Fernando Redondo and the rise to immortality at Real Madrid

Fernando Redondo and the rise to immortality at Real Madrid

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The scholars of ancient Rome believed that every man has a genius; a guardian angel who blesses the household, ensures its prosperity, and protects it from bad spirits and harm. The modern interpretation of the word speaks to something entirely different, of course: an exceptional creative power or natural ability, one that spurs advances in a particular field. The greatest midfielder in Real Madrid’s modern history meets both definitions.

Fernando Carlos Redondo was born in Adrogué, a leafy suburb of Buenos Aires, in 1969. He had a middle-class childhood. There were no dodgy potreros to escape from here; no deprived communities or rasping poverty to rail against.

Little Fernando could’ve done anything, but it was clear from an early age that football was his passion. His father, a former midfielder himself, was a rabid Independiente fan who would gather his family around the television for games. Together, they would be transfixed as Ricardo Bochini and Daniel Bertoni led El Rojo to successive Copa Libertadores trophies in the 1970s. Bewitched, Fernando would emulate their triumphs in the back garden with his brother Leo, before seeking more organised competition with the local youth team.

It was inevitable that he would be noticed. Even as a child he stood apart, spindly yet authoritative, slight but imposing. Fernando didn’t have much in the way of pace or strength, but there was something glacial in his technique, something implacable about his decision-making. Every pass was precise and intelligent, every dip into space the product of a decision that had been taken two seconds before everyone else.

Aged 11, Argentinos Juniors scout Oscar Refojos had seen enough. He visited the Redondo home, imploring that their son be allowed to join the same club that had nurtured talents like José Pekerman and Diego Maradona. In the Redondo family, commitment means something. It explained why Redondo’s father – also called Fernando, like his own father before him – thought nothing of the hour-long commutes to his son’s training sessions in La Paternal. It explained, too, why his son had raced straight from the chapel on the day of his first communion to take part in a youth game. Redondos turned up and did the work, no matter what got in the way.

It was just as well because coach Fernando Cornejo knew there was more to be done. The Argentinos trainer, who had first spotted Maradona as a grubby eight-year-old, was quick to see the qualities of his club’s bristling young recruit. But he was too flashy, using tricks and flicks when a simple pass would do. “I always had a tendency to use the ‘gambeta’,” Redondo admitted to Argentine reporters years later. “He told me it was a weapon that you have to use at certain times.”

It says something about Redondo that he won an international trophy five months before his professional debut. In April 1985, he had been the best player in an Argentina team that lifted the prestigious Under-16 South American championship. In front of 40,000 fans at the Estadio José Amalfitani, he had outshone Diego Maradona’s brother Hugo in a 3-2 victory over Brazil, proceeding to give a valedictory speech to pitchside reporters after the game. Lithe and good-looking, the TV cameras couldn’t help but be drawn to this precocious teenager on a path to legend.

It was no surprise, then, when Redondo finally made his debut as a professional against Gimnasia that September. Thirty minutes into the match, coach José Yúdica threw him on in place of Armando Dely Valdés. Unruffled by the occasion, the youngster delivered a calm, mature performance in the 1-1 draw that followed, but he would only become a first-team regular upon the departure of Sergio Batista to River Plate in 1988.

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

Asked about the archetype of an Argentine player, Redondo would later tell journalist Daniel Balmaceda that he had to be, “Skilled, talented, with character. A winning player who overcomes difficult moments. Intelligent, knows how to read the game.” Without even trying, he had summed up the very qualities that made him the first name on the Argentinos teamsheet. By 1990, it was clear to every pundit and commentator that he was ready to make the jump to Europe.

Argentinos had inadvertently helped grease the wheels by forgetting to issue contract renewals to their players at the end of the season. As a result, the entire squad was released. To the relief of the club administrators, they all returned – except for one.

Redondo had been approached by Jorge Solari – uncle of future Real Madrid winger Santiago and a respected player and manager himself – who had just been appointed boss of LaLiga side Tenerife. Having barely survived relegation the previous year, the islanders were determined to build a side capable of reaching the European places. Promising young talents like Albert Ferrer arrived on loan, as well as more exotic imports like Tata Martino. It was the arrival of the latter’s youthful compatriot, however, that would really set the Tenerfiños on the path to success.

All eyes were drawn to the young midfielder, and not just because of the luscious brown hair that rolled down his shoulders. Redondo was very much a number 5, but not in the traditional Argentine sense. Much of that country’s footballing identity can be summed up by the eternal battle between the practicality and aggression of the cinco, and the effervescent creativity of the pibe.

