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Who is Carlos Santillana?

Karim Benzema recently overtook the obscure, but legendary forward in LaLiga goals.

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With his seventh and eighth goal in six games against Celta Vigo, Karim Benzema became Real Madrid’s fourth highest goalscorer in the league and, should he continue his hot streak against Barcelona, can inch closer to fourth in the all time charts. The Frenchman has already passed some legendary names on his 12 season journey to the top five and, with 270 goals to his name already, looks primed to shuttle pass some more before his time in the Spanish capital is up. Among the men who Benzema has passed, Carlos Santillana is certainly one of the more obscure characters.

The Spanish forward didn’t earmark a golden generation like Raul, Di Stefano and even Benzema himself has, however, there is little disputing Santillana’s legendary status at the Bernabéu. He is, at the time of writing, Real Madrid’s fourth highest all time top goalscorer, fifth all time in both appearances and seasons played, not to mention one of the club’s most decorated forwards having won 16 titles during his stint with the club.

Santillana was born Carlos Alonso on August 23rd 1952 in the Cantabrian town of Santillana del Mar. According to its most famous son, Santillana del Mar is the town of three lies to the Spanish as it is not holy (Santi), flat (llana) or near the sea (Mar). Nevertheless, it made an excellent nickname for the young Alonso when he joined the Satélite de Barreda in 1966.

“The coach, Agustín Cuétara, called us by the name of the town to identify us. ‘Let’s see, the one from Santillana’, he said. And I was the one from Santillana… And then I continued like that at Rayo Cantabria and Racing. I was delighted that they called me that, because, after all, it was the name of my town.”

Santillana’s first professional games came 1970 when he was bought by second division Racing Santander. He made his debut off the bench in a 1-0 defeat Langreo, scoring his first goals for the club a fortnight later against Pontrevedra. Santillana would score another 14 goals to finish with the second division Pichichi award despite Santander narrowly missing out on relegation to the third tier that season. It’s an impressive statement in your debut professional season, but it reportedly wasn’t what captured Madrid’s interest.

The summer of 1971 was one of transition for Real Madrid with the retirement of Paco Gento and the departure of key figures such as Manuel Sanchis Martinez and goalkeeper Antonio Betancort. Short of a defender , club vice president Antonio Calderon was sent to Alicante to watch a friendly between Hércules and Santander. Not wanting to attend the game alone, Calderon called up Santiago Bernabéu to see if he would go. Though Bernabéu refused the offer -he was useless at judging centre backs apparently- Calderon eventually convinced Bernabéu to go. The game was a tedious 0-0 draw which should have been a good sign for Real’s defensive target, however, Bernabeu was more taken by Santillana,

“The centre back’s a donkey” he told one of his deputies, “but that kid he was marking, I like him. He just got on with it, despite the fact he was being kicked to death. He never retaliated once. He just got on with it, and he had a nice touch. I like people like that. It’s dignified, Forget the centre half. I’d sign the kid.”

Santillana joined Real Madrid along with Racing teammates Ico Aguilar, Antonio Gonzalez and Pedro Corral. He was presented to the media on August 2nd with the promise of goals and, for the most part, he delivered on those expectations. Santillana scored 10 LaLiga goals in his first season at Madrid, the first coming in a late 2-1 win away to Burgos which sent Real Madrid top of the table, a position which they remained in for the rest of the season. The 1972/73 season was also Real’s first in the newly christened UEFA Cup, a competition Bernabeu had declared he would never submit Real into. Europe’s second most prestigious trophy would be a familiar sight for Santillana across his Real Madrid career as the club consistently struggled to qualify for the European Cup. He scored his first goals in a two legged victory over Basel.

In April 1973, Santillana took a foot to the stomach and had to be carried off the pitch due to the pain he was in. He started urinating's blood in the shower post game and visited a clinic the following morning where he discovered that he only had one kidney. Although large, it had taken quite a knock in the match and Santillana was advised to rest, missing Real Madrid’s European Cup match against Ajax the following Wednesday. The news of Santillana’s unique condition went national and debate was intense about whether it would be safe for the Spanish forward to continue playing football. In June, Santillana visited Antonio Puigvert, one of the world’s best urologists' at the time. Puigvert gave Santillana the all clear to keep playing, saving the 20-year-old’s career and Real alot of future heartbreak

Health problems continued to niggle at Santillana, especially during the 74/75 season when he managed just 18 games in LaLiga and scored 3 goals. Returning to fitness late in the campaign, Santillana did help Real to Copa del Rey glory, scoring a brace in the quarter finals, one in the semi finals and the opener in the final to buff a rather paltry goal tally for the season.

From then on, he was a picture of health and regularly managed to post 40 games a season, scoring tons of goals as a result. After totals of 10 and 15 in his first three seasons, Santillana finished below the 15 tally just three times across the next 10 seasons, his highest being 30 in 1982/83, though it was never enough to win him a Pichichi.

