings extreme energy and a competitive hunger that stands out in every full-throttle performance. His driving runs and full-blooded tackling — sometimes well-timed but ofttimes not — livening up even the sleepiest of games.

Referees, however, will more likely be relieved. No one in recent memory has managed to rack up a tally of cards at quite the rate that Wakaso has. In Spain, over ten seasons with six different clubs the midfielder has seen yellow on average once every 130 minutes. To put that into context that is more than double the rate of that of Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos — the 21st century’s benchmark example of playing on the edge. Ramos clocks up booking at a rate of one every 272 minutes.

Cosmin Iftode / Shutterstock.com

It’s a similar story when it comes to red cards. Ramos’ fabled tally of dismissals have come along on average once every 2,294 minutes (or one in roughly every 25 games), our man Wakaso has seen red once every 1,317 mins (or one in roughly every 15 matches).

Indeed if we attempt to put these feats into a historical context, only former Valencia midfielder Enzo Perez comes anywhere close to giving Wakaso a run for his money when it comes to bookings. The table below displays a select cohort of prolific card recipients and the rates at which they collected them in Spain.

PlayerMins PlayedYellowsMins per yellow
Wakaso Mubarak13,148101130
Enzo Perez5,34936149
Pablo Garcia11,72366178
Vinny Samways6,46035185
Jefferson Lerma6,81336189
Juan Forlin13,68368201
Fernando Amorebieta23,201107217
Sergio Ramos59,651219272
Data sourced from transfermarkt.co.uk

When the focus is purely on red cards we do have someone who can surpass our contender. Step forward Uruguayan midfielder Pablo Garcia who, despite a remarkable tally of cards in his spell at Osasuna managed to surprisingly earn a move to Real Madrid in 2005.

PlayerMins PlayedRedsMins per red
Pablo Garcia11,723111,066
Wakaso Mubarak13,148101,315
Oscar Tellez13,931101,393
Pablo Alfaro40,932271,516
Aitor Ocio17,189101,719
Juanito (Atletico Madrid)29,837171,755
Javi Navarro20,681111,880
Fernando Amorebieta23,201121,933
Xavi Aguado29,004151,934
Amedeo Carboni27,424132,110
Sergio Ramos59,651262,294
Data sourced from transfermarkt.co.uk

Statistically speaking, Wakaso is certainly mixing with some of the most fearsome hard-men in Spanish football history. Still, in mitigation it can be argued that most of his encounters with officialdom spring from hyper enthusiasm as opposed to an outright desire to physically harm opponents or gain notoriety.

That isn’t to say that it’s all sunshine and rainbows as his relentless approach is at times prone to exasperating opponents and creating flash-points, notably getting under the skin of Real Madrid’s Casemiro in the Bernabeu last season. Ultimately though once more, he was keen to play down the confrontation.

Wakaso Mubarak Official / twitter.com/WakasoBobby

From troubled times as a young professional at Elche, to Champions League football with Villarreal, cult hero status at Las Palmas to midfield mainstay at Alaves and lots more in-between, Wakaso has certainly left his mark on Spanish football in a marvellously multifaceted decade.

Farewell and good luck Wakaso – you will be missed.

¡Tocó en Hugo Duro! – How Getafe v Valencia became must see viewing

Getafe coach José Bordalás – EFECREATA.COM / Shutterstock.com

Rivalry is one of the elements that gives football its essence. Compendiums of the world’s great derbies adorn the internet, listing the most explosive. Most are based on geographical lines — the local derby, the fight for pride of a city or region with the various social, political or historical aspects that lend each its flavour.

Others exist on a wider footing — huge clubs that play out their battles on a national level with titles often for the taking on top of the broader fault-lines that lie below.

There is however, a unique subset of football rivalry. That which ignites and burns so rapidly that it rarely achieves a permanence that would garner a place on an internet top fifty. One which erupts between two sets of players, coaches or fans who just in a particular circumstance rub each other up the wrong way, creating a kind of ‘flash derby’ that exists beyond the realm of the geographical or political.

One such beef that exploded recently is that between Valencia and Getafe.

Valencia will need little introduction to most. Spanish footballing blue-bloods with an established European pedigree currently featuring the likes of midfield metronome Dani Parejo, naturalised Spanish international forward Rodrigo and the successor to Jordi Alba’s throne on the left flank —Jose Gayá.

The diminutive and erudite figure of Marcelino García Toral was the coach who had restored Valencia from laughing stock to serious footballing proposition and was one of the main protagonists in fanning the flames of this particular feud.

