How Fernando Hierro became Real Madrid’s most celebrated modern leader

How Fernando Hierro became Real Madrid’s most celebrated modern leader

THANKS LARGELY TO THE EFFORTS of Cristiano Ronaldo and his pulsating pectorals, Real Madrid have now won the small matter of 12 European Cups. Squeezed in alongside those 24 bendy rabbit ears in a trophy room which scans rather like the salvage from the Queen Anne’s Revenge are some 33 LaLiga titles, two Club World Cups, three Intercontinental Cups, four European Super Cups, two UEFA Cups and 19 Copa del Reys. There are a few other shiny trinkets too, but it’s not like I’m getting paid by the word here, so you’ll just have to look them up. Except for the Small World Cup. I’ll give you the Small World Cup.

What’s more, over the years the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu – the building which houses all that booty – has played host to some of history’s finest. Raúl and Puskás. Gheorghe Hagi and Jonathan Woodgate. Off the pitch too, from Franco to Di Stéfano, Real is a club that has never been far from the headlines. World record transfer fees for Gareth Bale and Kaká and Barcelona’s Luís Figo. Golden Globe nominations for Marcelo and Pepe. Galácticos, Zidanes y Pavónes. One way or another, Real Madrid doesn’t stand in the shadows.

Not many people talk about Fernando Hierro these days, but for nearly 15 years, he was Real’s beating heart, its yin and its yang. His was the iron fist raised in defiance at Camp Nou in 1998 after the team bus had arrived under a hail of stones; the velvet caress that time after time turned anxious defence into devastating attack. He was the dressing room ranter and raver whose off-field persona was calmness and dignity; he was the all-time great centre-back who spent a year-and-a-half as his country’s top international goalscorer, and has roughly the same international goals-to-games ratio as Fernando Torres.

And he will be back in Castile one day, there should be little doubt. Granted, it is now twice that he has been eased out of Real at the hands of Florentino Pérez, first while still club captain in 2003, then a decade or so later when he was assistant manager to Carlo Ancelotti, but if he can have the impact in his first managerial role – at Real Oviedo – that the force of his personality would suggest, there will be one very clear candidate to take over once the president inevitably tires of Zinedine Zidane.

Fernando Ruiz Hierro was born in Vélez-Málaga in March 1968, into a football family. But while older brothers Antonio and Manolo were signed up early on by local big boys Club Deportivo Málaga, there would be no such luck for Fernando.

For all but one of his formative years, he reached no further than the youth setup of his village team, an amateur outfit that has flitted between the Tercera División and the regional leagues throughout its 94-year history. Málaga briefly had second thoughts and took him onto their books in 1984, but could not see in Fernando the potential that they had in Hierros one and two, and so swiftly packed him back off to Vélez.

And so things continued for another couple of years. Not that there was no real prospect of quitting the game. His father had played football, his brothers did the same, and most of all, he still enjoyed it. “Back then, we didn’t have any other possibility than to play football and play with the ball,” he has said since. “For me, it was the best to play for my village. It was something extraordinary. Those are the kind of memories that you will never forget.”

So the young boy who idolised Diego Maradona kept his head down, even while Málaga told him that he wasn’t going to make the grade. Perhaps he would have gone no further, though, had it not been for a brother’s intervention.

Six years Fernando’s senior, Manolo Hierro had left recently relegated Málaga for Real Valladolid and a return to La Liga. In his first season with his new club, they only avoided the relegation play-offs on the basis of their head-to-head record against Athletic Bilbao, but Manolo had contributed to one of the league’s best defensive records, and felt sufficiently well-established to recommend to his brother that he move to the area in search of playing opportunities.

It was the break that a 19-year-old Fernando needed. For him to graduate from Real Valladolid Promesas – the rather more poetic name for what is now Real Valladolid B – to the first team took little more than a month.

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On 4 October 1987, he made his LaLiga debut in midfield against Espanyol; in March, just days after his 20th birthday, he scored his first goal. His impact on the team was undeniable, and sure enough, come the end of the season, Barcelona came calling. Alas for the Catalans, however, they signed the other Hierro. And as matters transpired, they never played him. Even before the following season had begun, he had been loaned out to Real Betis, whence he drifted on to Tenerife and into retirement.

Fernando, meanwhile, went from strength to strength, with three red cards in 1988/89 about all that stopped the youngest player in the Valladolid squad from playing a full LaLiga season as his team finished sixth and qualified for the Cup Winners’ Cup. That qualification came despite the team losing to Real Madrid in the final of the Copa del Rey, and Hierro’s performances across the season had not gone unnoticed in the Spanish capital.

