Victor sees opportunity for Betis to do something big at former club Madrid
When Real Madrid return to La Liga action on Sunday, a familiar face will be plotting to put another dent in Zinedine Zidane's team's title hopes. Real Betis come to the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in lower midtable, but with coach Victor Sanchez del Amo's well-organised side aiming to upset their more illustrious opponents.
Former Madrid youth player Victor was famously a part of the Deportivo La Coruna outfit who won the 2002 Copa del Rey final at the Bernabeu, shocking Galacticos Zidane and Luis Figo on what was supposed to be a celebration of the bigger club's 100th birthday.
Although Betis have not won at Madrid since 1998-99, and lost there 5-0 last season, Victor says that his young team can surprise Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos and company this weekend.
"Some people might be scared to take on one of the biggest teams in football history," he told ESPN FC in an exclusive chat at Betis' training ground in Seville. "There are others who see it as an opportunity to do something that people will talk about, give you prestige and fame and a lot of satisfaction. We feel we can go there and win. As a player I took on Real Madrid in the Bernabeu and got good results. The players see this opportunity to do something big."
Slow starts have seen Madrid fall behind in five of their past seven games in all competitions, although often coming back to win -- and Victor says he and his staff have been watching.
"We analyse minutely our opponents' games, to see how they suffer and how they get advantages," he says. "We've analysed our attacking strengths relative to their defensive weaknesses. And also how to minimise Madrid's great attacking virtues. That is what, in the end, gives the player confidence that he can go out and play the game. The team that has the intelligence to make the right decisions will win this game. That is important, not history or statistics or anything else."
Madrid's best performance in recent weeks was Saturday's steamrolling 4-0 win at Eibar, with current Galacticos Ronaldo and Gareth Bale absent. Victor admits that opposition coaches look to take advantage of any lack of focus from Los Blancos' front line.
"Obviously those players have huge attacking potential, but their defensive contribution is more variable and less regular," he says. "Often, above all, it depends on their motivation, the importance of the game for them. That can vary a lot. And when there are defensive weaknesses, we try and take advantage, of course."
Getafe-born Victor entered Madrid's youth system aged 11, and worked his way up to the first team, playing a key part in the club's 1997 La Liga and 1998 Champions League trophy wins. As a homegrown player who battled for a first-team place with expensive signings, in his case stars including Dutch international Clarence Seedorf and French World Cup winner Christian Karembeu, he says he can empathise with the current bunch of youngsters at the Bernabeu.
"Lucas [Vazquez], [Alvaro] Morata, [Dani] Carvajal have come through the cantera," he says. "Our generation was Raul [Gonzalez], Alvaro [Benito], Guti, [Jose Antonio] Garcia Calvo and me. We came up through the ranks together. Raul jumped straight into the first team. We others all then arrived together later. Always there is a tendency to give more opportunities to the signings who have come from outside.
"Younger players need regular games to find their feet. When they manage it, I am very happy for them. I know how difficult it is, as I lived it myself."
Victor left Madrid for Racing Santander in summer 1999 aged 23, and almost two decades later is still unhappy at the "circumstances" that forced his exit.
"In my two and a half years at Real Madrid, in the first team, I had played 65 competitive games," he says. "Many were as a starter, and I won two trophies -- La Liga and the Champions League. As well as a Supercopa against Barcelona that I remember too. There is something strange there to then leave, no? A player who participates in practically everything, over two successful seasons when trophies were won. I didn't want to leave, had no intention to, I was delighted there. The coach Guus Hiddink was happy for me stay. But there were other circumstances which obliged me to leave Real Madrid. That is the difference."
Madrid's coach in 1997-98 was Fabio Capello, who Victor said left a huge impression on how he still thinks about the game now as a coach.
"In my time as a player there was a huge jump in tactical development," he says. "Before we developed our tactical knowledge intuitively and innately. To have the intelligence to play the game, and take decisions during the game. That is what is generally known as tactics, what you do in defence and attack. With the arrival of Fabio Capello I began to see that this could be coached, that you could improve, that it was not just all about natural talent. It was a big thing for me. With the structure of training sessions, and video sessions, we could improve individually and as a team. That marked me, for sure."
Capello himself, and other coaches including Rafa Benitez during his six months in charge last season, have historically had difficulties getting big stars in the Madrid dressing room to buy into their ideas. But Victor says that the best players by definition do not need as much tactical instruction as others.
"Tactics means football intelligence, and it is very important for performance," he says. "Within football there are so many variables that influence performance. You must make decisions in all those different moments of the game, whether you have the ball or not, depending on where you are on the pitch, depending on the scoreline, depending on the characteristics of the opponent, all these ingredients. So you need intelligence to be able to interpret these moments, take the right decisions, and execute them well. The great players, the best players in the world, need the least tactical training. They can already read the games, they understand the play."
Victor arrived at the Benito Villamarin last November, with Betis two points above the relegation zone following a short but turbulent spell under former Sunderland manager Gus Poyet. The team have since achieved some good results, including a 1-1 home draw with Barcelona, to slowly climb towards midtable.
"Always when a coach comes into a team during the season, it is because the situation is not good," he says. "So you try and find solutions. Since our arrival, we have gone for a change of system (to 3-5-2) which has made the team more solid and competitive. What we have not got yet is consistency in results. But this comes from work over time. For us the most important is to see the team is improving. The objective for Real Betis Balompie is to be in Europe, and to do that you need time, to consolidate the project."
Away from Betis, Victor says he has twice come close to joining an English club, and would like to work in the Premier League some day.
"This summer I was close to joining Nottingham Forest," he says. "I love the Premier League, all my life, and I was very close to joining Liverpool when Rafa Benitez was there. I could not play in England as a player, but I dream that someday I will have the chance to coach in the Premier League, for sure. I have a great relationship with some coaches who are there, above all with (Tottenham manager) Mauricio Pochettino, who I admire and share a lot with. There is also my ex-Madrid teammate Aitor Karanka (in charge of Middlesbrough), and I know him very well too. Anyone who likes football is attracted by the atmosphere in England."
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan