Stereotypes can be overwhelmingly efficient in their ability to act as a lunar rock passing over the sun, eclipsing light and impairing our vision of the truth. What is real many times becomes secondary to whatever stands out the most; the truth goes from blackened out to forgotten and what remains – the stereotype – is what must have always been there.
Real Madrid have existed for 117 years and for a lot of that time have succeeded in pushing their own conventional images and pre-conceived notions of themselves. A quick glance at their website may cause stomach pains as viewers are fed spoonful after spoonful of how the greatest club in history sit on top of the world with the planet’s best players at the helm; the digitised, swirling Champions League trophy is omnipresent in the right-hand corner of the screen, should you choose to turn on Real Madrid TV – no mistakes can be made about what they think of themselves.
What Real Madrid win goes on top of an open-top bus down the Paseo de la Castellana, all the way to the Cibeles water fountain, and then into a gleaming glass cabinet in the ever-expanding trophy hall of the Santiago Bernabéu stadium. The omnivorous Real Madrid dine only from the exquisite menu of trophies: anything silver and gold is fair game and the players who won them stand as everlasting mascots who have defended the honour of the crowned badge. You didn’t win a trophy at Real Madrid – I’m sorry, who are you?
So what about a youth-teamer who didn’t win the Champions League? It sounds like George Orwell’s doublethink – oxymoronic and quite frankly blasphemous – if we are talking about a club legend. But there is a reason that a photo of one such man – five of them, in fact – stands proudly in the trophy room and flutters around the stands in the whispers and memories of the older generation. He must have been special.
Born José Miguel González Martín del Campo, Míchel was always a lot easier to say. It was also a lot crueller. As a youngster, the Atlético Madrid fan did not have the physique of a footballer and as such led to the nickname Michelín, after the famous mascot made out of car tyres. He spent his youth like a lot of children do, collecting football stickers, learning the names of all the players in the league. The obsession with the game was there from the start.
So was the talent. After joining the Real Madrid academy in 1976, Míchel’s pace and technique quickly caught the eye, and he was promoted to Real Madrid’s B-Team – Castilla. Originally, the reserve team had played their games at the old Cuidad Deportiva, and no entrance fee was ever charged for fans who wished to come and support the lower ranks of Real Madrid.
This was to unexpectedly change in 1983 when Míchel and his side took the league by storm. Excitement was spreading among the disillusioned Madrid fans who whispered of a once-in-a-lifetime generation of players all simultaneously coming through the ranks in the capital. Coached by legendary player Amancio Amaro, the Castilla team was soon attracting attention.
When supporters multiplied from the hundreds to the thousands, measures were taken to try and keep the surprising numbers down. A fee was charged for the first time – to no avail – so games were officially moved to the Santiago Bernabéu. Míchel was a young, shining light in a constellation of eleven stars, and although not the brightest – that honour would always go to forward Emilio Butragueño – his elegance was never taken for granted and the Castilla side benefitted enormously from his efforts in the middle of the pitch.
In 1981, the Real Madrid first team hit a new low: they had, after the first opportunity in 16 years, lost out on a chance to secure their 7th European Cup – Bob Paisley’s Liverpool side won 1-0 from an Alan Kennedy goal – and the sense of anxiety and insecurity ran deep in the Spanish capital. Club legend Alfredo Di Stéfano had been drafted in as the manager who was challenged with an exorcism of an anti-trophy curse that had seemingly been placed on Madrid, revive spirits and end both the European drought and the Basque domestic dominance that had recently seen Real Sociedad win back-to-back titles.
Meanwhile, Míchel had grown too big for his pond; he was called up by Di Stéfano and rewarded the faith of the manager with a goal in a 2-1 away win versus Castellón. Today, the history books will report of the eyes of Di Stéfano, and his ability to sieve through talent and spot emerging youngsters, which it how it should be; Di Stéfano was one of the world greats and to some his talent has been unmatched since. But, as often happens with tales of legends, Míchel’s debut was not as rosy as suggested by contemporary accounts.
It was 13 September 1981, and the second time in two years that players were on strike over the derecho de retención – a law that permitted the clubs to, if desired, extend the contract of a player by one year – indefinitely – without consultation from the player himself or his representatives. Take it how you like; Míchel was selected in the match day squad, made his debut for Real Madrid and scored. Be it out of necessity or not, the history books on the shelves will not care, because sometimes the world is kind in its own way.
He would return to the Ciudad Deportiva with Castilla after that sole appearance, and it took until the 1984-85 season for a patient Míchel to come back into the fold. Since 1976, he had waited in the wings of Real Madrid’s youth teams, made his professional debut and returned to the youth setup. But it was his time now.
In his first full season with the Merengues, Míchel played 43 times in all competitions and scored a very respectable 7 goals. For the following four years, until the end of the decade, he would play no less than 46 times a year – an average of 49 games a season over 6 years. And in all but one of them he would win the league title, a feat that has never been achieved in Spanish football since.
