This feature is part of Duology
Real Madrid revolves around the European Cup. It is their trophy; their raison d’être. The only squads considered legendary throughout the club’s illustrious history are those that have won the most coveted prize in the continent … and also the team of the late 1980s. “We didn’t win the European Cup, but we are all present in the hearts of Real Madrid’s fanbase,” Emilio Butragueño once explained in an interview with Panenka magazine. He is right.
Butragueño was part of a Real Madrid side that won five league titles in a row between 1986 and 1990, and despite the fact that they never lifted Ol’ Big Ears, this generation is treasured because they were so special in everything else that they did. They were even named as the very best team of the 1980s by France Football magazine, despite their absence of glory on the continent.
From back to front they were strong, but the success of this team was mostly down to their front two; one of the best strike partnerships in football history. They were so good because they had Emilio Butragueño and they had Hugo Sánchez. These were two very different players and the duo reached the Real Madrid first-team squad by following very different paths.
Butragueño came through the youth academy having been a Real Madrid supporter since the day he was born, with a proud club member for a father. Even though an offer to train with Atlético Madrid’s academy was made to him long before Real’s took note of his talents, his father would not entertain the idea and used his contacts to arrange for a trial with Los Blancos’ youth set-up.
Young Emilio was eventually accepted and rose through the ranks, to the point where he became one of the key members the Real Madrid B team, named Castilla, that won the Spanish second division in 1983/84. There were five promising players in that side – Butragueño, Manolo Sanchís, Rafael Martín Vázquez, Míchel and Miguel Pardeza – but he was the main man and the reason why this quintet was nicknamed after his phonetically-derived nickname of Buitre, meaning vulture in Spanish. They were the Quinta del Buitre, the Class of ‘84.
Sánchez eventually made it to the Real Madrid first-team squad too, but he took a markedly different route. Unlike his future striker partner, he did pass through Atlético Madrid, moving from Mexico to the Spanish club in 1981. There, he began to dazzle and Spanish football fans came to love the man they nicknamed Hugol; the man who won the Pichichi award as LaLiga’s top scorer in the 1984/85 season.
Real Madrid became enamoured and wanted to sign him from their cross-city rivals. Aware that a direct deal was impossible due to Atlético’s reluctance to anger their fan base and aware that Barcelona had long held an interest – with the player having posed for Catalan newspaper Sport in a de facto welcome interview – Sánchez was transferred to UNAM back in his home country on 4 July 1985, before being signed by Real Madrid, flown back to the Spanish capital, and presented to 50,000 fans at the Santiago Bernabéu on 19 July 1985.
United, Butragueño and Sánchez took LaLiga by storm. Despite all of the hype about the Quinta del Buitre as they were coming through the ranks, the five players only actually represented Real Madrid together on one occasion, as Pardeza never truly made it and soon departed for Real Zaragoza. There was a space to be filled and Sánchez became the fifth member of this talented quintet, the import who spearheaded the attack alongside Butragueño. He would state that he wished for their nickname to be changed to the Quinta de los Machos: the Squadron of the Tough Guys.
Jorge Valdano was there too and his role should certainly not be forgotten. In the season before winning the World Cup with Argentina, in Mexico in 1986, Valdano contributed 16 goals, which was actually more than the 10 goal haul belonging to the 22-year-old Butragueño. While his 1985/86 tally was behind the 22 of Sánchez, who retained his Pichichi crown, it was Valdano who saved the Mexican in his first league appearance for Real Madrid. With 10 minutes remaining, and with Los Blancos 2-1 down, Sánchez was so enraged that he was sent off for dissent. Only a Valdano goal two minutes from time spared the capital city side’s blushes and earned them a 2-2 draw.
Banned for the following match, Real Madrid performed excellently in Sánchez’s absence and defeated Valencia 5-0, with Míchel scoring a hat-trick and with Butragueño and Santillana each scoring one. Did Real Madrid really need their new Mexican signing? Yes, it turned out. The next week he returned and he scored the winner away at Espanyol, before netting at a rate of one goal every one and a half matches over the course of the rest of the season. Real Madrid claimed their first title in six years and they also retained the UEFA Cup that year, thanks to the goalscoring brilliance of Sánchez, the experience of Valdano and the youthful energy of Butragueño.
