Ask Real Madrid and they will likely say that José María Gutiérrez ‘Guti’ Hernández had an injury list longer than your arm. His bones, the fans would sigh, must have been as brittle as a fine china plate and his muscles must have been made from candy floss.
Along with the sighs of the Merengue public came a collective roll of 80,000 pairs of eyes as they frequently lamented the glossy-haired diva, watching him roll around on the floor after losing the ball … again. In 2005, El País said that Guti was “a mystery that has been living in the middle of an argument for a decade” and that his time with Madrid “was an exhaustive love-hate relationship.”
They were absolutely correct. For many years it was exactly that. Out of the 15 seasons that Guti spent with Los Blancos, some were spent in the physiotherapy room treating injuries, some in the manager’s office, where Guti would get another angry lecture, and lastly, some on the pitch, where Guti would show us what we sometimes forgot: his extraordinary talent as a footballer.
Very quickly it becomes futile to mull over the other players who could be compared with Guti for the purposes of this series – Gerrard springs to mind; Giggs, perhaps – because before you have even thought about them, Guti has grabbed you by the arm, taken you into a nightclub, and you have no idea what you’re drinking, but you’re being seduced.
He is marmite personified; his tantrums were as big as the balls he had that gave him the confidence to pull off the most outrageous things ever seen on a football pitch – ludicrous dives included – but there are very good reasons why, over a decade after he left the club, the fans still sing his name. Guti could easily have been chosen to wear the original Nike Mercurial boots: his talent was unquestionably available to him in great quantities but so was his unique attitude to showcasing it to us.
He was, in the words of journalist Juan José Mateo, “sometimes brilliant, sometimes missing.” Literally. For days he would go AWOL, his location unknown to the Real Madrid family, prompting the usual Comunicado Oficial highlighting an unfortunate ‘injury’ to the midfielder – they must have been picked up in training. Of course, Guti didn’t go to training, he was too busy being Guti.
But be careful: the last journalist who didn’t believe him was told to “go to the fields and pick poppies.” Surely Guti, with this advice, was being respectful pre-watershed. It definitely was not children’s TV time when he told Manuel Pellegrini where to stick it after the Chilean manager criticised his efforts, as Real suffered a 4-0 defeat to lowly Alcorcón.
Most footballers who reach the summit of the game have a single defining moment, one which perfectly sums up the levels of sporting talent that has pushed them there. Bar the otherworldly and practically incomparable duo of Messi and Ronaldo, it is commonplace in the modern media world that a player is attributed to a six-second video moment that defines their career: think Gerrard against West Ham in 2006, or Giggs’ performance versus Juventus, for instance.
All except for Guti. He does not have a career-defining moment in which the people of football stand together to collectively throw their beer in the air and place their empty hands over their mouths in sheer disbelief. That’s because he has two.
The Spaniard’s first iconic moment came in the 2005/06 season against Sevilla. Zinedine Zidane played a ball to David Beckham, who touched it to Cicinho. The right-back lumped in a poor cross that was quickly and easily cleared by the Andalucían defence; danger averted. The loose ball fell to Guti, on the edge of the box, who, with his back to goal, arched his body and sent a drilled through ball through two lines of defence to a surprised Zidane who was wide open.
The defenders had thought it impossible that the ball could reach him so quickly. The cameraman struggled to adjust to the instant change of direction of the play; the footage blurs for a second whilst the production team swing the heavy camera to the right as Guti, from the momentum of his pass, falls to the left. Zidane strikes the ball in the top-left corner of the goal past Palop and Madrid win 4-2.
El Mundo didn’t hold back. Ángel González called the assist “sexual” and said Guti was “an angel” who put in “a heavenly performance”. It is Guti’s stand-out moment, his golden seconds in a white shirt. For 50 percent of people.
For the rest it was the last day of January, a typical wet and windy welcome was waiting for Los Blancos in the part of Spain that sits comfortably on top of Portugal in the same way that a cat perches on top of a bookshelf. Real Madrid hadn’t won at Riazor, the home of Deportivo, in the 19 seasons between 1991 and 2010. It was a record that had led to talk of ‘curses’ and ‘evil spells’ being put upon the Galician ground.
Every time they travelled the 598km north-west, they counted themselves lucky if they returned with a point. Maybe it wasn’t magical forces conjured by a Galician witch that was responsible, but it definitely took some white magic to break the jinx at Riazor, and Real Madrid used their most effective wizard of them all.
“Oh my God! What a beast! This is not Cristiano; this is not Messi; this is una barbaridad.” Outrageous. Nonsensical. There is no fixed way of translating the final way Javier Pérez Sala from Cadena COPE chose to describe the way Guti played the ball to Karim Benzema in the goal that would end the winless run that Real Madrid had suffered for so long.
Kaká found Guti from the edge of the box, a touch with the outside of his left foot caressed the ball as he moved at full speed towards the penalty spot. Unfortunately for Guti, a quick-thinking Aranzubia had long since spotted the danger and came out to collect the ball; there was nowhere he could go. Could he try to place it around the goalkeeper? Maybe he could try to chip the ball? A 2-0 scoreline would certainly render the tie all but over, the curse broken.
Maybe Guti chose not to shoot because he physically couldn’t, or maybe because that is what we were thinking he would do. Instead, the midfielder nonchalantly raised his boot and stepped over the ball, his heel making perfect contact as it slid away behind him and into the magnetic feet of Benzema. Within a second, the Frenchman had wheeled away in celebration, arms stretched out like the wings of a plane. Real Madrid were 2-0 up. No more witches at Riazor. “The Heel of God”, MARCA cheered the following day, “it will be remembered for 30 years.”
They are probably right. Fernando Redondo’s nutmeg against Manchester United and a certain goal from Zidane versus Bayer Leverkusen are the elite company with which these two assists sit.
Guti grew up as a Barcelona fan. He then managed 15 years at the biggest club in the world, outliving two eras of Galácticos and always had it tough. The arrival of Seedorf at capped Guti’s appearances and, when the Dutchman left, Zidane arrived. When not on the pitch, the Spanish media loved a Guti narrative; his nights out frequently featured on the covers of the tabloids, fuelling the love-hate split between the fans.
Many questions were raised during Guti’s 15-year tenure at Europe’s most successful club: was he an attacking midfielder? Was he a deep-lying playmaker? Was there even a name for what he did? His famous no-look volley from the edge of the box has not even been mentioned and that is because with Guti there is never too little to say. He is a certified legend while also being a certified pain in the arse.
Some people will argue he should be nowhere near this list, but to do so misses the point of what Guti was: the glass-half-empty people say he was moody and inconsistent; from the half-full perspective his talent was sometimes outright unfair. Why could he do the things that nobody else could? That’s the mystery. Embrace it. Don’t be a glass-half-empty person, Guti wouldn’t want that. He’d most likely finish the drink off for you, anyway.
By Joe Brennan @j4brennan