Yet Redondo, as his performances at Tenerife would attest, was a devastating amalgam of both. He was an excavator of space, unearthing pockets of the pitch with a flick of movement or a chisel of a backheel. He was almost feminine in the way he glided across the Canarian pitch, his elegance given ballast by a winner’s temperament and a simmering aggressive streak. On one occasion in a match against Osasuna, he had even got into an altercation with an irate opponent, sending him crashing to the floor before throwing a clump of grass in his direction and telling him to “eat, donkey!”

Despite all the investment, however, Tenerife failed to rise beyond mid-table. The only highlight of the following year had been a final-day victory over Real Madrid that had denied them the title. By then, Solari had been sacked, replaced by Jorge Valdano.

The Argentine had barely retired when he was offered the job as a 36-year-old. His arrival brought an instant upturn in fortunes, with Tenerife narrowly escaping relegation, but it was the following year when they really wowed onlookers, storming to fifth and a place in the UEFA Cup. Redondo was ever-present, the lynchpin of an aggressive and dynamic midfield. “If there is one thing I have to say to him,” Valdano would later confess, “it’s that he’s one of the few players who can do with their feet what they think with their heads. He is the only player I ever wanted in my team.”

It was only natural, then, that he should take Redondo with him when he accepted the Real Madrid job in the summer of 1994. The Madrileños’ new number 6 became an instant favourite at the Bernabéu, and no wonder. Rarely has matrimony between club and player felt so natural. Redondo’s style was all about class and sophistication; his talents were pristine, almost regal.

That, and his movie-star features, had led international teammate Diego Simeone to jokingly christen him as El Principe during a tournament in Saudi Arabia two years earlier. It was a fitting sobriquet, with Redondo ruling benignly over LaLiga’s footballing serfs. With his long, straight hair and all-white outfit, he looked more like a bride on a wedding day, pledging everlasting love to the ball at his feet.

Read  |  Predrag Mijatović: the LaLiga diaries

Needless to say, Valdano’s Real side secured the title at the first time of asking. At times, the football was breathtaking, Iván Zamoráno and Michael Laudrup the beneficiaries of Redondo’s vision and accuracy from deep. “I loved playing there,” Redondo would later gush to journalist Diego Berlinsky about his role at the base of midfield. “It is a position from which you have a very important vision of your team and the game. There are times when you have to slow down, and others to deepen and accelerate. The 5 gives defensive balance to the team and contributes to the elaboration of the game. It seems to be a key position.”

As welcome as the league title had been, a millstone hung steadfastly on Real Madrid’s neck. The Champions League trophy had eluded them for three decades. Despite domestic success, Valdano hadn’t been able to crack the code, departing midway through a wayward sophomore campaign. His successor, Fabio Capello, had struggled too, even as he managed to nab another league trophy. By the beginning of the 1997/98 campaign, Real’s image was in real danger of being tarnished. How could a club that was synonymous with success fail so abjectly to win the Champions League?

It was a question on Redondo’s mind too. He had been a mainstay of Capello’s team, with the Italian leaning heavily on a player he gushingly described as “tactically perfect”. Yet one world-class talent does not a team make. Whilst Real Madrid faltered on the grandest stage, Silvio Berlusconi’s AC Milan raced to the fore. The Italians now had five European Cups to the Spaniards’ six. A new hegemony was being threatened, with Real Madrid’s disastrous domestic campaign suggesting little in the way of opposition.

Indeed, manager Jupp Heynckes was virtually assured of the sack even as his side progressed through the knockout rounds against Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund. In the first leg against Matthias Sammer’s reigning champions, Redondo had been superb, single-handedly inspiring a 2-0 victory.

But fellow finalists Juventus were stronger in every department: better players, better tactics, better manager. On the eve of the final in Amsterdam, Real’s nail-bitten players skulked the corridors of their hotel, staying up until 4am in the lobby exchanging stories. They convinced themselves that they weren’t afraid, that they were ready to turn the page on a calamitous season.

“The 1998 Champions League final was possibly the most important game in Real Madrid’s history,” club captain Manolo Sanchís later admitted to ESPN. “That’s not to say that the others weren’t, but the club had been waiting for 32 years.  In all that time the hunger had been growing among the fans, the players and the club, and you can imagine the desire we had when the day came.”

