In his 35-year presidency of Real Madrid, Santiago Bernabéu transformed a middling team into the greatest club of the 20th century
By Sid Lowe
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Sid Lowe’s new book Fear and Loathing in La Liga that we published in issue 4 courtesy of Nation Books. You can purchase issue 4 here and issues 1 through 4 at a slight discount here.
FOUR MONTHS AFTER MADRID’S 11–1 DRUBBING of Barcelona in 1943, the two clubs played each other in a two-legged “Peace Cup,” a choreographed reconciliation between the cities and teams, harmony forced and faked. The stage-managed fraternity showed just how troubled the authorities had been. A government circular prohibited newspapers from any mention of the 11–1 that could “exacerbate passions between different regions of Spain” and the result brought immediate consequences.
Barcelona’s president resigned but his replacement lasted just thirty-five days before Colonel José Vendrell Ferrer was named. Involved in a military coup against the Republic in 1932, Vendrell Ferrer fought alongside Franco during the civil war and left his post as director of public order in La Coruña to take over at Les Corts—another loyal Francoist in charge. One fellow director described his outstanding “quality” as his “constant desire to remain disciplined, avoiding the slightest friction with the governing bodies of sport.”
At the same time, pressure was brought to bear upon Real Madrid to change their president too and, on August 6, 1943, Antonio Peralba “resigned.” Madrid formally requested that the Castilian Football Federation name a president and on September 15 a new man took office. He would come to embody the club, presiding over it for thirty-five years and constructing the greatest team in history.
Santiago Bernabéu was a safe option for the regime: he had friends at the Federation, was a right-winger, and had volunteered to fight during the war. Virtually the first thing Bernabéu did upon taking power was to send a telegram to Barcelona to “extend the ties of affection and noble sporting rivalry” between the two clubs. “I am not,” he told the media, “going to allow the tension to go on a week longer. Where Barcelona were whistled, they’ll be applauded.” If his fraternal resolve was genuine, it did not last.
Bernabéu’s arrival in the presidency of Real Madrid was the beginning of a new era and he came to define the club. Imposing his personality upon the institution, creating a new structure, building a new stadium that would eventually carry his name, Bernabéu was Real Madrid, Vicente del Bosque referring to him as the “moral and spiritual leader.” As Alfredo Di Stéfano says: “Bernabéu loved the club like mad—and he knew about football. He had been everything there.”
“Everything” is not an exaggeration: Bernabéu had been a ticket-seller, kit man, occasional groundsman, delegate, assistant coach, coach, and secretary. A player for 16 years, a director for 9, he would be president until his death during the 1978 World Cup—even though he claimed to have told his wife upon taking the post that he would stay in the presidency for “a year, no more.” Instead, he had changed Madrid beyond recognition, making it the biggest club in the world, and had presided over sixteen league titles, seven Copas, six European Cups and one Intercontinental Cup.
His father died when he was young. One of seven children, Bernabéu made no secret of his devotion to his mother. He graduated with a law degree and did not marry until he was past 40—when he wed the widow of Valero Rivera, a board member who had been assassinated in the Usera tunnel by left-wing militias during the civil war. As a soccer player, Bernabéu had taken his first steps in El Escorial where his family had moved. His brother Antonio took him to Real Madrid at the age of fourteen. Another brother, Marcelo, was already at the club and when coaches handed Santiago a pair of gloves Marcelo intervened, threatening to take Santiago home unless they played him at center-forward. Bernabéu joined the first team squad at seventeen, made his debut at eighteen and played until he was thirty, although his career also included one season at Atlético—something he kept quiet.
Soccer at the time was a game based less on technique than raw power and Bernabéu had that in spades. Described as a great shootador, he was an inside-forward with little pace and not much skill but was powerful and could hit a ball hard. He made his debut for Madrid in March 1912 against a team of English expats and scored, got a hat trick against Barcelona in 1916 and was part of the team that won the Copa del Rey in 1917, even though injury meant that he missed the final. He scored plenty of goals; in 1922 Madrid Sport made the huge claim that, the “soul” of his team, he had scored over 1,000 of them. He missed out on an appearance for Spain, though, and the experience marked him. He was told he wasn’t playing only as he warmed up before a game in Lisbon in December 1922; because of a desire to have every region represented, his place was taken by the Basque forward Francisco Pagaza. “In a national team regionalism should not win out,” he complained.
