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A Stroll Back in Time: Pig Head at Camp Nou, Helguera’s Revisionist History, and More

Florentino Perez praised Managing Madrid once; but what else did he do that was significant?

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular weekly thing. All previous editions can be found here.

"Never, never, never, never. Nothing, never, never, never. Not now. Not ever."

- Florentino Perez, when asked whether Real Madrid would sign David Beckham, one month before he signed David Beckham

In the summer of 2016, I stood in a packed room at a hotel in Madrid, with various journalists, authors, and Real Madrid board members. As I stood next to Florentino, a member of the club’s board introduced me to him.

“Florentino, this is Kiyan Sobhani. He is the chief editor of Managing Madrid. They are one of the largest Real Madrid websites in the world, and do a tremendous job of promoting our brand in the United States.”

Florentino -- dressed sharp as usual, in a fitted suit -- like the Godfather-like figure he is, turned to me, put his hands together, and thanked me.

That stuck. Global reach has always been important to Florentino. He’s been known to schedule long, grueling overseas flights for pre-season tours to market the club on a global scale. For him, an influential site reaching millions of fans on another continent, marketing the club he’s striven so greatly to expand, was ideal. His direct appreciation was subtly profound.

I left the room that night triggered to write this man’s story, and, over a year later, I’ve finally begun the process.

But my fascination with Florentino came long before 2016. I wasn’t ‘around’ when Flo ran for president in 1995, but sure as hell was in 2000, when, as a kid, he treated me to not one, not two, not three, but FOUR amazing players. But by the time it got to four, I had grown out of being an excited kid and started to question how rational, or irrational, everything had become under Florentino. It should’ve stopped at three: Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo. Beckham was the likeable, good, superfluous star who’s signing altered Real Madrid’s fate, and deprived us of having one of the best anchors in football history, Claude Makelele, for several years. That, sucked. Claude left and somehow got even better at Chelsea.

If you started watching football, let’s say, after 2006, and want to truly and fully understand what it was like having Zidane and Figo in one team together, the only modern-day parallel would be to have Messi and Cristiano in one team. It would be like buying Messi first in the most unimaginable, status-quo shattering swoop ever, then adding Cristiano the following season. That’s what it was. Zidane and Figo were the two best players in the world at that time.

None of it really made sense if you weren’t a Real Madrid fan. It was almost unfair. People were losing their minds when Neymar moved to PSG this summer in a move that shook the world. As much as it did, it didn’t quite shake the foundations of Europe the way Figo’s move to Real Madrid did. That will remain unparalleled. If social media was around then the way it was now, we’d see more snake emojis on Figo’s timeline than we’re blinded with on Kevin Durant’s timeline — and even then, all of the alternate accounts wouldn’t have saved him. Figo openly said, in the same month he left Barcelona: "I want to reassure fans that Luis Figo, with all the certainty in the world, will be at the Camp Nou on July 24 to start the season,"

This is a special kind of snake. A snake I cherish in my heart forever. You know how some snakes are evil? Like the one Jafar morphed into — that dude was vile. This was more like the genie version — leaving Barcelona and joining the (at that time) European Champion, Real Madrid. Good snake.

It is incredible that Figo went from the above quote, to this:

“To play for Barcelona, means to have an opportunity for a brilliant career. But to reach the top of it, you have to play for Real Madrid.”

The ensuing shit storm was every bit as fun as expected. Dead pigs flying through the air, tension, trophies, a seamless and aesthetically brilliant integration into Del Bosque’s side, and, an amazing friendship formed with Raul which manifested itself by producing buckets and buckets of goals. That year was almost perfect if you were a Real Madrid fan — Figo propelled us to a La Liga trophy, brought the best out of peak-Raul, made peace with McManaman who switched to the opposite flank to menace wing-backs, and they were all backed-up by an incredibly sound Makelele-Helguera duo. (In Helguera’s prime, he played as a defensive midfielder, in a very traditional 4-4-2 with two DMs.)

Out of all those things that were fun, the one I enjoyed the most is how well Raul and Figo played together. It was like Raul and Morientes, but on acid. Raul and Moro understood each other perfectly (I once found a really lame video when I was younger called ‘A love that will never grow old’ and.... Oh, I found it, it’s so lame); but Raul and Figo had wavelengths that transcended the penalty box.

It took two years for the dead pig to make his cameo at the Camp Nou to say hello to Figo. Two years prior, when Figo made his first return to Barcelona as a Real Madrid player, there was no need for it. Barcelona — it’s players, team, stadium, city and all — rattled Real Madrid (who eventually won the league title anyway) and beat them 2-0. It was deafening. It was hostile. It forced the players to take shelter in the middle aisle of the team bus as heavy objects were thrown at them. Figo didn’t take a single corner that night.

In 2002, Figo’s balls started to swell and drop out of his shorts. When Real Madrid went to the Camp Nou again, for Figo’s second return (he was unavailable to play there in 2001), it was even more raucous, and Figo put his fake guns to the air, and said “Fuck it. Imma take these corners”.

