Real Madrid, From Di Stefano to Cristiano Ronaldo, how to build a myth


Santiago Bernabeu had a vision. He grew up in the Real Madrid organization since he was a kid, first as a player, then as a coach and, in the end, as president. He learnt his trade on the field. At the same time, he owned a business-like mentality, approaching the management of the team in a complex way.

Santiago was the architect and the builder of the longstanding Real Madrid myth, whose main instrument is to hire the best players in the world and put them on the field. A simple plan, actually, devised by a former footballer, who believed in talent and was full of the Madrid pride of being the Capital of Spain. Besides that, Santiago was also a man of la Mancha, like Quixote, though not Quixotic at all in making his dreams come trur. A smart man, tied to essential things of life, who liked power and was able to navigate the intricate web of Francisco Franco’s government to the Real Madrid’s advantage.

Bernabeu became president in 1943, a few years after the Civil war had ended, and soon he gave strength to the team. He chose professional coaches for the juvenile teams, build la Ciudad Deportiva, to train the players outside the stadium, thus preserving the grass of the playing field, and promoted the construction of the stadium that, today, bears his name.

The grandiosity of his vision had to be matched by the players he hired. Nevertheless, we would be wrong to say that Bernabeu’s Real won because he hired a lot of foreign players. When Real won its first Champion’s Cup in 1955, Alfredo Di Stefano was the only foreign player in the team, which may seem odd, given today’s Madrid’s reputation for “Galacticos” players.

Di Stefano, anyway, was a true “Galactico” of the time. Born in Buenos Aires in 1927, he began playing in River Plate, where he won the first titles. In 1949, he went to Colombia, to play in Bogota’s Millionarios, an all-star team, which aligned some of the best players of the time. Bernabeu spotted him in 1953, during a friendly match against Real, and decided to build the team around his talent.

Di Stefano possessed an incredible talent, together with physical strength, durability and the necessary toughness to make him a winner. His favorite play consisted in taking the ball near his area and run to the other side, often exchanging give and go with his teammates, to get to the area and kick to the goal or serve Gento or another striker.

The legend goes that his years playing in Colombia, in cities situated high on the Andes, gave him more resistance. This added up to his running, and his physical preparation to make him a player with outstanding capacity to run all the game.

Alfredo Di Stefano was more than this, though. He ran keeping his head high, his enormous chest kept his prodigious lungs, his arms waved on his sides. Madrid felt it had found the living embodiment of its spirit: The spirit of a capital that, after the civil war, dominated Spain even through the sports.

After the 1956 Champions Cup, Raymond Kopa, the outstanding midfielder that Madrid had met in the final playing for Stade Reims, joined the team to start building the multinational of football that later became Real’s main characteristic. Then came Santamaria, the Uruguayan defender, and, in 1958, finally, Ferenc Puskas.

Puskas had been the centerpiece of the great Hungarian team of the 50s. One of the greatest talents of all time in Europe, he had fled Hungary after the failed 1956 insurrection. After suffering a ban from FIFA and refusing to go back to Budapest, Santiago Bernabeu’s power drew him to Madrid to create one of the strongest duos of all time, with Alfredo Di Stefano.

The last game of the 1958-59 Spanish Championship, Puskas and Di Stefano lead the scoring title with the same number of goals. Puskas received the ball and dibbled the goalkeeper. He could have easily scored, instead passed to Di Stefano who thus won the scoring title. It’s a kind of cavalry gone lost in modern football.

Madrid won the Champion’s cup from 1956 to 1960. In 1960, against Entracht Frankfurt, Real won 7-3, with 3 goals from Di Stefano and 4 from Puskas. As it often happened, the zenith is soon followed by defeat, though, in the case of Madrid, it took still long years before they gave up completely.

Madrid played the final in 1962 losing against Benfica, and in 964, losing against Internazionale. At the end of this game Sandro Mazzola, then the young and very strong striker of Inter, and son of Valentino Mazzola, the legendary captain of Grande Torino, wanted to exchange the shirt with Di Stefano. But Puskas stopped him saying: “I played against your father, he was a great champion, so I want to exchange my shirt with you”.

Puskas had played against the Italian National headed by Mazzola in 1949, a short time before Valentino died in the crash that killed all of the Torino’s team.