Bernabéu was not an especially rich man considering how powerful he became. He was blunt and his attitudes could be contradictory, his version of his story shifting. Catholic but critical of the Church, accusing it in one interview of “holding back evolution for six or seven centuries,” he was a religious man who, his wife said, “did not like monks or nuns”; a monarchist who periodically claimed to be a republican; a Francoist who joked with the dictator but also publicly criticized the regime and later grew resentful toward it, after his plans to redevelop the stadium were rejected despite Franco’s personal approval.
A director under Bernabéu and later president himself, Ramón Mendoza described Bernabéu as an “archaic” man who belonged to the previous century, yet in some aspects his attitude was curiously liberal. Gruff and uncomplicated, he talked of gentlemanly behavior, was rigid and authoritarian, but he swore like a trooper. He could be the very model of respect but had no qualms about telling one player’s wife that when her husband retired she would have to leave him in the club’s hands so that they could put him out to stud.
An austere, tough man, Alfredo Di Stéfano recalls how Bernabéu used to walk round the stadium obsessively switching off the lights, yet he smoked huge cigars and his wife said he was a terrible hypochondriac. He was a proud Spaniard who took Real Madrid’s patriotic ambassadorial role seriously, returning from a trip to the U.S., Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and Cuba in 1927 to announce “we have carried out Spanish propaganda with great tenacity.” He was also a centralist who was obsessed by Catalonia. “His view of the nation was unitary and centralist; he was a giant from the past,” Mendoza said. Bernabéu described Castilians as the most cojundo of Spaniards, the bollocks. He explained: “Those from the meseta, the central plateau of Spain, molded by the cold and the heat, were sufficiently robust to be able to impose themselves on the other regions. Castile spread its language all over the world and Castile was the birthplace of all the feats that made Spain great. I’m sorry, Catalans, Galicians and Basques, but the Castilians were sharper than them on the battlefield, head to head, and they beat them in every era.”
Catalans have a reputation within Spain for being thrifty, a stereotype encapsulated in the phrase la pela és la pela: money’s money. Bernabéu joked about the Barcelona president killing a at customs so as not to have to pay duty on it. During a series of interviews held in 1976 he told his biographer, Martín Semprún, a story. It started with Bernabéu explaining: “when I was a player I had a friend whose greatest defect was that he was Catalan and, worse, he boasted of being Catalan.” Bernabéu then went on to tell the tale of how he took this friend to a brothel in the capital after Madrid had defeated Barcelona 3–0. His friend requested a girl who could “do it in Catalan,” at which the madam asked her staff if any of them could oblige. After most had shaken their heads, no idea what the client wanted, a young girl spoke. Bernabéu took up the story: “‘I haven’t got a clue what you want,’ she said. ‘I don’t even think that doing it in Catalan exists but I don’t care. I’ll do what you say. You show me and, if I like it, I’ll only charge you half….’
Bernabéu could also be magnanimous: When Real Madrid was due to face the Hungarian team Vasas in the European Cup in 1961, Bernabéu intervened with the club and spoke directly to the Hungarian Football Federation on behalf of László Kubala, the Hungarian who had made Barcelona one of the world’s most successful clubs in the 1950s. Bernabéu’s influence was decisive and just before Christmas 1961, twelve years after he had left Budapest, Kubala arrived in Barcelona on a flight from Paris with his mother. She met her three grandchildren for the first time. Together, they were greeted by players and the president of Barcelona on the runway, but it was the president of Madrid who had made it possible.
Bernabéu had opposed the presidency of Rafael Sánchez Guerra prior to the civil war and told Semprún: “I have never, ever been a member of a political party, whether red or facha [fascist].” That was not true. He attended meetings held by José María Gil Robles’s right-wing party the CEDA, carrying a pistol with him, his brother Antonio was a parliamentary deputy with the CEDA and Santiago was at El Escorial in April 1934 when its radical youth wing, the Juventud de Acción Popular (JAP), held its most famous rally alongside the monastery palace of Philip II, Spain’s sixteenth-century imperial king—an event that José Antonio Primo de Rivera, leader of the avowedly fascist Falange Española, described as “a fascist spectacle.”
