Europe’s Champions: 1957-58 Real Madrid

REAL MADRID completed a hat-trick of European Cup wins in 1958, but they had to work hard for the top prize in a gruelling final with AC Milan in Brussels.

In doing so, Real also completed the double of domestic league title and European Cup for the second successive season. Nevertheless, football historians have always wondered if Real would still have been crowned champions of the continent if a brilliant young Manchester United team, managed by Matt Busby, had not perished in the snow of Munich airport in February 1958.

However, Real were still widely acknowledged as the team to beat, despite surprisingly changing managers in 1957, bringing in Luis Carniglia to replace the 37 year-old José Villalonga, who was sacked just after winning an unprecedented treble of European Cup, Latin Cup and La Liga. Carniglia, an Argentine from Buenos Aires, was previously coach at France’s Nice, who had played Real in 1956-57, so he was well known to the club.

Action from the 1958 final. Photo: PA

The Wall

An equally pivotal arrival in the summer of 1957 was José Santamaria, a 27 year-old Uruguayan who had impressed in the 1954 World Cup. A tall, strong centre half, nicknamed “the wall” for his solidity and commanding presence, Santamaria cost Real £ 45,000 , a significant fee in the late 1950s, but something of a bargain acquisition given his enormous reputation. Santamaria would go on to play for Spain to become one of a unique band to represent two countries in international football. His signing maintained the club’s policy of bringing in a star name every season.

There was another change to the Real line-up in the form of Juan Santisteban, who took over the role of long-time skipper Miguel Mūnoz in midfield after the old war horse’s retirement.

Real’s domestic campaign saw them go head-to-head with Madrid rivals Atlético, who kept pace with their illustrious neighbours all season. Real actually lost more games than Atléti and in the two La Liga games, were unable to beat them, both meetings ending in draws. The addition of Santamaria gave Real a meaner, more uncompromising defence with just 26 goals conceded versus 35 in 1956-57. At the other end of the field, Alfredo Di Stéfano, with his 19 goals, shared the Pichichi award given to the league’s leading scorer. Real also reached the final of the Copa del Generalísimo, losing 2-0 to Bilbao in Madrid.

In Europe, Real were faced with some strong contenders for their title: Manchester United and AC Milan aside, also in the competition were Scotland’s Rangers and Portugal’s emerging Benfica, a team managed by future Portugal coach Otto Glória. Benfica had run Real close in the last Latin Cup final in 1957.

Real had a bye in the Preliminary Round and faced Belgium’s Royal Antwerp in round one. It was a comfortable victory, 2-1 in Antwerp and 6-0 at home, with Héctor Rial, the Argentine-born Spaniard, netting a hat-trick.

Next would come Spanish rivals Sevilla, who had been granted entry as runners-up in La Liga in 1958. Sevilla were torn apart, with Di Stéfano scoring four times in an 8-0 first leg win in Madrid. The second leg, a formality, ended 2-2.

Real, quite simply, could not be touched and scored goals at leisure on their way to an inevitable third successive final. The semi-final saw them face Hungary’s Vasas, but another hat-trick from Di Stéfano as Real won 4-0 more or less guaranteed victory. Although they lost 2-0 in front of 100,000 people in the Nep Stadium, Real claimed their place in the Brussels final.

AC Milan had slalomed their way through a tricky path to Brussels, beating Rapid Vienna, Rangers, Borussia Dortmund and a patched-up Manchester United. Both finalists had scored 26 goals on route to the final.

Milan’s forward line included Uruguay’s Juan Schiaffino and Nils Liedholm of Sweden. Schiaffino had won the World Cup in 1950 with Uruguay, scoring one of the goals that beat Brazil in the decisive game in Rio. Liedholm was part of Milan’s famous “Gre-No-Li” trio of Swedish forwards and a cultured playmaker known for his elegant style. Just as dangerous was Ernesto Grillo, an Argentine midfielder who had joined the club from Independiente. Milan, though, had not defended their 1958 Serie A title well and were heading for a final league placing around mid-table.


Milan’s coach, Giuseppe Viani, produced the ideal dressing-room motivation for Real by claiming that 31 year-old Di Stéfano was past his best. It was a comment he was to regret, for “the blond arrow” was instrumental in Real’s victory, despite being shackled by Milan’s Cesare Maldini.

Real Madrid with their third European Cup. Photo: PA

In Brussels’ ill-fated Heysel Stadium, the recently-completed Atomium in the background, a crowd of 67,000 saw a tense and unproductive first half with both teams seemingly probing for weaknesses. Schiaffino opened the scoring for Milan in the 59thminute and Di Stéfano levelled in the 74thminute. Grillo restored the Italian side’s lead but within two minutes, Rial equalised to send the game into extra time.

