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Remembering Santiago Solari — The Player, Not The Coach

Santiago Solari has been scrutinized heavily for his managerial stint at Castilla. His playing days at Real Madrid were much more fruitful. Let’s zoom out.

KO - By Finn

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.

In 2002, Zinedine Zidane scored that goal — the same one we bring up over and over again 16 years later, and the same one that we bring up now, just because Cristiano Ronaldo’s historic goal in Turin reminded us of it. The same goal we’ll remember, forever.

There is very little out there about Santiago Solari, one of the low-key architects of Zidane’s Champions League winning goal. Rightfully, Solari’s hockey assist will never show up as the face of La Novena, but maybe that just symbolizes who Solari was — an under-the-radar glue-guy lost amid a team of superheroes. He was like that one important human in a movie of supernatural beings — the guy who runs to the top of an evil alien ship undetected to disarm a bomb, while the more capable Avengers do all the heavy lifting to take credit for saving the earth.

Solari was an undervalued mortal. He’ll never be on the front page, but he’s barely on the back page either. In an era of Solari slander, where social media lives to point out how worrying his managerial career with Castilla has been — the constant re-inventing of young players, and the inability to meet his goal of getting the youth team promoted to Segunda being alluded to over and over again amid an underwhelming stint — it might be timely to revisit, and perhaps rewrite what he accomplished as an unsung hero in his playing days.

In Glascow, just before Zidane scored that historic goal, Solari showed as an outlet for Roberto Carlos, while hitting a perfectly weight dink over Leverkusen’s defense. He also played the full 90 in that match, in a wonky, traditional diamond scheme that Vicente Del Bosque somehow got away with.

People don’t (or perhaps don’t like to) remember that Real Madrid’s galactico team at the turn of the century had a ton of problems. They were masked by legends carrying the team offensively, or Makelele doing incredible defensive work. If you put them in a time machine and bring them to present day, they’ll have difficulty coping with counter-attacks. Glue-guys like Solari, Macca, Moro, and others, were super important — more than any ‘Pavon’ ever was.

Leverkusen, underdogs and all, took the game to Real Madrid that night in Glascow. If not for Iker Casillas coming off the bench for an injured Cesar and putting in one of the best 10-minute goalkeeping stretches in football history, that final could’ve ended differently, altering history as we know it.

Solari was an important presence on the left wing, as he was comfortable acting as a two-way winger. He was great covering for Roberto Carlos (and, on the odd occasion, actually playing as a left back when his Brazilian teammate couldn’t suit-up), and his pace and dribbling ability helped pressure Leverkusen’s backline as they continually pushed up the field late in search of a goal:

Solari won’t be remembered much in that game, despite being the only two-way midfielder in the starting line-up, amid a game of transitional chaos. He’s fine with it — accustomed to being an afterthought. In an historic match at Old Trafford, where Ronaldo Nazario scored three goals, Solari came in for the Brazilian striker in the 67th minute. No one remembers him in those moments -- as they shouldn’t — while Ronaldo was met to a standing ovation by Manchester United fans. Solari just slotted in unceremoniously, ensuring Roberto Carlos has proper coverage on the flanks, and helping Real Madrid get through United quickly on the counter:

That star-studded era had a ton of glue-guys. Solari absolutely has to be among the ones remembered. Somehow, there is almost no literature about how good he was, and no special emphasis placed on his role. He was a makeshift left-back, and a terrorizing dribbler on the left flank that defenders had real trouble coping with. He had a degree of unpredictability to his dribbling which made him hard to defend. Predominantly left-footed, he could shift his tall, lanky frame in many ways with the ball — with the defender guessing which way the shoulder feints would take him.

Primarily a game-changer off the bench — a versatile player who could help defensively and put pressure on tired defenders with his pace and dribbling — Solari rarely started matches. The few he did, he did good work. La Novena in Glasgow was one such occasion. Another that was swept under the rug: At the Camp Nou in the Champions League semi-finals, where Zidane, Raul, and McManaman stole most of the headlines.

Solari was a handful for Barcelona that night:

“All the players deserve credit, but Solari most of all,” said then head coach Vicente Del Bosque back in 2002, when it was Solari’s impact (and goal) off the bench that gave Real Madrid a narrow win over FC Porto in the Champions League. “I was looking for more ambition up front when I brought him on. He has a good shot on him and fortunately one of them went in.”

That was a regular occurrence during those times — unsung heroes with invisible capes coming off the bench to help make a difference when the galacticos looked stagnant. “They prefer that here, seven crazy minutes, then go home for a drink,” said Steve McManaman back in 2003, when Solari, Morientes, and Portillo came off the bench to change the match and help score three late goals when Real Madrid were down 1 - 0 to Rayo Vallecano. “But I was made up for Morientes. I know what he’s been through. Will he get in the team for Tuesday? Nah, you know this place. It’s not a question of biding your time and being patient, it’ll be the same 11, always is.”

Solari, accustomed to his role, was accepting that he was a game-changer off the bench more than a starting pillar. He, like many others during that era, helped define that team by their supporting functions. That Real Madrid squad was generally deep with intelligent and skillful players who don’t get talked about enough. The squad shuffling and heavy rotations that Zidane pulls off now — it was unheard of at Real Madrid 15 years ago.

“It’s most difficult in midfield and in the forwards because you all know we have Raúl [González] and [Zinedine] Zidane, [Luis] Figo and [Fernando] Morientes and they are fantastic players so it’s very difficult to find an opening,” said Solari in 2002, amid Real Madrid’s end-of-season Champions League run. “I’ve been patient – you have to be patient, even if you know you can do it. You have to realize where you are and that maybe it’s going to take a while. But I’m now enjoying this moment.”

Solari was, by all means, a Champions League player — reserved for big European nights where Del Bosque really counted on him. There was something about the Champions League that gave Solari an extra dose of horsepower which the team appreciated.

“I’ve been lucky in the Champions League,” Solari said in 2002. “I’ve scored more goals in the Champions League than in the Spanish league, but it’s just luck. It’s a tournament that everybody likes because it’s a beautiful tournament, but I would like to score a lot more in the league as well.”

With Atletico, where the Argentine winger began his La Liga career, Solari was a mainstay. His minutes were dramatically reduced domestically after he switched to Real. In his last season at the Vicente Calderon, 1999 - 2000, Solari clocked over 2200 minutes. The next season at the Bernabeu, he was probed into 1694 fewer minutes. It wasn’t until 2002, then again in 2004, where Solari received an uptick in playing time — but never anywhere near the 2000-minute mark. He, like Savio, Munitis, and others, sacrificed being a star elsewhere in order to be a part of the Real Madrid project — an everlasting quest to win European trophies faster than UEFA can manufacture them.

At some point, Solari will leave his managerial role at Castilla, and it will be unceremonious. Many good — and great — players have taken on managerial roles without success. Solari may yet still succeed. Until then, we’ll remember him as a player, more than anything else.

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