This is part 2 of a 3 part series.
Read Part 1 : European Cup: Early Iberian Successes
Read Part 3 : O Glorioso Benfica: Stolen from Africa
Continental competition in Europe and the época dorada (golden era) of Real Madrid began in 1955 propelled by the genius of their new signings from South America: Alfredo Di Stefano (recruited from Colombia’s Millonarios), and his compatriot Hector Rial (from Nacional of Uruguay).
The two Argentine imports would play a pivotal role in carving out Real Madrid’s reputation today as the aristocrats of European football, a superclub which almost every player in world football would aspire to represent.
Los Merengues, though, only really took off under the leadership of Santiago Bernabéu. Until then they had lived in the shadows of Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona and their potential for propaganda usage had not registered with the regime.
Bernabéu set out immediately to improve the club’s long-term prospects by planning an enormous new stadium on the Paseo de la Castellana at Chamartín, the club’s traditional home. The well-connected Real supremo and his cohort Rafael Salgado obtained credit from Banco Mercantil, allowing the club to re-locate to a newer much bigger site. The stadium opened as the New Chamartín, but would eventually be named after Bernabéu.
An important turning point in the club’s history occurred when Di Stefano famously finished up at Real Madrid after protracted negotiations with Barcelona in Bogotá, where he had been playing since a footballers strike broke out in 1949 in his native Argentina. Santiago Bernabéu took advantage of the indecision, persuading Di Stefano to sign for the Madrid club instead.
It is alleged that an agreement existed whereby Di Stefano would play 2 years at Madrid and then 2 years at Barcelona. This was a response to the Spanish Federation’s law preventing foreign players from appearing in the Spanish League. It is to be noted that a number of foreign players (particularly from South America) mysteriously became Spanish citizens on the strength of the most tenuous evidence. Once again, footballing history would repeat itself many times over.
Barcelona and Real Madrid’s tug-of-war to bring the best talent over from the new world was not only a prelude to many an off-the-field battle between the two hegemons, but also a tacit acknowledgment of the strength of the Latin American game at that time. After World War Two, South America stole a march on the decimated nations of Europe, and it was no coincidence that the 1950 World Cup final, known in Brazil as el maracanazo, was contested by two South American sides.
The rivalry between the cities Barcelona and Madrid was already well established, based on historical enmity and tensions existing at the time between Madrid, from where Franco’s centralist authoritarian administration operated and Barcelona, where the Catalan people’s language and culture was fiercely repressed.
Real Madrid as an institution has a mixed and complex history, but in the eyes of many observers outside the capital, they were (and still are) the team of the establishment. The Madrid club were under the presidency of Santiago Bernabéu, for many the personification Spanish upper class arrogance. Bernabéu fought on the nationalist (fascist) side in the Civil War, was a very well connected Castillian with no interest in recognising historical regional differences within Spain and seemed to represent the bloated oligarchy that had ruled Spain prior to the establishment of the Second Republic.
In the inaugural European final Real overcame a prodigiously talented Stade Reims of France by four goals to three. Inevitably Di Stefano was on the scoresheet cancelling out Leblond’s early goal for the French side, but Hector Rial would be the hero scoring the decisive goal eleven minutes from time.
Though Real Madrid emerged as the first ever European Cup winner it wasn’t without suffering defeats, 3-0 away in Belgrade defending a lead of four and a 2-1 defeat in Milan again emerging by a single goal on aggregate. Indeed in the final of the competition they trailed 2-0 to Stade Reims to eventually emerge victorious 4-3 in a thrilling final.
The following year the Madrid club would appear again in the final, with an even stronger starting eleven, having snapped up one of the best players from the previous year’s final opposition Raymond Kopa. Kopa (real name Kopaszewski) was one of a number of Polish migrant coalworkers in France (a legacy of the inter-war years). He went on to be integral to a great French side in the 50s and was a winner of the Ballon d’Or in 1958.
Madrid retained comfortably against Fiorentina the year after in front of 124,000 Madridistas at the Bernabéu. Franco himself was in attendance to hand the trophy down to captain Miguel Muñoz, sealing a huge propaganda victory for the regime. The presence of foreign players was glossed over, as nationalism won the day.
Following the winning policy, they once again looked to the New World to reinforce their squad in the summer. Nacional of Uruguay (a pre-eminent club at the time) were raided again, with tough defender Jose Santamaria (nicknamed La Pared – the wall) bolstering the Madrid back-line. He would be a mainstay for the best part of a decade. By this time they even had an Argentine coach, Luis Carniglia, a great clue to the tempo and style of the football they played.
Amazingly they retained once again, though only after a great scare from Milan who took the all-whites to Extra-time. A Spaniard, Francisco Gento, fired the winner on this occasion and Madrid’s third successive triumph was secured. Gento, incidentally, would go on to be the only Real player to win 6 European Cups, after taking part in the 1965/66 triumph against Partizan Belgrade, in a side managed by ex-captain Miguel Muñoz.
In 1958, far from resting on their laurels, they realised that to retain the trophy they would have to continue to evolve. The Real leadership then took an inspired gamble, recruiting then 31 year old Ferenc Puskás, star of the Mighty Magyar team that so comprehensively brought England to their knees at Wembley in 1953. Puskás had starred in Hungary’s run to the 1954 World Cup final, where they collapsed against West Germany in spectacular fashion.
The plundering of South America continued, with Racing Club’s Rogelio Dominguez and America Football Club’s (of Rio de Janeiro) Canario was brought in. If it isn’t broke don’t fix it as the cliché goes. The all-whites once again defeated Stade Reims, notably, on this occasion, with four South Americans amongst their ranks.
Di Stefano scored in each of the first five European Cup Finals, culminating spectacularly in a hat-trick against Eintracht Frankfurt in the eulogised 7-3 victory at Hampden Park in 1960. This would have been a record, but for the fact that Puskás too, had completed his hat-trick a few minutes earlier. The Hungarian even added another for good measure to complete a record that still stands today.
Alex Ferguson suggested, after his side were systemically dismantled by Barcelona in the 2011 Final, that great sides go in cycles. As Barcelona have discovered on the continental stage, all great cycles must come to an end however. By 1960 Di Stefano was 34 and Puskás 33. It was time for another side to step up, and that is just what Benfica did.
The greatest myth surrounding the Real Madrid team of the fifties is that of their connection to General Franco. A great majority of the evidence, from both Spanish Historians and Franco’s biographer Paul Preston suggest that his interest in football was minimal. That however does not mean that he was not prepared to use the success of Madrid for propaganda purposes. The fame of the Madrid team was exploited to the full by Franco, as was the Spanish national team’s victory in the European Championship, symbolically against the communist USSR in 1960.
The mythology and pressure that accompanies Real Madrid in Europe can largely be attributed to the club’s domination in the early years. The team that finally loosened their grip on the trophy, arch-rivals Barcelona, knocked the seemingly invincible Madrid side off their perch in the first round proper of the 1960/61 tournament with a decisive goal by Brazilian Evaristo de Macedo in front of an estimated 120,000 at Camp Nou.
The Catalans had also looked abroad to gain an early stranglehold on European competition. To compliment the great Galician Luis Suarez they had strengthened their side with two players who never returned to their then-Communist homeland after the great Honved tour of the 1950s. Sándor Kocsis and Zoltán Czibor, two of the ‘Mighty Magyars’ that shook the football world by humbling England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and 7-1 in Budapest’s Nepstadion in 1954, joined the Azulgrana to form a formidable front line.
If the early Spanish successes can be, in part, explained by their astuteness in bringing in the best talent from abroad (predominantly South America), what of Benfica?