Valdano, Redondo, Rafa and Rocha: the unforgettable rise and fall of Tenerife in the 1990s

Valdano, Redondo, Rafa and Rocha: the unforgettable rise and fall of Tenerife in the 1990s

Cheap pints. Swimming pools. Suncream. That’s what you think about when you think about Tenerife. You don’t think about Fernando Redondo. You don’t think about Jorge Valdano. You don’t think about Jupp Heynckes, Juan Antonio Pizzi or Rafa Benítez. You don’t think about how a tiny football club, spurred on by the ambition of one man, put an entire island on the map.

In 1985, you would be forgiven for it too. C.D. Tenerife had just been relegated to the third division of Spanish football. It was Javier Pérez, a local professor of gynaecology, who decided they should be something more.

To look at, he was unremarkable. Small in stature and bespectacled, he seemed like the personification of the club he came to own. There were no designer suits or cloying retinues, but Pérez – who’d made his money from a successful chain of opticians’– was clear-eyed in his motivation.

“He had a great advantage,” Jorge Valdano told El Diario de Avisos. “And that is that he only knew how to think big … he wanted a place amongst the aristocracy of Spanish football.”

In his first three years as president, Pérez’s money and organisational nous led the Tenerfiños to two promotions. They won a place in LaLiga in 1989 courtesy of a rollicking 4-1 win over Betis in the playoffs. But life in the top flight was dicey – the islanders barely survived, beating Deportivo in the relegation decider after a 1-0 win at the Riazor.  On safe ground at last, Pérez set about building the foundations for a European challenge.

His first change was the coach. After an uninspired opening to the campaign, Xabier Azkargorta was out, with Jorge Solari – uncle of future Real Madrid star Santiago – his replacement. The latter had just guided Independiente to the Argentine title and would deign to bring some of his countrymen with him. The first was Tata Martino, a stocky and experienced midfielder who knew how to score goals from deep. The second was one of the biggest talents in South America.

Inexplicably, an administrative error had allowed all of Argentinos Juniors’ player contracts to expire. The entire team re-signed, except for one man – Fernando Redondo. “They explained to me that the idea was to build an important team, to try to aspire to a place in the old UEFA Cup,” Redondo told La Nación about the approach from Tenerife that summer.

The Argentine was quickly convinced by the ambition of Pérez and his sporting director, Santiago Llorente, signing on the dotted line after a grilled chicken dinner at El Ministro restaurant in Tegueste. For the price of one meal, Tenerife had secured a player who would underpin much of their later success.

Martino would have little comparatively little impact, departing the island after just 15 games. Solari’s tactics helped stabilise the club in mid-table, but for Pérez, mid-table meant mediocrity. With eight matches of the 1991/92 season remaining, and with the club threatening to slide backwards, another manager was ousted.

Read  |  Fernando Redondo: the divinity and despair of 2000

Solari’s replacement had no managerial experience to speak of. He had barely retired himself, an illustrious talent on the field but a total novice off it. Jorge Valdano, however, was no ordinary ex-player. He was in demand, too. Cádiz had made overtures but Valdano was lured by the talent and ambition on display at the Heliodoro. Pérez had pretended to his own administrators that the Argentine had turned them down, hoping that the eventual announcement would provide them with an extra shot in the arm.

It seemed to work. Valencia were the first opponents, beaten in a thrilling 2-1 win courtesy of goals from Pier and Felipe, with Barcelona the next side to fall victim to the rising Canarian tide. Ask any Tenerfiño about the conclusion of that season, however, and they’ll mention one team: Real Madrid.

Leo Beenhaker’s side travelled to the island on 7 June. Their mission was simple: win the last game of the season, and they would be champions.

Their preparations had already been disrupted; forced to travel in small charter planes, the air conditioning broke, meaning the players were stifled. What’s more, technical problems meant the jets had to return to Madrid and the journey took over 12 hours in total.

Still, as the first half unfolded, it looked like Real would do the necessary. Strikes from Fernando Hierro and Gheorghe Hagi saw Los Merengues race into a 2-0 lead. Barcelona, meanwhile, were up against it. Fresh from their delirious European Cup win against Sampdoria, they were lumpen and lethargic in their own contest with Athletic. The decision to display the trophy before kick-off suddenly seemed triumphalist; Real Madrid, surely, were about to rain on their parade.

Quique Estebaranz offered Barcelona a first glimmer of hope, nabbing an opportunistic strike for Tenerife, but only a disaster of epic proportions could realign the fates now.

With 70 minutes gone, it happened. Ricardo Rocha scored a comical own goal; then, to the disgust of Los Blancos fans everywhere, an error from Manolo Sanchís allowed Pier in for the winner.

Cue pandemonium at the Camp Nou, where Barcelona had raced into their own lead. When the final whistle blew, a smirking Johan Cruyff had a simple message for Valdano on the Canarian bench: “Muchos gracias,” he told TV reporters.

Valdano, one of Real’s greatest ever players, admitted later that he hadn’t known “what face to wear”. “I scored many similar goals,” Estebaranz later confessed to Diario de Avisos, “but that one against Real Madrid was the one that had the most repercussions. Years go by and I always rememeber that goal.”

