There are many players in Real Madrid’s history, who have a claim for the most elegant and graceful player ever. When you talk about elegance and poetry in a footballing context, the player that usually pops up in your the mind is Zinédine Zidane. However, there is another one, El Príncipe de Madrid, who, in my eyes, surpasses even Zidane.
Fernando Carlos Redondo Neri
When you hear this name, the first thing that comes to mind is that outrageous and mesmerizing piece of skill at Old Trafford. But Fernando Redondo was much more than that. It's hard to describe Redondo, because even if you think of the highest praise and the most eloquent descriptions, it just won't be enough to get a grasp of the magnitude of his legacy. His importance to the team, club and fans was only rivalled by the empty space after his unfortunate transfer.
Fernando Redondo could transform any move, pass or action into an exquisite piece of art. He was a true prince of Madrid not only on the pitch, but also outside of it. He was a magnificent player, but even a better person. Whenever you talk to someone, who has witnessed him playing live, they can’t help but to feel nostalgic, because he was one of the true Greats. And there hasn't been anyone like him since then, not even close.
Fernando Redondo was born on 6 June, 1969, in Adrogué. However, unlike most South American players, he didn’t play football to escape the harsh reality of the outside world. Redondo was born into a middle-class family and was given a proper education.
Redondo’s unique style was shaped during his early days in Argentinos Juniors, a club that had many illustrious graduates such as Diego Maradona, who left the club four years prior to Redondo’s arrival.
Diego Armando Maradona. He was a God for every young player at that time, but not for young Fernando. He worshipped a different player. It was the same player that Maradona also worshipped and the one that you probably never heard of: Ricardo Bochini, The Master of La Pausa. You might be wondering what la pausa, which doesn’t have an English equivalent, means.
Well, I’ll let the Master himself describe it:
The way I see it there are two types of la pausa, or two ways of doing la pausa: with the ball travelling fast or with the ball going slowly. Waiting for a team-mate by holding the ball is the typical explanation of la pausa. The first one, the pause in speed, is a total revelation, nobody knows about it [he emitted a brief and slightly unnerving chuckle] and nobody has done it. Sometimes you have to go fast, carrying the ball with you, to wait for another player to come into position. - Ricardo Bochini, 2014
Redondo debuted in Argentinos Juniors first team at the tender age of 15 and after five years he moved to Spain just like Maradona did. His destination was CD Tenerife where he met Jorge Valdano. Together they managed to deny Real Madrid a La Liga title on the last match day in two consecutive seasons (91/92 and 92/93). On both occasions, Barcelona were the eventual La Liga champions. When Jorge Valdano was named Real Madrid's coach in 1994, he brought Fernando Redondo with him to Madrid.
Instantly, Redondo became the centre piece of Real Madrid’s midfield, winning La Liga in his first season. After a disappointing campaign the following season, Jorge Valdano was fired and renowned Fabio Capello was hired and success once again returned to Madrid.
In these years (1997 - 2000) Redondo was at his peak. He didn’t possess the engine to cover every inch of the field, but his intelligence and the sense of what is going to happen and where was unrivalled. At first, Fabio Capello was hesitant to play Redondo as a defensive midfielder, as he wasn’t convinced by his defensive qualities and considered him too elegant to play there. These thoughts were quickly disproved and Redondo was awarded the highest praise he could get from an Italian manager -– tactical freedom on the pitch, along with this quote: “I was fascinated by him...He is tactically perfect.”
He would go on and play a crucial part in the long awaited Séptima. But even the masterful midfield performance in the final against a terrifying Juve side with a holy trinity of Dechamps, Edgar Davis, and Zidane in midfield wasn’t enough to receive the recognition he deserved.
This is how the English media perceived Redondo in 2000:
A volatile, unyielding Argentine midfielder who, with Hierro, is a big influence inside the Bernabéu. He’s great with his elbows: should be an interesting duel with Keane.
The public and media were seemingly waiting for that illusive something to truly appreciate and acknowledge Redondo as one of the all-time great defensive midfielders.
National Team Quarrels
He couldn’t get the recognition at the World Cup, due to many differences with Argentina’s managers. There were two types of coaches in Argentina: Bilardistas (Bilard, Pasarella) and Menottistas (Valdano, Menotti, Bielsa). Bilardista’s believed in hard tackling, cheating and leg-breaking football; whereas Menottista’s believe that football can be played more constructively, that it can be elevated to an art. It’s needless to say that Redondo was Menottista’s.
