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Fußball: Real Madrid-Libero Uli Stielike Photo by Wolfgang Weihs/picture alliance via Getty Images

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Exclusive Q&A: Real Madrid legend Uli Stielike

The German midfielder tells Kiyan stories about Juanito, President Bernabeu, Camacho; reveals politics from the 1981 final vs Liverpool, and a ton more

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 thing. All previous editions can be found here.

Real Madrid legend Uli Stielike is quite literally one of the best midfielders in club history, and is rarely talked about enough. The German was one of Santiago Bernabeu Yeste’s last ever signings before the former president passed away, and was a pillar of a team that won several titles as he formed a great nucleus alongside legendary players like Vicente del Bosque, Juanito, Jose Antonio Camacho, and Goyo Benito.

Stielike won six major titles in his time with Real Madrid, and has a special place in my upcoming book. I reached out to him, and he told me stories about former president Santiago Bernabeu, Juanito, Camacho, his connection with Del Bosque, the politics surrounding the 1981 European Cup Final which Real Madrid lost to Liverpool, some old ‘beef’ with Roberto Carlos, how the game has changed since he retired, and a ton more:

Kiyan: What do you remember about the 1981 European Cup final? Do you think if you and Laurie Cunningham were 100% healthy, Real Madrid would have won that match?

Uli: We will take a look at Real Madrid from that year and evaluate its politics a little. In 1977 after a disastrous season, Madrid signed Quique Wolff, Juanito and myself. In 1978, 1979 and 1980 we were champions of Spain; in 1979 a Copa del Rey finalist; in 1980 a Copa del Rey winner as well as a semifinalist of the European Cup.

That is, we had three good years. But at the end of the 1979 season three starters come out: Juan Sol, Quique Wolff and Henning Jensen. Then a year later, Pirri, the head of the team, goes to Mexico, and Roberto Martinez also leaves - although he was no longer a starter he had a lot of personality and was heard in the locker room.

In three years we lost almost half a team and the tragedy was that they had not been replaced with players of the same magnitude. Apart from the departure of the players, Don Santiago died during the 1978 during the World Cup in Argentina and Luis de Carlos, his successor, was unwilling to spend more of the club’s income. The fact that both Cunningham and I were coming back from injuries, I’m not going to use that as an excuse because the team did quite a job of getting to this final.

Kiyan: I recently watched the 1977 Clásico, in which you helped Real Madrid win at the Camp Nou. What struck me was how well Vicente del Bosque and you worked together in midfield. Can you talk about your connection with him and your roles in the team?

Uli: In the 1977/78 season we played many times in midfield with Quique Wolff, Vicente del Bosque and myself. Quique, like me, had just arrived in Madrid and for our integration it was very important to have players with the history and experience of Pirri, Benito or del Bosque.

Vicente lacked a bit of speed but he had a very good vision of the game, an excellent technique and was smart enough to know his own strengths and weaknesses. He was also very educated and extremely humane. The combination of sporting qualities and social attitudes always facilitate or complicate collaboration between people. In our case we understood each other very well and when the midfield works like that it’s difficult to fail.

The result of that season was a league title and me scoring 13 goals.

Kiyan: You were one of the last signings of Santiago Bernabeu. What do you remember of him? Do you have any stories about him?

Uli: First, it caused me a great surprise that Don Santiago came in person to watch a match between Borussia Mönchengladbach and Dynamo Kyiv to assess whether my transfer to the club would be appropriate.

Then when I became a Madrid player I was very impressed by his great authority and the love he received from the club’s employees. And although he was already quite affected by his illness at this time he spent many hours on the club premises. The times that I met him he always blurted out some greetings in German. According to what he told me he had caught some German phrases during the war. One day leaving the city sports complex on Calle de Castellana, he met my father who was on his visits and gave him a huge hug, thanking him for having let his son go to Real Madrid.

Kiyan: What position would you say you played? Were you a defensive midfielder? A sweeper? Does your position still exist in today’s football?

Uli: I started playing in the center of the field but with the departure of Pirri, little by little I found myself more and more in the libero position. I loved the center of the field because of the touches on the ball and the participation that you could have in a game. I also liked the libero position because of its huge responsibility.

