Nine trophies in 342 games: the colossal legacy of Vicente del Bosque

Nine trophies in 342 games: the colossal legacy of Vicente del Bosque

FEW MANAGERS IN the history of football boast as impressive a CV as Vicente del Bosque. A largely underrated and often underestimated tactician, the former Spain boss has won it all, including two LaLiga titles and two UEFA Champions League honours amongst a litany of trophies with Real Madrid, and the World Cup and European Championship with Spain. A composed figure on the bench who rarely displays his emotions and a soft-spoken coach who relies on diplomacy, he is one of the finest managers of his era.

Born in Salamanca to a family of unionists, it was Del Bosque’s environment and upbringing that played a huge role in his benevolence as a football manager. He started his career in football at home with Salamantino until Real Madrid snapped him up. After being in the youth team for two years, he was promoted to the senior side,= but never had the opportunity to play in the famous white, which resulted in him being loaned out on several occasions, with the first being to Castellón in Valencia.

In the east of Spain he was unfortunate with injuries, which hampered his young career, forcing Real Madrid to send him out on loan for two more campaigns, first to Córdoba and then back to Castellón. Perhaps the movement early in his career taught him the extrinsic values of being a footballer. By the age of 23, he had played in three of Spain’s most recognisable and diverse locations: the capital of Madrid, out east in Valencia and down south in Andalusia. What would’ve helped him further was the fact that this was still a divided Spain under the brutal rule of General Francisco Franco.

Del Bosque returned to Real Madrid in 1973 and didn’t look back, becoming a prominent figure in their side. In a legendary midfield containing the likes of Pirri, Günter Netzer and Manuel Velázquez, Del Bosque often stood out, and in a decade as a first-team regular he won nine trophies – five LaLiga titles and four Copa del Rey honours. Sadly for Del Bosque, the European Cup eluded him as a player. Los Blancos reached the final in Paris in 1981 but lost to Liverpool.

His playing days are often overshadowed by his managerial career – and rightly so – which has its own exceptional tales to tell. Stories of tranquil brilliance, immense understanding, unity and betrayal all turn up in describing Del Bosque’s journey as a manager. The fact, however, will always remain that he is Spain’s most historic manager who will never quite get the credit he deserves.

More of an expert man-manager than a master tactician, dialogue is what Vicente del Bosque’s managerial success relied on. He used the eloquence of words to work and win at a club where inflated egos know no bounds. His words were also the sucker punch that eventually saw him booted out of the managerial hot seat. The story of his four years at Real Madrid can largely be contained in two words: success and misfortune.

From the start of his playing days, Del Bosque saw no colour that suited him better other than white. After hanging up his boots in 1984, he picked up a career in coaching within the youth teams at the club, and occasionally got his chances with the senior team as Real Madrid’s traditional chopping and changing of managers was in full flow. His chance to establish the reigns permanently came in November 1999 after Welsh manager John Toshack was dismissed.

Few expected Del Bosque to survive at the club. His lack of top-level experience combined with his deficiency of personality on the bench meant it was an underwhelming appointment at the time. Despite winning the Champions League for the first time in 32 years 18 months earlier, the club had financial worries.

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From the off, Del Bosque passively asserted his morals into the squad – that of calmness and poise. The team was supremely talented, bolstered by the summer arrivals of Steve McManaman and Nicolas Anelka, two players who brought in experience and youth and combined finely with a squad that represented the same. Local players like Iker Casillas and Raúl were the future, while the likes of Fernando Hierro and Fernando Redondo had been around for some time.

This was a squad well equipped with – perhaps unknowingly – the right man at the helm. After a slow start, Del Bosque took until after the Christmas period to immerse himself within the team and, after a rather disappointing, albeit effective showing in the second group stage of the Champions League, where they were trounced by Bayern Munich twice, the team and manager showed their true quality in the knockout stages against defending champions Manchester United.

In April 2000, Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United were the team to beat and were well on course to defend their European crown. The first leg at the Santiago Bernabéu finished goalless, but in the second at Old Trafford, against all odds, Del Bosque put on a tactical masterclass. He stuck with the same side that failed to score a week earlier, but this time he moved his defensive midfielder, Iván Helguera, into a back three, adding more solidity and freeing up his explosive full-backs Roberto Carlos and Míchel Salgado.

