Life — it has a funny way of throwing the best laid plans out the door. Out of the thousands of days and the millions of seemingly standard minutes, it can be just one brief moment that radically changes an individual or a collective’s perspective. Ruben de la Red’s story is one told with a heavy heart, a story of a life headed down what appeared to be a one way street of pure football success, yet somehow deterred by an unfathomable twist.
We can start with the best of moments, a moment that signaled to De la Red and the football community that his career was headed for the elite.
Let’s flash back to the European Championships of 2008, where Spain played Greece in the final match day of the group stages. Dani Guiza’s delicate knock-down header was pounced on by Ruben de la Red who smashed the half volley into the bottom corner of the net. It was the culmination of the perfect year. The then 23-year-old had led Michael Laudrup’s small Getafe to the quarter finals of the UEFA cup vs Bayern Munich followed by a final of the Copa Del Rey vs Valencia. By the end of the season, he earned a call up to Luis Aragones’ Euro 2008 squad in a loaded midfield with the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Silva, Alonso, Senna, Fabregas, and Cazorla. And of course, De la Red was re-purchased by the club of his dreams, Real Madrid, after just one year away. To top it all off, he and his wife were expecting their first child.
The euphoria of that first Spain goal in a major competition provided momentum. De la Red would then go on to net a screamer vs Valencia near 35-yards-out from goal to secure the Spanish Super Cup for Real Madrid. He announced his return to the Bernabéu and proved to Real Madrid manager, Bernd Schuster, that he was there to stay.
What was it that made De La Red so special? What did he have that makes the abrupt end to his short career so hard to swallow even some 12 years later? It’s difficult to select one feature of the midfielder’s game. His movement on the pitch and the way he glided with the ball was similar to Redondo. Yet, he had the technique, control, and one touch pass mentality of a prototype Spanish midfielder akin to Dani Parejo.
De la Red was unique as he had the ability to play as a single or double pivot defensive center midfielder, a box-to-box central mid, or as a play-making #10 in between the lines. For Getafe, he was placed most often as the lone or double pivot, but had the freedom to play, to move up the pitch, and make his elegant gliding runs through the midfield. Fans tuned in to watch Getafe simply to watch De la Red (and his Madrid loanee partner, Esteban Granero). There was a collective relaxation by fans when De la Red was on the ball, a trust that he would always do right by the ball.
Michael Laudrup, Getafe manager at the time, used De la Red for everything — a player trusted to recover the ball, but then also build out play. He took penalty kicks, free kicks, and had a venomous shot from outside the box. His goals and assists numbers for Getafe in the 2007/2008 season were outstanding for a midfielder — 9 goals and 4 assists.
That year at Getafe was simply remarkable. Think of Martin Ødegaard’s exploits with Real Sociedad this year, but with a smaller team. Michael Laudrup trusted Ruben to be his quarterback — the focal point and leader of everything Getafe orchestrated.
This little Getafe team, led by a Real Madrid academy graduate, shocked the world. Getafe’s run in the UEFA Cup was unprecedented. They had beaten Tottenham Hotspur in the group stages, which included a headed goal from De la Red. The team then progressed to take on former Real Madrid legend, Jose Antonio Camacho’s Benfica, in the round of 16. Benfica had possessed players like Angel Di Maria and Rui Costa. Yet, Getafe won both matches over the two legs and Ruben de la Red came away with a goal and assist over the two games.
In the quarter finals, they were matched up with the mighty Bayern Munich. They managed to get a 1-1 draw at the Allianz Arena while competing against Ribery, Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Lucio, and Luca Toni. The return leg in Getafe was admirable. De la Red was forced to play center back due to suspensions and was red-carded in the 6th minute. A 90th minute equalizer from Getafe sent the match into extra-time. The game ended 3-3 with 10-men Getafe fighting tooth and nail until the last minute. They just fell short due to the away goal rules.
