There is a picture in my house from a special day that I’ll never forget.
It was taken in the summer of 1996, when Real Madrid had just bought me from Inter Milan. Before that day I had never been to Madrid. I was 23 years old. When I landed at the airport, I didn’t go straight to find out where I would be living. Nor did I go to the Santiago Bernabéu, the most majestic stadium in Europe.
No. I went with some people from a Spanish newspaper to the Plaza de Cibeles.
I had only seen pictures of Cibeles, but I knew it was a special place. At the centre of the square there is a fountain with a marble statue of the goddess Cybele. Nearby are colossal buildings such as the Banco de España and the Palacio de Cibeles. The roundabout can send you into the heart of the city centre, to the Retiro park, to the Prado museum, or up toward the Paseo de la Castellana, where you’ll find the Bernabéu. To anyone in Madrid, Cibeles is one of the most iconic places in the city.
But to football fans it carries extra significance. Cibeles is where Real Madrid — and the Spanish national team — go to celebrate their titles.
So going to Cibeles from the airport was a bit like landing in Rio de Janeiro for the first time and heading straight for the statue of Christ the Redeemer. I was so excited. And that is when the photographer from the newspaper snapped a picture of me.
When I look at that picture, it reminds me of how my crazy journey with Real Madrid began. I still have the photo at home. And my home is still in Madrid, where I now work for Real Madrid as the director of institutional relations. Right now, though, like most people, I can’t go to work. Over the last month I have left my house twice — and both times it was to go to the supermarket. Staying at home all day is driving me up the wall. But at the moment it’s the right thing to do.
On the two occasions I have gone out, I have had a look around, and I’ve barely recognised my city. On any normal day in Madrid you will see senior citizens walking in the sun, kids running around, families and friends sitting at tables outside bars and restaurants. Anything you can want in life, you can find in Madrid: sun, sports, culture, nightlife, food … especially food! It’s a different world. And the people here know how to enjoy it. They know how to live the good life, you know?
But now all of that is gone. The streets are completely empty.
I have never seen Madrid like this.
Personally, the virus has not affected me. My family and I are healthy. But I feel sad for the families of those who have died. I know some of them. As you might have seen on the news, last month the virus took the life of Lorenzo Sanz, the former president of Real Madrid. He was the man who brought me to the club. He was 76 years old. When I heard he had caught the virus, I prayed that he would recover. But I also knew that he had been sick for a while, and in the end the virus was one of many things that took him away.
Staying at home all day is driving me up the wall. But at the moment it’s the right thing to do.
Just the memory of Lorenzo makes me smile. Although he was the president, he was above all a fan. He lived for Real Madrid. He was always very involved, always with us in the dressing room. When we drew or lost, he’d let us have it. But when we won titles, he would be the first to embrace us. We loved him for his human qualities, for his optimism, for everything he was doing for madridismo. He was like a father to us.
I was in touch with him daily. He would always give me advice. I could never call him Lorenzo Sanz, even if I tried! To me he was always President, or Presi.
I’d say, “Hey, Presi, how’s it going?”
And then he’d give me a big smile and a hug.
Lorenzo had been president for a bit more than half a year when I arrived in Madrid. After I signed for the club everything went so quickly, but I do remember my debut, when I scored away to Deportivo de La Coruña. I also remember the first time I played at the Bernabéu, in front of 80,000 people.
I was like, Um … what am I doing here? What happens if I make a mistake now?
Man, it was terrifying!
But it was also one of the best days of my life.
After a while I got used to the pressure that comes with playing for Real Madrid. But there were moments when even the biggest pros among us were shaken. Nearly two years after I had arrived, we were about to play Juventus in the final of the Champions League. As we all know, Real Madrid had — and still have — the most titles in the history of the competition, but at that stage we had not won it in 32 years. We had struggled in La Liga that season. Juve were in the final for a third year in a row. We did not go into the game as favourites.
The night before the final none of us could sleep. Normally we’d go to bed at 10 p.m., but that night we were sitting in the hotel lobby at four in the morning, telling each other stories. We were not afraid, we just had a lot of respect for Juve. And we were anxious for the game to start.
We competed really well in the final. Juve had a lot of chances, but we won 1–0. We won that game not just with our quality, but with our motivation. We wanted it more than them.
Afterward we headed for the Plaza de Cibeles. The streets were flooded with hundreds of thousands of people, dressed in white shirts and scarves, singing and celebrating. I’ll never forget that night.
If I had to pick a favourite moment from my time at Real Madrid, it would be that triumph.
The longer you stay in Madrid, the more you realise what this club means to people — not just in the city but also elsewhere in Spain and around the world. No matter where we played, we’d see our fans. No matter whether we played a Clásico or a small cup game, the Bernabéu would be full. People love the club for the same reason that I decided to join it: the prestige, the fanbase, the glorious success in the Champions League. And the chance to make even more history.
I can tell you that the galácticos era in the early 2000s wasn’t just memorable for the fans. It was also incredible to be part of as a player. You would sit in the dressing room, look around you, and see the Ballon d’Or winner, the Spanish player of the year, the top scorer in La Liga, the best goalkeeper in the world. To be part of that environment was special. Sometimes I sat there and thought, Look at where you came from, and look at where you are now. I felt proud. You never know where you can end up in life.
We won the Champions League two more times, in 2000 and 2002. And yet it’s hard for me to remember all the details. When you play for a club like Madrid, you always have to stay in the present, because everything is so intense: the sprints, the headers, the tackles, the training sessions, the away trips, the hotels. The victories and the defeats.
Only on the day I stopped playing for Madrid did I fully realise what I had achieved.
My last game for the club was on 17 June 2007. We were facing Mallorca at the Bernabéu in the last game of the season — and we were tied on points with Barcelona, who were playing Gimnàstic. If we both won, we knew we would clinch the title based on our head-to-head record against Barça. We went 1–0 down early on, but in the second half we turned it around and won 3–1. It was an incredible victory.
But what I remember best from that day is the way people treated me. Everyone knew it was my farewell game. David Beckham was saying goodbye, too. From the moment we came out of the hotel and began travelling toward the stadium, people treated us with so much affection. It felt like a birthday, you know? Everyone was wishing us well, sending us hugs and kisses. Saying things like, “Good luck,” and, “We love you.”
“Come back as soon as possible.”
That’s when I realised what I had done for the club.
That’s when I realised how much people loved me.
It was one of the most emotional days of my life. I also think it was an example of how affectionate people here are, how passionately they live their lives.
Which is one of the reasons why what is happening right now saddens me so deeply.
That said, I want to encourage people — in Madrid as well as everywhere else — to be optimistic. My philosophy has always been to try to solve problems with a smile on my face. So keep your head up and look forward. Believe in yourself. Be patient. Stay calm. And try to help others.
Some positive things have already emerged from this pandemic. We are realising that we’re all human beings with the same vulnerabilities. We’re realising that family is important, that friends are important, that we all need each other. We’re realising that something as simple as a few kind words over a video call can make a big difference in someone’s life.
Now we have to keep working together. By staying at home we are all fighting together against this virus so that things can go back to normal as soon as possible. Like many, I miss football, and I look forward to the day Real Madrid can return to Cibeles with another title.
But right now, I just want to see people back in the streets again.
That is the victory we’re all fighting for.