The positions we occupy in the center of the field were shaped by the perception of the game and its tactics. When playing a man against man scheme you have to defend where your adversary directly has possession of the ball, and you attack from this position when you or your team wins the ball. Modern football currently classifies this as a defensive midfielder in a number 6, or, the more offensive version, a 10. Each of the three midfielders we had in the center of the field played as an 8 in different circumstances.

Kiyan: Which current player is most comparable to your style of play?

Uli: I think that comparisons from one era to another are not valid. At a young age I learned to dribble the ball, especially in the street. I arrived by age 18 to a professional club. Today the clubs seek much younger talents. They take them out of their parents’ house, put them in academies and teach them soccer like math, geography or languages. It’s a totally different concept that of course has influences on the development of a human being. The boys today are undoubtedly precocious, which does not mean that they are better. Early involvement of the clubs often makes them dependent and brings problems such as lack of decision making or lack of authority.

Kiyan: Do you think people should talk more about Real Madrid’s midfield during your era? It seems your time is underrated and not talked about enough when discussing the best teams in club history.

Uli: We live in fast moving times. On the one hand I do not see the logic that young people who want to be professional players one day do not know or deal with history and that they do not know players like di Stefano, Puskas or Pele.

On the other hand, I see it as normal that people remember the greatest teams. A championship for Real Madrid already seems like a normal thing. What does count when discussing the best teams is the Champions League. We arrived in 1981 to play the final against Liverpool with a team where more than half of the players had not even been an international. For me that would’ve been an important success, as in public opinion there isn’t any interest in a team that comes second place.

Kiyan: Can you tell me a story about Juanito that others don’t know?

Uli: Regarding his technical level, I can tell you that Juanito had everything to succeed as one of the greatest. He lifted the audience from his chairs with his dribbling and even of the team he demanded of them to look for each other and try to enter the area because with his speed it was very difficult to stop him without failing.

It is also true that as a partner from time to time he made you nervous when he changed from playing effectively for the team to putting on an individual show, and after three of his attempted dribbles we had to run back behind the ball.

But his big problem was his lack of control of his emotions. I think that these emotional explosions lasted a few seconds. They have done a lot of damage to his reputation.

Kiyan: You played alongside Camacho. How does he compare to Marcelo and Roberto Carlos?

Uli: I arrived in the summer of 1977 and found a Camacho full of form. Going up, going down the left wing, eliminating his opponent directly in his task as a lateral and at the same time transforming into more of an attacker. And although he was 22 years old then he was already a fundamental piece. Then at the beginning of 1978 he tore his ligaments at a time when sports medicine practically did not yet exist and this injury most likely meant the end of a sports career.

What this man suffered to return to the playing fields is indescribable. Operations in Spain and in France, a lot of drugs and rehabs with discharges, but in the end he made it.

In any case, the player who most resembled Camacho was Gordillo.

Kiyan: In 2003, after Real Madrid lost in the semifinals of the Champions League against Juventus, you said that the team “lacked balls”. Robert Carlos responded by saying “Who is Stielike?” Do you remember this? Did you ever talk to Roberto Carlos afterwards?

Uli: Look, at least he hasn’t spoken badly about me because if today you don’t blast a coach or harshly criticize a player your words don’t matter. I think if he doesn’t know me it’s because he lacks respect for his work and the history of the club. It’s like if I didn’t know Santamaria, Zoco, Grosso or Amancio.

Kiyan: Do you still talk to any of your former Real Madrid teammates?

Uli: I’m still tied a bit to the veterans department. Recently they played a match in Algeciras. As I live next to Malaga, I approached the game and it was a very nice moment to meet again with some players of my time like San José, Agustín or Martin Vázquez. It was decades that I had not seen them.

Kiyan: What is your opinion of this Real Madrid team? Can Tchouameni replace Casemiro? And does the team need a back-up striker?

Uli: People forget that a transfer of a player is more than just getting a player out of his team, but they also have to fit in your own team. A boy can only perform at his best when he is 100% integrated and will start to understand the demands of Madrid. He will have to learn as quickly as possible, get a grasp of Spanish football and customs in Spain.

And when you think that the boy has adapted and played at his best, he starts to cause problems through his family or his agent who are not happy with some nonsense.

The spectators, and unfortunately also much of the press do not want to see that there are many clear obstacles that come before performances.

As the transfer window is over we don’t have to talk about possible transfers anymore.


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