Read  |  Jorge Valdano: the career of football’s grand philosopher

With survival secured, Valdano and Pérez got serious about their European ambitions. Diego Latorre, the first player to be christened as “the next Maradona”, arrived from Fiorentina just two years after being part of the squad that had won the 1991 Copa América.

The Argentine contingent had grown in the meantime. By way of a leaving gift, Solari had brought another striker to the island in Juan Antonio Pizzi. “I had seen him at [Rosario] Central and I liked him,” Solari later told Conclusión about the move“He was playing for Toluca in Mexico and I told the club president to bring him, but he wasn’t convinced because he didn’t know him.”

Pérez only changed his mind when he found out that Pizzi, for most of his career, had been playing with just one kidney. The organ had been lost after a dreadful on-field clash with goalkeeper Roberto Bonano; Pérez, who had also had one of the organs removed, recognised a kindred spirit and sanctioned the deal. “When I stepped on Tenerife, everything seemed fantastic to me,” gushed Pizzi in an interview with El Gráfico. “The best thing about it is the weather.”

Rapidly, however, the best thing about Tenerife was its football team. Oscar Dertycia had joined the Argentine idyll, too. Another former Fiorentina striker, he’d been so dismayed at missing out on a place at the 1990 World Cup that he’d lost all of his hair. The Tenerife fans christened him ‘Mister Proper’, a humorous sobriquet that referenced Spain’s version of the Mr Clean character.

It wasn’t just Argentines who were propelling the team, however. Felipe Miñambres would go on to make the Spain squad for the 1994 World Cup. Club captain Toño was successfully repurposed from a central midfielder to a bustling right-back, allowing  Ezequiel Castillo to do Redondo’s dirty work. Paqui was as enterprising a left-back as any in the league, whilst Chano offered a winner’s mentality on the right wing.

“It was a matter of pride to say you were a Tenerife supporter back then,” reveals Juanjo Ramos, historian and lifelong fan of the club. “Great teams frequently came to the island and lost.”

Pérez, of course, had already done much to inspire the upturn in fortunes. In 1991, he’d allowed the club to became a public limited company. He’d already re-modelled the ageing stadium and acquired the land that would later become its training facility. For now, though, he was content to let the team do the talking.

After all, this Tenerife side wasn’t just a glamorous distraction. They were competitive and brave, in the best of the Argentine and Spanish traditions. On one occasion, in a match against Osasuna, Redondo would send an opponent crashing to the ground before throwing a clump of grass in his direction, ordering him to “Eat, donkey!” This, the players seemed to say, was not a minnow to be trifled with.

“There isn’t a single explanation,” replied Valdano’s assistant Ángel Cappa to Deporpress when asked about the reason for Tenerife’s improvement“Good players and good people, a common idea that coincided with the characteristics of the players, favourable first results.”

By the end of the season, the results were more than favourable. Tenerife had achieved their ultimate aim: a place in the UEFA Cup. But there was even bigger prize on offer – the chance to deny Real Madrid yet another title. Most Madridistas laughed it off when the fixtures for the season were announced. Tenerife away, again – on the last day of the season, again.  Let’s hope, they guffawed, that we don’t have to worry about that one again!

It turns out, though, that they did have to worry. Once again, the club found itself with a simple challenge: win their last LaLiga game or Barcelona would be champions. The headline of Sport summed up the fears of every Madrid fan when it asked, ‘What if it happens again?’

It was a different Tenerife this time round, too. That much was obvious, as Chano and Dertycia pillaged two early goals. Benito Floro’s side were a shambles, marooned as the Canarian raiding party tore their dreams asunder. For the second time in as many years, Real Madrid had been pipped to the trophy, undone by a club that was quickly becoming their bête noire. Real fans still remember the moment to this day, dubbing their double nightmare El Tenerifazo. 

Not that Valdano cared. In the 1993/94 season, he led Tenerife into European football for the first time in its history. Auxerre and Olympiacos were vanquished on the way to the quarter-finals, where it took Roberto Baggio, Gianluca Vialli and Juventus to stop them in their tracks. Tenerife might have gone out on the night, but the 2-1 victory at the Heliodoro remains one of the finest results in the club’s history.

Valdano, however, struggled to replicate the success domestically. That summer, he was offered the managerial job at the Bernabéu. He couldn’t help but accept; couldn’t help but take Redondo with him either.

Perhaps for the first time, Pérez made a misstep in appointing the Argentine’s successor. Vicente Cantatore’s job would have been difficult enough, with the squad he inherited lacking Redondo’s bite and Valdano’s charisma. Another mid-table finish wouldn’t be enough to save his job. With nine games of the season left to play, he was informed that his services were no longer required.

“It will always be difficult to succeed someone who had a good campaign,” Cantatore told El País when asked about whether he had lived in Valdano’s shadow. “They completed the best campaign of Tenerife’s history.  Anyone would have encountered the same problem.”

Read  |  Jupp Heynckes: the methods and mind behind Bayern Munich’s loyal innovator

In truth, the Tenerife crowd had grown spoiled by his predecessors’ luscious attacking football. Cantatore’s style was a step in the wrong direction for a club with ambitions for greatness. Jupp Heynckes, meanwhile, needed a break. Early success at Borussia Mönchengladbach and Athletic had been bookended by an abortive stint at Frankfurt.

