Paco Gento, Real Madrid legend and six-time European Cup winner, dies aged 88

  • Winger won 12 league titles in long career at the Bernabéu
  • ‘His speed was terrifying … It was impossible to stop him’

When Paco Gento arrived in 1953, he thought Real Madrid were too big for him but that was nowhere near as big as he would make them. He joined a club that had not won the league in two decades, since before the civil war; by the time he retired 18 years later, it was the biggest, most successful in the world and he had set a record still unmatched half a century later and likely never to be beaten.

Nicknamed La Galerna, the Gale, after the wind that tore through the Cantabrian coast like he tore through defences, Gento died on Tuesday, aged 88. In a career spent almost entirely at Real Madrid he won 12 league titles and six European Cups. No footballer can match that; only two clubs have won more and one is the institution he helped transform, where he was the honorary president.

Gento might not even have been a Madrid player for long. At the end of his first season, the club’s president and patriarch Santiago Bernabéu was minded to transfer him to Osasuna. Raised in the village of Guarnizo, where his family tended to livestock and chicken and he played barefoot with “balls” made of paper or stuffed with feathers, where he listened to Atlético on the radio, Gento had signed for Madrid at 18. “Too young,” he later admitted.

He had only played a handful of games for his nearest club Racing Santander, one of them while still underaged at 17, forcing them to forfeit the match and leaving him having to wait to restart his career. The contract to join Madrid was signed hidden away in a garage somewhere to avoid furious fans in Santander and for a while they were not much easier on him in Madrid. The club had seen something that supporters could not yet.

“The whole thing was too big,” he said shortly after retiring. “Just their name, the atmosphere, my isolation, my reserved character, the shyness, the fans who had a go at me and rightly so, all meant I walked a bitter road. I lost sleep over the criticism. It made me think that they would transfer me to a team in the provinces.”

Alfredo Di Stéfano, who had arrived the same summer, had other ideas, telling Bernabéu that Gento was “untouchable”. There was something there, he was sure. And so it proved. “The lad was an introvert, he came from a small town and he felt out of place,” Di Stéfano recalled. “In the second year he became the best left winger in the world.”

Gento would cite a game against Barcelona, where his opponent Josep Seguer asked whether he was ever going to “get off your bike”, as the moment it really started, and then it never stopped.

In 1954, Real Madrid won the league for the first time since 1933. The following season they won the inaugural European Cup, the first of five in a row and a run unrivalled by anyone. Gento was there for all of them and still there in 1966, a veteran now when a team made up only of Spaniards won it again. He also lost two finals.

The third European Cup was the one he would remember most fondly, scoring an extra-time winner against Milan. The players were exhausted, Di Stéfano telling him: “It’s down to you.” That remark clearly had an impact on him which said something about a personality entirely without presumptuousness, about his profile, and yet also about his significance, the trust they had in him.

“His speed was terrifying,” his teammate Ignacio Zoco said. “It was impossible to stop him and as fast as he went he could stop in a metre while the other guy keeps running, skidding past trying to put the brakes on. He’s out the game and Gento’s going the other way.”

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This was probably the greatest forward line of all, a team that had Di Stéfano, Puskas, Kopa, Didí, Rial, and Canario, yet Puskas wrote of how their “plan was simple: we knew in Gento we had the fastest thing on two legs”.

He was too fast for everyone, which had included him at first — he would run out of pitch and Di Stéfano would plead with Héctor Rial not to release him too soon as the rest could not catch up. But the control came, driven by a quiet determination to improve, to emulate and learn without ever considering himself a star, to serve.

He did that better than anyone, and the trophies came too of course. The club he thought too big became bigger than anyone else because of him.

“Don’t worry sunshine, you’ll be as big as your teammates,” Bernabéu assured him once, and Paco Gento was.


Sid Lowe

The GuardianTramp

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