Bernabéu, a “famous sport-man,” was the JAP’s sports secretary. The JAP was belligerent in its rejection of the left, regional separatism and liberalism, demanding a new state for Spain and the “annihilation” of political opponents in its quest for the rebirth of the Patria, or Fatherland. Sport played a role in this program: once in power, the JAP promised that daily physical education would be mandatory for all schoolchildren and insisted upon the need for “pre-military” education to forge a new generation of patriots. It demanded “a youthful spirit of love of the Fatherland and harder bodies through healthy exercise, so that within every citizen there is a soldier should the Fatherland need him.”
When the Spanish Civil War broke out, Bernabéu took refuge in a Madrid hospital, pretending to be a nurse with fake papers before sheltering in the French Embassy, from where he escaped to France. He then returned to Spain, entering the Nationalist zone via Irún on the border and volunteering for service with Franco’s forces, aged forty-three. He served under General Muñoz Grandes, who would later lead the División Azul on the Eastern Front during the Second World War, and was part of the forces that took Barcelona in March 1939. He described taking village after village in Catalonia, where old ladies looked out from behind the curtains and old men cried in desperation. “When a pensioner cries with hate it’s because the town is beyond help,” he said.
“I took sides in the civil war and later I regretted it,” Bernabéu recalled in the 1970s. “I don’t like to talk about it, especially after so long and no longer knowing who were the good guys and who were the bad. I looked through binoculars for Muñoz Grandes but I later reached the conclusion that I chose the wrong side: the worst thing about war is that it makes more bad men than it kills.” His remarks were disingenuous and not just because the rather coy suggestion that all he did was peer through a pair of binoculars is impossible. He was awarded the Cruz de Mérito Militar, the Cruz de Guerra and the Cruz de Campaña and there was never any doubt which side Bernabéu was on, nor which side he would ever be on. He had previously insisted: “During the war, I was a volunteer against Communism and I would still be today, despite my age.”
Upon taking the presidency at Real Madrid, he named a personal friend of Franco, Lieutenant General Eduardo Sáenz de Buruaga, honorary president and throughout his reign military men were on the board.
The Libro de Oro, published to mark the club’s fiftieth anniversary in 1952, used the kind of tone and language invariably applied to Franco to describe Bernabéu as a “man of iron will,” for whom “gravity and parsimony” were key qualities as a player and a director. “Santiago Bernabéu,” it ran, “so concise, so tenacious, so thoughtful, is to Real Madrid what Philip II was to Spain: her best King. Few words, huge works.” The hagiographic tone continued: “With him at the head of our club we know that nothing bad can happen, that we will overcome all the obstacles … his iron fist on the controls, his eyes, forever alert, an unbreakable faith in the greatest of destinies. With Bernabéu governing, Real Madrid is living its golden age as a club in the very front row. Better than me, no one could be Real Madrid’s currency now; a currency that Bernabéu has earned.”
Bernabéu was a pioneer, obsessed with soccer’s power to generate revenue and determined to maximize its money-making potential with exhibition matches and tours, paying huge fees for players, determined to assert his club’s predominance over the rest. Ultimately, though, this approach was costly: increased income could not match increased expenditure and the club was forced to keep borrowing. The advantage was, as Bernabéu’s loyal vice president Raimundo Saporta noted, that the Banco Mercantil knew that to call in the debt would be hugely unpopular and there were other banks willing to step into their shoes. But eventually credit dried up and Madrid were forced to face reality.
In September 1961, Saporta wrote to Bernabéu to inform him of a meeting that he was due to hold with the bank in a bid to reduce the club’s debt. “We live off the ‘bluff’ that we are millionaires and thanks to that we still have people’s trust,” Saporta noted. “We have to keep making sure that people think we are swimming in gold, so that there is no alarm or criticism.” The following year Saporta cited a “real battle” with the bank and the year after that, in September 1963, he described the club’s financial situation as “frightening.” They had reduced the debt by 7 million pesetas but it still stood at 43 million ($730,000) and that reduction had only been made possible by the 27 million peseta sale of Luis del Sol to Juventus. “And,” Saporta warned, “there’s no other Del Sol [to sell].” He told Bernabéu: “We can’t keep fighting. We’re on the verge of bankruptcy.”