Redondo faced arguably the greatest challenge of all. His direct opponent was Zinedine Zidane – alongside Ronaldo the best player in the world at the time – a man who would shortly lead France to World Cup glory. In the opening half, the Argentine struggled to contain him, left gasping as Zidane summoned all of his powers.

Gradually, however, Redondo gained a foothold, gently constricting his opponent until there was simply no air left for Zidane to breathe. As the Frenchman’s confidence waned, Real Madrid’s determination grew. With 67 minutes gone, Predrag Mijatović scored the goal that brought the club back to the promised land.

Read  |  Raúl, Fernando Morientes and the reshaping of Real Madrid as a continental power

Half a million people poured onto the streets of Madrid in the parties that followed. It was a night of vindication for club president Lorenzo Sanz, who’d been elected in 1995 on the promise of European glory. It was justification, too, for the millions he had spent in recruiting the likes of Roberto Carlos, Clarence Seedorf and Davor Šuker. Mostly, however, it was a rendezvous with fate. Real Madrid, the club of the European Cup, had reclaimed its legacy after decades of yearning and strife. Redondo, selfless in his dedication to the cause, had been at the centre of it all.

Having already resigned to his fate, Heynckes left the club. His replacement, José Antonio Camacho, fared little better, sacked after less than a month due to a fall out with the president. Guus Hiddink arrived to a group that had become complacent and unfit, with his normally telepathic sense for player management having little effect on a squad that was bloated and bereft.

By February 1999, he too was gone after publicly criticising the efforts of his wayward stars. “When I arrived at the end of February, it was a very difficult time,” revealed interim coach John Toshack in the book Toshack’s Way. “There was no drive among the players. There was a general malaise caused by a few bad apples in the group. It was enough to drag the team down and keep them there. Most of them were not training hard enough and they were not as fit as they should have been.”

Toshack setting about stomping on his players’ egos, seeing fit to run them into the ground during every training session. By season’s end, the Welshman’s látigo (whip) had salvaged a second-placed finish in the league. He made way in the summer – another presidential fall-out, another departure, another interim hire.

Vicente del Bosque was placid and demurring, a man Sanz could mould to his will. He was a guarantee of tranquillity at a club in increasing danger of becoming a basketcase. Redondo identified a kindred spirit in his new coach, however. Del Bosque had the same temperament: respectful and decent, almost introverted. He had been a left-footed playmaker too, reliant on technical gifts rather than physical prowess.

Del Bosque, in return, singled out the Argentine as the key to his rebuilding effort. “Redondo was the player with the most personality,” the Spaniard would later reveal, calling him “an inspiring footballer who dominates the centre of the field by himself.”

Personality wouldn’t be enough to get Real winning again, however. The team needed strengthening. Nicolas Anelka was the headline recruit of a hectic summer, but equally important were the captures of Michel Salgado and Ivan Hélguera for a combined fee of £10m. Steve McManaman, meanwhile, was captured on a free from Liverpool.

Del Bosque had done much to reinvigorate the dressing room, but results still faltered. By Christmas, Real had succumbed to embarrassing home defeats to Valencia and bitter rivals Atlético. The club had stumbled through the Champions League group stages, chastened by twin collapses to Bayern Munich. When they were drawn against title holders Manchester United in the quarter-finals, most Madridistas resigned themselves to another year of hurt. A goalless draw at home in the first leg only worsened that fear. Some bookies gave them long odds of 66-1 to progress.

Read  |  Nine trophies in 342 games: the colossal legacy of Vicente del Bosque

It feels reductive to say that history was made in a single moment. We all know that events are influenced by a myriad of factors; a network of often unrelated happenings, coinciding to produce art, love, even time itself. Yet there is an undeniable weight about one moment in particular from that second leg at Old Trafford.

You already know what it is. You are conjuring the visitors’ black and gold jersey in your mind’s eye, imagining the slick of Redondo’s hair as he runs towards the touchline with 52 minutes gone. You are imagining Henning Berg, expertly closing down the space. Real’s number 6, for the first time all night, has nowhere to go. What happens next is part instinct, true – but what happens next also sums up Redondo’s most brilliant strengths.

His peerless positioning and angelic technique; his understated arrogance and unfathomable cojones. Attempting to describe El Taconazo (The Heel) with mere words does no justice to its phenomenon; only YouTube clips, circulated on 19 April every year, come anywhere close. If there were one moment, from one player, in one match to sum up an entire club’s ethos, this was it.