Real survived a major late scare when Milan’s Tito Cucchiaroni struck the woodwork and having kept their composure, they decided the final with a 107thminute winner from Francisco Gento, who needed two bites of the cherry to score past goalkeeper Narciso Soldan and his tired Milan defence.

Di Stéfano, speaking some years later, recalled 1958 as the most challenging of all his European Cup finals. “We stole it from Milan…they were our big rivals because they had phenomenal players. It was hard going, the toughest test of all.”

Interestingly, despite Real’s dominance of European Cup football, Spain failed to qualify for the 1958 World Cup, losing out to Scotland. In the finals, Real had just one representative, Raymond Kopa of France.

Real Madrid were not finished building, though – they pulled off another coup in 1958, one that would help to continue the legend and, ultimately, make football history.

Real’s team in the European Cup final of 1958: Juan Alonso, Ángel Atienza, Rafael Lesmes, Juan Santisteban, José Santamaria, José Maria Zarraga, Joseito, Raymond Kopa, Alfredo Di Stéfano, Héctor Rial, Francisco Gento.


Europe’s Champions: 1955-56 – Real Madrid

REAL MADRID made their international reputation in the first five years of the European Cup, in fact the club were firm advocates for its introduction. Since 1955-56, Real have rightly been indelibly linked with the premier football club competition.

The idea of a pan-European tournament had first been mooted in the 1920s, but the lack of infrastructure to support such a venture was a hurdle. While some countries were technologically advanced, many did not have the mass industrialisation of Britain or Germany. As the 1920s became the 1930s, and Europe recovered from depression, nationalism – perhaps born out of protectionism – swept across the region.

The Mitropa Cup was introduced in 1927, involving – as the name suggests –  countries from central Europe. This, no doubt, contributed to the advanced state of football in Austria, Czechoslavakia and Hungary during this period. If the European Cup had been formulated during this era, it is likely it would have been won by a team like Rapid Vienna, Ferencvaros or Sparta Prague.

In the aftermath of the second world war, sport was seen as a unifying agent as much as it was an expression of nationalist vigour. While the Mitropa never scaled the heights it achieved in the 1920s and 1930s, it returned and also pointed the way for other competitions. More than any other, the modest but highly successful Latin Cup showed what could be achieved. This involved the top clubs from France, Italy, Portugal and Spain. It was no coincidence that when the European Cup finally emerged in 1955, clubs from these nations set the pace.

The rise of Real

Real Madrid were not Spain’s most successful club before the 1950s. After the war, Real were in decline, finishing as low as 11th in La Liga. At the same time, Spain had become somewhat isolated, with many countries breaking off diplomatic relations. Under Franco, Spain was not a member of the United Nations and had pursued a strategy of economic self-sufficiency with no foreign trade or investment. By the early 1950s, it was clear that Franco’s policies had failed and Spain’s economy was on the verge of collapse. Franco started to liberalise the financial system and promote tourism, in what many observers called “The Spanish Miracle”. Spain, in the 1960s, enjoyed prosperity, boosted by the growing urbanisation of the population and a massive influx of holiday-makers. Real Madrid’s own renaissance preceded this rebirth, but gathered momentum as Spain sought to become integrated with the international community once more.

The club’s success in the late 1950s owed much to the influx of top-level overseas talent and a strategy of “a star a year.” Of the 36 players appearing in their first five European finals, eight were foreign. Santiago Bernabéu, the club’s president, pursued and secured the Argentinian Alfredo Di Stefano in 1953, signing him from Colombian side Millonarios, the club outlawed by FIFA for signing international players without authority. He also signed, on the advice of Di Stéfano, Héctor Rial, another Argentinian who had played in his home country, Colombia and Uruguay. Di Stéfano wanted his friend to join him in Madrid not just for company but to bring someone to the team that could help build attacks. Players like Di Stéfano and Rial brought a Latin American swagger to the club, making Real a wonderful spectacle when they were in full flight.

Bernabéu was among the first football impresarios to recognise the economic potential of the sport and built a huge stadium that would eventually bear his name. In the 1940s, Real’s home held just 16,000 but Bernabéu had plans to develop a ground to host up to 200,000 people.

Real’s resurgence really began when they won La Liga in 1954 and 1955. AfterL’Equipe journalist Gabriel Hanot tabled the idea for a European Champion Clubs’ Cup, Real were invited to take part, regardless of whether they were Spanish champions or not – an early hint at what the UEFA Champions League would become. Bernabéu, a passionate supporter of the concept from the early stages, was on the committee. Hanot wrote: “L’Equipe launches the idea of a European Championship for clubs, the realisation of which would be newer and more sensational than a competition for national teams.”