For a few hours on 2 June 1989, it looked for all the world that he was signing for the other lot. As the story goes, Hierro, who was mid-suspension having been sent off against Athletic Bilbao two weeks earlier, arrived at the Vicente Calderón with his Valladolid team-mates only to be informed that he was being sold to their opponents. Atlético Madrid’s president Jesús Gil had agreed a deal that would involve him being loaned back to Valladolid for a season, and Hierro even posed with the shirt; but he never signed the contract.

Word had reached him that Real were interested too, and they had turned his head. The never knowingly introverted Gil, a man who would make Mike Ashley sound like a choirboy and Massimo Cellino look like a priest, didn’t take it well, describing him as “an immature boy”.

So it was that Hierro began what would become a stellar Real Madrid career. He had been moved around between midfield and defence at Valladolid, but at Real, manager John Toshack would install him alongside fellow new signing, the Argentine “mean bastard” Oscar Ruggeri at the back, with Bernd Schuster and Manolo Sanchís providing cover in front and behind.

His first season for the club started unconvincingly – with reference, at least, to what a Real Madrid fan will ever consider as convincing. There were a couple of early scoreless away draws and a 3-1 defeat at Barcelona that could have been a lot worse; they went out of the European Cup over two legs to AC Milan having trailed since the ninth minute of the tie, and then lost 2-1 at Real Sociedad.

By the end of the season, though, in the league at least they were peerless. The team won LaLiga by a street, racking up 107 league goals, a record that would stand for 20 years, and Hierro chipped in with seven in a season that also saw his debut for Spain, in a 1-0 friendly win against Poland. That noteworthy goal tally was a sign of things to come. “I don’t have the defender’s mindset,” he admitted later on in his career. “Everything I’ve achieved as a defender has been the consequence of getting it wrong on many occasions, of making lots of mistakes and learning from them.”

For most of his domestic career, however, defence was where you would find him, a succession of managers coming to the conclusion that in midfield, the game would too often pass him by.

At international level, meanwhile, there did not seem to be that same level of concern, and after breaking his duck in a 9-0 rout of Albania in December 1990, the goals kept on coming. Three in three in early 1992; a vital winner against Denmark in November 1993 to seal World Cup qualification; six in six across 1998 and 1999. By the time he stepped off the international stage after World Cup 2002, he had scored 29 in 89, and overtaken Emilio Butragueño as his country’s leading scorer.

He had picked up the knack pretty early in his Real days. Indeed, under Toshack – and Leo Beenhakker before him – the whole team had been free-scoring, but in the early 1990s, the goals started to dry up, and the team lost their way. Hugo Sánchez, who had been Real’s top scorer in five successive title wins (and won the Pichichi in four of them), was now 32 and passed his peak. As the Mexican faded before being moved on, Real went a scarcely credible four years without winning anything beyond a solitary Copa del Rey.

Real Madrid

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Over the three seasons between 1991/92 and 1993/94, Hierro personally was having a whale of a time. In total, he scored 55 times in all competitions; there were four in the space of 17 minutes against Espanyol in April 1992, and 26 in 1991/92 alone as first Radomir Antic and then Beenhakker in a short-lived second spell as manager gave him licence to power forward.

In fact, for those years in the early to mid-1990s, he was perhaps the complete player. Uncompromising in defence, powerful in midfield, incisive in front of goal – if there is higher praise than to describe a man as the Eric Dier de son jours, then he would earn that too. There were headed goals, skimmers and piledrivers, there were free-kicks and penalties. There were stepovers, and there were edge-of-the-box drag-backs before everybody did edge-of-the-box drag-backs. He was a defender, as Santiago Segurola of El País put it, “with a forward’s soul”.

But above all, he was also defined by winning. “My team has to win and I will do everything I can to achieve that objective,” he once said. “That is the way I am, for better or for worse. Probably that is why I have reached as far as I have. I like to win, and I don’t mean to hide it.”

And his team still weren’t winning the one thing they were supposed to.

If there are now 12 European Cup and Champions League trophies in the halls of the Bernabéu, there is one in particular that haunted them for years. For 32 years, to be exact. Their previous title, the sixth, had ended a drought of its own. For five years after the tournament was inaugurated in 1956, Real Madrid won it every single time. Then, come the 1960s, a Ferenc Puskás-led side suddenly couldn’t stop winning the league, and couldn’t lay its hands on Ol’ Big Ears.

Finally, halfway through the decade, a team boasting the likes of Paco Gento, Pirri and Manuel Velázquez, not to mention Manolo Sanchís’s father, Manuel Sanchís Martínez, beat Yugoslavian side Partizan after coming from behind, but it had been a barren run since, and so if by 1998 the summer of 1966 seemed a long time ago for English football fans, for supporters of Real Madrid, it was beginning to feel like forever.

