Image for Paco Gento  A Real Madrid legend who mesmerised defences and helped build a dynasty

Paco Gento A Real Madrid legend who mesmerised defences and helped build a dynasty

Bobby Charlton was mesmerised.

“Who is this man?” he thought. The Real Madrid player had dominated the entire game against Manchester United. “Whenever he got into any kind of decent position in midfield it was the signal for Gento to fly. Gento would go at a hundred miles an hour and Di Stefano would send the ball unerringly into his path. Gento would go bang, and you just heard yourself saying, ‘Oh God.’ It was pure revelation. What tactics might neutralise Di Stefano and Gento?”

Charlton, sitting in the stands, was watching Real Madrid defeat his teammates 3-1 in the 1957 European Cup semi-final. At 130,000, it remains the largest crowd to ever attend a United game. On the pitch, United defender Bill Foulkes had responsibility for Gento.

“Di Stefano would hit beautiful passes into space behind defenders towards Gento who would use his explosive pace,” remembered Foulkes. “I was in direct opposition to him. It was not an easy ride against ‘el motor-bike’ as they called him. Apart from outlandish pace, he had fantastic control and a knack of stopping the ball dead just before it went out of play. For much of the time there was little I could do except to try and block the cross, or try to cover if he did deliver the ball into the centre. It’s fair to say that I was stretched, but after the game Matt Busby said that no full-back in England could have played him better."

‘Murder in Madrid,’ was the headline in the Daily Herald, ‘The Spaniards were too worldly for the young Red Devils.’ “The root cause of United’s troubles was not so much Di Stefano as Gento, Real Madrid’s stocky outside left,” was the paper’s verdict, “Gento fizzes along the wing where other outside forwards just run, but he always has enough coolness and judgement in reserve to place his centres with deadly accuracy and three times he gave the other forwards golden opportunities to score.”

Charlton was back for the home leg, the first game at Old Trafford under the new floodlights.

“We worked the offside trap with Gento in mind,” he recalled. “But that tactic is always vulnerable to exceptional speed and brilliant passing. This was a team that could punish you cruelly for one misplaced pass, one faulty tackle.” United were soon a goal down and then two. United, playing in Europe for the first time, were 5-1 down on aggregate but would bring it back to 5-3 against the team who would win the first five European Cups.

“Gento was so blindingly quick and impossibly elusive,” said Foulkes.

Eleven years later, United met Real Madrid in the semi-final again. The Munich air disaster had decimated Matt Busby’s fine young side, while Gento was the only Madrid player remaining from the previous meetings. He’d won six European Cups by this time, the only man in history to do so.

Francisco [Paco] Gento died in Madrid on Tuesday aged 88.

“Paco Gento was the best crosser of the ball for that great Real Madrid team,” Paddy Crerand, who played against him in those 1968 European Cup semi-finals said. “I loved watching him play. His speed and the speed of his passing was incredible, so simple and yet so devastating.” United prevailed this time and became the first English team to win the European Cup.

Eight years earlier, Gento had played in the 1960 European Cup final, a 7-3 victory over Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park which is widely regarded as the greatest game ever.

“Gento’s speed was again the preliminary factor,” wrote the mesmerised journalist Hugh McIlvanney. “Puskas seemed to bow acknowledgement of his colleague’s excellence as he headed the ball inside Loy’s right post.”

Gento, a national level sprinter who had to be told to slow down when he first arrived at Madrid because he was too fast for the rest of the team, had many other admirers, not least General Franco – he was the dictator’s favourite player, but that was no fault of his. Gento was Cantabrian and a flu outbreak saw him promoted to the first team of local side Racing Santander for a game against Real Madrid in 1952/53. He came to life at Madrid when Alfredo Di Stefano began to supply him with balls from midfield. The pair would become vital players for the side who dominated European football with their legendary five forwards: Kopa, Mateos, Di Stefano, Rial and Gento. That would become a front three of Di Stefano, Puskas and Gento.

15th May 1968:  Manchester United keeper Alex Stepney lets the ball go through his legs for Francisco Gento to score Real Madrid's second goal in the European Cup second leg semi-final at the Bernabau Stadium in Madrid. The final score was 3-3.  (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Gento played at Madrid for longer than any of them, 18 seasons in all, for 12 league titles and those six European Cups. He played in eight European Cup finals (a record with Paulo Maldini) and his record of playing in 44 el clasicos only ended last season when Lionel Messi and Sergio Ramos made it 45. No Real Madrid player won more major trophies with the club than Gento’s 24.

“Gento had a tremendous shot but it could be wildly inaccurate sometimes, disturbing the birds in the trees around the training ground and we could never find the ball after,” said Puskas. “Our game was fairly simple – we knew that in Gento we had the quickest thing on two legs down the left wing.”

Known as ‘la Galerna’ (the gale), it was an apt description of his powers. Other clubs including Juventus tried to sign him, but he turned down fortunes to stay in his native Spain, the rural kid who thought he’d be blinded by the big city lights but ended up outlasting all of his contemporaries.

Gento’s final game was the 1971 Cup Winners’ Cup final, a defeat to Chelsea. Following the death of Di Stefano, Gento was appointed the Honorary President of Real Madrid.

“Real Madrid would like to express its condolences and its love and affection to his wife Mari Luz, his sons Francisco and Julio, his granddaughters Aitana and Candela and all his relatives, colleagues and loved ones, he will always be remembered by Madridistas and all football fans as one of their greatest,” wrote the club on Tuesday.

Even Barcelona, whom he had publicly congratulated on victories against his Madrid side, posted their condolences.

Gento’s body now lies in Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu stadium ahead of his funeral, surrounded by those six European Cups, a highly fitting memorial.

Updated: January 19, 2022, 6:25 AM

Andy Mitten

Andy is an author of 12 books. He founded the best-selling United We Stand fanzine when he was 15.He's interviewed over 500 famous footballers past and present. Writing about football from Israel to Iran, Brazil to Barbados. Born and bred in Manchester, he divides his time between his city of birth and Barcelona.