Real Madrid in the 1980s: from despair to La Quinta and LaLiga dominance

Real Madrid in the 1980s: from despair to La Quinta and LaLiga dominance

In 1980, Real Madrid took pride from the fact that two of their teams – the senior side and Castilla – contended a Copa del Rey final. It is rare that a club’s youth team goes a long way in a competition consisting of senior sides, but this Castilla outfit, who beat the likes of Athletic Club, Real Sociedad and Sporting Gijón along the way, were generating a buzz of excitement throughout Spain. 

That team had notable players, some of whom would have long careers when promoted to the senior side. Ricardo Gallego, Francisco Pineda and Agustín Rodríguez were frequent figures when they took the next step, however, they weren’t immediately able to replicate their prior success. The early part of the 1980s were as bad as is could be for this glorious club, and it wasn’t until the middle of the decade that things would start to change. 

For an institution so obsessed with winning, complacency wasn’t welcome at Spain’s most successful club. The early part of the decade saw low finishes and near misses in the title race, embarrassing home defeats to rivals and failure to progress in Europe, and it was clear that a revolution was needed. Within the Castilla set-up, though, things continued to look bright, and it felt like the winds of change were imminent.

The Castilla team that reached the final of the Copa del Rey in 1980 provided some players, but there was a different expectation with this side. By 1983, the hype around this junior team was justified. They were winning games in their league by large margins, playing football the way Real Madrid fans were accustomed to, and they attracted them in large numbers. For every time match-going supporters moaned at the senior team’s lack of entertainment, they would take pride from the fact that something special was brewing in the lower tier. 

Such was this team’s popularity that the club would ask fans to pay for a ticket to watch them play. To further express just how favoured they were, Real Madrid moved their games to the Santiago Bernabéu to meet demand, where tickets would sell in their droves. In most countries, seeing fans attend matches of the second team in big numbers is a rarity, but this team wasn’t conforming to the norm – they caught the eye of the whole city. 

In the winter of 1983, a match against Bilbao Athletic, the junior side of Athletic, confirmed the hype. At the time, the Basque region had dominated Spain’s top-flight. Between 1981 and 1984, Real Sociedad (twice) and Athletic Club had won LaLiga in succession. Seeing as they were adamant on their Basque-only policy, it was clear that their junior teams were just as well-equipped to take on the best. But this match was different; expectations were higher than ever, and around 63,000 fans flocked to the stadium to watch. 

Castilla won 4-1, and the demolition led the case for several players to be a part of the first team. By the end of the season, they had won the second tier, becoming the first B team to win a league title anywhere in Europe. Rules disallowed them from playing in the Primera División, but if anyone had the talent and capability to challenge the biggest sides, it was this extraordinary outfit. Coached by the 1966 European Cup winner Amancio Amaro, a man who knew how to win, the star was undoubtedly Emilio Butragueño. 

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A lifelong Madridista who came from a family of Real Madrid supporters, it was only right that Butragueño played for the club of his dreams. His journey to this point wasn’t easy, however. Initially deemed to be too small, he was let go and advised to join rivals Atlético Madrid. The move didn’t go through, however, as his father, a sócio at the club, pulled some strings and convinced the coaches that his son was good enough. The rest, as they say, is history: Butragueño was the most touted of La Quinta, the five who would carry Real Madrid’s future. 

La Quinta consisted of Butragueño, Manuel Sanchís, Martín Vázquez, Míchel and Miguel Pardeza. Surprisingly, Butragueño wasn’t the first one to break through to the senior team; that accolade went to Sanchís and Vázquez, who had a two-month head-start. When he did come in, though, he hit the ground running from the off. On his debut, El Buitre (The Vulture) came on at half-time after Real Madrid went 2-0 down against Cádiz. Over the next 45 minutes, he would score twice and set up a third, turning the game around and announcing himself to the nation. 

Over the next few months the others would make their maiden appearances in the first-team, and in the following campaign – 1984-85 – they were regulars as Real Madrid went on to lift the UEFA Cup, beating Hungary’s Videoton in the final. 