The competition

There were just 16 teams in the 1955-56 competition with no representative from England as Chelsea were advised not to enter by the Football Association. In their place came Poland’s Gwardia Warsaw, whose claim to fame was their 1954 Polish Cup win. Of the 16, only seven had been champions in their respective leagues in 1954-55.

Real began their first European Cup campaign with a 2-0 win in Geneva, beating Servette, who had finished sixth in the Swiss league in 1955. Miguel Mûnoz, who would later become manager of the club, scored the first ever Real goal in the competition, 16 minutes from time. The ease by which Real disposed of the Swiss team (5-0 in the second leg), suggested the Spanish giants would be one of the favourites. In the quarter-final, they faced Partizan of Belgrade, beating them 4-0 in front of 106,000 people on Christmas Day before losing 3-0 in an intimidating second leg.

While Real were enjoying their European sojourn, but they were far from invincible in domestic football. They were champions in 1955, but they would relinquish their crown to Bilbao by a 10-point margin. Spanish teams, however, were fitter and faster than most of their European peers.

When Real were drawn to meet AC Milan in the semi-final, it was arguably the first great European Cup clash. Milan had the Swedish duo Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm and the Uruguayan-turned-Italian Juan Schiaffino in their line-up. Real won 4-2 in Madrid before 129,690 spectators – the European Cup had truly arrived. Although Milan won the second leg 2-1, Real had done enough in the first meeting to earn a place in the final against France’s Stade de Reims.

Real Madrid’s triumphant run

Date Round Opponents Score Scorers
8.9.55 1/1 Servette – Away W2-0 Mûnoz, Rial
12.10.55 1/2 Servette – Home W5-0 Di Stéfano 2, Alonso, Rial, Molowny
25.12.55 QF/1 Partizan – Home W4-0 Castano 2, Gent, Di Stéfano
29.1.56 QF/2 Partizan – Away L0-3
19.4.56 SF/1 AC Milan – Home W4-2 Rial, Alonso, Olsen, Di Stéfano
1.5.56 SF/2 AC Milan – Away L1-2 Alonso
13.6.56 Final Stade de Reims – Paris W4-3 Di Stéfano, Rial 2, Marquitos,

The French champions had some top talent in the form of midfielders Raymond Kopa and Michel Hidalgo. Playing in their own country at Paris’s Parc des Princes, Reims went 2-0 ahead thanks to goals from Michel Leblond and Jean Templin. Real bounced back with their all-out attacking style and goals from Di Stéfano and Rial brought some order, before Hidalgo restored Reims’ lead. Marquitos made it 3-3 when he ran upfield, exchanged passes with Rial and Di Stéfano and then found himself in the area to take advantage of a rebound off Templin. With 11 minutes to go, Rial scored again – 4-3 to Real Madrid.

Such was the performance of Real’s fleet-footed artists that Gabriel Hanot commented: “Di Stéfano is the most complete player we have ever seen…he eclipsed Kopa completely.”

Speaking some years later, Di Stéfano said: “Nobody realised it was the start of something. The game brought with it huge responsibility as we were to discover much later. It was a great time for the Spanish immigrants in Paris and for the people who had very little in Madrid.”

Di Stéfano’s team-mate, Francisco Gento added: “I must confess that we had no idea how significant the tournament would become…nobody explained to us what would happen…I don’t think we really realised what it all meant until we won the first title in Paris, then we were able to see what the European Cup was all about. It was something indescribable.”

The team

In beating Reims, and before that the mighty Milan, Real Madrid set a new benchmark for the modern game. Santiago Bernabéu got what he yearned for, a team playing exciting football that could eclipse all others. The team’s coach was 36 year-old Jose Villalongo Llorente, the youngest manager to win the European Cup and a former volunteer from the Spanish Civil War.

Every member of Real’s triumphant team, with the exception of future artist Ángel Atienza, was either a current or future international, mostly with Spain.

Although Bernabéu’s philosophy was to bring top stars to the club, there were a number of home-grown players in the squad, such as the tough tackling José María Zárraga and inside forward Ramón Marsal Ribó.

Goalkeeper Juan Alonso was an acrobatic last line of defence who won the prestigious Ricardo Zamora trophy in 1955, the award for the custodian with the lowest goals-to-games ratio. Central defender Marcos Alonso Imaz, known as Marquitos, was signed from Racing Santander and was pivotal in Real’s success in the early years of the European Cup. His grandson currently plays for Chelsea.