It was a move that gave them more counter-attacking supremacy, and they raced to a 3-0 within an hour as Raúl’s brace and Roy Keane’s own goal put them in the driver’s seat. David Beckham and Paul Scholes scored late on, but Los Blancos held on for a famous win. It confirmed the arrival of Vicente del Bosque on the European scene. Ferguson praised his counterpart, saying: “They’ve never played that formation before; I suppose it was a compliment to us, but we were too slow to adjust.”

With domestic inconsistency conspicuous, European glory was their only shot at a decent season, and after a routing against Bayern Munich in the group phase, they would meet again, only this time, Del Bosque’s astute defensive unit came out on top. In six months, Del Bosque went from an unfancied, uninspiring appointment to a man who would write his own pages in Real Madrid history books. The previous season’s winners and runners-up were knocked out and Real Madrid were on their way to Saint-Denis for a final at the Stade de France against Valencia.

In front of 80,000 fans in France, Real Madrid, fifth in LaLiga and a disappointment domestically, would have it their own way in a dominant showing. With a team largely dominated by a Spanish contingent – nine of the 14 players involved were native, which is in stark contrast to the modern day – they would overpower a talented Valencia side as goals from Fernando Morientes, McManaman and Raúl put Los Che to the sword. It was a win to savour for club and manager, and helped Del Bosque keep his job in the Madrid dugout.

Things were going well for the club on the pitch, but in the boardroom, President Lorenzo Sanz was struggling, almost forced to sell the club to businessman Florentino Pérez. Along with Pérez came an era of glamour, with his Galácticos policy kicking in during election season as his promise of bringing in Luís Figo wooed many voters. But as the cream of the crop continued to jet in, Pérez’s decision of sticking with Del Bosque was a smart one. His decision for stability, at least in the short-term, would pay off.

Perhaps Pérez’s initial aim at the club clashed with Del Bosque’s. Although never made clear, it could be said that the two intended on building very different Real Madrids. The flashy president wanted grandeur, commercial greatness and an international superpower that would dominate the markets whilst enjoying success on the pitch, while the manager looked to maintain his initial success and add more to his CV and the club’s trophy cabinet.

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While the ideologies seemed destined for war, it didn’t come instantly. The 2000/01 season saw Real Madrid win LaLiga for the 28th time. In around 18 months as a manager, Del Bosque had taken the team from disarray under Toshack to European and Spanish champions. They failed to retain their continental crown as Bayern Munich got their revenge from the previous season, beating the capital side 3-1 on aggregate, nevertheless it was a decent season for the club, and a fair introduction to Pérez’s vision, which was set to expand.

What the club gained from the previous season were two revolutionary stars. The obvious one was the controversial Figo, but the underappreciated one, Claude Makélélé, was just as crucial. Raúl was set as one of the world’s best players, and to add to this firepower, Pérez went for broke with the addition of the best footballer in the world – Zinedine Zidane.

The signing of Zidane allowed Del Bosque to build a more enterprising midfield. With a diamond shape line-up in the middle of the park, he had Makélélé as a single pivot who would signal the start of a revolutionary phase in the role. He was supported by Figo and the reinvigorated Santiago Solari out wide, while at the tip of the diamond stood Zidane. The 4-1-3-2 was completed by the two hitmen up top, Raúl and Morientes.

The plan Del Bosque laid out was simple in theory. The efficacy of Makélélé gave the defence more support while the two full-backs, Roberto Carlos and Salgado, provided an extra outlet in attack. In the club’s centenary year they had a squad that gave the fans several reasons to celebrate. Despite the horror of losing the Copa del Rey final against Deportivo La Coruña at home on their 100th birthday, a match dubbed as El Centenariazo, they would still celebrate come season’s end.

The club did exactly as Pérez wanted them to do on the European scene and would dominate all the way to the final once again. Bayern Munich and Barcelona were overcome in the knockout rounds as the club’s big-game players stood up on the greatest stages. In the final it was Zinedine Zidane, the freshest set of wheels to the fascinating vehicle Real Madrid were building, who struck gold with the most incredible of volleys to beat Bayer Leverkusen in Glasgow.

Simplicity was the motto for Del Bosque, and that led him to his second Champions League title in only his third season in senior management. This was Los Merengues’ most successful period since the days of Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás – the era that made the club what it is today. What Del Bosque was achieving wasn’t just a fluke. While he had the benefit of being funded by a wealthy, trophy-hungry president, he was spot on with his tactics, and even more so with his man-management.

