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Who is Pirri?

The Ye-Ye icon celebrated his 76th birthday on Thursday

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PSA: About a month ago, I wrote an article on Pachin following his death at the age of 82. The piece went down quite well and one commenter suggested I make this a regular thing. My passion for Real Madrid’s past is well documented and I’m only too keen to write about events in the club’s recent and long forgotten history at anytime, however, I’m also aware that most people enjoy the odd look back rather than long profiles every week. As a compromise, I’m aiming to make this a monthly thing.

Centre forward, defender, captain, doctor, director. Few figures can claim a term of service quite like Jose “Pirri” Martinez Sanchez. Entering his 76th year, Pirri spent nearly half his life working for Real Madrid in some capacity, a journey that started at the end of an era for the club.

Born on March 7th 1945, Pirri’s birthday is celebrated on the 11th as his father put the date on his birth certificate. He grew up in the Ceuta, a village on the northern tip of Spanish Africa. At the age of 15 he signed for Atletico Ceuta where he earned his nickname, Pepirri. He moved to Granada three years later and was catching the eyes of teams in the top flight after just a season on the mainland. His career in white could have never have happened had the teenager impressed Espanyol manager, Lazalo Kubala. Fortunately for Los Blancos, the Hungarian passed up on Sanchez and Real’s scout, Antonio Martínez Ruiz, was able to convince Pirri’s father to move to Madrid for the academic opportunities there for his son.

Pirri arrived in Madrid in August 1964, just as Alfredo Di Stefano was leaving the club. “The truth is I never saw Di Stefano play” Pirri would later tell Sid Lowe, “ I didn’t have a television, but you still knew: they won five consecutive European Cups and Di Stefano was everything.” Emulating the Argentine’s success at Real Madrid would define Pirri’s and the rest of the Ye-Ye generation time at the club and, in those early years anyways, it seemed like they would be up to the task.

Competing for a place in the congested forward line, the 19-year-old had to wait for November to make his debut with Real. ““I remember perfectly. It was the perfect week. First against Barcelona and then against Dukla de Praga in the European Cup. I replaced Puskas with the ‘10’. He’d been sent off the previous Sunday against Betis. In addition, Felix Ruiz and Pipi Suárez were injured. Everything went very well. Miguel Muñoz came to me and said: “Kid, get ready. Play as you train and do what you know.” And that’s what I did.”

Pirri (bottom right) surrounding Paco Gento wearing a Beatles wig. This is the photo that partially earned the Ye-Ye their nickname

Real won that match 4-1 to close the gap on table toppers Atletico Madrid to a point. Pirri played a further 20 matches that season as Los Blancos went on to capture the league title for a fifth consecutive season, the first of 10 Pirri would win during his time at Real. Domestic success eluded them the following year, however, the Ye Ye team made up for disappointment at home with success in Europe. Pirri scored three times on the way to the final, including a decisive goal in the first leg of the semi final.

“Inter Milan were the toughest side in Europe at that time and we came up against them in the semi-finals in 1966. “ Pirri recalled for Real Madrid’s official website, “ We won 1-0 here and then we had a really hard-fought clash at the San Siro that we managed to draw 1-1. We were into the final against easier opposition than Inter, in Partizan, but they made life difficult for us in the end”. Having shaken a huge weight off their shoulders in the shape of a sixth European Cup, there was hope that the Ye-Ye’s would push on and continue the European dominance that Di Stefano’s Madrid had started.

Sadly, life didn’t pan out that way although no one can accuse Pirri of a lack of effort. Starting life out as a center forward, Pirri was largely used a central midfielder at Madrid especially with the arrival of Santillana in the early 70s. Nonetheless, he still managed to score 172 goals and reached double digits for goals in 12 of his 16 seasons at the club, impressive given he finished life at Real as a centre back. Pirri was a uniquely committed player and your da would have probably described him as “a proper footballer” due to his track record of playing through injury.


He played the 1971 European Winners Cup with his arm in a sling. He played through the 1975 Copa del Rey final against Atleti with a broken jaw (he said that he was given injections meaning he could hardly feel it). In 1968, he returned from national team duty with a 39 or 40 degree fever which didn’t stop him from playing that year’s cup final against Barcelona. “During the game, I broke my collarbone but I carried on because there was no substitutes. When they tried to take the pins out, I turned the air. Don Santiago came in and gave me the Laureada because of that. You always wanted to play no matter what was wrong with you. And that is what he wanted too.”

The goalkeeper, Benito, is the only other player so far to be awarded the club’s highest honour. Pirri played his last season with Real Madrid in 1979-1980, his final game being that famous Copa del Rey against Castilla which he, ironically, dominated. Following that season, he left on his own terms (a unique thing at Real Madrid) to Mexico and was given a testimonial against the Spanish national team. He retired after just one season due to the club he was playing for no longer being able to afford him.

Pirri had spent the final few years of his playing career working towards becoming a doctor and earned his Phd during his last season. He returned to Madrid as a club doctor in 1982 and continued working at the club for another 14 years. In 1996, he was promoted to sporting director where he remained until Florentino Perez was elected president. Jorge Valdano was chosen to replace him and, 36 years after he first joined the club, Pirri finally said goodbye to Madrid.

Since then, he seems to be keeping a pretty low profile, doing the odd interview about the glory days and seeing out a richly deserved retirement.

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