In 1990, Redondo declined a National team call up under the pretence that he has important exams which he cannot miss, but the truth was that he refused to play under Bilard. Four years later, his hopes of a glorious triumph with Argentina were destroyed by Diego Maradona himself. He got expelled from the tournament after failing a drug test and the whole team crumbled.
In 1998, Pasarella became the coach and he issued a truly ridiculous ban on long hair, which was directly aimed at Redondo. Redondo refused to comply with this order and therefore he got left out of the National team. Pasarella ended up looking very silly, because Argentina got knocked out in the quarter finals of the World Cup, while Redondo was celebrating the UEFA Champions League title with Real Madrid.
The Night the Prince was Crowned
Old Trafford. The Theatre of Dreams.
It was a fitting stage for the coronation. Real Madrid arrived at Old Trafford in bad shape. Their league campaign left a lot to desire and they were out of the Champions League spots. Only a Champions league title could secure them a spot in this prestigious competition next season.
And yet, it’s Real Madrid and this was the Champions League. You can never count them out. Meanwhile, Manchester United were in a completely different situation. They had been unbeaten at home in the last 16 months in all competitions and their midfield was arguably the best in Europe. And this fact makes Del Bosque’s selection and tactics even more mind-boggling.
Del Bosque opted for an unusual 3-3-2-2 / 3-5-2 formation that strongly resembled tactics from the 50s and 60s. And when you looked at the personnel, you’d think that Del Bosque went mad. There was only one central midfielder –- Redondo. Macca was always more of a wide midfielder and Savio was a pure winger. And against them stood the pride of United: Beckham – Scholes – Roy Keane – Ryan Giggs. All of them at their physical and footballing peak. It would be nearly impossible to find a better midfield in Europe at that time.
How could Real Madrid's formation work? One word: Redondo. He was the glue and linchpin that held the whole team together. Yes, he did have help from very active central defenders and Macca, who had a tireless engine. But even then, it’s beyond crazy to even think about playing in this formation with those players against such a strong Manchester United side.
However, it worked spectacularly. This game was an epitome of a fun, attacking and pulsating encounter, as there were waves after waves of attack followed by quick and incisive counter attacks. United started off strongly, as was expected, but soon Real Madrid took control. When I say Real Madrid, I mean Fernando Redondo.
Redondo was gliding on the pitch snuffing out any potential danger. As I said earlier, he didn’t have an engine to run like a mad man and lounge into tackles like some defensive midfielders do (but make no mistakes, he was an excellent tackler). And yet, he was everywhere. Instead of sprinting back and forth, he relied on his supreme sense of positioning and intelligence. He was like a chess grandmaster playing with rookies. Even Alex Ferguson was completely bewildered by his performance:
'Redondo must have a magnet in his boots, he was fantastic, unbelievable. He had one of those games. Every time we attacked and the ball came out of their box, it fell at his feet. Every time!'
But for Fernando, this was a game like any other.
"How to take Scholes and Keane out of the play in one single smooth move" - by Fernando Redondo. pic.twitter.com/9ueAR2l7Qm— Ondra Paul (@OndraPaul) April 30, 2017
In defense, Redondo's colossal performance in the centre of the pitch forced United out wide, where Real Madrid had numerical superiority thanks to their wing backs and Macca with Savio. He won back the ball, escaped pressure and played an inch perfect pass in one smooth move. Roy Keane and Paul Scholes had never been dominated in such a manner before.
In attack, everything went through Redondo and his magnificent left foot. He lured his opponents and dared them to tackle him. When they tried to close him down, he smoothly got away and the space opened up right in front of him.
However, to label Redondo as a defensive midfielder or deep-lying playmaker is doing him a gross injustice. He was more — much more. He was the Midfielder with a capital M. He could do anything in the midfield and play any role that manager required. He was a manager's dream. With Redondo in the lineup, you could play such a bonkers lineup and still come out with a victory.
And then there is the famous taconazo. Real Madrid were leading 2-0 after Roy Keane's own goal and a quick counter attacking goal scored by Raúl and assisted by Redondo. It's the single best piece of skill to be ever produced under the lights of the UEFA Champions league. The sheer elegance and audacity of this move is unrivalled. Redondo was seemingly in an unsolvable situation and yet he found a genius way to come out on top. This single move cemented Redondo's legacy forever. This was the illusive something that everybody was waiting for.