It didn’t matter if you were the reigning European champions, managed by the most successful coach in modern history; it didn’t matter if you were Henning Berg, Roy Keane, or David Beckham. In one stunning moment, Redondo reminded the world that Real Madrid was the only show in town. An entire stadium was left delirious as he ran to the byline, rolling a clever ball to Raúl: 3-0 on the night, and one of football’s greatest moments captured in all its floodlit glory.

United rallied but it was to no avail. The champions were out, Old Trafford defying itself to offer a round of applause to their conquerors. Berg, in the words of his teammate Raymond van der Gouw, would be “killed” by the moment that so crystallised Redondo’s quality. But the Real man had no time for praise and accolades – vengeance was on his mind.

The semis pitted Real against a team that had already scored eight goals against them that year. Stefan Effenberg, Ottmar Hitzfeld and Lothar Matthäus were the scions of a Teutonic dynasty, keen on their own revenge after a disastrous final defeat the season before. On this occasion, however, their desires would not be sated.

In front of 95,000 supporters at the Bernabéu, Redondo was one player in a team of 11 captains. The semi-final performance spoke to Real’s transformation under Del Bosque and the influence of his on-field lieutenant. Each player hounded and fought, launching salvos from the safety of Redondo’s steadying presence in the middle of the field.

Inevitably, he was involved in the first goal, building the play neatly with McManaman before the Englishman shifted the ball to Raúl. The Argentine, seeing Anelka break away from the Bayern defence, pointed urgently into space, imploring his teammate to put the ball through. Raúl obeyed and Madrid took the lead.

Read  |  Juan Román Riquelme: the dream comes first

Jens Jeremies’ own goal set up a comfortable lead for the return-leg but that didn’t stop the Germans going straight for their opponents’ throat from the off. Carsten Jancker scored first, but Anelka’s equaliser was the heartbreaker. Even as Élber nodded in a second, Real clung on. It was their first final since 1998.

Valencia offered one final hurdle. They were younger, fitter and in better form, with Gaizka Mendieta on an upward curve that would see him voted UEFA Midfielder of the Year. Yet Redondo, 30 years old and with several finals already behind him, had time for one last lecture. On a warm evening in Paris, one of the most lopsided finals in European history unfolded. Valencia were fretful and jittery, juxtaposed perfectly with the wise old heads in white. Redondo, ably assisted by McManaman and Raúl, led a meticulous obliteration of the opposing midfield.

The first goal from Fernando Morientes effectively killed the game. Normally defensive and stern, Héctor Cúper’s men didn’t know how to take the game to their masters. Two more goals from McManaman and Raúl followed, and Los Blancos – for the eighth time in their history – were European champions.

Perhaps it is too simplistic to say that Sanz losing the presidential election that summer put paid to Redondo’s time at the club. Perhaps it is too crude to say that Los Merengues, with all their politicking, backstabbing and favour-currying, sunk to a new low by jettisoning their best player, the UEFA Club Footballer of the Year in the off-season.

Perhaps it isn’t, though. In the build-up to the vote between Sanz and challenger Florentino Pérez, Redondo had nailed his colours firmly to the former’s mast. And why wouldn’t he? Sanz, after all, was the president who had delivered La Séptima. His was the tenure that had brought the current European title too, not to mention luminaries like Capello, Roberto Carlos, Seedorf and Morientes. Redondo knew a winner when he saw one, even if there had been a few too many errant league campaigns and managerial casualties along the way.

It was probably fitting, however, that Redondo departed the club before it became a parody of itself. He had been the visionary director of an arthouse feature and had no meaningful place in the brainless franchise of the Galácticos era that followed. The least he deserved, though, was to be informed about his own departure before the club announced it.

Real’s new president denied him that courtesy. It didn’t matter when Redondo protested publicly: “Real is my home and as far as it depends on me, I see no reason to desire another. If Real do not want me, it is clear that one way is to get rid of me.” The club even tried to spin the departure as being of Redondo’s own making; Real fans, knew better. He left the city having returned its biggest club, across six glorious seasons, to the pinnacle of the European game.

In another sense, though, Redondo never left Madrid. He will never leave. His elegance still haunts the vaulted corridors of the twinkling Bernabéu. His charisma still suffuses the famous old pitch, his legacy recalled in every world-class signing, every first-place finish, every Real captain who gets to hold the Champions League aloft. His legacy lives on in Real Madrid hearts, minds and trophy cabinets alike.

By Christopher Weir @chrisw45

Art by Tom Griffiths @ArTomGriffiths

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