During his playing days, Emilio Butragueno epitomised the values of a bygone age. Unassuming, industrious and a gentleman on and off the field of play, the former Real Madrid and Spain striker always let his football speak for him during a glittering career, scoring freely and with a minimum of fuss for club and country.
A Merengue through and through, Butragueno honed his razor-sharp finishing skills in the youth sides at Real Madrid before graduating to the first team in 1984. Acquiring the nickname of El Buitre (The Vulture), he went on to spearhead a fabled quintet of home-grown players that also included Rafael Martin Vazquez, Michel, Miguel Pardeza and Manolo Sanchis.
Together they became known as La Quinta del Buitre (The Vulture’s Cohort), and together they would inspire the club in one of the most trophy-laden passages in its history. Along with his sidekicks, Butragueno won six league titles, two Spanish Cups, two Spanish Super Cups, two UEFA Cups and a Spanish League Cup, and, just for good measure, ended the 1990/91 season as the top scorer in La Liga. To his eternal regret, however, he would never get his hands on the European Cup.
After 11 years with Los Blancos, he wound down his career in Mexico with Atletico Celaya before retiring from the game in 1998. Embarking on another career, he took an MA in Sports Management in the USA, followed by an MBA, and returned to the Santiago Bernabeu to become Director of Football during Florentino Perez’s first spell as President of Real Madrid.
A directorial role
Following Perez back to the club last year, he is now its Director of Institutional Relations, a post in which he brings the same qualities to bear as those that made him such a success on the pitch. “I have a lot of different things to do in my job,” he told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “My wife always said that when I retired I’d have more time for my family, but the fact is that I’ve got even less now.”
Aside from his distinguished association with the Madrid giants, Butragueno is also fondly remembered for the legend he forged in the red shirt of Spain, for whom he scored 26 goals in 69 appearances.
“I made my debut for Spain in a 3-0 win over Wales and scored one of the goals,” he said, recalling the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™ qualifying match that marked his introduction to international football. “It came from a breakaway right at the end of the game, from a pass by (Rafael) Gordillo. To make your international debut is a magical experience. There’s no greater honour for a player than to represent your country and, if you’re lucky enough, to play in a World Cup. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
The hero of Queretaro
Famed for his elusive dribbling and innate ability to find the back of the net, Butragueno had the good fortune to appear in not one but two FIFA World Cup finals, making his name in the first of them, Mexico 1986.
“That was the high point of my career and what most people remember me for,” he explained. “We got through to the Round of 16, where we came up against Denmark, who were one of the best teams around back then, one of the favourites. They were the better side in the first half, but we got back into a game thanks to an error on their part.
“They took the initiative again but we just hit them on the counter,” he continued. “I scored four goals, which was unheard of and something I’d never envisaged doing in a World Cup. It was more than I could ever have dreamed of.”
The Spanish striker finished the tournament as joint-second top scorer, thanks in no small part to that famous quadruple: “I felt a bit strange. I wasn’t a great goalscorer but I got lucky that day and won two penalties. I just saw it as a one-off. I swapped jerseys with Michael Laudrup at the end, and I’ve still got his shirt at home. My father, who was in the stands with my future wife, was ecstatic. He was over the moon but I was pretty relaxed about it.”
Spain’s run came to an end in a penalty-shootout with Belgium in the next round, and when The Vulture returned to the big stage four years later at Italy 1990, Yugoslavia dashed their hopes in the last 16. “I didn’t play well that day,” he said ruefully. “I would have liked to have done more to help the team. I had a header but put it against the post.”
Respect for coaches
Never one to lose his cool despite such crushing disappointments, Butragueno was never sent off during his 12 years at the top and picked up only five yellow cards in all that time.
“I’m a great believer in players just focusing on how they can help their team and nothing else,” he said. “And as I saw it, I wasn’t going to achieve that by fighting with the opposing team or the referee. My aim was to use my wit and invention to win games.” It was an aim he achieved on a regular basis.
The tact and restraint he once showed on the pitch are the hallmarks of the work he now performs in representing his beloved Real Madrid. Still a passionate supporter of the team, Butragueno has also tried his hand at commentating, providing expert analysis on Spain games with his customary good grace and elegance.
One place where The Vulture is unlikely to land, however, is the coaches’ dugout. “Never,” he replied in emphatic fashion. “It’s a fascinating job but a cruel one. And it’s a challenge day in day out, one that demands standards few other occupations have to meet. I have every respect for the coach’s job, in fact more and more so because I can see how difficult it is.”
Butragueno’s love for the game remains undiminished, and he still enjoys slipping on his boots and recreating the glory days. No doubt he will be doing so again in a charity game or two over the Christmas period. But should opposing defenders lose their concentration for a split second, charity is the very last thing they can expect from El Buitre.