Di Stéfano was the headline maker, a strong and powerful centre forward and one of the most influential players in the game. He was not only the “leader”, his organisational skills made him the architect of what became modern professional football – the team ethic. On the flanks were Gento, a stocky winger with sublime technical skills who arrived from Santander, and Joseíto. While the flair and magic came from players like these, the engine of Real’s team was skipper Mûnoz, a commanding presence on the pitch.

Although Real were deserving champions, they also recognised they could not stand still or rest on their laurels. No sooner had they won the European Cup they signed Raymond Kopa from Reims. As holders, they qualified for the 1956-57 European Cup, where their legend would begin to really take shape. This was just the beginning of a golden age.

The Real Madrid team that won the inaugural European Cup: Juan Alonso (28), Ángel Atienza (24), Rafael Lesmes (29), Marquitos (22), Miguel Mûnoz (33), José María Zárraga (25), Héctor Rial (27), Francisco Gento (22), Ramon Marsal Ribo (21), Alfredo Di Stéfano (29) and Joseíto (29).

Photo: PA

Is World Cup success so important for critical acclaim?

THE football world is reaching the end of a cycle, one that has been dominated by two individuals, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Both players, worshipped in their own countries and admired worldwide, went tumbling out of probably their last World Cup. This has saved us the tiresome narrative of Russia 2018 being the last-chance saloon for both players, who will now never add the very top prize to their long and impressive list of honours and achievements.

It is hard to weep for too long for two individuals who are extremely wealthy, have won [almost] everything and need not worry about their futures. Success is not guaranteed, whoever you are, but also the World Cup is not the only way to be regarded as one of the all-time greats. Or is it?

Messi and Ronaldo were accompanied by a very average collection of players. Neither could, at their advanced stage, lift their teams to perform beyond expectations. Elevating team mates can be achieved, but it is much harder when the key man is over 30 and energy has to be conserved. Maradona did it in 1986, but he was in his prime and he couldn’t do it a second time, although in 1990 he almost repeated the trick.

Both players’ are securely in the game’s pantheon, but there will be critics that point to a lack of tangible success on the international stage. Cristiano Ronaldo did lead Portugal to the European Championship in 2016, but Messi has yet to win a single honour with Argentina.

Ronaldo started 2018 as if he meant to win the golden boot, but Portugal were not strong enough to give their talisman a prolonged World Cup journey.  Messi, however, ended 2018 in much the same way as he walked off the pitch in 2014, unfulfilled, unhappy and damaged. His body language in this World Cup resembled a frustrated man, annoyed at the mediocrity around him.

Passing the baton – Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe. Photo: PA

Their failure proves one thing – that, essentially, we are in the age of the team game, not the era where individualism can carry a team of lightweight quality through. Even the superior talents of Messi and Ronaldo cannot undo, on a sustained basis, the systems and ethics of well-drilled teams. Consider the last few winners of the competition, Italy (2006), Spain (2010) and Germany (2014), none of these will be remembered as being brimful of outstanding individuals, but they will be rightly recalled for their collective will, economy of play and true spirit of teamwork. Sides that went to the World Cup on a mission and did the job required.

And yet that doesn’t stop the world longing for a superb individual to dominate a World Cup, not least the pundits and the media. Now Messi and Ronaldo have gone home, everyone is willing Frrance’s Mbappé or Neymar of Brazil to step-up. Or perhaps Belgium’s Eden Hazard. If there’s a romantic story, it is surely Kylian Mbappé’s to write, a youngster who will be compared to the young Pelé if he manages to keep scoring. Neymar is supposed to be the heir apparent to Messi and Ronaldo, but he doesn’t always convince and he has acquired the bad and tedious habits of play-acting that will win him free kicks but not friends.

We ask the question again, does a star player need the World Cup to shine brightly? Look at the list of players who have not won the competition: Alfredo di Stéfano, Johan Cruyff, George Best (never even played in a finals), Eusébio, Lev Yashin, Michel Platini, Ferenc Puskás, Marco van Basten, Luigi Riva, Gianni Rivera and more. Has a lack of success prevented them from being revered as all-time greats? Not really.

Not winning the World Cup should not tarnish the reputations of two truly great players. After all, national teams do not have a transfer market, playing for an under-achieving nation cannot be avoided or sidestepped, it’s like the old saying, “you cannot pick your family”. In club football, players of the calibre of Ronaldo and Messi gravitate to the biggest and wealthiest clubs. That just cannot happen in international football.

So now we’re waiting to see who will be the successors to Messi and Ronaldo. If nothing else, the World Cup should provide some pointers. It’s been a decent competition so far, there are more thrills to come, but it is surely a case of “le roi est mort, vive le roi!”.