In celebration of Miguel Muñoz, Real Madrid’s greatest manager

In celebration of Miguel Muñoz, Real Madrid’s greatest manager

REAL MADRID ARE WELL KNOWN for the stars who have donned the famous white shirt and a well-oiled spring under the manager’s seat with few having lasted more than two years. During their golden age between 1955 and 1960, they went through seven coaches. Then, in 1960, former club captain and reserve coach Miguel Muñoz took charge of Los Blancos. He would coach the side for 14 years, building a legacy not just in Madrid, but outside the capital as well.

Muñoz was born on 19 January 1922 in the Salamanca district of Madrid. His father was a tailor and he spent much of his childhood working as his apprentice, sneaking off to play football when he got the chance.

His first years in professional football were played with Basque side Logroñés before moving to Racing Santander the following year. Another two solid seasons saw the young Muñoz earn a top-flight chance with Celta Vigo. It was with the Galicians that Muñoz made his breakthrough, helping the club reach the Copa del Generalísimo final in 1947. They lost 4-1 to Sevilla after Muñoz had opened the scoring from range. That summer, Muñoz returned to his hometown where he would begin the first steps of a long career with his boyhood team.

The 1940s were a difficult period for Real Madrid. Muñoz joined at a time when the club was flirting with relegation, the supporters often lamenting that they had “a first division stadium and a second division team”. Muñoz won his first title in 1953 as Alfredo Di Stéfano fired Real to their first league success in 22 years. They defended their title the following season and won the Copa Latino for the first time.

In 1955, they also starred in the debut season of the European Cup. In the first knockout round they faced Swiss side Servette. In the game’s dying moments, Muñoz opened the scoring with Madrid’s first ever goal in the European Cup. He made further history when he became the first Real captain to lift the European Cup after a 3-2 win over Stade de Reims in Paris. The following year, Muñoz’s side repeated the feat, this time on home turf against Italian side Fiorentina. Madrid added the Copa Latino to a league and a European Cup haul to finish off the season

Muñoz played a small role in the club’s successes in 1958. At 36, he decided to retire at the end of the season to avoid, in his own words, making a fool out of himself. Captaining his side to four league titles and four European Cups, his place in Madrid folklore was already secure. Thankfully, Muñoz couldn’t turn his back on football.

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At the request of club president Santiago Bernabéu, Muñoz took over the reserve side, Plus Ultra. His reign was short and splintered due to Bernabéu’s famed trigger finger. In February 1959, Muñoz took charge of the first team for a spell after Luis Carniglia fell ill. In April 1960, Muñoz took charge once again after Fleitas Solich was sacked. When Muñoz took over, Barcelona were on course for a second consecutive title and were favourites to end Real’s domination in Europe. They faced each other in the semi-final, Madrid winning 6-2 on aggregate, progressing to that historic final at Hampden which Real won 7-3 against Frankfurt. In lifting Madrid’s fifth European Cup, Muñoz became the first coach to have won the trophy as both a player and a manager.

Muñoz was trusted with the first team job after the final and repaid the faith in full. Los Blancos won LaLiga five times in a row, the first team to ever win so many titles consecutively.

Although not clear at home, Madrid’s decline was becoming evident in Europe. In 1961, Barcelona avenged their loss from the previous year, beating Madrid to reach their first ever final. Real reached the showpiece once more in 1962 but were outclassed 5-2 by Eusébio’s Benfica. They went out in particularly humiliating fashion the next season, losing to Anderlecht in the preliminary round.

The year 1964 marked a turning point in the club’s history and marked Muñoz’s pedigree as a manager. Madrid had reached the European Cup final once more and faced Inter Milan. Muñoz was obsessed with Inter’s full-back Giacinto Facchetti and, despite fierce opposition from the dressing room, he set up his team to counteract the Italian’s bombarding attacking runs.

Facchetti didn’t buckle the entire game and Real lost the final 3-1. Tensions had slowly been bubbling among key players and the coach since he had taken over. Despite encouraging Bernabéu to hire Muñoz in the first place, Di Stéfano was his loudest critic after the 1964 final loss. Di Stefano claimed that Muñoz told him to “fuck off” midway through the game, “At that moment,” Di Stefano recalled in Sid Lowe’s book Fear and Loathing in La Liga, “I found out who Muñoz was.”

The Di Stéfano dilemma would be a microcosm for a defining dilemma in Muñoz’s managerial career. The Argentine was closing in on 38 and was no longer the player he once was. As one contemporary pointed out, the balding Blonde Arrow Stefano was no longer blonde or fast. Outside the dressing room, the Spanish press were also stirring the pot with one paper claiming that Di Stéfano “didn’t exist”. Santiago Bernabéu also added to the pressure, requesting Muñoz rejuvenate the team.

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It was a big ask for any manager, especially Muñoz, who had played with much of his current squad, and he supposedly handed in his resignation after Bernabéu asked him to rebuild the team. Besides the emotional strain, there were other obstacles to navigate. The Spanish Football Federation had banned foreign players’ transfers two years previously, so recruitment was harder than ever.

Adding to all that, Bernabéu was asking Muñoz to replace the side’s greatest squad with another expected to match the previous generation’s achievements. There was no denying this alone was a mammoth task.

After his resignation was rejected, Muñoz moved on to the task at hand. Di Stéfano was dropped for the next game against Atlético Madrid. When the forward asked why, Muñoz replied: “I don’t have to give you explanations.”