In La Liga, there were historic wins over Barcelona and Real Madrid. Their domestic success shined most in the Copa Del Rey, where the team made it to the final vs Ronald Koeman’s Valencia. Ruben De la Red and the team fell short in the Copa Del Rey final, but had they converted their opportunities – including two shots from Granero, one off the post and one off the crossbar – there could have been an alternate ending. Valencia were an impressive side with David Villa, David Silva, Juan Mata, David Abelda, and Raul Albiol all starting for Koeman.
His return to Real Madrid was brief but impressionable. He played 11 matches and had broken into the starting lineup in his last 5 matches prior to his heart condition. He scored 2 goals and provided 2 assists during that time. There was a lot of talk in the summer about a potential permanent move away with many clubs interested in De la Red, including heavy links from Arsene Wenger and Arsenal. But, De la Red was adamant, he wanted to prove his worth at the club of his dreams. “I have received offers from England and Spain, but I am very calm,” De la Red said during a pre-season press conference. “Today, I discard the option of leaving Real.”
By discarding the option to leave, his mind was only on succeeding. He quickly won over Schuster and took his opportunity when injuries hit regular starters like Wesley Sneijder and Guti. Schuster utilized De la Red as a “#8” or a right interior central midfielder looking to make use of the Spaniard’s box to box ability. He brought a greater balance to a midfield lacking stability. His confidence and comfort as a Real Madrid player grew with each passing match.
Collectively— his historic year at Getafe, his call-up and goal with Spain, winning Euro 2008, returning to Real Madrid — it was the stuff of dreams. This was a career that was growing at an exponential rate. A freight train that could not be stopped. De la Red was on the up and up. Finally, another Canterano who had the ability, talent, and mental fortitude to last a decade in the Real Madrid team. Finally a Canterano that could follow the likes of Raul, Guti, and Casillas.
Yet a mere three months after the euphoria of his Spain goal, it would all be over. His career would be finished.
On October 30th, 2008 Ruben de la Red fell unconscious and fainted during the Copa Del Rey match vs Real Union.
The fear is palpable. It’s apparent on every players face. The moment when De la Red is turned on his side, eyes wide open, a blank and blink-less stare into the abyss, will send a shiver down anyone’s spine.
Despite reaching consciousness in the dressing room, De la Red had suffered a radically life altering event. Unbeknownst to him, that episode would be De la Red’s last action on a football pitch at a professional level. For the next two years, De la Red would see specialist after specialist, spending more time talking to doctors than to his teammates. He was diagnosed with a heart condition, but doctors were unable to pinpoint the origin or find a potential solution. Two years after his collapse, at the age of 25, Ruben de la Red announced his retirement from football.
In another world, De la Red would continue to move up the ladder. He likely would have been the locked in partner to Xabi Alonso after the Basque’s arrival from Liverpool in 2009. In another world, he was there with Iker and Ramos lifting the World Cup in 2010 and then the European Championships again in 2012. Today, at the age of 35, De la Red very well could have been reminiscing on a decade of success with Real Madrid and Spain. But, life threw a curve ball. His emotional farewell press conference in 2010 was from a man who understood life’s cruelty but refused to let it disparage him.
“I had to retire because of a problem with my heart, but my heart still beats for Real Madrid,” an emotional Ruben de la Red said in the press-conference to announce his retirement. “I want to start giving my support to all those athletes who have suffered like me, who have had their dreams cut short sooner than expected. I advise them to look ahead as I am doing.”
De la Red’s story is a lesson for fans of football and people in general. Live in the moment – and as a fan of the beautiful game, enjoy the spectacle of a gifted player. As we battle through a global pandemic, we again have to re-frame our perspectives and cherish a player’s career, and their moments, as it can so quickly be taken.
When asked about celebration stories after the UCL final win over Valencia in Paris, former Real Madrid player Gerei tells @KiyanSo "what happens in the dressing room stays in the dressing room"— Managing Madrid (@managingmadrid) April 28, 2020
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