The European run also featured a stunning tie against Anderlecht. The Belgians, featuring a host of talents including Enzo Scifo, won the first leg at home 3-0, but Real Madrid, in a way that they would become accustomed to over the next few years, would overturn the deficit in some style. Butragueño would score a hat-trick in the return leg, and he was joined by a Jorge Valdano double and a solitary Sanchís goal as Real Madrid won 6-1 to progress. It was a sign of things to come. 

The team enjoyed a solid mix of skills and personalities, but after their cup success, club president Ramón Mendoza had a new vision for the future. His ambitious project saw him mix some of the Castilla cup finalists with the glorious Quinta and added a few competitive signings, the most significant being Mexican forward Hugo Sánchez from Atlético Madrid. 

This would mean that senior figures such as Valdano and Santillana would take on more responsibility as this youthful team targeted its sights on conquering Spain. At the time of winning the UEFA Cup, Los Blancos had gone six years without winning LaLiga. For a club like Real Madrid, it remains an unacceptably long time, and the man tasked with changing their domestic fortunes, Luis Molowny, had overseen this transition period and the European success. 

In the coming season, Real would reap the rewards of President Mendoza’s vision. They were dominant in the league, claiming their first title in six years as Sánchez run riot. He scored 22 times in the league as Los Blancos finished 11 points clear of nearest challengers Barcelona – an incredible feat at a time of two points for a win. Their tally of 56 points and 26 wins is still a record for a 34-game season.

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That campaign featured some notable performances. Early on, La Fabrica graduate Míchel would score a hat-trick in a 5-0 thumping of Valencia, while a few weeks later, there was a Sánchez virtuoso against title-competitors Athletic, his brace completing a 2-0 win and giving the club a solid platform. In a consistent season, Real Madrid would lose just four times – and it wasn’t just in Spain where they were successful. 

In the UEFA Cup they pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in European football history against Borussia Mönchengladbach when, after losing the first leg of the tie 5-1, they beat the Germans 4-0 at the Bernabéu. That game required experience as Valdano and Santillana netted braces as the Spaniards progressed to the quarter-finals on away goals. After that, Switzerland’s Neuchâtel Xamax, Internazionale and Köln were easily swatted aside, Real Madrid completing the double. 

The clash against Inter in the semi-final was particularly interesting, and it perfectly encapsulated what this Real Madrid side were about. Having lost the first leg 3-1 at home, they came back to win the second 5-1, completing one of the great comebacks in a series of great comebacks by them in that decade. 

Molowny’s 4-3-3 setup made room for many of the team’s best talents, especially in attack. The firing front line featured Hugo Sánchez, who was supported on either side by Valdano and Butragueño. Behind them was the versatile Míchel, who was helped from a defensive standpoint by Gallego. This was a well-balanced team, Molowny adequately aligning with Mendoza’s ideology and integrating the academy graduates with the new signings. 

Returning to the pinnacle in Spain and winning two UEFA Cups in succession meant that this Real Madrid team were widely regarded amongst the finest in football – a stark contrast from where they were at the turn of the decade. It’s worth noting the influence club legend Alfredo Di Stéfano had, too. It was just a few years prior that he was the manager and gave the first run-out to several members of the Castilla class that was integral to their future success. 

The following season saw changes aplenty. In the dugout, Molowny was replaced by Dutchman Leo Beenhakker as Real looked to return to the pinnacle of European football. Additionally, there was also a change in goal, goalkeeper Francisco Buyo coming in from Sevilla. 

There was an amendment to the league structure as the league’s top six teams would compete in a bizarre US-sports-style playoff to determine the champions. Factor in the European Cup and this was set to be the longest season in Real Madrid’s history. 

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One thing didn’t change, however: Sánchez’s form. The Mexican adhered himself to the fans as his knack of constantly finding himself on the scoresheet continued throughout the season. On one side of the city he was a hero, a man who could be relied upon and one who stepped up on the biggest of occasions. On the other he was loathed, Atlético Madrid supporters never forgetting his move across town. 

