Almost 550 appearances, 15 trophies and 25 years of loyal service; José María Gutiérrez Hernández, or ‘Guti’ to you and I, came within two twilight seasons of becoming a one-club man for the biggest team in the world. Yet, when his legacy is recalled, Guti’s narrative divides opinion amongst the Real Madrid faithful and those looking in from afar.
For some, his career became shackled by his contemporaries and those he worked under at Madrid, so much so that his underlying potential – that occasionally flickered into life – became an urban myth. Comparisons, nicknames, pledges: Guti was subject to intense expectation to deliver, to become Madrid and Spain’s pin-up boy.
One of these labels, coined by former club president Ramón Calderón, was the “eternal promise”. He embodied the homegrown hope in amongst the influx of foreign investment. A combination of this heavy weight of expectation and Guti’s temperamental insufficiencies proved an encumbrance to his development. Even for a professional with greater drive and application the pressure would have likely taken its toll, but for Guti it rendered his career a failure in comparison with the lofty ambitions established for him early on.
A midfielder, who became an auxiliary striker, who became the creative force behind the Galácticos, he was widely acclaimed for the hedonistic playing style so adorned by the Bernabéu faithful. On the other hand, doubters saw him as volatile, untrustworthy and, most damning of all, unbefitting of the Madrid shirt. An inherent lack of consistency undermined his reputation, with just 13 caps across six years at international level for La Roja perhaps testament to these shortcomings.
The mercurial Spaniard joined Madrid’s ranks when he was just eight-years-old, representing the C and B teams before breaking into the senior set up against Sevilla in 1995. Encounters with Sevilla would become the epitome of what Guti represented; breath-taking cameos littered with irrational outbursts – he always appeared to save his most resonating displays for Los Rojiblancos.
Guti’s most profitable campaign at Madrid came in the 2000-01 season when Vicente del Bosque asked him to stand in for the injured Fernando Morientes. He would go onto score 14 goals – his highest tally for a single campaign in his career – and become a mainstay of the side that ensured a 28th league title for Los Blancos.
Del Bosque’s request, for Guti to deputise in Morientes’ absence, established a significant trend throughout the Spanish midfielder’s career. When Brazilian striker Ronaldo was signed in 2002 after propelling his nation to World Cup glory, Guti returned to his natural midfield role. When Zinedine Zidane retired in 2006, Guti was indebted with the unenviable task of emulating the Frenchman’s role as the creative hub at Madrid. Even when he was first establishing himself in the first team picture, fans looked to Guti to replicate the exploits of Clarence Seedorf, who departed for Inter Milan in 1999. This wasn’t something that eluded the Spaniard’s conscience either, and in June 2003 he said: “All the doors are closing on me. I was improving as a midfielder and Zidane arrived. I was improving as a forward and Ronaldo arrived. I’m now in the national team as a midfielder and Beckham comes.”
There is an argument to suggest his development was curtailed by Madrid’s refusal to accept his natural position; plateauing as a Jack of all trades rather than becoming masterful at one. Galácticos came and went, but Guti remained. He resembled a symbol of continuity throughout the unstable Calderón era, albeit more in a literal than positional sense. He was part of the Bernabéu furniture; the armchair you move around to accommodate new leather sofas. He is remembered particularly for the range and disguise of his passing, with Ronaldo describing him as the squad’s finest talent during the striker’s tenure in the Spanish capital.
His ingenuity was immortalised with one of the finest pieces of imagination in recent memory in a match at Deportivo in 2010. Played through on goal but with the ball coming onto his weaker right foot, Guti elected to back heel to Karim Benzema rather than attempt to score himself. The skill left the opposition goalkeeper, who had anticipated a shot, exasperated in a heap on the ground as Benzema tapped into an unguarded net.
For a split second that encapsulated Guti, it was the Deportivo back heel. For a performance that endeared himself, somewhat belatedly, to the Madrid faithful, Sevilla in the 2006/2007 season stands some distance apart from the rest. With Fabio Capello’s side trailing 1-0 at home at half time, Guti was introduced by the former England manager in place of Raúl, duly taking the captain’s armband in the process. In a 45 minute cameo exuding authority and class, Guti claimed two brilliant assists for Ruud van Nistelrooy and Robinho, and played a part in the final goal as Madrid ran out 3-1 winners. This was the player Real had hoped would seamlessly fill Zidane’s boots – demanding the ball with an air of arrogance and starting attacks from deep.
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Unfortunately, these performances appeared all too fleetingly. When Capello took up the poisoned chalice in 2006, he declared that he wanted to build his Madrid team around Guti. This reinforced Calderón’s pledge to the player and fans alike. Guti was an “eternal promise” in which his raw potential could be fulfilled with the necessary support and assistance.
Capello soon realised, however, that he couldn’t place his trust in the player, who often struck a lethargic and disenchanted figure when selected from the start of games. Substitute appearances became his forte. In small doses and in moderation he was extremely effective, but too much of Guti left a sour taste in the mouth for all parties associated.
His temperament was another huge obstacle to maximising his potential. His well-documented discontent about having to accommodate the long list of stars arriving at the Bernabéu illustrates a reluctance to rise to the challenge. Instead of generating empathy, the outburst portrayed a bitter, spoilt little boy who demanded to be centre of attention.
His arguably effeminate footballing style did not correspond with the short fuse he had when provoked. Sevilla, again, were the opponents in 2009 when Guti appeared to spit at a member of the opposition before half a dozen of his team-mates attempted to appease him. Fans recognised his volatility and strived to amplify it, ridiculing him with a song mocking his name with the word ‘Puti’, meaning Spanish for whore.
Rumoured flings with transsexuals aside, the aspect that really baffled fans about Guti was his public denunciation of David Beckham. There were, and still are, undeniable correlations between the two players, with Guti characterised in his youth as Spain’s answer to Beckham. Both were raw talents whilst at their respective boyhood clubs, both were quixotic in nature and both had a tendency to alter their hairstyles on a weekly basis. Yet, the existential concept of Beckham alone seemed to get under Guti’s skin:
“The rumours of potential signings do not bother me but it is not right that all the coverage is for Beckham before a game in La Liga. I do not understand, nor do I believe that it is right that for what we are playing for is gaining less coverage than Beckham,” he said in 2001, in response to the rumours linking Beckham with a move to the Bernabéu.
When Beckham did join in 2003, he became the latest Galáctico that Guti would have to superficially welcome and adapt to being around. Whilst their relationship never became publicly fractious during the four years their paths crossed in Madrid, Guti was quick to declare his blessing when Beckham moved onto LA Galaxy in 2007:
“Things have settled down. Beckham’s exit has calmed everything down. With him moving so has a lot of press. The departure of the famous players has brought a fresh air to the squad.”
When Guti announced his decision to leave Madrid for Beşiktaş in 2010, the curtain came down on his illustrious yet mysterious Los Blancos career. For a player who was vice captain for years under a glut of different managers and accumulated over 500 games in all competitions, Guti never fully adorned the hearts of the watching public. In retrospect, Calderón’s pledge became a burden which undermined Guti’s potential and perhaps suggested an element of guilt on the Madrid president’s behalf about neglecting the academy in pursuit of star names.
It is fitting, however, that two of Madrid’s landmark goals in its club history, their 5000th goal in the league and 500th in the Champions League, would be scored by Guti. Despite his histrionics and fluctuating performance levels, he represented a unique longevity within the Galácticos era. He is eternally inducted in the Real Madrid hall of fame, just not quite emphatically as many hoped.
By Adam Jones. Follow @adamjonessj