From Real Madrid to the Reebok: how Iván Campo became a Bolton legend

From Real Madrid to the Reebok: how Iván Campo became a Bolton legend

It is a certain type of player who is remembered and revered many years after he has departed a club. Often it is the archetypal homegrown hero, a Steven Gerrard, Matthew Le Tissier or a John Terry, a dedicated and passionate one-club man. Often it’s an outrageous foreign goalscorer or talisman: a Paolo Di Canio, Ossie Ardiles or an Eric Cantona. 

Rarely is it that a player who belongs to neither of these categories becomes a terrace hero. Yet the odd character unfathomably becomes a club legend, somehow striking a chord with fans and teammates alike. In the case of founding football league members Bolton, their own unlikely legend is undoubtedly the Spanish court jester of yesteryear, Iván Campo. 

His synonymous afro graced the Reebok for four memory-filled happy years, fostering an indescribable and undying love for the club and town that he adopted as his own.

Ivan Campo Ramos was born on 21 February 1974 in San Sebastián, the capital of the Basque Country in Spain. His youth development as a centre-half was spent first at Logroñes and then Alavés, where he made his big breakthrough as an 18-year-old in the 1993/94 season in the Spanish third tier. His promising showings in his first full season in senior football alerted scouts and eventually tempted LaLiga giants Valencia to take a gamble on him.

He was subsequently loaned out to LaLiga minnows Real Vallodolid during the 1995/96 season to get some much-needed experience at the highest level. His performances in 24 games were encouraging enough in a struggling team, who managed to stay up after sacking Rafa Benítez when languishing bottom of LaLiga after 22 games. 

He returned to Valencia for the 1996/97 campaign, making 25 league appearances with a solitary goal but failed to convince Los Che manager Jorge Valdano that he was of sufficient quality to make the long term step to regular first-team football. Thus the young Campo was released in the summer of 1997. 

Redemption arrived quickly for the young defender, however, snapped up by Real Mallorca in the Balearics who were newly promoted to LaLiga. That season in Palma, Campo formed an outstanding partnership with Marcelino Elina, later of Newcastle, in a vibrant team featuring a young Juan Carlos Valerón as Mallorca belied their outsider status to finish in a club-record fifth, qualifying for the UEFA Cup along the way.

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That summer, Javier Clemente had seen something special in the young centre-back and selected Campo for his final 1998 World Cup squad. He was named as a substitute for the final two group games after his unfortunate participation in the opening, disastrous 3-2 reverse to a talented Nigeria team. 

Fresh from his involvement in his country’s disappointing group-stage exit, his rise to prominence and stand-out form the previous season had piqued the interest of Real Madrid. Indeed, European Cup-winning manager Jupp Heynckes had seen more than enough, engineering the move to turn Campo into a Madridista. Heynckes made him Real’s most expensive marquee signing in a summer of huge austerity at the Santiago Bernabéu, certainly when set against the madness of recent years. Campo set Real Madrid back the princely sum of £2.65m. 

Unfortunately for the Spaniard, five years of relative frustration ensued as he was pushed in and out of the team, although he did manage to make 60 appearances as a Los Blancos player, no mean feat for someone discarded so readily by an inferior side such as Valencia. He understandably struggled to dislodge the classy mainstays of the team at the time in Iván Helguera and a certain future Trotters teammate: Spain captain and, at the time, almost incredulously their all-time top goalscorer, Fernando Hierro.

The undoubted highlight of his Los Merengues’ career was in May 2000 in the Champions League final, a convincing 3-0 victory over his old club Valencia. Fernando Morientes, Steve McManaman and Raúl hit the goals as Campo played the full 90 minutes in a back three with Helguera and the now ex-Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest manager Aítor Karanka, easily shutting out the much-vaunted Claudio López.

Just two short years later, in August 2002, Bolton fans came home from work to the astounding news we’d signed a player from Real Madrid, albeit on loan; one who was actually an active member of their first-team squad. The name that greeted us was Iván Campo. 

He was a player not all fans were overly familiar with, largely due to the lack of an interactive platform like Twitter to educate and inform. This left it to the likes of the limited Teletext, the pay-by-minute ClubCall service and the often ill-informed tabloids to give the everyday fan on the street the information on which to base their football knowledge. 

His appearance for Real Madrid in that one-sided Champions League final at the turn of the century may well have gone unnoticed to many observers, such was Real’s utter domination over their Spanish rivals and the concentration of pundits and neutral onlookers on their undoubtedly magnificent attacking talents on display that evening. 

