Where does one start with Paco Gento. There are sometimes characters in sport history where words have been exhausted and a figure’s stature and story becomes timeless. Real Madrid, particularly the 1950s ilk, are blessed with practically a squad of this type. No one needs to be told who Gento was and what he meant to Real Madrid’s history. His talent is well rated by a generation whose parents were probably still too young to watch the winger in his prime.
It’s the challenge that faces anyone writing about Real Madrid’s history, particularly in the event of a death where looking back becomes so important. You seem to swing between recounting all the details for a player that needs no introduction or frozen in silence with the realization that there is nothing new to say. This is all to say that what I’m writing now is as much for me as it is for you.
Watching old Real Madrid games can be something of an arduous task if you’re trying to do it with purpose. My Substack on Real Madrid’s history is gathering dust for several reasons, one being I find watching old matches hard work. The games are always in poor quality, my Spanish is limited so I never really know what the commentator is saying, I have no idea who most of the players are and I’ve got a really bad attention span.
This context is why the 1962 European Cup final might be one of my favorite football matches ever in terms of entertainment. It’s a 5-3 loss with some of the greatest names in Real Madrid history playing at their peak. Alfredo Di Stefano is superb, Ferenc Puskas scores an unbelievable hat-trick and it’s only undone by an equally inspired Benfica side featuring Eusebio. I don’t think this is the greatest football match Gento ever played, he enjoyed somewhat of a more reserved role compared to his inspired teammates. However, it does give the viewer an excellent taste of what a physical freak Gento was.
I think, even in modern day standards, his speed on camera is freakish and debate will rage amongst a certain sect of fans on if Gento was, as Puskas once put it, “the fastest thing on two legs” Real Madrid and football has ever seen. As fun as such a discussion would be, I really want to bring some balance to that particular conversation. Pace is the central tenet of Paco Gento’s story, but it shouldn’t be the defining trait of his legacy. Phil Ball’s two page spread on Paco Gento in The White Storm is very penitent in this sense; speed alone doesn’t make great footballers, Gento’s real genius was in his control, purpose and effectiveness.
Excerpt on Paco Gento from @sidlowe’s fine book. Watching old Gento highlights, it always looks like he's on fast-forward and everyone else is on normal speed. Was ahead of his time. R.I.P. pic.twitter.com/uEYHFwdmJX— Rahul Kalvapalle (@Kalvapalle) January 18, 2022
Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas loved the winger because of his willingness to pass the ball back once initially receiving it, all to often in the right areas for a goal. Speed was a weapon that Paco wielded and controlled, never the other way round and he took great personal glee in recounting moves like slamming the brakes mid-sprint and drifting off infield as a hapless defender skidded off in the opposite direction. It’s a cartoonish image and that one can only speculate how many assists Gento managed to rack up as a result only adds to a mythic talent.
He also scored 183 goals? Probably in his spare time???
This career is supernatural, but it’s also human and humble in spades. It, after all, started with a green teenager arriving at the Spanish capital with just a little bit more first division experience than you and I have. 10 appearances with Santander sold Santiago Bernabeu on the talent of Francisco Gento, but it took two years to get the best out of him. He stunned his teammates on the training ground, but struggled to replicate it on the pitch. Returning to Ferenc Puskas, the Hungarian spoke of a tremendous shot on Gento that was also wildly inaccurate “[the shot] disturbed the birds in the trees and we could never find the ball afterwards”.
Hector Rial’s arrival eventually helped Gento get more involved, but the winger’s talent ensured he outlasted all his teammates and that precious pace in his game when Paco finally called it a day at the age of 37. According to BDFutbol, Ferenc Puskas is the oldest player to appear for Real Madrid at 39, however, he was out of real first team contention for two years before he retired. Gento only stopped playing regular first team football in his last season at the club. He put up some of his best goal scoring performances of his career in his mid-30s and, flicking through old matches, its clear he was able to maintain himself physically late into this career. As a result, not only is he still Real Madrid’s most successful player, but he was also the club’s most capped until Carlos Santillana surpassed Gento’s 600 appearances in 1981.
The records he set when he walked away from the pitch in 1971 have stood for over half a century. He’s still the only footballer to win six European Cups and his 23 honors with Real Madrid was only equaled by Marcelo a few days before his death was made public. He is a mythic figure in our club’s history and will be sorely missed.