His name may not be as well-known as that of his former Real Madrid team-mates Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas, but in terms of the number of trophies won during his career at the club, Francisco Gento is ahead of both his erstwhile colleagues. Indeed, he is considered one of the finest left-wingers of all time, as evidenced by his staggering medal collection.
Could those who knew young Paco, the humble chauffeur’s son who had to leave school at 14 to help support his family, have believed he would go on to scale such lofty heights? FIFA.com takes a look back at the career of a man who, having flattered to deceive during his early days with Los Blancos, would eventually become the only player ever to win six European Cups.
Run, Gento, run
As a boy, Paco Gento divided his free time between football and athletics, the sport which helped him hone the phenomenal speed that became his hallmark. Though he initially caught the eye of the wider footballing community at 14 when netting nine goals in a single match at regional level, throughout his career he was always more of a provider than a scorer.
His first contract was signed at Racing Santander, but he lasted only a few months at Los Racinguistas before being enticed away by the mighty Real Madrid, where he spent no fewer than 18 seasons. This in spite of the fact that his early displays in the famous white jersey, back in 1953, were inauspicious to say the least, with the young wide-man’s blistering pace failing to convince fans who highlighted his lack of technical ability and composure.
Key to turning Gento’s Madridista fortunes around was the signing of inside-forward Hector Rial. Alongside the gifted Argentinian, Gento learned to better control the ball, to time his runs more astutely and refine his rare ability to unhinge defences. “I really persevered and made sacrifices,” said Gento later. “I tried to learn from my team-mates and that’s how I turned things around.”
Of course, being blessed with a wand-like left foot also helped. Indeed, Gento’s supply of inch-perfect crosses from the left flank were an integral ingredient in the success of a history-making side, providing the ideal accompaniment to the magic of Rial, Di Stefano, Puskas and Raymond Kopa.
His full-throttle style of play would earn him the nickname La Galerna del Cantábrico (The Cantabrian Gale), in a reference to the rapidly shifting squally winds typical of the coast of his native region. That said, it was not just his speed that kept opponents on their toes. “Gento is really fast but the worst thing about playing him isn’t when he’s running, it’s when he stops,” more than one opponent was heard to say.
Along those lines was Gento’s description of his own favourite move: “I run, run, run down the flank and then, bam! I send a cross in to the far post.” It is for such attacking thrusts that he will be forever remembered in world football history, that and for being the only player ever to appear in the European Cup for 15 consecutive seasons, reaching the final on eight occasions.
A victor in five of those finals in a row, between 1956 and 1960, Gento himself rated his sixth triumph, in 1966, as the sweetest. This was due to the complete overhaul Real Madrid had gone through, leaving Gento as the lone survivor, and as captain to boot, of the host of superstars that made way for a new generation of Spanish players – nicknamed Los Ye-yés (The Yeah Yeahs) in a nod to the prevailing 1960s pop culture.
So it was that against Partizan Belgrade, in Brussels’ Roi Baudouin stadium, Gento secured legendary status with a sixth European Cup winner’s medal. And though hard to imagine at the time, Los Merengues would not lift the coveted trophy again for another 32 years.
Following that victory, the Spanish press heaped praise on the class shown by Gento, as evidenced by the following excerpt from Catalan paper La Vanguardia. “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. No team ever played football the way that Real Madrid side did.
“With the passage of time, Gento’s 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.”
Spain success eludes him
“The only thing that was lacking, what I needed to have won it all, was the world title,” Gento said once. Despite that, he pulled on the jersey of La Selección Española on 44 occasions and was, for many years, Spain’s most capped player. These caps included appearances at both the 1962 FIFA World Cup Chile™ and England 1966, though he would come closer to continental glory with La Roja. However, despite scoring a crucial goal in the qualifying phase for the 1964 European Championship, his place in the official squad for the finals on home soil was eventually taken by Carlos Lapetra, with Spain going on to win their first major title.
Come 1971 and Gento felt the time was right to hang up his boots, the end of an era for Madridistas everywhere. “A final without Paco Gento isn’t a final,” said La Vanguardia at the time. “Quite the contrary, it's like a final that’s lost its shine.”
His subsequent coaching career, which took in spells at Castilla, Castellon, Palencia, Granada, as well as in the Real Madrid youth ranks, was less than glorious. Following his time in the dugout, Gento later accepted a position as Los Blancos’ European Ambassador.
To date the club have held no fewer than three testimonials for their former wide man, the first of which came in 1965, even before his playing days were over, against Buenos Aires giants River Plate. The next came in 1972, against Os Belenenses, and finally the third arrived on 5 December 2007 in the Trofeo Bernabeu, when Real Madrid took on Partizan Belgrade - the defeated finalists in La Galerna del Cantábrico’s sixth and last European Cup success.
“They used to say that I’d run so fast I’d run off the pitch, leaving the ball behind,” said Gento, recalling widespread criticism of his early outings for Madrid. “But everything can change depending on your willpower and the sacrifices you’re willing to make. You have to really love football and want to be the best.” Spoken by a man with a record number of Spanish league titles (12) and European Cups, who would dare to disagree?
Gento made his first division debut against Barcelona in the colours of Racing Santander. He did not last long at Los Racinguistas, however, playing a sum total of ten league games and scoring twice.
Following a 0-0 first-leg draw against Uruguay's Penarol, Gento was among the scorers in the 5-1 second-leg triumph at the Bernabeu that secured victory for Real Madrid in the inaugural Intercontinental Cup in 1960.
Gento was named in the Rest of the World team that faced England at Wembley in 1963 as part of the Football Association's centenary celebrations. Alongside the Spaniard were Lev Yashin (U.S.S.R.), Milutin Soskic (Yugoslavia), Djalma Santos (Brazil), Luis Eyzaguirre (Chile), Karl-Heinz Schnellinger (West Germany), Svatopluk Pluskal (Czechoslovakia), Jan Popluhar (Czechoslovakia), Josef Masopust (Czechoslovakia), Jim Baxter (Scotland), Raymond Kopa (France), Eusebio (Portugal), Denis Law (Scotland), Alfredo Di Stefano (Spain), Uwe Seeler (West Germany), Pele (Brazil) and Ferenc Puskas (Hungary).