Fall out with Florentino Perez
After winning the second Champions league title in three years, Redondo and Real Madrid were on top. Redondo not only won the Most Valuable Player of the tournament award, but also the UEFA Club Player of the year. He was 31 years old and he was in the peak years for defensive midfielders. He was one of the very few indispensable players of that team.
Summer of 2000 was a summer of fundamental changes. Lorenzo Sanz was standing for a re-election and he was up against Florentino Peréz. Sanz's main selling point were two Champions league titles in three years after waiting 32 years, while Florentino focused on the economic side of the club and the promise of Luis Figo. Fernando Redondo sided with Lorenzo Sanz.
Florentino Perez won the election and the era of Galácticos officially kicked off. In his first summer window, Florentino brought Luis Figo, Claude Makélélé, Flávio Conceição, Santiago Solari and others for a mind-boggling 151 million euros (Real Madrid at that time had 118 million euros in revenues...). Naturally, some of the old players had to be sold. Nicolas Anelka was shipped off to PSG and Christian Karembeu to Middlesbrough. And then Florentino began working on Redondo's transfer.
Florentino was aware of Redondo's influence in the squad and it didn't help Redondo that he sided with Sanz during the elections. Florentino believe that he could be replaced, so he secretly began engineering a move to AC Milan without his consent. When Del Bosque was presented with the fact that Redondo might be sold, he was strictly against it. For him, he was the key player in the squad. However, Florentino was adamant and eventually reached an agreement with AC Milan for 17 million euros.
Now, all that Florentino had to do was to convince Redondo. And that wasn't easy. Redondo was a fan favourite, as he lived and breathed Madridismo. During that summer, he made sure that everybody knew that he doesn't want to leave the club.
'I feel totally integrated at this club. For me, there is no reason to go and play for another club. I repeat, Real is my home, and as far as it depends on me, I see no reason to desire another.'
Reluctantly, he later agreed to this move and Real Madrid quickly officially announced this deal. Real Madrid anticipated a backlash from the fans, so they added to the announcement a small note that this deal came about as a result of the expressed desire of the player. Redondo was furious. He called a dramatic press conference where he said:
I refuse to allow this stain on my name and my image.
I want to give you the facts. The only details I knew about this transfer I read in the newspapers. Nobody from Real Madrid contacted me to tell me what was happening until Wednesday night.
Then I was told that Milans offer was very interesting for the club and a fee had been agreed. I was told that this information had already been passed to my agent. I phoned him and he confirmed that he had spoken to Milan and that the deal was agreed.
I understood the situation but it was not my decision to leave. The club wanted me to go and I was in an impossible situation.
It really hurts that Real have tried to confuse the fans by claiming it was my "expressed desire" to leave. That is not true and I refuse to allow my honour to be put in doubt. This has been done to stain my name and my image.
Fans and ultras were outraged. They absolutely adored Redondo and during the matches they were chanting: 'Redondo is untouchable', 'We won't swap Figo for Redondo', 'Redondo is Madrid' and 'Learn Florentino, no one sells Redondo'. However, it didn't change anything. Redondo was off to Milan.
In his first few training sessions with AC Milan, Redondo's career effectively ended. He accidentally sprained his knee, but incredibly he continued with the training session and only after the training session he asked a medical help. He never recovered from this knee injury. Doctors concluded that he needed a surgery to repair the ligaments and expected him to be back in six months. Later it was revealed that Redondo needed two more surgeries to recover from this injury, however, he never fully recovered.
In the summer 2001, he flew back to Madrid for the second surgery. As a gesture of good faith, he went to Galliani (AC Milan's CEO) and told him that they shouldn't pay him his wages until he fully recovers. Not only he renounced his wages, but he also wanted to give back the house and the car given to him by Milan. Galliani politely refused and later remarked:
'Fernando is an incredible man, as well as an extraordinary player. I have never seen anything like it during my career as a director.'
In those four years with AC Milan, Redondo barely featured (2049 minutes played in his whole Milan career). However, when AC Milan came to Madrid on 12th March 2003, Carlo Ancelotti started Redondo and he finally got the send-off from the fans he deserved. When Redondo and Milan players were stepping on the pitch, Real Madrid fans in the Bernabeu stood up and started chanting his name for several minutes.
The Prince was back where he belongs, in Madrid.