Real Madrid romped through the league season, finishing top of the table, joined in the championship fight by Barcelona, Espanyol, Sporting Gijón and Real Mallorca. This was combined with good form in the European Cup as Butragueño, Los Blancos’ biggest star, was at his best. He scored in every tie, which included matches against Young Boys, Juventus and Red Star Belgrade. Unfortunately, Real’s hunt for La Septima, their seventh European Cup, went on. 

In the first leg of the semi-final against Bayern Munich they were hammered 4-1, with Butragueño netting his team’s consolation. A 1-0 win in the return leg in Madrid wasn’t enough, but this team weren’t deterred. Considering they were under new management and still boasting youth, they felt their time would come. All their focus turned to the league, where they were unstoppable. 

In the championship playoff they ran through the opposition, winning seven of their ten games as the forward pairing of Butragueño and Sánchez continued their electric form. The title was wrapped up for a second season and Sánchez’s record of 34 goals was the first time since the Di Stéfano era that a Real Madrid player managed to net more than 30 goals in a single league season. These were encouraging signs for the future and hope abound that the run of 22 years without winning the European Cup would end. 

The 1987/88 season began typically well. Carrying on their form from the previous campaign, Real continued to grow. More players began to emerge, with full-back Chendo enjoying a starring phase. Formally known as Miguel Porlán Noguera, the right-back was bred at Real Madrid and made his debut for the club in 1982. Despite a stellar five years making his way through the first-team, he attracted the world’s attention and started emerging as one of the game’s finest full-backs. 

To justify just how good this team were, their results and records show their strength. This era was widely known for the blistering attacking football they displayed, and in an incredible season, they scored 95 goals in the league alone. Real Sociedad, their nearest challengers, finished 11 points behind them in the race for the title, while Barcelona, spoiled by disputes at a management level, saw their eternal rivals 23 points ahead of them.

In the first round of the European Cup, Real Madrid faced Napoli and the best player in the world, Diego Maradona. The first leg at home was to be played behind closed doors, the consequence of a bruising tie against Bayern Munich the previous season. To help the team prepare for it, Mendoza asked Castilla to play two games against the senior side whilst donning Napoli shirts. It worked: Los Blancos won 2-0 and went to Italy with a strong advantage. 

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In the build-up to the away leg, a fiery Maradona said he wouldn’t let Real Madrid score at the San Paolo as he looked to conjure up another piece of history in his glorious career. He lived up to his promise but still went out as a goalless draw sent the Partonepei crashing. There was a moment of note, however, as Chendo got one on the Argentine by nutmegging him, much to the annoyance of the local crowd. 

In the next round came the defending champions, Porto. A 2-1 win home and away, clashes largely influenced by Butragueño, who was usually the standout name in these European fixtures, sent Real Madrid through to the quarter-finals, where another tie with Bayern awaited. Against the German giants, their never-say-die spirit came to the fore again. After going 3-0 down early in the first-leg, Sánchez and Butragueño scored two second-half goals and opened the match up for the return fixture. 

In Madrid, Míchel and Milan Janković did the job to send Real Madrid through. Their shot at ending their European Cup drought was clearer than ever. However, that dream would fade away once again as Guus Hiddink’s PSV Eindhoven, the eventual winners, got the better of them. A 1-1 draw in Spain was well-protected by the Dutch side when the return fixture was played in the Netherlands, and Real Madrid were out again. They didn’t lose but the general feeling was that they were the better side.

Many believed that the match in Eindhoven was the last straw in this iconic period for the club. Even Míchel, one of the stars of the team, recalled how that tie was the beginning of the end: “PSV created a conflict of identity in us so great that that’s where we disappeared. At least that’s where the decline began.” 

