Emilio Butragueño: The Gentleman of the Pitch With Predatory Instincts

When Alfredo Di Stefano stepped down as Real Madrid manager in 1984, he would have been horrified with what immediately followed.

Los Blancos’ 1984-85 season was a low ebb. Their fifth-placed finish in La Liga brought to a point a five-year run without a league title, while a second round exit from the UEFA Cup was their worst European showing in a decade.

It was a long way from what Di Stefano, who won five European Cups and eight league titles as a Madrid player, was used to. Little did the club know, however, that shortly before he departed, he bestowed on them a parting gift that would return them – at least partially – to former glories.

In February 1984, in an away match against Cadiz, the legendary manager uttered two words to an immensely talented young player that would eventually kick-start a revolution. Simple instructions. Nene, calenta. Kid, warm up.

Emiliano Butragueño, who had scored 21 goals for Real Madrid Castilla in the Segunda Division to this point, eagerly obliged. The 20-year-old took to the pitch for the second half, and had opened his senior account within 15 minutes to pull a goal back for his side.

Trailing 2-1, Butragueño’s inspirational performance sparked a comeback that would go down in legend for its significance. Ricardo Gallego equalised, before Butragueño – later monikered The Vulture – showed off his predatory instincts when he pounced on a rebound to score the winner.

From that performance, Quinta del Buitre, or Vulture Class, was put on the map. A group of young players who had excelled for the Castilla team went on to form the core of the Real side in the year’s ahead. Michel, Manolo Sanchís and Rafael Martín Vázquez starred alongside Butragueño throughout the rest of the 1980s and into the 90s, but it was Butragueño – garnering a reputation for his good-looks and fair play as much as his goalscoring instincts – who captured the hearts and minds.

Incredibly, Butragueño only finished as Los Blancos’ top scorer in a single season. For the early part of his career, he was regularly outshone in the scoring charts by the legendary Hugo Sanchez, who was the front man for five successive title wins between 1985-90.

Butragueño played the game in a manner incongruous with the era in which he starred. He had a pleasant, smiling demeanour and the sort of boyish good looks which wouldn’t really come into fashion until Sky bought over the Premier League, but he was a reliable source of goals and inspiration for more than a decade. As Real regained their dominance in the late 80s, Butragueño’s goalscoring antics spilled over well into the 90s, as he netted 14 goals in 40 appearances on their way to the 1990 title.

Real’s form would dip thereafter but Butragueño’s influence only increased. His generation might have failed to ever lift a European Cup, but Spanish football would remember them forever, particularly as an affable Butragueño scored more than 50 La Liga goals between 1990 and his departure in 1995 – when he signed off with his sixth league title in ten years.

He left for Mexico where his goalscoring exploits continued almost to the turn of the century. When he retired, he did so without ever receiving a booking in a competitive match, which only adds to the mythos surrounding him. The Gentleman of the Pitch was Club Atletico Celaya’s affectionate nickname for him.

He went on to serve as the Real’s director of football, vice-president, and head of PR after hanging up his boots, and though his name doesn’t ring around the Bernabeu hall of fame quite like Di Stefano, Sanchez, Zidane or Ronaldo, few would ever profess to stand up to his legacy.