Santi was a tall forward and, to this day, is still recognized as one of the best headers of a ball the game has ever seen. Before his arrival, Real Madrid didn’t really play with a traditional striker and Santillana never faced much of a challenge for his nine jersey as a result, even when Juanito arrived in 1977. “Juanito’s arrival was so important for Real Madrid,” Santi said of his iconic teammate “He had spark, and genius in doing what was needed. He was a winner and he’d sweat through his shirt for 90 minutes.”

Juanito wasn’t shy in front of goal, he managed to snag the Pichichi that eluded Santillana in 1983/84. However, the legendary seven clearly recognized Santillana’s quality and became his main supplier on the right wing. The duo’s lethal on-field partnership, and Juanito’s comments off it, spearheaded the birth of a new element in Real Madrid’s modern identity.

Even before Juanito’s arrival, Real Madrid weren’t strangers to a European remontada. In 1975/76, they were beaten 4-1 in the first leg of their European Cup clash with Derby County. In the return leg at the Bernabéu, Real managed to reverse the score and bring the game to extra time. In the 99th minute of the match, Santillana found some space in the box, flicked the ball over his marker and smashed home on the volley, sending Real through 6-5 on aggerate.

In the following round, they came back from deficits in both games against Borussia Mönchengladbach before falling to Bayern in the semi-finals. Juanito’s arrival and the turn of the decade saw remonatadas Madrid become more prevalent. In 1980, both Juanito and Santillana scored in a 3-0 victory over Celtic in the European Cup after Los Blancos had lost the away leg 2-0. In December 1983, Santillana scored five in Spain’s 12-1 win over Malta which miraculously sent La Roja to the 1984 European Championships.

In 1984/85, Real lost 3-0 to Anderlecht in Belgium. They managed to overturn that deficit with an emphatic 6-1 win at the Bernabeu. “Back then the Bernabéu could hold 120,000 and they made you leave your heart and soul out there. Whether we played well or badly, we’d be saying to our rivals: “Eh, we’re here!” Santillana told AS of the period.

No one was more symbolic of the remontada era, and Santillana’s role in it, than Inter Milan. Madrid met the Italian giants for the first of four iconic encounters across the mid-1980s after knocking Anderlecht out. Los Blancos lost 2-0 in the San Siro, but a brace from Santillana in the Bernabéu helped Madrid once again overturn the deficit. Madrid won the trophy that season and found themselves in with the chance of retaining it the following year after they finished outside the European Cup spots.

Comebacks were once more the order of the day. Defeat in their first match to AEK was followed by a 5-0 win at home. In the quarter finals, Madrid travelled to Germany and lost 5-1 to Borussia Mönchengladbach. Just over two weeks later, Real dumped Die Fohlen out of the cup thanks to a 4-0 victory at home, Santillana scored two, one being the winner in the final minutes of the game, “To this day I am convinced that the public sucked in that goal for us”, he told AS decades later.

Santillana beneath a pile of players after scoring the winner against Borussia Mönchengladbach

That comeback set up a repeat of the previous season’s semi-final against Inter. Once again, the Italians won the home leg, this time 3-1. In the post match press conference, Juanito declared in broken Italian that “90 minutes in the Bernabéu was a long time”. Forewarned as they were, Inter could do nothing but witness Juanito’s prophecy come true. The game was dragged to extra time and Santillana’s brace, once more, assured Madrid’s place in the final.

The Spaniard’s 89th minute goal in the final, securing a 5-1 triumph over Koln, was his last in the UEFA Cup and his 15th overall. To this day he remains Real Madrid’s best Europa League goalscorer and, given how things have changed since his last goal, its a record that is unlikely to be broken in the near future. Perhaps most striking about all these important goals is that they came at a time when Santillana wasn’t starting for Real Madrid. Across the 1983/84 season, Alfredo Di Stefano gave members of the Quinta del Buitre their debuts including Emilio Butragueño. Santillana managed to co-exist with the Vulture, however, Hugo Sanchez’s arrival from Atletico Madrid soon after ended his 14-year reign as a starter.

“In that transition, what I tried to do was help the team. I assumed my role and contributed my experience, in the dressing room, and I was also fortunate that, when I came out to play from the bench, I scored important goals. As against Borussia, Inter, Derby County etc. We went through important qualifying rounds, and that motivated me to continue, although I knew that the next game I would not play, despite the fact that I trained like a beast.”

Despite his career winding down, the records continued to fall. In 1981, he surpassed Ferenc Puskas as Real Madrid second best all time top goalscorer. That same year, he also became Real Madrid’s most capped forward. In 1987, the season before he retired, he overtook Paco Gento as Real Madrid most capped player and finished his time at the club with 645 games for Real.

His final game at Madrid was a 2-1 win against Valladolid, he scored the second goal which ultimately won Real Madrid their 23rd league title, one last big goal for one of the club’s clutchest players.

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