Beenhakker, however, was determined to prove the general opinion wrong. Once again, early optimism was rife. In Spain they were challenged by Barcelona, who were much better than the previous season having secured club legend Johan Cruyff to take over as manager. Despite losing Bernd Schuster, this rejuvenated team was still capable of challenging for the title, but Real Madrid’s early pace gave them the advantage once more. Incredibly, this was one of Los Blancos’ most dominant seasons in history, losing just once – an away game against Celta.

An incredible 35-game unbeaten run, which began in the previous season, was matched in Europe as Real Madrid overcame the demons of the previous year and beat PSV in the quarter-finals. Now more than ever, this was their best shot. They were drawn against Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan, who were struggling domestically. A 1-1 draw at home was far from the ideal result, but it was something to build on as they looked to reach the final. 

Shockingly, the away game was against anyone’s wildest expectations. Carlo Ancelotti, Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Roberto Donadoni all scored at the San Siro to smash Real Madrid 5-0 and send the European dream packing again. The near-perfect league season was a compliment to this side, but for a club like Real Madrid, coming so close yet so far in their most adored competition was deemed as a failure, and Beenhakker was gone. 

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The next season, Welshman John Toshack came in, and his ideas were fresh and innovative. Laid out in a 3-1-4-2, former Barcelona man Schuster provided a strong option in midfield. He was supported by the emerging Fernando Hierro, while Míchel and Vázquez continued on the flanks. Up front, the successful pairing of Butragueño and Sánchez was asked to carry on doing what they did best, while at the back, Chendo was asked to move to a more defensive role by covering the right side of a back three. 

Unfortunately, Real Madrid’s European Cup hoodoo continued. Perhaps less painfully, Milan ended it in the second round rather than the semi-final, adding to Toshack’s troubles, who, despite doing well enough in the league, was not the most popular figure in Madrid. Goals were in plentiful supply at home, their 107 league goals a record at the time. Indeed, Sánchez’s 38 matched Telmo Zarra’s record for the most goals in a single season. Amazingly, they were all scored with a single touch.

The league title came home but that season also witnessed a power shift. In the Copa del Rey final, Cruyff’s Barcelona triumphed over Real Madrid 2-0, a sign of things to come. With the Blaugrana delving into the Dutchman’s philosophy, they started to run riot in Spain, first with the cup and then ending Real Madrid’s stranglehold on LaLiga. They would add the European Cup, too, in 1992, coming at a time when Real Madrid were floundering.

After 1990, La Quinta started to break apart. Vázquez’s departure for Torino started the slump, and while Butragueño and Míchel wouldn’t leave until the middle of the 90s, the make-up of Spanish football had changed. Barcelona’s magical success had drafted all the attention and it wasn’t until 1998 and a competition revamp that the European Cup would finally return to Madrid, now guised as the Champions League. Sanchís, the senior figure in the side, was the only member of La Quinta was still in the side and is the only one to win Europe’s biggest prize.

Having become so inconsistent and overshadowed in the league by Barcelona in the 21st century, the team of the 1980s achievements’ are regarded even higher. Although downplayed – even by Di Stéfano – for never winning the European Cup, the feat of winning the league five straight times has only recently started to gain the appreciation it deserves in the wider football community.

Their glory at the time wasn’t just restricted to the pitch, as Sanchís told Jimmy Burns, the author of La Roja: The Journey of Spanish Football: “We were young guys from Madrid who shared a view on how football should be played. We wanted it to be bold and attacking – and we saw ourselves as part of what was happening in Spain more widely at the time, part of a generation that wanted to change, that was prepared to take risks.”

For what it’s worth, this era was one of Los Blancos’ finest. Five straight titles and two UEFA Cups were only matched by their glorious 1950s, and this team ranks alongside the Di Stéfano-inspired generation and Zinedine Zidane’s three-peat side of the 2010s as the club’s greatest. They will also go down in history as one of the greatest teams to have not won the European Cup – but that shouldn’t overshadow their legacy. Filled with tenacity, talent and a unique drive bred from a love of Real Madrid, they made the Bernabéu bounce again.

By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26

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