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Ever since I was little I have had a passion for football. Like nearly all young boys at the time, I played football in the street. I had two big brothers and they also played. I used to go to see them play with Deportivo Juvenil. Unfortunately, they are no longer with us.
I made it to the Deportivo de La Coruña first team when I was just 18 years of age. I was only there for a year, less than a year! Until Barça came and signed me.
My debut for Deportivo de La Coruña’s first team was at the stadium in Les Corts. At the time there was a big difference between the big teams and the smaller teams and Barça put six past us but, given I was so young, I did some things that caught their eye. From that day FC Barcelona started to follow me and the following season I was in a Barça shirt.
Having the chance to sign for Barça was marvellous. A year before I was asking the same players for autographs!
It is true that I was unable to do great things in my home team…but it was Barça and the truth things did not go badly for me.
Dépor and Barça at that time had little in common. It was like day and night. In A Coruña we had one masseur and at Barcelona in contrast, there were masseurs, they got you ready for the bath and the swimming pool, there was a barber, a lad who did your nails, feet…The size of the team was not like Deportivo.
My mother did not like it that her son went off to play in Barcelona. Mothers are like that: she still though I was younger that I really was. But, aside from not liking football, my parents realised that signing for Barça could be important and that it was important to me. My dream was coming true and they were happy about that too.
I played for Barça for seven seasons. I had a lot of coaches: Sandro Puppo, Ferenc Plattko, Domènec Balmanya, Helenio Herrera, Enric Rabassa, Ljubisa Brocic and Enrique Orizaola.
I have to say that I had a good relationship with all of them, although one of them did make me do some strange things. Yes, Ferenc Plattko must have thought I was too light and he had the idea of setting up a punchbag for me so I could hit it and build up some muscle. I had to spend half an hour after each training session in a little room! It is true that I was not particularly physically imposing but this…After a week of punching I went to see him in his office and I said to him: “Boss, I am not going back to that room. I came here to play football not box.” What good was boxing to me?
During my time at Barça I saw the club change stadium as well. In 1957 we moved from the Camp de les Corts to Camp Nou. The players accepted it as something normal, expected, as the team had won a lot of trophies and the stadium had become too small.
However, the Camp de les Corts was a great stadium to play football in…There was a great atmosphere and the fans were really close. You could feel their warmth, it was magnificent! Camp Nou was something different, even though it was and still is a great stadium in which to play football.
We had won so much we had to change stadiums.
However, in spite of everything, a situation came about that cause me to leave.
I don’t know why but the Barça fans began to whistle me.
A situation involving rivalry between myself and Ladislao Kubala had come about when in reality there was nothing of the sort.
We had always got on well but people insisted on whistling me when he wasn’t playing. The thing was that I was not playing in his position. I was the ball playing midfielder. We had different roles and when he did not play it was because Kocsis, Evaristo or Eulogio Martínez, other great players we had in the squad, were playing in his place. In fact, they whistled as well when Kubala was playing.
Kubala was a genuine Barça legend. He brought new things to Spain that people had never seen before. Protecting possession when the team were winning, curling free kicks over the wall and even stuttering run ups for penalties. Later the Brazilians invented a name for it – ‘parandinha’ – but he was doing it 40 years before the Brazilians.
Kubala had everything, a unique physical presence and extraordinary technique.
I admired him and I did not understand why the fans whistled me and wanted to pit us against each other. But the fans, instead of being happy that I was coming through when Kubala was perhaps starting to dip, decided to go a different way and took against me. I have the feeling that Barça have had problems when there is more than one leader. I think it’s much better to have two, three or four great players rather than one.
It was very strange. In the street people thanked me for my performances because at Barça I always played with all the coaches but in the stadium the majority would whistle me. It did not make sense.
Whatever it was, Helenio Herrera, who had been my coach at Barça and was then coach at Inter, took advantage of the situation and signed for the Italian club.
It was not an easy decision to take: all the uproar with the crowd in matches at home made me decide to accept Inter’s offer. Furthermore, I had the chance to be a success outside the Spanish League. I was the first Spanish-born player to play in Italy.
Would I have left Barça without the problem with the fans?
I don’t know, I think I would have stayed. It’s true that the financial aspect could have been a factor: Italy and its league were then a more powerful one than the Spanish one. They paid 25 million pesetas for me at the time [now that would be 204,000 euros], a whole lot of money! Honestly, nevertheless, I think I would have stayed and I would have ended up retiring at Barça. I want to remind you that in that era Barça were better and more popular than Inter who at that time had not won as much as they would go on to win in the future.
My end at Barça was somewhat sad. My last game was the European Cup final in 1961 against Benfica. We lost 3-2 in that famous final with the square posts. What bad luck we had! Before the final my move to Inter was already a done deal. There were people who thought I would not play in case I picked up an injury but coach Enrique Orizaola knew me well and played me. Winning the European Cup would have been the perfect ending to my time as a blaugrana.
I played really well in the final in Berne, so well that the Inter fans were rubbing their hands at the thought of my signing and a few years before we had beaten Inter 4-0 and 4-2 in the Fairs Cup. I was scared that they thought they were signing a player who would take corners and also finish them off.
In the 1961 European Cup we have a lot of bad luck. To win it would have been the perfect ending.“
I go back to Helenio Herrera. He was a key man in my career. After being my coach at Barça, in Milan we won two European Cups and two Intercontinental Cups together as well as several league titles. They still stop me on the streets of Milan, where I still live, fans from everywhere who know that I was part of that ‘Grande Inter’, as that team that made history was known.
On that, I still remember when in Barcelona I went to training by public transport. Until I was 21 I did not have a car and we all lived on Aribau street or Casanova street and we used to get the tram calm as you like to get to Les Corts. Now the current players can barely go out on to the street…
Or when I won the Ballon d’Or – they gave me the trophy before the game and I asked the masseur to look after it for me and that was it. No debates about a possible winner during months and months like now.
How the world of football has changed over the years!
As I was saying, Helenio Herrera was, more than anything, a hard worker. He lived 24 hours a day for football. He always wanted to win. He was ahead of his time with regards to physical preparation. The years before his arrival were no comparison to when he was there in terms of intensity and speed. He always coached with the ball and he never stopped saying to us ‘Move it, move it, move it!’.
With him my performances improved and also he helped me to develop my personality.
He had a great ability to persuade, convince. He was a marvellous coach above all for players who just lacked that something to be great. He helped convince them of their talent and helped them perform above and beyond expectations.
He was known for his sayings. One day before a Betis v Barça game he announced we would win without getting off the coach. You can imagine how that went down on the field…A Betis defender came in as soon as the game and gave me a couple of ‘bites’ and I said to him ‘Where are you going? He reminded me about what my coach had said so I suggested he went to discuss it directly with him on the bench instead of going after me.
Helenio Herrera said those things because he could. He knew that he had a great team who the next day would win.
With Inter I returned to Camp Nou on various occasions. The first was a friendly that was included in my contract. It was not long after my transfer to Inter, all was still quite close. That day the Barça fans whistled me more than ever. I shot wide and they whistled even more. Later again, the same.
In a reaction that I regret, I gave the fans an ‘Italian salute’ and l left without warning the coach. I could have warned HH so he could have substituted me…but it was a spontaneous reaction. In contrast to when I was at Barça, when I was prepared for the whistles, that day as an Inter player, I wasn’t expecting it.
Now I regret that gesture. You should not do that.
Later on, in October 1968, Sandor Kocsis rang me to invite me to his testimonial game in Barcelona. I accepted and turned up. That day anything I did brought a great ovation. I think the Barça fans recognised the mistake they had made with me.
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