It was nuts. Everyone called him a troll (or more eloquently, someone who ‘provoked Barcelona’), but I respected it so much. He was on his own that night. Even Salgado, the man who had spent so much of his Real Madrid career showing for short corners told Figo there was no chance there would be any short corners that night: "By the second or third corner, I turned to Figo and said: 'Forget it, mate. You're on your own'. I used to offer Luís the chance to take the short corner, drawing up close to him near the touchline, but not this time. Missiles were raining down from the stands: coins, a knife, a glass whisky bottle. Johnnie Walker, I think. Or J&B. Best to keep away. Short corners? No thanks."

The best part of that entire sequence was that it took ten years for Figo to take the corner. Then he almost scored from it, forced another corner, and then had to walk to the other side of the pitch to take the next one. I can’t think of a more petty thing to do. I swear he meant all of it.

No, wait. That’s not the best part. This is:

Here’s one thing that people didn’t really get about the whole Figo atomic bomb: He had to lie about not leaving Barcelona. Just, literally for his own safety. He had a verbal agreement with Florentino heading into Euro 2000, but it wouldn’t materialize if Florentino had lost the election. Had he announced his departure, and Florentino had lost — there was no coming back from that.

Counter: Just don’t say anything. (Fine.)

It’s hard to understand Figo’s legacy at Real Madrid. On one hand, he was one of the best dribblers I’ve ever seen. Peak Figo was an unstoppable force that would skin you alive, gut your flesh, and send your soul into another realm before he put in an accurate cross. On the other hand, he left Real Madrid unceremoniously, he’s never talked about when we discuss the club’s legends, and he certainly didn’t have the goodbye that Zidane did. One day we woke up, and he was gone. Sold to Inter. No tribute, nothing. Just like that, the Figo era evaporated.

"Perez said we had entered the Bernabeu together and that we would leave together as well,” Figo said. “But, I left on my own. I believed what he said, but Perez did not keep his word, he did not respect our pact."

By the time he left in 2005, his form was nowhere near that soul-stealing ownage he brought to the right flank when he was first signed. But hey, in a vacuum, peak-Figo was something we should all remember. His dribbling style and ease in carving space was aesthetically, um, on another level.

12 years on, Figo is in-and-around club circles, and everything is fine. I’m thankful for the memories he gave us (and still heartbroken over his penalty miss in Turin).

‘Flo 2.0’ (an actual chapter title in my upcoming book), obviously trumps ‘Flo 1.0’ (an actual chapter title in my upcoming book). It started off historic (forget a galactico every year, just bring them all in one window right after I win the elections while announcing club legend Zinedine Zidane as my ‘advisor’), churned into something really precipitous (going up against Pep’s Barca, failing against Lyon, etc), and finally yielded fruits we had never been able to take a bite out of previously. This era has clearly provided us with an upgraded Florentino stint. In my latest mailbag, someone asked me to make a Real Madrid XI post-2000, and I put Roberto Carlos and Michel Salgado both there. It’s not that I don’t believe Marcelo and Carvajal aren’t there yet, necessarily, but it’s because I believe they probably will, if they haven’t already, surpass Carlos and Salgado. So, like the nostalgic man I am, I cling.

I’ll cling to Raul — the man I grew up idolizing and made me freeze when I realized he was standing behind me. He’s the man I thought, would hold on to his goal-scoring record forever — or at the very least, in my lifetime. Ronaldo shattered my naivety. Not just surpassed it, but shattered it. And, that’s great. Because he took the club to a new peak.

I’ll cling to Redondo — the perfect anchor whose career was cut short. He read the field, organized it, and played football while racking up style-points for his elegance. I’ll cling to Munitis, Savio, and Solari, three of my favourite role players ever, coming on in the second-half and making wing-backs dizzy. I’ll cling to Makelele, the man who seemingly never lost a 50/50 battle. I’ll cling to Morientes, the ever-reliable striker who kept getting pushed aside with additional signings.

And we’ll cling to the current roster too, once this cycle passes. We almost secretly hope it never passes, but it will. We cling because dark days always arrive. I cling less now because this team is freaking fantastic — kinks and all. But years leading up to it? Not so much. Cristiano doesn’t make me forget Raul, but he makes me fall in love with the idea of progression — of redefining what’s great, and pushing the limits. He makes me appreciate Raul all the same, but also makes me appreciate the progression of the sport. He’s made me understand that sport science evolves and snowballs at a much quicker pace than I originally thought. He’s made me understand that he too, one day, will be surpassed.

When ‘Flo 1.0’ came to an end, it was a resigned feeling. It wasn’t just that Florentino resigned himself, and admitted the club needed a new direction, it was that the methods we had come to love so much when Figo, Zidane, and Ronaldo arrived, had waned. The legends themselves weren’t what they once were (although, Ronaldo spent a few years, still, being one of the only source of goals for years to come), and it seemed depressing that the project was left half-done, with all these superfluous pieces needing to adapt in the post Del Bosque era which was incredibly dry until Capello came along.