Then Valencia head coach Marcelino – Christian Bertrand / Shutterstock.com

Hailing from the blue-collar satellite towns to the south of Madrid, Getafe are an altogether different proposition. After ascending the entire Spanish football pyramid, they maintained their top flight status for a remarkable span of twelve seasons before finally tumbling to Segunda in 2016 with the feeling that they had never quite established themselves or managed to carve a lasting identity, despite heroic runs in the UEFA Cup and Copa del Rey.

However, far from sinking anonymously back into the lower reaches the club immediately found a head coach in José Bordalás, who not only led them back to Primera at the first attempt but instilled the team with a real personality.  Getafe reemerged at the top level as uncompromising street fighters whose intense approach was best characterised by a friend who remarked: “They spend 90 minutes making you dig your own grave – then hit you over the head with the shovel.”

The exceptional Dakonam Djené and a nucleus of Uruguayans make them difficult to break down whilst the veteran, analytics-defying forward permutations of Jaime Mata, Jorge Molina or Ángel Luis have helped turn Getafe into firmly established European contenders and brought previously unheard of crowds and atmosphere to the stadium once mockingly referred to as the ‘Coliseum’ Alfonso Perez.

Getafe’s Jorge Molina – EFECREATA.COM / Shutterstock.com

Upon Getafe’s return to the top flight in the 2017/18 season the two sides played out a pair of tensely fought league encounters from which Getafe emerged improbably with all six points. The December matchup in ‘el Coliseum’ was particularly notable as Getafe played for over an hour with ten men yet somehow managed to end Valencia’s unbeaten start to the season with a solitary deflected goal, holding out for a heroic win. A befuddled Valencia limped back on to the team bus with mutterings of gamesmanship — assistant coach Rubén Uría complaining of a dry, unwatered pitch and an opponent whose sheer physicality had surprised them.

That characterisation of their opponent’s style was the spark that lit the touchpaper as on the eve of the sides’ Copa del Rey quarter-final in January 2019, Marcelino spoke candidly to the assembled press about facing up to a “very intense team that plays on the edge of the rules”.

As much as Getafe have forged themselves an identity and won many admirers with the success borne of their spiky approach, one other feature of their return has been their bristly reaction whenever opponents and particularly opposition coaches have appraised their style.

Marcelino’s comments were to emerge as the main headlines of a feisty first leg in which Getafe substitute Molina lashed home the only goal of the game off the underside of the crossbar, sparking scenes of delight and mocking cries of ‘Marcelino llorón‘ (Marcelino crybaby) from both the stands and more pointedly from the opposing dugout.

Unsurprisingly, no handshake took place between the two head coaches although Bordalás insisted there was “no problem whatsoever” before then deftly adding that he had, however, noticed that “Marcelino had had problems with other coaches, including Jurgen Klopp in their last meeting. I’m sure you all know what was said”.

Bordalás had clearly been poring over press cuttings of Marcelino’s spell in charge of Villarreal. Amongst them he’d found a high profile ally in the popular Liverpool manager who after a bad-tempered Europa League semi-final complimented Marcelino as a “great coach” before adding the cutting qualifier: “I would not want to be like him for a second of my life.”

With just a week until the return leg in Mestalla, the tie was beautifully poised and there was little time for any ire to cool. In the pre-match press rounds Bordalás did attempt to strike a more measured and neutral tone however Marcelino drew up a play from his nemesis’ playbook combining the neutral “I am the Valencia coach, and I cannot respond to personal attacks” with allusion to a previous third party attack on his opposite number: “Just imagine if I used the words that the people around Cata Diaz used to speak about Bordalás.”

In Marcelino’s week of frantic googling, he had happened upon the social media account of the wife of former Getafe defender Diaz, who upon the loss of his place in the side attacked Bordalás as “false, a traitor, a coward”.

¡Tocó en Hugo Duro! ¡Tocó en Hugo Duro, que le negó el gol a su compañero!  

Miguel Ángel Román, commentator Movistar

As every good boxing promoter knows nothing draws the world’s attention quite like a bit of bad blood. By kick-off under the steepling terraces of Mestalla, Spain’s footballing public were tuning in with the anticipation of some fireworks. They were not to be disappointed.

Molina swept Getafe ahead after just 37 seconds, leaving Valencia with the task of scoring three without reply to progress. Urged on by a raucous home support, Valencia came close on several occasions but just on the hour mark when hopes had started to fade, Rodrigo finally made the breakthrough.

Further encouragement came when Djené saw a harsh second yellow with a quarter of an hour remaining. Still, the real drama was to come after the board went up to indicate that Valencia had seven minutes of added time to find the two goals that would see them through.