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This mattered not as the Bolton fans wholeheartedly embraced his arrival in Horwich. They celebrated wildly on his Premier League debut at home to Liverpool when he slid in bravely to level the scores at 2-2 on 87 minutes, only for a future Wanderer, Emile Heskey, to restore Liverpool’s lead less than 60 seconds later.

The Basque native played a huge role in helping the Wanderers maintain their Premier League status for the second season running, along with the likes of German centre-forward Fredi Bobic and French World Cup-winning playmaker Youri Djorkaeff, who used the regular playing time afforded to him by Sam Allardyce as a springboard to be picked for the World Cup in Japan and South Korea. 

He loved his 31 appearances and two goals so much in the famous old white shirt that he was determined to return to the Reebok to continue his English adventure. He had been made to feel so welcome by his teammates, the fans and by his “adopted father”, as he later referred to Allardyce in an interview with Guillem Balague. And return he did, as the future England manager proceeded to show huge faith in Campo, rewarding him with a three-year deal.

In signing the paperwork Campo had abandoned arguably the world’s biggest club, where the new manager, Sir Alex Ferguson’s former right-hand man Carlos Queiroz, had apparently wanted him to return to their first-team squad to fight for his place. He left all that behind to settle in the unfashionable Lancashire mill town of Bolton, his new spiritual home. Wanderers’ love affair with Campo had begun in earnest.

What followed were 160 appearances in all competitions, 12 often vastly important goals and an immeasurable number of memories in four-and-a-half seasons at the Reebok. From perhaps slightly inauspicious beginnings as an unsuited centre-back in such a frenetic league, he was pushed into the new-fangled ‘Makélélé’ role – holding the midfield – going on to furnish Bolton fans with unforgettable moments to cherish.

The fans will never forget his countless hilarious ‘dives’ after what would generally probably be a foul but ended with him holding the ball, sprawled out on the turf and giggling to himself. Despite the lack of a whistle to signify the free-kick up until that point, referees never had the heart to give handball against the loveable Spaniard. 

They’ll also remember through-ball for Nicolas Anelka’s second goal against Arsenal in a superb 3-1 win at the Reebok, and his outrageous no-look finish after breaking the offside trap to race onto Jay-Jay Okocha’s perfectly weighted pass in Bolton’s customary win at Upton Park. Who can forget that brave headed winner at Ewood Park? The list is endless.

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The run-up and progression to the Carling Cup final in 2003 was a glorious era in the club’s history, one which was all about Okocha’s sublime talents in the media’s eyes, and understandably so after his two outrageous free-kicks helped put Aston Villa to the sword in the first leg of the semi-final. Campo, however, put in some simply barnstorming displays during this period, maybe even more influential than the mercurial Nigerian.

This was typified by his contribution in holding at bay a determined and effervescent Villa side in the away leg as they hungrily set about overturning a three-goal deficit after our 5-2 thumping of them at the Reebok. He was a man possessed that night, a shaggy-haired warrior repelling waves of attacks. It felt like he did it single-handedly amongst his tiring, wavering and faltering teammates. 

He desperately wanted the club of his heart to reach that final and when the blessed relief of the full-time whistle finally blew, I vowed I would pay tribute to his heroics by donning a comedy Campo wig. And that I did, like many other fellow devotees in the stands during the heartbreaking reverse to Middlesbrough in Cardiff.

The open letter sent to the club via the aforementioned Balague after he was denied a proper chance to say goodbye to fans due to what was an irreversible falling out with new manager Gary Megson has become the stuff of legend, such is the popular Spaniard’s place in all Wanderers’ hearts. 

He wound down his career pretty quickly after he departed the north-west, never really recovering from the broken heart of a jilted lover. A brief 17-game sojourn at Ipswich was an undistinguished footnote in a career that took in a Champions League final, four Spain caps and legions of admirers from all corners, especially a small part of Lancashire he will always look upon fondly. 

Finally he wound up at AEK Larnaca in the Cypriot Premier League, presumably for a well-earned hot break in the Mediterranean sun in what was the autumn of his career. And who could blame him after years putting up with the Lancashire rain. He played only eight times before retiring that summer, aged 36, with a catalogue of warm memories to look back upon. 

The fact that writing this article has been an absolute joy illustrates my own strength of feeling for this Afro-permed man, with an uncomfortable running style and a propensity to crumple in a heap, often to the hilarity of our fans and himself. He’s a man who we took to our hearts, and he to ours. It’s all rather unexplainable really but that’s the beauty of life: you never know who you’re going to fall in love with. And I’m not afraid to admit it: I fell in love with Iván Campo.

By Lee Tenant @trottertenzo

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