Leo Beenhakker was brought in as coach in the summer of 1986 and he gave more minutes to Butragueño, with the 31-year-old Valdano spending more and more time starting from the bench. The Madrid native only scored one more goal that year, despite playing more minutes in what was a gruelling 44-game season; the longest in the championship’s history. Yet his chemistry with Sánchez improved consistently and helped facilitate the Mexican’s goalscoring play, as Sánchez scored 34 times in LaLiga. As Real Madrid’s official account of that decade explains, “the creativity of Butragueño, the stinginess of the defence, the goalkeeping assuredness of Francisco Buyo and the goals of Hugo Sánchez won the title for Real Madrid.”
Valdano, who discovered he had hepatitis, did not play in the following campaign of 1987/88 and soon retired, so the Real Madrid front two became a duopoly. Butragueño and Sánchez were now the best partnership in the country and, with 12 and 29 goals respectively, they steered the capital city club to yet another title. Three in a row soon became four before four then became five, as the Quinta del Buitre and Hugol made history, winning five consecutive LaLiga titles for just the second time in Real Madrid history.
Given that Butragueño was posting scoring tallies in the teens, while Sánchez won the Pichichi award during four of those five league titles – netting 22, 34, 29, 27 and 38 times in those five championship campaigns – some may wonder why these two players are remembered as an equal partnership, rather than as Sánchez being the superhero and Butragueño being the sidekick. Yet Sánchez’s jaw-dropping numbers would not have been possible had it not been for the efforts of his accomplice, who could collect and hold the ball in attack as if he were shielding it inside a baseball mitt.
The Mexican was something of a penalty box poacher who could finish a chance from anywhere inside the box, but he wasn’t the type of player to create his own chances. Sánchez was like the chocolate bar hanging off the shelf inside a vending machine. The sweet goodness was there, but he needed a second to come along and to knock him into position. In the 1989/90 campaign, for example, when he scored a then-record 38 goals, every single one of those 38 strikes was with his first touch. In essence, Butrageuño and co. were the gunners who loaded the cannons that were Sánchez’s boots, the Mexican did the rest.
By the time Sánchez left Real Madrid at the end of the 1991/92 season, he and Butragueño had brought five league titles, three Spanish Super Cups and one UEFA Cup to the Bernabéu trophy cabinet, with the Mexican having scored 189 times and with the Spaniard having come up with 114 in that time. That is 43 percent of all goals that Real Madrid scored during those seven years, which is very special, not least considering that Butragueño didn’t play every game when emerging in 1985/86 in addition to the disciplinary issues that saw Sánchez take a back seat as his time in Madrid wound down.
It was a strike duo of the kind that Spain had never before seen, and they posted numbers that were unbeatable until the Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo era. “Their Real Madrid team always played well and they won so much,” Hristo Stoichkov, who played against them for Barcelona, later admitted in an interview in 2003. “They were a wonder team, even better than the current Real Madrid squad that has won three Champions Leagues in five years.”
Amazingly, though, their relationship never extended past the stadium door. Sánchez was a difficult character for some of his colleagues and coaches to deal with and he never became friends with Butragueño outside of the club, even if there never was any unsavoury rivalry either, like the type that inspired others.
“I do not have any relationship with Hugo off the pitch,” Butragueño said in an interview in 1991. “But I’ve not had any problems with him either, nor has there been any jealousy. My most intimate relationship with him has been on the football pitch.”
With the passing of time, the two did become closer and they even reunited in Mexico in 1997. The emergence of Raúl saw Butragueño forced to move on from his lifelong club in 1995 and he decided to try his luck in Mexican football, playing three seasons with Atlético Celaya. The first one was magical and the plucky upstart of a club made it all the way to the season’s final, where they lost on away goals to Necaxa. Soon, Butragueño was joined by his former Real Madrid teammate Sánchez, as well as Míchel, and they lived their final moments of football there in Mexico.
From Madrid to Celaya, these two players were a nightmare for opposition defences. They were different kinds of players, and different kinds of people, but they possessed the very same desire and ability to win and impacted one another’s careers immeasurably because of it.
By Euan McTear @emctear
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp