Barca manager Luis Enrique doesn't have fond memories of Real Madrid
No. 8. LUIS ENRIQUE Martinez Garcia. Gijon 08-05-70. Height: 1.80. Weight 73. MIDFIELDER. Real Madrid.
Looks good, huh? Not according to Luis Enrique, it doesn't. "Every time I see myself in stickers or on the television, I think I look weird in white," the current Barcelona manager famously said, not long after leaving Real Madrid for FC Barcelona as a player. "I recognise myself in white. I think blue-and-claret suits me better." The sticker is from the 1995-96 season, and it's yours for a single euro on collector's sites; the comment is from not long after, and it sums it up nicely.
Enrique signed for Barcelona in the car park at Barajas airport to the east of the Spanish capital one day in 1996 while he was still officially a Real Madrid player, but his departure was, as he later admitted, already an "open secret." When he was left out of the squad one weekend in October 1995, the writing was on the wall. It didn't matter that he was reinstated in the squad after Fernando Redondo had to pull out to go to the dentist; Enrique had made up his mind. If he hadn't already done so.
Madrid's manager at the time, Jorge Valdano claimed to be resting him, "I'm so 'rested' that I'll be able to play until I am sixty or seventy," the player responded. He had not yet renewed his contract at the Santiago Bernabeu, and he was not going to either. Not now. "On a personal level this clarifies my future quite a bit," he said. "I'm clear in my mind and I will speak to my agent." There was an offer for him from Sporting Gijon, where he had begun his career, but it was Barcelona where he ended up.
Enrique was not the first player to cross the divide and he would not be the last; at Barcelona he became close friends with Luis Figo, who then headed in the other direction. Figo became more of a hate figure than Enrique had; one day he famously had a pig's head thrown at him. But Enrique was the nearest thing Barcelona had. And it was not just the fact that he had changed sides; it was what he said and did afterwards. The fact that he seemed to be enjoying it all so much.
"I was lucky. I felt at home in Barcelona; in fact, it has become my home," he said. The contrast was striking; the "unlike in Madrid" went without saying. He identified with Barcelona in a way he had not with Madrid. Barca was his team, along with Sporting; Madrid hadn't been. Barcelona remained "we" even after he had stopped playing for them.
He had rarely felt appreciated by the Real Madrid supporters; as one newspaper put it at the time, he left "sick of accusing fingers pointing his way, un-respected." He had been whistled and criticized; he admitted to having felt "alone."
He had been at Madrid for five years. He had won a league and a Copa del Rey for Madrid and had scored in a famous 5-0 destruction of Barcelona, but he still claimed: "I don't have good memories of my time there.
"My time at Madrid was like a preseason, preparing me for this for what might happen if I signed for Barcelona," he once said. If they didn't love him before, they were not about to now. Enrique was quick to embrace his new club. Over in the capital, that was seen as a lack of gratitude. The fact that he seemed to consider every Clasico a personal battle, revenge -- "for what, exactly?" they wondered -- wound them up. That they insulted him only made him want to win even more. The fact that he almost appeared to enjoy it just made them angrier. And so it spiraled.
"As a Barcelona player, it is gratifying to have the whole stadium whistle you," he said. He played his best football at Barcelona too, winning two leagues and two cups. In 1997-98, he was named La Liga's player of the year by a group of coaches and players consulted by El Pais newspaper. Barcelona fans loved him for that; they loved him even more for the way he played the game -- especially against Madrid. Intense, determined, hyperactive, ultra-competitive.
"It is not hate," Enrique said in a recent advert-turned-interview conducted alongside Figo for a Catalan bank that extolled the virtues of changing. "I would never use the word hate, which is ugly, especially in a sporting context ... But it does motivate you." He recalled his first trip to Barcelona in 1996: "Thousands of people were on my back as soon as I went out to warm up, but it didn't affect me. If anything, it motivated me." The abuse was deafening, and it would remain that way.
The following year, he scored at the Bernabeu, celebrating like a man possessed, pulling at his shirt and punching the air. He ran towards the stand where Madrid's ultras were and was engulfed by teammates. "It was the best way of getting revenge for so much bad treatment," said one match report. Afterwards, he tried to pass it off as just a goal, but eventually he admitted: "My celebration shows clearly how much I wanted to score here. It was not just that we had taken the lead; it was that I had scored here, at the Bernabeu."
When Madrid president Lorenzo Sanz criticized him for the celebration, he replied: "If they want, I'll cry when I score." There was that mischievous, provocative humour again. "I do my job, and if the people who pay for tickets want to shout at me, let them shout. I am used to it here; it happened last year. I'm not interested in what the people think: I am proud to wear the Barcelona shirt."
In total, he scored five times against Madrid, two of them at the Bernabeu. The abuse kept coming. He retired at Barcelona, after eight years, bowing out in 2004. But his home was still in Gava on the coast not far from the city. And his team was still Barcelona. When they beat Madrid 6-2 in 2009 under Pep Guardiola, a close friend, Enrique remarked: "What joy! We were so superior." He called it a "footballing orgasm."
He coached Barcelona B, then Roma, then Celta. When he returned to the Bernabeu for the first time as a manager in charge of Celta last season, they were waiting for him. He knows they will be waiting for him this time too. Enrique understands the Clasico, this is the biggest rivalry in world sport and he knows how it works. It looks suspiciously like he quite enjoys it too; if they're going to wind him up, he'll wind them up back, a knowing glint in his eye. Even as a manager.
Last weekend, Leo Messi appeared to refuse to be substituted against Eibar. In Madrid they leapt on it. The coach was not the "leader" he proclaimed to be; Messi was the real boss and his supposed manager was weak. Enrique declared that interpretations depended on the "interests" of those judging them -- of course they defended him in Catalonia and attacked him in Madrid, seeking to stir up the tension. He may not have entirely convinced when it came to Messi, but when it came to the atmosphere that swirls round the Clasico he was also right.
The Madrid-based sports newspaper AS ran a curious cover, their headline inventing a new phrase that had many scratching their heads, unable to understand it, but seemed to be a homespun equivalent of trying to swim through quicksand or treacle; an impossible task, a tricky situation, an attempt at swimming against the tide. It declared: "Luis Enrique does breast-stroke through chewing gum."
The reaction from most people was: "Eh?! Chewing gum?!" That night, Barcelona almost got caught by Ajax in the Champions League. 2-0 up, Enrique replaced Neymar and, most significantly, Messi. The editor of AS later persevered with the mixed metaphors, describing the substitution as stage-managed to pull Enrique out of the chewing gum, which still didn't make much sense.
In the absence of Neymar and Messi, Barcelona lost control and Ajax scored before Barcelona made it 3-1. "You know you were close to people writing that it slipped away from you because of that, right?" he was asked afterwards. "Close, but it didn't happen," the manager laughed. "Bad interpretations always arrive as the Clasico gets closer, eh ... how surprising!"
The following morning, Enrique posted a picture of Joan Barbara and Juan Carlos Unzue, two members of his coaching staff in the offices at Barcelona's Sant Joan Despi training ground. "Excitedly preparing the clasico," ran the caption. On the desk in front of them sat a packet of chewing gum.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.