One of Saporta’s handful of suggested remedies, which he admitted would be unpopular, was to end “aid to journalists,” which cost the club 2 million pesetas a year. That proposal helps to underline that Bernabéu was a man who sought to control everything, including public opinion. He oversaw every tiny detail with the assistance of Saporta—who, as time went on and Bernabéu was increasingly absent, came virtually to run the club himself. Bernabéu was to be consulted on everything from ticket prices to players’ relationships and the match officials. As one former soccer player at Madrid puts it, Bernabéu would know when the most insignificant referee in the lowest division had a birthday and a gift would be sent.
He talked of manners and decorum but was prepared to play tough. He “indignantly” caught a Barcelona director trying to sign one of his players, Rafael Yunta Navarro, in a Gran Vía café. Bernabéu had lain in wait with a lawyer and carefully placed witnesses. It was presented by some as the breakdown of the supposedly good relations built by the Peace Cup, but Bernabéu milked it. Besides, he was capable of pulling similar tricks. He happily recounted the story of how he torpedoed Barcelona’s signing of Luis Molowny. One morning, Bernabéu picked up a paper at Reus railway station in Catalonia to be greeted with a headline announcing that Barcelona were to sign Molowny from Marino in Las Palmas, the Canary Islands. Reading that Barcelona’s representative, Ricard Cabot, was traveling to the Canaries by boat, Bernabéu got on the phone and told Jacinto Quincoces to go to the bank, take out 100,000 pesetas in one hundred–peseta notes, fly straight there, and secure Molowny’s signature, barking: “stop pissing about and sign him.” By the time Cabot arrived, Molowny was a Madrid player. Marino had 75,000 pesetas in cash. In his first derbi against Barcelona, Molowny scored the late winner.
“Bernabéu wasn’t God,” says Amancio Amaro, another Bernabéu signing who joined the club in 1962, “but…”
That “but” hangs heavy.
“We had a huge amount of respect for him.”
“No, not exactly. But he was a proper, straight, direct man. A man used to taking decisions.”
Everyone at Madrid refers to Bernabéu as a father. A rather severe one, a strict patriarch. A man who suffered few fools and did things his way, always. “He used to drill into us that humility was vitally important,” Amancio says. “Sensible, serious, humble, hardworking. It was not just that you had to behave well— you had to be seen to behave well, too. There could be nothing ostentatious. We wouldn’t go out there, chests puffed out, thinking we were the best, even if we were. Humility, humility, humility.” No one dared defy him. On occasion Bernabéu referred to the players as “children.” He didn’t care much for fashions, either. One player recalls rushing to the bathroom to shave when Bernabéu turned up at the team hotel. Others remember the president demanding that they cut their hair. Team meals were often held in silence. He refused to let them buy cars, especially flashy cars: it took two years for Di Stéfano to get one.
He also prohibited them from joining unions. In 1969, when the first steps toward building a players’ union were being taken, he was the most hostile of the Spanish soccer presidents to the idea and forced two of its instigators, Pirri and Ramón Grosso, to pronounce publicly against it. The AFE was not formally created until 1977.
An authoritarian figure, Bernabéu had a foul temper. Raimundo Saporta wrote to a fellow director to tell him of the president’s fury and his own failed attempts to calm him down. That was typical, and it was not just directors who feared him. Bernabéu’s harangues, gigantic cigar in his mouth, swear words tumbling out, were famous. He would go down to the dressing room and tear strips off his players, insults flying, threats too. The harangues even had a name Santiaguinas.
He demanded total commitment. The first player he decorated with the club’s highest award, the Laureada, was Pirri—and more because of guts than goals. Pirri played one game in 1975 with a broken jaw, even if he laughs: “well, I took so many injections I could barely feel it.” But the game that earned him the award was in 1968. “I had been with the national services team in Baghdad and came back to play a game with a thirty-nine or forty-degree fever,” Pirri recalls. “I took an injection and went out to play. During the game I broke my collarbone but I carried on because there were no substitutes. When they tried to take the pins out, I turned the air blue. Don Santiago came into the dressing room and gave me the Laureada because of that. You always wanted to play, no matter what was wrong with you. And that is what he wanted too. I remember another game where I played with my arm in a plaster. I couldn’t feel it but I would do it all over again.”
“Bernabéu also really looked after you,” says Ignacio Zoco, another presidential favorite who played for Madrid between 1962 and 1974. “You weren’t just a footballer to him. He wanted to know everything. He looked after you and your family. And he held me up as an example to others: I don’t know why he liked me so much but he did. Probably because I was a guy who fought and battled, who ran a lot. I always gave 100 percent and I lived an ordered life. He used to call me Paleto [the hick]. When I retired I was due a testimonial because I had been at the club for ten years. I said I wanted to play against the European champions, who were Bayern Munich. And he said: ‘What do you want to play Bayern for? For you or for Bayern?’