Muñoz later wrote a report recommending that the forward go into retirement: “We could not continue like this,” he later recalled. His pride hurt, Di Stéfano moved to Espanyol that summer, joining up with former Barcelona forward, László Kubala. “Muñoz told me to fuck off and they kicked me out of the club because I told him to fuck off back.” Di Stéfano wouldn’t be the only one to get the axe; Ferenc Puskás lost his starting spot and settled for a bit-part role at the club, and José Santamaría retired altogether.

Muñoz then began easing his new generation into the starting line-up. Amanico Amaro and Ignacio Zoco, who had arrived from Deportivo and Osasuna two years earlier, were joined by promising academy products Manuel Valáquez, Pedro de Felipe and Ramón Grosso. In 1964, Muñoz added Pirri from Granada.

Through the European campaign in 1966, Real defeated two of the ghosts of past, Anderlecht in the quarters and Inter in the semis. “They were the coco, the bogeymen,” Amanico claimed, with Zoco also claiming the Inter game to be “much bigger” than the eventual final against Partizan Belgrade. The Eastern Europeans initially took the lead only for Madrid to hit back, the hero of the semi-final Amanico equalising before Fernando Serena scored the winner six minutes later.

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It was Muñoz’s finest moment and perhaps Madrid most impressive cup win to date. Real were considered to be finished among their European rivals. Inter boss and longtime foe Helenio Herrera had booked Inter’s hotel for the final before the semi-final against Real. He declared that Madrid had eclipsed. 

Following 1966, Real pushed on domestically, winning eight out of 10 league titles by the end of the 1960s. On the European front, the promise of Muñoz’s ‘Ye-Ye’ generation was never met, with Madrid not reaching another final until 1981 and didn’t win the tournament again until 1998. Eventually, even the trophies at home dried up.

In 1973, the Spanish Football Federation allowed clubs to sign two foreign players. Real signed Günter Netzer and Oscar Más, while Barcelona signed Johan Cruyff. The pendulum had swung, Barcelona flew to the top of the table while Madrid started off in dire fashion. The crowd eventually turned on Muñoz with shouts of “Muñoz out” echoing in an often half-empty Bernabéu.

After a defeat to Castellón, Real released a statement backing their manager before Muñoz surprisingly resigned. “I do not like to see people suffer and Miguel Muñoz has been suffering for a long time; there is more to see in his appearance. I had no choice but to accept his resignation. This could not be prolonged, but it leaves an indelible memory between us,” said Santiago Bernabéu’s statement, which had more than a hint of respect for Muñoz.

It ended a 14-year spell which saw an unprecedented nine league titles and two European Cups. Considering the next longest spell for a manager since Muñoz is only four years at Real Madrid, his achievement become plainly obvious. 

In 1982, Muñoz departed Sevilla after a nomadic and often inconsistent time away from Real Madrid and returned to the capital, this time as the national team coach. Spain had just suffered embarrassment in their own World Cup, finishing rock bottom in the second group stage. Muñoz promised to bring La Roja’s fury back and, under his tenure, Spain witnessed some of their greatest nights. The first came during qualifying for Euro 84

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Drawn in a group with the Netherlands, Ireland, Iceland and Malta, Spain headed into their last group game needing an 11 -goal win over group cannon fodder Malta to progress to the finals. Spain led 3-1 at half-time: “He told us to go out there and show our unity and love for the national team and put on a show for the fans,” Poli Rincón recalled of Muñoz’s half-time team-talk. It worked: Rincon scored four and Spain scored 12 in one the nation’s greatest nights.

Much like his most successful Real sides, Muñoz built on an ethos of unity and cohesion. His squad at Euro 84 combined some of Barcelona and Madrid’s key men, with the likes of Andoni Goikoetexa from Athletic Club and Rafael Gordillo from Betis also prominent. La Roja went on an impressive run to the final, losing 2-0 to a Michel Platini-inspired France.

Muñoz carried on as Spanish coach, leading Spain to the 1986 World Cup. Relying on the brilliant but still unknown quantity of Emilio Burtragueño, Spain qualified from a group boasting Brazil, Algeria and old foe Northern Ireland. They encountered the dynamic dark horses, Denmark, in the first knockout round, in a famous encounter in which Butragueno scored four in a 5-1 rout that sent Spain into meltdown.

They drew Belgium in the quarter-finals but lost on penalties. Despite a respectable and at times memorable display in Mexico, the penalty loss shattered Spain’s moral. After a poor display Euro 88 in Germany, Muñoz stepped down as Spain, manager allowing the legendary Luis Suárez to take over.

Upon leaving the Spain job, Muñoz said he would have to meditate deeply on whether he wanted to return to football. Tragically, health had the final say, and Muñoz died two years after leaving the Spain post in July 1990, aged 68. He was buried draped in the flag of the club he loved in Madrid’s La Almundena cemetery. A week after his death, he was awarded the gold medal of sporting merit.

He departed the world as Real Madrid’s most successful and longest-serving coach, with a stunning record of over 600 LaLiga games managed and a relatively successful spell in charge of the national team. Despite his name being forgotten to many outside of the Bernabéu – largely because of the club’s rich history, especially in Europe – he remains as good as any manager to have ever set foot on a sideline in Spain.

By Kristofer McCormack  

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