The following season, however, saw the cracks emerge and the clash of egos that many predicted in 2000. The club would add the UEFA Super Cup and the Club World Cup in the first half of the season, and would follow that up with a 29th LaLiga title, but that would prove to be the end of Del Bosque’s tenure. He would become the unluckiest coach to be sacked in the history of the sport. With the combination of culture, ideas, methods and power clashing, football’s most famous managerial moustache would wave goodbye to the Bernabéu.

Some claimed Vicente del Bosque was too “ugly” to be the leader of Florentino Pérez’s new commercial and sporting dynasty, while others suggested his lack of character wouldn’t be able to handle a side containing worldwide superstars – the latest of which was David Beckham. Regardless of that, from a purely footballing perspective, it was totally undeserved.

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Del Bosque could hold his head up high, though. He was an integral part of his president’s success, and since his departure the biggest names in management came and went, failing to replicate what he did, until one of his biggest supporters – Zinedine Zidane – emulated his glory. In nearly four years and 203 matches in the dugout, he won 113 and left the club as one of its best coaches, in terms of statistics and trophies.

After the bitter end at the Bernabéu, it always seemed destined that Vicente del Bosque would one day be Spain manager. Talks first began in 2004 after the country’s disastrous showing at that year’s European Championship, and once again after their quarter-final exit to France at the World Cup in 2006 in Germany, but Luis Aragonés had it his way both times.

Sandwiched in between those two inquiries was a stint in Istanbul with Beşiktaş – a failed stint that suited neither the Spaniard or the club. The two-time Champions League winner failed to assert himself in Turkey, lasting just over six months in a 25-game period that saw Beşiktaş suffer several slumps and fail to reach their objective of making it to the Champions League.

It still seemed inevitable that he would take up the national team job and, after their success at Euro 2008, he finally accepted the offer. 

Del Bosque was taking over a side that was well-equipped for success with arguably the best midfield options available to an international manager. It was arguably the best team in the world, united despite their club differences, and now with the knowledge of how to win a major tournament. It all pointed towards the creation of a dynasty.

In addition to that, Barcelona’s domestic success saw the rise of several world-class names. The experience of XaviCarles Puyol and Andrés Iniesta was vital, while that was blended with the youthfulness of Gerard Piqué and Sergio Busquets. Pep Guardiola was teaching them modern methods of success as the technical brilliance of that Barça side blended with the headship brought from the likes of Sergio Ramos, Xabi Alonso and Casillas at Real Madrid

As an occupational hazard, with the influx of talent comes the influx of expectations and problems, and throughout Del Bosque’s tenure, he had no shortage of them. The first came within a year of taking up the role. Spain were impressive in qualification for the World Cup but in Del Bosque’s first tournament – the Confederations Cup – doubts were raised as to whether he was the man to finally end the many years of hurt and bring that elusive World Cup to Iberia.

The Confederations Cup semi-final defeat against the USA posed plenty of questions. Was he the right man to motivate a historically fragile squad when things got rough? This question was posed again after their defeat against Switzerland in the World Cup’s opening match. The pressure was raised, but Del Bosque handled it in the only way he knew.

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The next dilemma that turned up early in Del Bosque’s Spanish tenure was that of Iniesta. Following the death of Iniesta’s close friend Dani Jarque, the Barcelona midfielder’s mental state was a cause for concern, and to add to that, an injury just before the World Cup didn’t help matters. Del Bosque was criticised for further aggravating the injury by playing him in the defeat to Switzerland, but with his natural self-assurance, he handled both situations expertly.

Del Bosque would rest Iniesta for the following matches, and when talking to the Financial Times, he spoke candidly about the one-on-one counselling and support he offered to his star midfielder: “The coach has to understand that human relations have to be above the sport, above the competition … the conversations Iniesta and I had strengthened the bond we felt with each other.”

The World Cup was by far and away Del Bosque’s greatest achievement as a manager. Following the opening day defeat, they would win the following two matches, overcoming Honduras and Chile to qualify as group winners. In the knockout rounds, Portugal, Paraguay and Germany were beaten, all by a score of 1-0 before they squared off against the Netherlands in the final.

In the same interview with the Financial Times, Del Bosque displayed exactly what made him such a popular coach by talking about the importance of maintaining a good relationship with his players: “On the day of the final I spoke to the players. I told them to think of themselves as the romantics of football facing the most important game of their lives. I was appealing to the romanticism that I think a lot of us carry within us from childhood. However much you professionalise football, however much money is involved, the important thing is to defend the nobility of football. I told them we aren’t soldiers. We are not here to pick a fight. We are players, talented young people. We can play good football and achieve something collectively.”