Back home, it had been an up-and-down couple of seasons. They had qualified for the 1997/98 Champions League after a solid domestic campaign had seen off Barcelona’s spectacular one, but the year before that, they’d missed out on Europe entirely, finishing below Tenerife in sixth, and even while working their way past Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund in the early months of 1998 (thanks largely to Fernando Morientes and Christian Karembeu), they were again falling off the domestic pace.

Juventus, meanwhile, were probably the best team in Europe, and had been for a couple of years. This was their third Champions League final in a row – one win, one loss – and they had Zinedine Zidane. Real, meanwhile, hadn’t even reached the final since 1981.

The Old Lady had the best of it. Zidane shot just wide after a blocked Alessandro Del Piero free-kick fell to him early on, and in the second half Moreno Torricelli, Mark Iuliano and Pippo Inzaghi had very presentable opportunities to put the Italians ahead. But then, with 25 minutes to go, a half-blocked Roberto Carlos effort fell to Predrag Mijatović six yards out, and he wasn’t going to miss.

And Juve weren’t going to score – thanks in no small part to Hierro, who in a towering performance marked Del Piero out of the game. “Where is Del Piero?” sang the Real fans of their opponents’ star striker. “Hierro has eaten him!”

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The man himself described the win as an “awakening”, and it began a new European era for Real. In the space of four years, La Séptima was followed by a 3-0 dismantling of Valencia for La Octava and a 2-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen in 2002, with Hierro as captain following the retirement of Sanchís and with Zidane in the Real side, which gave them La Novena.

By now, Hierro had become so powerful within the dressing room that, according to former teammate Steve McManaman, “nothing happened without his say-so”. Yet there was another man above him, whose influence was coming to bear.

Florentino Pérez came into the Real Madrid presidency in 2000 largely on the back of a promise to bring Luís Figo to the Bernabéu from Barcelona, and it was his policy of “Zidanes y Pavónes” – with increasingly less emphasis on the Pavónes – that would come to define the club. It caused, however, some friction with his new captain, and in an interview with the Irish Independent in 2005, Hierro would look back on his final years in Spain with a degree of regret: “There are good players, very good players and great players. I said at the time that using the word ‘galáctico’ was going to do more harm than good at Madrid over the long term. Football is something more natural, more real. Using terms like that is not right.”

Sure enough, by 2003, matters had reached a crisis. As Sid Lowe describes it in Fear and Loathing in La Liga, “Men from a different mould to the president, in Pérez’s mind [Hierro and then manager Vicente del Bosque] represented a challenge; an obstacle to his vision. Pérez had already forced out Fernando Redondo and had tried to sell Morientes, prompting Hierro to reprimand him for treating players like ‘stock’”.

And then at the end of that season, reportedly tired of the increased commercialisation that the president was bringing to the Bernabéu, Hierro refused to lead his players out for a second lap of honour on the day that they sealed the La Liga title.

He didn’t get much of a farewell.

So in the summer of 2003, Fernando Hierro left Real after having been there for 14 years, winning five league titles and three European Cups. In total, he made 497 LaLiga appearances, scoring 105 goals; and depending on which games you count, he is somewhere around fifth in the club’s all-time appearances list.

His departure for Qatar, where he was to sign for Al Rayyan, coincided with that of perhaps his mirror image across El Clásico, Pep Guardiola, who joined Al-Ahli. After a year in the Middle East he moved back to Europe and joined Bolton, where he would play alongside former team-mate Iván Campo and come to be described by manager Sam Allardyce as “the best passer in the club’s history”. Allardyce, the Bolton fans and most of the team begged him to stay beyond the one season that he gave them, but to no avail, and he announced his retirement in May 2005.

He’s had a bit of an itinerant time of it since. First, there was a four-year spell as sporting director of the Spanish Football Federation, during which time he was both the beneficiary of an early-1990s coaching legacy and the emergence of players like Xavi and Iker Casillas, but also the man who appointed the ex-Real Madrid coach who led a team full of Barcelona players to glory.

Then there was some more backroom work at Málaga – the phoenix club of the now defunct Club Deportivo – where he spent a year as director of football as they qualified for the Champions League for the first time ever. He later spent a year as an assistant coach under Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid before managing Real Oviedo for an ultimately unsuccessful season.

In the meantime, he has been in and out of administrative circles – an advisory role to the Israeli FA here, an appearance alongside Faustino Asprilla, Cafu, Pablo Aimar and FIFA president Gianni Infantino in a friendly against a team of retired Bolivians led by their country’s president, Evo Morales, there. Now back at the Spanish FA as sporting director, it seems as though we’ll have to wait to see him back on a touchline anytime soon.

By Harry Reardon  

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