For Eight by Eight issue 04, Sheridan Bird compiled Los Blancos” best European XI
Last May, Real Madrid became European champions for the tenth time, igniting lavish celebrations. All agree that the aristocratic Spaniards are undisputed masters of Europe’s top competition, but if you asked fans to name their greatest European Cup/UEFA Champions League combined team, you’d get plenty of debate.
Here’s my choice of the Whites’ best European XI, picked while observing one rule: Every player must have won at least one European Cup or Champions League for Real. This is why Santillana, Emilio Butragueño, Martín Vásquez, José Antonio Camacho, Michel, Chendo, Juanito, Hugo Sánchez, and many other adored names of the 1970s and 1980s miss out.
There are no shirt numbers. This is to avoid a punch-up between large egos demanding “their” lucky jersey. Both Ramos and Hierro have a claim to the No. 4, while Raúl and Cristiano Ronaldo would squabble over No. 7.
Although the lineup features three defenders, it would not withstand examination in a real match. This fantasy team is a bit of fun; balance and tactics are an afterthought. If this side existed, Fernando Hierro, Sergio Ramos, and Fernando Redondo would be traumatized from doing all the defending.
IKER CASILLAS (1998–present)
Not only have Real won Europe’s top competition 10 times, they have also lifted the modern version, the Champions League, more often than anyone else. Iker Casillas appeared in three of these four triumphs (2000, ’02, and ’14). Not boasting a physique you’d keep for posterity—he’s no man-mountain like Peter Schmeichel, Gigi Buffon, Petr Čech, or Manuel Neuer—“Saint Iker” is agile and unruffled. Captain since 2010, he’s a hero to schoolchildren, adults. and marketing men.
SERGIO RAMOS (2005–present)
It took two or three seasons, but Ramos wrestled his exuberant, sometimes destructive, competitive edge under control and combined it with extraordinary athleticism. The former long-haired loose cannon (and the first Spanish Galáctico Florentino Pérez signed) is now vice-captain. His goals against Bayern Munich in the semi and last-minute equalizer in the final versus Atlético Madrid were vital to la Decima.
FERNANDO HIERRO (1989–2003)
The concept of a ball-playing central defender wasn’t patented by the Dutch or Germans. Hierro had the feet and mind of a midfielder. He became a fixture at center back, winning three Champions Leagues, in 1998, ’00, and ’02, launching attacks with his sumptuous passing. With a surname that means “Iron”, he was indeed strong and knew how to give opponents the right amount of aggravation without getting sent off (most of the time).
FERNANDO REDONDO (1994–2000)
Real fans revolted when the graceful midfielder, crucial to the side that won the 1997–98 and 1999–00 Champions Leagues, joined AC Milan in the summer of 2000. Redondo, in front of the defense, always knew where the ball would go, passed exquisitely, could handle (and give out) the rough stuff, andset the team’s rhythm. His back heel through Manchester United defender Henning Berg’s legs on a rare forward foray in 1999–00 became his calling card.
ALFREDO DI STÉFANO (1953–1964)
All-rounder is the best way to describe Di Stéfano, who passed away at age 88 in July. He could tackle, begin moves, make goals, and score. The Blond Arrow’s hunger and consistency powered Real to their first five European Cup wins. (He scored in every final from 1956 to 1960.) Originally a forward, the Argentine wandered around picking up the ball wherever he liked. Such was his talent and influence, that no one rebuked him.
ZINEDINE ZIDANE (2001–2006)
“The body of a bear, the mind of a fox,” as the Italian press said of Zidane. He arrived in 2001 for a world record price (€75m/$65m) and had a difficult first few months. Then his volleyed goal in the 2002 Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen, a cocktail of coordination, grace, and force, which he calls “one of my great memories,” sealed the ninth European crown. The ball loved the powerful yet subtle playmaker. So did we.
CRISTIANO RONALDO (2009–present)
For many players, even center forwards, 17 goals in a season is a good tally. Cristiano scored that many in the 2013–14 Champions League alone. Add a missed penalty away to FC Copenhagen and a brush with the post and bar against FC Schalke 04 and CR7 was close to 20 goals in 11 matches. A direct, robust, ultra-athlete, the 2013 Ballon d’Or winner is unstoppable casino at his best, guarantees goals, and is rarely injured. Don’t be fooled by the fancy haircuts, perfect teeth and Hollywood body—he’s a gladiator with a fierce desire to win.
FERENC PUSKÁS (1958–1966)
At first they laughed at his belly and nonathletic condition. But after they saw him on the pitch, the giggling stopped. Known as the Galloping Major for his army background, Puskás had perfect control of the ball and was also nicknamed the Little Canon for his thunderous shots. The Hungarian was European Cup top scorer in 1960 and ’64, scoring 35 times in the competition in total. He was perhaps the least streamlined killing machine in sporting history.
FRANCISCO GENTO (1953–1971)
Many celebrated players have worn the white No. 11 shirt. Gareth Bale, Michael Owen, the Brazilian Ronaldo, Jorge Valdano, and Lawrie Cunningham all did it proud. But Francisco “Paco” Gento was the original. The supersonic left winger played in all six of Real’s first European Cup wins. He had enough knowhow and skill to stick around after the speed faded, making a valuable contribution as captain until he retired in 1971.
ROBERTO CARLOS (1996–2007)
Give the left side of the pitch to this bubbly guy. He’ll take care of it. The Brazilian left back joined from Inter Milan in 1996, and his endless energy, technique, and unnatural ability to appear in two places at once wowed fans. Carlos’s domination of his flank allowed Zidane to float around. The pocket rocket had a hand in the winning strike in the 1998 Champions League final against Juventus and both goals in 2002 final against Bayer 04 Leverkusen.
In 20 years, children will ask their dads how this ordinary-looking chap scored so many Champions League goals, including in the finals of 2000 and 2002. The Spaniard wasn’t a super-developed muscle man, didn’t possess the speed of a God, and wasn’t a cabaret of tricks. His weapons were his brain and heart. He was an elusive, courageous, clever attacker who could play next to a big striker or behind two center forwards.
COACHES: MIGUEL MUÑOZ and VICENTE DEL BOSQUE
Two Real midfielders turned managers with the club in their heart. Muñoz won the Champion Clubs’ Cup three times as a player in 1956, ’57, and ’58, and as boss in 1960 and ’66. Del Bosque, an understated, serene but brilliant man, took over as emergency coach during a turbulent spell in 1999 and won the Champions League in 2000 and 2002