“I said: ‘I want this place to be packed.’
“So he said: ‘Leave it to me to arrange.’ And do you know who he brought?”
I don’t get it.
“Nor did I at first. But Panathinaikos were cheap
and their coach was Puskás. They charged two pesetas a ticket and the place was packed.”
A Packed stadium: That’s what Bernabéu had always wanted. It was an obsession, one that had been discussed as far back as 1931 when he was a director. If the first thing Bernabéu did when he took over was send a telegram of fraternity to Barcelona, the second was to lay down the agenda for his presidency. Item one: a new stadium with a capacity for over 100,000 people. The focus here was not Barcelona: Bernabéu would tell acquaintances in 1947 that if they had waited a year longer Atlético Madrid would have taken a lead that would have been impossible to overhaul.
It is hard to do justice to exactly how outlandish Bernabéu’s proposal was. As he explained in 1961: “the idea of a gigantic new stadium for the then ‘little’ Real Madrid was widely described as ‘nonsensical!’” Real Madrid finished 1942–1943 in tenth place, almost getting relegated. They were averaging only 16,000 at home matches, Europe was at war and Spain was in crisis. There was a reason why the 1940s were described as “The Years of Hunger” and there is a reason why, however flippant it sounds, there is an entire generation of Spaniards who are short. Autarky was the chosen economic policy of the dictatorship, rationing did not end until 1952, the standard of living would not reach pre-war levels until 1954, prices were rocketing and salaries plummeting, shortages were dramatic, illness widespread and fear still gripped. There would be escape in soccer, certainly, circus at a time of little bread, but a stadium that big simply did not seem possible.
Bernabéu, though, was determined. With the regime penniless, rejecting his first approach and eventually agreeing to fund less than 5 percent of the project, he secured a loan from Rafael Salgado, president of the Banco Mercantil e Industrial, considered close to the Falange, in return for a formal link to the club. He also organized a bond issue among supporters. “This great and beautiful ground was made available to us without any state, municipal, or institutional help,” Bernabéu told English visitors. “It grew straight from the hearts and hopes of our loyal core of supporters, their friends and other Madrileños whose imagination was caught up by our plans.” That was not true: not only had Madrid been granted official funds but, as Carles Torras has demonstrated, the DND also spent 980,000 pesetas on stadium bonds. With the money, Madrid bought two parcels of land of 256,667 square feet and 93,887 square feet, respectively, near the old Chamartín stadium, at a cost of 3 million pesetas. Although they made 1 million on the sale of the previous ground, it was still a huge sum.
There was method in his madness: the stadium, as he knew it would, ended up situated right alongside the future extension of the Castellana and now boasts one of the most glamorous addresses in world soccer. Pedro Muguruza, the same architect who had overseen the renovation of the Prado Museum and much of Gran Vía, and who was building Franco’s mausoleum, the Valley of the Fallen, managed construction. Work began on October 27, 1944. The stadium was inaugurated in December 1947 with a match against the Portuguese team Belenenses, which Madrid won 3–1. Before the game it was blessed by Franco’s chaplain.
Within three months, Madrid had 8,000 new members. By 1948 they had 43,000. By the mid-1950s they were the biggest team in the world, signing the biggest players. “In Santiago Bernabéu, Real Madrid were fortunate to have a man who was ahead of his time and took risks,” says Jorge Valdano. “In a Spain that was depressed, where there was not even cement, he constructed a stadium for 120,000 people. And then to fill it he seduced the greatest stars of his time.”
Zoco sits at the Bernabéu and waves his hand to embrace his surroundings. “He created this stadium and they said he was mad: seven pesetas [about a nickel] a ticket? ‘Where’s that madman going, this is going to ruin us….’ And now look. He was a special man, there will never be another one like him.”
“The new Chamartín is today the best football ground in Spain,” ran the Libro de Oro in March 1952. “It was Bernabéu, that irresistible conductor, who galvanised the enthusiasm of the musicians to make possible the most beautiful and perfect of works. Yes, the new Chamartín could be said to be the El Escorial of this monarch capable of bringing the greatest of dreams to fruition.”