I once wrote 6000 words about how the dominoes of Del Bosque’s sacking spanned nearly an entire decade — that’s how scarring / fascinating it was. We don’t look at that chapter of the club much because there was little success there, but maybe that’s why it’s so important to immerse yourself in the window following 2003 — we learned so much from it, mainly what not to do as an organization. (Seriously, go read it. Not for my unpolished writing, but to take a deep-dive into the rooted problems that existed during that time.)

I’ll always love Fabio Capello for giving us a breather in 07, where he won us the league title and was unlucky not to pass Bayern in the Champions League round-of-16 before he hilariously got sacked after one season (again). Along the way, he made amazing use of David Beckham and Ruud Van Nistlerooy, gave us the finger, and overall had us celebrating an unforgettable night at the Bernabeu when Real Madrid beat Mallorca on the last match-day while Barcelona were helpless to do anything about it in Tarragona away to Gimnastic. Besides, Tamudo and Van Nistlerooy had already sealed their fate with the most famous minute in human history, ‘minuto magico’, the week prior.

When I was watching Zaragoza host Valencia in the Copa del Rey yesterday (I actually was excited to see Febas start against a La Liga side, but he didn’t come on until the 70th minute. Gutted), it reminded me of how quickly football changes. This was a team that rolled out lineups with Roberto Ayala and Diego Milito not long ago, and are now playing football in Segunda. They were playing a team that was buried underneath the earth until Marcelino came a long and told them to stop eating junk food (listen to the end of yesterday’s podcast where I discussed this with Sid lowe). I felt for Zaragoza. They treaded water against a makeshift Valencia team until Marcelino made some subs and ultimately broke them. But that match brought me back to sunnier days at La Romareda. It brought me back to minuto magico.

Where were you on June 9th, 2007, when Real Madrid went to Zaragoza tied on points with Barcelona on the penultimate match day? I was watching it with my dad, suffering the same roller-coaster of emotions that was going on in the war-like conditions of La Romareda. Here’s the thing about minuto magico — it was actually an event that spanned less than 20 seconds rather than a whole minute. Diego Milito scored once before Van Nistlerooy equalized. Then Milito scored again, and Real Madrid were losing 2-1 almost 90 minutes gone. Meanwhile at the Camp Nou, Barcelona were up 2-1 (their first goal being Messi’s famous ‘hand of God’ — what a joke). Then Van Nistlerooy scored in the 89th minute. Dad and I did a fist pump but were nervously shaking, because we needed one more. Then, just as Mahamadou Diarra rushed to bring the ball back to the center circle, our TV feed cut to the Tamudazo:

It was bonkers. We no longer needed that third goal, Tamudo scored it for us indirectly. The turbulent emotions are too real here:

You’ll be reminded of a few things from the above video:

  1. Ruud Van Nistlerooy was very, very, very very very very great.
  2. Emerson — Diarra double-pivot had some serious steel, and in hindsight, it seems like something straight out of the stone-age.
  3. Ivan Helguera!

Something clicked for me when I was revisiting the 2000-2001 team: I almost forgot how good Ivan Helguera was.

I posted that exact image over on my Facebook page too, and someone asked me to clarify just how good Helguera was. Here’s the thing about Ivan Helguera: There’s been revisionist history applied to him from those who started watching him in the latter half of his career.

I actually think what we did to Helguera was a travesty. If you remember him as a defender, you’ll note he was nothing special — nothing bad either, just someone who doesn’t really swoon you.

I remember vividly what it was like in 2001 when Real Madrid were linked with Patrick Vieira — Madridistas just didn’t want him. That doesn’t make sense in a vacuum, but the reasoning was valid: Helguera was one of the best defensive midfielders on the planet, and was a great compliment to Makelele. Together they’d shield Real Madrid’s frail central defenders. And though Helguera wasn’t a maestro, he was very good on the ball, and had a stinging shot from distance — comfortable joining the attack too to score headers or low-driven crosses.

In tough away games, like the 2002 away victory at the Camp Nou in the Champions League semi-finals, Del Bosque would put Helguera as a sweeper in a 5-3-2 where he would mop up anything that got past Makelele, while lending support to Hierro and Pavon. He was very good in that role too.

Ultimately Helguera fell victim to how bad Real Madrid’s central defense was. Hierro (at that age) / Karanka / Campo / Pavon — these guys were just not going to command an elite back-line. Helguera was needed deeper, and that was it. Even later in his career, Helguera was stuck there as a defender. It’s a shame we never got to see Helguera as a DM / CM playing out to extend his prime.

I’ll cling to Helguera as a DM.

I dedicate this entirely gratuitous article to Morientes and Raul, whose love will never grow old.

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