In the final itself, the Dutch broke protocol with their hard-hitting brand of football. After a gritty match, Iniesta’s winner settled things and gave Spain their first World Cup. For Del Bosque, once again, it was a matter of efficiency over panache, with his control of proceedings off the pitch mirroring Spain’s on it. It also made him only the second coach to win both the World Cup and the Champions League, emulating Marcello Lippi.

From a more social and political perspective, this was a win for the country’s unity, which they desperately needed. Del Bosque took a team of seven Catalans, six Castilians, three Basques, three Andalusians, two Canary Islanders and one Asturian and Valencian to South Africa and united a Spain that still had political tension. For weeks after the victory, chants of ‘Somos Español, Español, Español!’ were heard across the country. 

Following the World Cup success, another issue came the coach’s way – a rift between his stars, ignited primarily by the toxic relations between Barcelona and Real Madrid. The end of the 2010/11 season saw the two clubs meet five times in 18 days across three different competitions, and each clash was more hostile than the previous. Fights, dives and bookings aplenty, Del Bosque wasn’t aided by Real Madrid manager José Mourinho’s siege mentality, and to help him, he used his greatest asset: dialogue.

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The Spanish boss contacted two leaders that play on each side of the divide – Casillas and Xavi – to act as peacemakers within their respective squads. Despite Del Bosque’s best efforts, by the time Euro 2012 came around, the squad looked divided. Del Bosque would call on all his experience – as a player and a manager – to unite La Roja for one last push. It worked as Spain showed no signs of tension, topping their group, overcoming France and Portugal, and finally thumping Italy 4-0 in the final in Kyiv in a match that Vicente del Bosque defines as his finest ever.

Spain arrived at the tournament with no in-form centre-forward having lost David Villa to a serious knee injury. Del Bosque preferred using the false nine system made famous at Barcelona, and for the final, he deployed a front three of David Silva, Iniesta and Cesc Fàbregas to do the job. The three constantly interchanged positions, which caught the Italian back line out, allowing Spain to complete the trouncing. Even the substitutes, Fernando Torres and Juan Mata got on the scoresheet.

Just like their last win on the international stage, this success also brought along its fair share of history. Del Bosque became only the second coach to win the World Cup and the European Championship with the same team after Helmut Schön did it with West Germany in the 1970s. But, just like all good things, this one too had to come to an end. And unsprisingly in the career of Del Boque, it was harsh.

The following summer saw Spain enter the Confederations Cup as world and European champions, but they were outdone in the final by a relatively inexperienced Brazil side that largely depended on the Barcelona-bound Neymar. The 3-0 defeat saw question-marks raised over the lack of flexibility in Del Bosque’s tactics, the ageing team, and his inability to still motivate them.

A year later came the World Cup, which started with a 5-1 trouncing at the hands of an average Netherlands side, representing one of La Roja’s greatest modern lows. This was followed up by a 2-0 loss to Jorge Sampaoli’s flamboyant Chile tea, which sealed their exit and arguably the end of Spain’s greatest era. The win in the final group game against Australia was mere consolation, but it didn’t paper over the cracks.

Speculation was rife that this was the end of Del Bosque’s tenure, but he carried on until Euro 2016 as they looked for a fourth title in eight years. After an impressive start with two wins out of two, a loss to Croatia saw them sacrifice top spot in their group and square off against Antonio Conte’s Italy, who knocked them out with ease. Del Bosque’s time as head coach of the national team came to an end, but he left as their most successful coach.

For such an experienced coach, Del Bosque managed just 342 senior matches as a full-time manager for Real Madrid, Beşiktaş and Spain. This resulted in an impressive nine trophies – one every 38 matches – and is a testament to his quality. An undervalued tactician, an expert man-manager, and the master of dialogue, Del Bosque’s time as a manager revolved around tranquillity.

The ending was sour but it shouldn’t dimish his spectacular achievements. Whatever the critics may say, whether he was a beneficiary of the situation, a bankrolled genius, or an incompetent coach relying on competent domestic workings, it can’t be denied that he is one of the greatest in the history of the sport. The proof is, very much, in the pudding. 

By Karan Tejwani  

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