A minute and a half later Santi Mina teed up Rodrigo’s second, giving the Mestalla belief and setting up a frantic finale.

Then, in a scarcely believable passage of play, a Getafe break saw a tie-clinching opportunity fall to the reliable right boot of Jorge Molina. The series of events are best described in the words of the commentator on the night Miguel Ángel Román.  

“There goes Jorge Molina who runs as if he were still a kid, still Jorge Molina who steps into the area, he can shoot… He hit Hugo Duro! He hit Hugo Duro, who denied his teammate a goal! And now the immediate reply of Valencia, how beautiful is football when it goes crazy. Sent into the area by Gameiro, Rodrigoooo… Bueno, bueno, bueno, bueno!” Gooooool! This is madness my friends, this is madness.”

Just thirteen seconds and eight touches of the ball had separated the unfortunate intervention of Getafe youngster Hugo Duro’s back and the ball hitting the net at the other end of the field. Rodrigo’s hat-trick sent Valencia through to the semi-finals amid delirious celebrations which included the goalscorer himself collecting a booking for an ironic and exaggerated ‘cry baby’ gesture in support of his coach and in mockery of their opponents.

The final whistle sparked a bloody brawl which the sports newspapers gleefully plastered all over their pages the following morning while simultaneously disapproving of such scenes.  “What should have been a party, with a winner and a loser, turned into an embarrassing spectacle with scenes of punches, pushes and bloody faces that cannot be repeated”, opined a Marca editorial on the very same double-page spread that featured a huge photograph of the brawl with a bare-chested and bloody Gabriel centre stage alongside the headline ‘A Fight Foretold’.

Match report in Marca 30th January 2019

Roman’s brilliant encapsulation of the moment was to become the soundtrack to what would become a famous Valencia season.

After eliminating Real Betis in the semi-finals, Valencia arrived in Sevilla for the final with many fans proudly sporting t-shirts with Roman’s words plastered across them. A surprisingly comfortable win against a Barcelona still in an Anfield-induced depressive haze saw Parejo lift Valencia’s first trophy in over a decade.

The ensuing celebrations elevated Román’s classic commentary to the more modern-day setting of internet meme. In the homecoming at Mestalla, Gabriel unapologetically led the chant of ‘Tocó en Hugo Duro, tocó en Hugo Duro…” the memory of their quarter-final opponents seemingly still fresh in the mind.

In the intervening months, the two had crossed paths in the league as they both had eyes set on 4th place and a place in the Champions League. Getafe returned to Mestalla on the 17th March, impressively neutralising Valencia in a goalless draw which kept them in 4th place with a healthy gap of six points over Valencia with ten games remaining.

Getafe, however, stuttered in their remaining games while Valencia strung together six wins out of nine which left them level on points and with the head-to-head advantage over Getafe as they went into their final league games.

Getafe conceded a late equaliser at home to Villarreal but by that time they were resigned to 5th place as Valencia were cruising to a facile 2-0 win at Valladolid.

At first glance, Valencia’s win looked like a typical end of season scenario where a motivated side had beaten a team that had the week before achieved safety and had spent the week enjoying some of the local nightlife.

Events took a darker turn, though, when police highlighted the match during Operation Oikos, alleging that several Valladolid players may have received money to lose the game as part of a gambling fix.

After a tumultuous season Valencia had emerged on top in both league and cup over their new rivals. But what would become of this enmity as summer rolled around, blood cooled, and personnel came and went at both clubs? Would it ebb away and become just another game? Or would there be enough fuel to keep passions smouldering for when they next met?

Fortunately, this season’s two matchups have given us more evidence of the latter.

Despite the removal of Marcelino after his early-season sacking, September in Mestalla saw a thrillingly full-blooded 3-3 draw, full of fist pumps and incident.

Valencia limped into February’s return fixture depleted by injuries but found a Getafe side in no mood for charity as they ruthlessly demolished their opponents in as one sided a 3-0 victory as it’s possible to see. Jorge Molina, whose unfortunate cup miss had become Valencia folklore, was simply unplayable; scoring twice before receiving a standing ovation as he left the field. The manner of defeat provoked something of a meltdown in the Valencia defence that would derail them for weeks to come.

Valencia arrived weakened, Getafe had been waiting, and Bordalás was not one to forgive and forget. “Tocò dos veces Jorge Molina” crowed Getafe’s official twitter feed, riffing on that now-famous commentary line.

This rivalry still has some chapters to be written.