In 1964 Di Stefano left Madrid, to the fans’ scorn. Javier Marias, in his book about DI Stefano, says that some boys were so in love with him, that they wanted to see Di Stefano’s Espanyol team. Di Stefano’s stay in Madrid is an exemplary case of myth building. Which is not a process you can foresee or imagine before it happens. It was just the consequence of choices made at a certain point, but became the cornerstone to the reputation of the team that, after 1966, when an aging Francisco Gento led all-Spanish Real to the 6th Champions Cup, suffered lack of success in the main competition for 32 years.

This does not mean Madrid did not win at all. The Spanish Liga was always its main accomplishment, together with several European Cups. But the Champions League avoided Madrid even in the best years, such as the quinta del Buitre, from 1986 to 1990 when Emiliano Butragueno led Real to 5 Spanish Championships in a row.

Butragueno, called the buitre, was a small and fast, classy striker. A product of Real’s academia, he led the team with his malice and his smartness, together with Martin Vasquez, Michel, Chendo and Pardeza, though this last left early to Zaragoza.

This Real was a spectacular goal machine, orchestrated by Jankovic in the midfield and defended in the goal by Buyo. In the offense, with El Buitre, played a small Mexican striker, Hugo Sanchez, known for his somersault after every goal.

La Quinta never won the Champions League, always finding opponents to stop them in the semifinal. It was nevertheless a team fully expressing the values of the Real Madrid team: the show, the power, the greatness of the players, though most of them were in-house built.

The Galacticos name came later, when, at the beginning of the 21st century, an already winning Real team, with 2 Champions Leagues in 2 years, hired Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, David Beckam, Ronaldo (the Brazilian one), and Cannavaro. It is odd, to think that this team won only one Champions League, while the more balanced team of some years before won two in a row, but it lives more in the mind of the fans. This tells a lot about what it means to build a myth, to dig the memory of players in the fans’ minds.

In some ways, la Quinta del buitre and los Galacticos, are more remembered than some of the most winning Madrid’s teams. Which tells that victory is not really all on the field, to tell the success of a team. Fans support losing teams all over the planet, and often the winning teams become a habit. So, how do you keep passion alive, if not by constantly feeding the myth you yourself have built?

This is why Real will never stop getting new players, and the acquisition of Cristiano Ronaldo for an astounding, in 2009, 80 million €, is perfectly in line with Madrid’s philosophy, and its need to be always at the forefront in terms of having the best.

And Cristiano IS the best. An incredible player, a true professional, who possesses a maniacal cure of his body, Ronaldo also owns the capacity, like a proper modern star, to be always in the right place for any marketing event. A beautiful man, one of the few capable to withstand the weight of being a world icon, someone like Kobe Bryant, Micheal Jordan, Valentino Rossi; Cristiano is also the last perfect incarnation of that Real spirit that originated in Alfredo Di Stefano.

Di Stefano played more in the centre of the field, while Cristiano is more on the left, but his running style, his durability, his resistance, are exactly at the same level of Di Stefano’s. More than that, he’s also conscious of his role within Real’s Olympus of players, which is key to the success of any player in such an organization as Real or Barcelona, or Manchester United.

Real’s marketing Dept had an incredible gift for the history the team delivered to them. There are characters, there are ideas, and there are thoughts. A consistent image starts in the 50s and comes to today with an almost continuous string of champions to talk about. But this does not mean that everything’s done. In order to draw always new fans, the myth must be kept alive, both with the players coming in and with the actions.

However, not all the players are the same. Di Stefano left Madrid leaving behind him legions of fans crying. The same with Butragueno, and the same will happen with Cristiano Ronaldo. The more a player is endogenous to the team, the harder it will be to change.

Ultimately, it is a sports decision. Marketing would probably ask Ronaldo to play for 20 more years. Nevertheless, the careful construction of the myth must avoid too bad performances of the greatest stars to shadow their previous achievements.

And here, the law of sports, like the law of fate, hits the gods of sport. There is a time for substitution and for careful building of another myth. It takes time, money and confidence that the player you choose is capable to withstanding the meaning of his role. This is more than just playing, it means to build a football imagination that marks the time, and remains in the memory of fans forever, imprinting their idea of football with the symbol of Real Madrid.