“What does this player have in his boots? A magnet?!” – a completely flabbergasted and bedazzled Sir Alex Ferguson asks while looking around at journalists in his post-match press conference following Manchester United’s exit from the Champions League at Real Madrid’s hands (or boots?) in the 1999-2000 season.
A lot happened during that pulsating encounter (Raul Gonzalez’s brace and David Beckham’s valiant but eventually fruitless fightback), but the one moment that stands out, that is indelibly etched in Real Madrid and Champions League folklore, came from Fernando Redondo’s magical left boot.
He burst forward on the left-wing and found himself squared by Henning Berg with seemingly nowhere to go but backwards. He tried to shake Berg off but was forced to go wide to the touch line (or so you might think looking at the video). As Berg tried to get close to him, Redondo pulled off one of the most gorgeous back heels you are every likely to see. With his left foot, he back-heeled the ball diagonally across (and between Henning Berg’s legs). Berg kept running forward for a moment before realising what had happened. Redondo was in the clear; he controlled the ball on the touchline, looked up, played it across the face of the goal to Raul who tapped it into an open net.
Immortality. When Fernando Redondo found his groove, he was simply on another level.
“If he had done it to me, I’d have kept running to Buenos Aires,” said Iván Campo (only half jokingly), then of Real Madrid (you might also know him from his days at Bolton Wanderers during the latter stages of his career). Poor Henning Berg, distraught and bewildered, left the club in the summer (make of that what you will).
Redondo began his illustrious career at Argentinos Juniors and moved to Tenerife after five relatively unheralded years in his home country. He spent four years in this volcanic city, racking up 103 appearances and winning the club’s player of the year twice. His exceptional ability, on both defence and offence, was noticed by Real Madrid who bought him in the summer of 1994 where the legend of Fernando Redondo did not grow so much as soar into the land of immortality.
He was labelled a defensive midfielder, in the strict sense of the term, but he was never truly just that. He was, as Ivan Helguera later said, “a complete midfielder”. Redondo was never blessed with searing pace or an incredible engine room that would see him cover every blade of grass on the pitch; what he did have was a remarkable ability to read the game and pick off opposition passes with uncanny consistency. He did this with astonishing accuracy and a deftness of foot that would leave the opposition in knots. And he had that kind of ability and control on a football that only the greatest players to play the game ever had. And boy, what ability.
Amy Lawrence (of The Guardian) wrote this about him prior to the Manchester United battle:
“A volatile, unyielding Argentine midfielder who, with Hierro, is a big influence inside the Bernabéu. He’s great with his elbows: should be an interesting duel with Keane.”
A ridiculously narrow-minded assessment but one we have come to expect from folks who are not used to watching much football outside the English leagues. At the final whistle of the second leg, Redondo had not only won over fans inside Old Trafford, he had put some journalists back in their seats with their foot firmly in their mouth.
Yet, despite that glorious piece of skill at Old Trafford, Redondo’s finest performance for Real Madrid perhaps came in the 1998 Champions League final against Juventus. He was up against the so called holy trinity back then – a midfield of Zidane, Deschamps and Edgar Davids. Redondo was utterly magnificent that evening, snapping at tackles, intercepting pass after pass, and immediately releasing the ball to launching counter attacks. With the amount of talent on display, Redondo still won the man of the match.
Redondo won the Real Madrid player of the year twice (1996-97 and 1999-2000) during his 6 year spell at the club. Apart from the player of the year awards at Tenerife, he also picked up the UEFA Club Footballer of the Year award in 1999-2000 and the Golden Ball at the Confederations Cup in 1992.
He only played 29 times for Argentina, either due to clashes with the national manager or due to injuries that curtailed his playing career after he left Real Madrid.
It is utterly criminal how infrequently Redondo is mentioned in football conversations worldwide. When fans and coaches discuss the greatest players of all time the names that pop up are inevitably the same – Pele, Garrincha, Maradona, Best, Xavi, Messi, Zindane, Ronaldinho, etc. Here was a player who just wanted to play football, no matter which club, no matter the opposition. From the streets of Argentina to the relegation battles at Tenerife to the glorious years at the Santiago Bernabeu, Fernando Redondo showed us what magic on a football pitch looks like.