Francisco Gento: The selfless skipper
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His eulogy was heartfelt, full of sorrow for a friend lost. "I have many memories of him from all those years we were together," Francisco Gento said of Alfredo Di Stefano upon the Argentine's death just a few weeks past. "What he did was extraordinary. He was the best player there has been, and he was my teacher."
Di Stefano was not the bashful sort, but he would, perhaps, have taken issue with his old Real Madrid teammate's words. Gento did not need much teaching; if he did, he was the model pupil. "The way we played was very simple," Di Stefano once said. "We would wait, wait, wait, and then pass it to Gento."
Teams captained: Real Madrid, Spain.
Trophies won: La Liga (12 times); Copa del Rey (1962, 1970); European Cup (six times); Intercontinental Cup (1960); 1964 European championship.
Some players make obvious captains. They are the tough-tackling central defenders, the courageous souls who put their bodies on the line and the bloodcurdling midfield generals who dictate the game, bending it to their will, forcing opponents to submit. They are the heart-on-their-sleeve leaders, the fans' passion made flesh.
Others are quieter, less apparent, their positions seeming to count against their authority, but they are no less legitimate for it. It is into this category that Gento -- a left-winger once mocked for his brain's inability to keep up with his body -- falls. Miguel Munoz and Jose Maria Zarraga were Real's captains as they won five European Cups in a row, a pair of granite giants in midfield. Di Stefano was the club's focal point, Ferenc Puskas its star cameo. Gento, though, would outlast them all. He would prove the most enduring symbol of the golden age.
Gento started his professional career at Racing Santander, joining Real after just a season in the club's first team. He did not settle straightaway; his first season saw him roundly criticised, largely for "running so fast that I forgot to take the ball with me," as he once said. He was quick -- they called him Galerna del Cantabrico, the "Cantabrian Gale," for his speed -- but his technique, his finesse, was lacking.
His work ethic, his desire for self-improvement and the arrival of Uruguayan midfield player Hector Rial would change all that, though. By the time Real started their dominance of Europe, he was central to their play.
Before the 1958 European Cup final -- what would turn out to be Real's third victory in a row in the competition -- Di Stefano told Gento that he was going to have to win this one; he was the strongest physically, the best equipped to break the massed ranks of AC Milan's defence at Brussels' Heysel Stadium. "'Only you can win this game,' he told me," Gento recalled. "'You wait and see; [it'll be] with one of your runs,' he said. I was fortunate enough to score the decisive goal. He trusted me."
Di Stefano was not the only one who noted quite how much the winger contributed. Sir Bobby Charlton recalled watching Real play from high in the stands at the Bernabeu, finding himself captivated by Di Stefano but marvelling equally at the winger with whom he combined so effortlessly. "There was Gento playing alongside, and Di Stefano just timed his passes perfectly for him," he said. "Gento ran so fast you could not get him offside. I was just sitting there, watching, thinking it was the best thing I had ever seen."
Gento was always typically self-deprecating when such assessments were put to him. "I ran, ran, ran and then, bam, crossed the ball into the far post," he said. It sounds so simple. Charlton's testimony suggests it looked quite simple, too. It was not. It was testament to the extraordinary ability of all its component parts, the team that set the bar for all the galacticos that followed.
That side won five European Cups; Gento would play in two more finals, in 1962 and 1964, that ended in defeat, too. He insisted as recently as May that his 12 domestic championships always meant more to him -- "people always mention the European Cups, but the league is more important" -- but it is hard to escape the feeling that it was his sixth continental triumph that sealed his legacy, not just because it made him the most decorated player in the competition's history, just ahead of Paolo Maldini, but because the triumph in 1966 showcased that he, just like Di Stefano and Puskas, was a leader, too. By the mid-1960s, Real's luck seemed to have run out. Their iron grip in the European Cup had been loosened by Barcelona -- of all teams -- in 1961; when they lost in two finals in the next three years, it looked like glory would continue to elude them.
Their team in 1966 was not a classic by their standards; its names do not echo through the ages like the sides that had made them the most famous club in the world. They had not entirely convinced on their way to the final -- at Heysel, once again -- either; they sneaked past Anderlecht by one goal and Internazionale by the same margin. Most damningly of all, they had been held to a draw by Kilmarnock in the first round.
Still, they made it, if not in the same style as they once did then certainly with just as much grit and determination. These qualities were encapsulated perfectly by Gento, their captain, the member of the all-star side of the previous decade who had to work hardest to belong.
It was a side known as the "ye-yes," thanks to a photograph of some of the younger members of the team wearing what were supposed to be Beatles wigs. Gento, famously, had refused to don the headgear for the shot. The reasons are not entirely clear; perhaps he felt it would be incongruous, an elder statesman of the game larking around with the kids. That, too, fits perfectly: he was of this team, but he was apart from them. He was a remnant of a different age.
He would, though, have his moment. Real beat Partizan Belgrade in Brussels. Gento would lift the trophy that made his name -- that made his club's name -- one last time. "Paco Gento embodies the old guard, the glory days, the flash of lightning launched on its way by a ball from Rial or Di Stefano," wrote Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia.
"His prodigious qualities have faded somewhat. His dribbles are performed more slowly, and his galloping runs are no longer imperceptible to the naked eye. He's still lightning, though the flashes come less frequently. Nevertheless, his presence on the field encourages his colleagues and brings order to the whole team."
That was Gento's secret in 1966: his presence. He was not inclined to self-publicising. He did not shout his greatness from the rooftops. He still doesn't, as his eulogy for Di Stefano showed. After Real, the old Real, lost to Barcelona in 1961 in the most controversial circumstances, Gento was said to be fuming. All he said in public, though, was this: "I wish them the best of luck in the final." That was before he was captain, but it was the magnanimous attitude that made him captain. Some leaders do not need to rage and growl and snarl. Some leaders just lead.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.