Henning Berg will forever have nightmares about Fernando Redondo.
Manchester United were already trailing a rampant Real Madrid by two goals to nil in the Champions League quarter-final at Old Trafford, when Redondo, seemingly going nowhere, was pursued towards the left corner flag. After nudging Berg off balance, in the blink of an eye he flicked the ball inside with his heel, leaving the big Norwegian bewildered at what had just happened, and picked out Raul for goal number three.
He later admitted it was something he would do too often, that his propensity for the flashy and spectacular had to be reined in by coaches in his native Argentina. Yet it was one of the strings to his bow that made Redondo, one of the best midfielders to ever grace Spanish football, such a joy to watch.
Redondo transcended and revolutionised what it meant to be a defensive midfield player. He was both a playmaker and a destroyer, lithe and wiry yet strong in the tackle and packing a controlled aggression from which countless bigger men, like Berg, cowered.
He only ever ended up in Spain by a stroke of fortune – or misfortune, depending on your perspective. An administrative shambles at Argentinos Juniors left the entire squad out of contract in the summer of 1990, and though the vast majority of players stayed, one gem slipped through the cracks.
Jorge Solari, uncle of future Real Madrid manager Santiago, made sure of it. He’d just won the Argentine league title with Independiente, earning the chance to manage CD Tenerife in the top division of Spanish football, and wasted little time in making Redondo one of his first additions.
His flowing locks became an emblem of one of the most memorable periods in the club’s history. After Solari was replaced by Jorge Valdano in 1992, the Chicharreros exploded into life, qualifying for the UEFA Cup, and giving their manager – and prized asset – the platform to take the world by storm.
It was no huge surprise when Valdano packed Redondo up in his suitcase when he left to join Real Madrid in 1994. He was smitten by his speed of thought and ability to make the astonishing look simple, later describing him like a musician hearing a melody in their head and transposing it onto an instrument.
“He’s one of the few players who can do with their feet what they think with their heads. He is the only player I ever wanted in my team” – Jorge Valdano.
Redondo played as if he’d been shown the game 30 seconds before his subjects, and had such an elegant air to him that would later see him christened El Principe, or ‘the Prince’, by Diego Simeone. That was, of course, underlined by the sophisticated, regal setting of Real Madrid’s Bernabeu.
He amassed more than 200 appearances in Madrid, and was one of the early building blocks of a team that took over. Between 1994-98, Roberto Carlos arrived, Clarence Seedorf arrived, and Raul – later recipient of Redondo’s exemplary assist at Old Trafford – exploded onto the scene.
They stormed to La Liga in 1994, and then again in 1997, but it was the 1998 Champions League final – where Real sought to end a 32-year wait for a European Cup – that the legacy was cemented. It was in Amsterdam that Redondo stood up Zinedine Zidane and didn’t even flinch, suffocating the Frenchman, cutting off Juventus’ creative supply line, and helping Real to a famous victory that kick-started their modern European dominance.
When later asked what it took to succeed as an Argentine player in the 1990s, Redondo put it succinctly. “Skilled, talented, with character,” he is quoted as saying in a wonderful article by These Football Times. “A winning player who overcomes difficult moments. Intelligent, knows how to read the game.”
Having played most famously for a Real team soon after flooded with superstar after superstar, Redondo doesn’t get the historical acclaim he deserves. If there has been a better defensive midfielder, however, Zinedine Zidane is yet to meet them.
And Henning Berg doesn’t want to.
Edited by Tiyani wa ka Mabasa