The five consecutive Real Madrid league titles from 1985-90 make the Quinta del Buitre – a quintet of Madrileño youth talents that emerged from the golden generation in Castilla: Butragueño, Míchel, Miguel Sanchís, Rafael Vázquez and Miguel Pardeza (who was from Huelva) – one of Real Madrid’s all-time greatest teams.
Míchel was key to this success: he scored an average of 11 goals over the five seasons that not only ended the Basque dominance but made people forget it ever existed. Madrid’s star had come around and passed over the darkness, defining a new, post-Franco era for Madrid and enlightening people to a new way of seeing the world.
Under various managers in the second half of the decade, the football was fun and with an eleven composed of mostly home-grown players it was relatable too. The explosive, frankly crude style of play driven by the young generation of players in the late ‘80s was, as put by former Madrid sporting director Jorge Valdano, “the sporting arm of the Spanish transition”, leading the people away from the darkness of half a century of fascism and into a modern age.
Franco had ruled since 1939 and, despite the Madrid glory, brought Spain as a nation into a world where a future outside the fascist bleakness looked impossible. While society was transitioning towards the light, football was there, holding the hand of the people.
The finesse and imagination with which Míchel placed every shot and every pass with his right foot could have won him gold in a ballet competition. The instep of his famous black boots, if not the epicentre of modern technology in magnetism, could have been the source of paranormal activity, as the control of the football he regularly showed is not something seen in regular humans.
Goals from outside the box were frequent: volleys, driven shots and curling efforts all caused havoc for goalkeepers in the late part of the decade and this led Míchel not only to international tournaments, but to be proclaimed one of Real Madrid’s most talented youth-teamers ever. He contributed in the middle of the pitch as well as out-wide, where his crossing ability was lauded throughout Spain.
Combined with his ferocious pace and ‘verticality’ – a Spanish term meaning ‘direct’ – the converted wide-man was a world-class threat in a Madrid team that attacked like it was going out of fashion. In the 1989-90 season, Mexican striker Hugo Sánchez – a man never particularly friendly with Míchel – scored a staggering 38 league goals, all with his first touch of the ball. An incredible stat leads one only to think of the assist and the provider – many times Míchel, who would etch his name into Real Madrid folklore and become arguably their best number 8 ever.
Unfortunately, Míchel’s career was too long for it to go without incident. The ‘70s, as said, had been a dark era for Los Blancos; Vicente del Bosque had sat in the midfield of a Real Madrid team on the decline. The Madrid de los García, as it was called, will never have a plethora of films or books to refer to; it was an era of drought and the fan base had developed negative tendencies.
Patience was often short; Madrid fans are never hesitant to whistle or search their pockets for the white handkerchief and Míchel reached breaking point on multiple occasions, facing up to the criticism from the stands and sticking up for his teammates. Maybe to make the perfect player one needs both the ying and the yang, and Míchel’s chiselled jaw was more likely made from steel rather than glass in that he never shied away from standing up for himself.
One particular incident – this time with an on-field opponent – came in a match at home against Valladolid. It was 8 September 1991, the second match of the season. Carlos Valderrama was never a quiet character. Between his appearance and his style of play, it must have taken a lot to shake him. His close control and moments of flair would rival opponents even in the modern day. So when Míchel reached down and touched the private parts of Valderrama – not once, but twice – it definitely provoked a reaction. If his hair was a wig it would have fallen off with surprise and sheer confusion. Quite rightly, too.
Sometimes things come to a natural end, and sometimes a man-made structure stops the flow of nature. Although Míchel would continue in the capital until 1996, the curtain call for the Quinta del Buitre came in 1990. Johan Cruyff arrived in Barcelona as one of the Quinta – Martín Vázquez – left. Like matter and anti-matter, Real Madrid and Barcelona cannot exist without each other and as soon as the Quinta was no more, a new era of football arrived on the east coast of the Iberian Peninsula that would propel the Blaugrana to new heights: The Dream Team was coming.
Before all is said and done, it has to be said: The Quinta del Buitre is Emilio Butragueño’s. It bears his name and he was very often the focal point of media and fan attention. Search any of the names of the famous five players and you will not be short of results, but it will be the curly-haired striker whose name and photo you see first.
If they were a band, Míchel would be the drummer, but he would be Ringo Starr: his elegance would hold everyone else together but his solo piece would blow you away, a cacophony of loud but measured noise that would raise the hairs on your neck and cause your hands to raucously applaud. Ringo once said he was “a songwriter’s drummer”; that he worked for the collective. You could say the same about Míchel.
So, the fat kid the bullies called Michelín is not so anymore; he is a legend – and a Real Madrid one at that. The eccentric, electric, modern style of play by Míchel in that special Real Madrid team of the late ‘80s encapsulated a city that became the figure-head of a social movement away from half a century of fascism.