According to The Guardian’s Raphael Honigstein, Heynckes’ decision to accept the Tenerife job “rescued his reputation”. It’s easy to see why; the German inherited a squad that was more rounded and threatening. Pizzi returned from Valencia and promptly won the Pichichi. Slaviša Jokanović, meanwhile, as a scurrilously effective technician in the middle. Tenerife raced back into the UEFA Cup places, primed for another assault on the continent.

Europe’s biggest sides should have taken notice by then. Tenerife had already proven their mettle against the continents’ glamourpusses and bon vivants. Lazio, however, only learned their lesson after they were smashed 5:3 in Santa Cruz. Alessandro Nesta, Pavel Nedvêd and Pierluigi Casiraghi had no answer for the searing Canarian attack, dumped out of the competition in the early stages.

Feyenoord were the next victims. This time, Tenerife marched into De Kuip and raided another four goals  Brøndby, the opponents in the quarter-final, were similarly powerless to resist.

Ten years before their semi-final first leg against Schalke, Tenerife were putting the finishing touches to their promotion from the third tier of Spanish football. From backwater stadiums in two-star towns they had risen, past Lazio and Feyenoord and all of their expectations to within touching distance of a European final.

For so long they looked like doing it too. Felipe’s sixth-minute penalty had given them the lead in Santa Cruz. In the return leg in Gelsenkirchen, the Germans huffed and puffed. Finally, midway through the second half, Thomas Linke headed an equaliser.

Tenerife were prepared for extra-time. They knew that, with Oliver Neuville racing off the bench, they could be a threat on the counter against the home sides’ tiring defence. They didn’t plan, however, for Olaf Thon’s free-kick in the 107th minute. Marc Wilmots heaved every inch of that stocky frame above his marker to nod in at Bengt Andersson’s near post. Schalke, to the sounds of a thousand hearts breaking, had finally vanquished Tenerifer’s gallant charges.

Real Madrid’s experiment with Valdano had worked, so they decided to try it again. Heynckes swiftly decamped to the Spanish capital, forcing the islanders once again to regroup and rethink. This time, however, there would be no re-invention.

Víctor Fernández was the wrong choice at the wrong time; not even the recruitment of Middlesbrough star Emerson, nor the capture of a young Roy Makaay, could turn the tide. After barely escaping relegation in 1997/98, Juanma Lillo confirmed it the year after. Tenerife, barely two years after the heroics of their UEFA Cup campaign, were down.

Read  |  The ghost in the dressing room: inside Rafael Benítez’s short reign at Internazionale

It would get worse, too. Tenerife plummeted even further the next year, consigned to 14th place in the Segunda whilst bitter rivals Las Palmas crowned a magnificent promotion. Pérez had suffered more than most while witnessing the club’s demise, but he had enough wit for one last masterstroke.

Rafa Benítez was on sabbatical when he got the call from the Tenerife supremo. Could he arrest the decline? Of course he could. In his only season in the Canaries, Benítez transformed the club’s defence, making it the second-most frugal in the league. Powered by the goals of teenage sensations Mista and Luis Garcíá, he led the club to within 90 minutes of promotion. Beat Leganés and they were back to the promised land.

Seventy turgid minutes passed. Tenerife fans can remember the palpitations; the missed opportunites, the frantic glances at the clock. Then they remember Hugo Morales placing the ball for a free-kick 30 yards out. They remember Curro Torres teeing-it up. They remember an unstoppable, wild drive almost bursting the Leganés net.

Alas, Tenerife’s return to the top-flight would set the tone for much of the 21st century. Relegated at the first time of asking, the club wouldn’t appear in LaLiga again until 2009. Once more, they were relegated immediately.

Pérez had long left by then. He’d been ousted from the presidency in 2002, with Tenerife’s financial problems and sporting malaise finally catching up to him. After a long battle with cancer he died in 2004, with the news making it onto national bulletins. After a public funeral that was attended by thousands, he was buried in Tegueste.“He was able to make us believe that everything was possible, even a title,” remembers Juanjo Ramos. “He kept every promise, surpassed every success. He was a visionary.”

Ángel Cappa sums it up even more succinctly. Pérez, he believed, “had managed to put Tenerife in the eyes of all of Spain and much of the world”.

To its credit, the club has never forgotten the debt owed. In 2015, president Miguel Concepción announced an entire week of celebration in Pérez’s honour. In front of a tearful crowd at the Hotel Grand Mencey, he presented his wife Josefina with a golden replica of the club’s insignia. The training ground, too, was renamed in his honour.

“You have to consider him a kind of pioneer, a conqueror,” Valdano acknowledged  to Diario de Avisos. “Conquerors activate the dreams of others. He was able to climb on top of all those dreams and fortify them.”

Fortify them he did, with help from some of the finest players and managers LaLiga has ever seen. Tenerife might not have a trophy from that time, but they have the memories. For this proud island, they might mean more.

By Christopher Weir @chrisw45

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