For players at clubs such as Real Madrid, breaking through from the academy ranks can be the sternest of challenges. To do so at a time when Los Blancos were accumulating squads of world stars like some Panini sticker enthusiast in overdrive would add a notch or three to the difficulty rating. To do so, at such a time, and become a legend of the club is an aspiration only achieved by the truly exceptional.
One such player was José María Gutiérrez Hernández, universally known as Guti. Should anyone doubt how he is regarded at the club he served for 24 years, Real Madrid’s official website describes him as “the best example of homegrown talent from the youth academy.” For any aspiring youth player signed with the club, Guti serves as both the inspiration and the standard against which to measure their success.
A Madridista from his earliest days, Guti was born in Torrejón de Ardoz, a mere 20 kilometres or so away from the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium that, for so long, would be the centre of his life. He joined the Real Madrid youth set up as a ten-year-old striker in 1986, but as he progressed through the various levels, coaches recognised that his vision, passing ability, tenacity and all action game would be better suited in a midfield role. Fortunately, by the time he reached the U18 team, progressing through to Castilla – the club’s B-team – and into the first team squad, his role was firmly established.
Apart from one exceptional season, Guti’s role never really centred around scoring goals. He was the playmaker, the creator of chances, rather than the finisher of them. His preferred, and probably most successful position was what has come to be called the ‘number ten’ role; the player who prompts, probes and passes. However, his ability also offered the option of deploying him as a second striker or in a wide midfield role. Later in his career, he also excelled in a deeper role, seeing more of the ball as he collected it from his backline to initiate attacks.
Argentine World Cup winner Jorge Valdano was in the manager’s chair when Guti was granted the early Christmas present of a first-team debut on 2 December 1995 in a 4-1 victory over Sevilla. For all the promise and potential that had been lauded by the various coaches he had played under before that day, very few would surely have predicted that the skinny 19-year-old would go on to enjoy the stellar career that awaited him. He would play just nine games during that first season, finding the net just once, but the first step on a long and illustrious journey had been taken.
Although the following season saw Guti increase his Primera División appearances to 14, and 17 across all competitions, it brought him no goals. On the other hand, however, it did bring the first two of what turned out to be a final haul of 15 trophies. A first league title and victory in the Supercopa de España gave the youngster a taste for glory that would grow into a rapacious appetite for accumulating silverware. The following term, he tasted continental success for the first time as the club collected the Champions League trophy. He would add two further winner’s medals from the continent’s elite competition in 2000 and 2002. It was the season in-between those two triumphs, however, that saw Guti’s most prolific term with Real Madrid.
During the 2000-01 season, injuries to lead striker Fernando Morientes meant a mini-crisis for the club, but the promotion of Guti to take his place both solved the problem and further demonstrated the versatility of the player. For the only time, in a first-team career spanning fifteen seasons, Guti would hit double figures for goals notched in league games, scoring 14 times in 32 games, adding another four in club’s abortive attempt to retain the Champions League trophy. His goals would be a major contribution to Los Blancos landing another La Liga title. One of five that would be garnered during his time in Madrid.
A rising tide of arriving Galacticos would always threaten the most established of stars of course, and Guti was no exception to the rule. Ramón Calderón’s stated desire to make Brazilian star Kaká the latest of the celestial names to join the club would surely have been a blow to Guti. And as a result, rumours began to abound of a move, but the deal failed to materialise, resulting in a strengthening of his profile at the club. With Zidane retiring, and Kaká still in Lombardy with the Rossoneri, it was Guti who took the French star’s position and role, guiding Los Blancos to yet another league title.
Even for club legends, however, nothing lasts forever and by the 2009-10 season, the delayed arrival of Kaká had been completed. This implies an inevitable drop in playing time for Guti, although rotation and injuries to the Brazilian would ease the loss, and he would still make 30 appearances during the term. It was a situation hardly helped by a troubled relationship with manager Manuel Pellegrini, and in July 2010, the 33-year-old’s time at the club was brought to an end, with a move to Beşiktaş in Turkey.
By now, the midfielder had acquired a hero status with the fans at the Santiago Bernabéu, who had seen him contribute to those five La Liga triumphs. To add to those league titles, there would be four Supercopa de España victories. Away from domestic matters, three Champions League wins, a UEFA Super Cup and two Intercontinental Cup triumphs were achieved. The latter of which, a 2002 victory over Olimpia of Panama, saw Guti notch the winning goal, one of 77 he would score in his Real Madrid career.
Guti still sees Madrid as an aspiration, as he conceded during an interview with Marca in April 2019. “For sure, I have always said it. To be on the bench of Real Madrid is the maximum, as it was as a player. To be there one day would be really significant. I know that I must achieve plenty to be there but it also took a great effort to be there as a player. I am not scared of that. The only thing I want is to have an opportunity to do things well and for my work to be known and to keep growing.” For a player who served the club for almost a quarter of a century, it may be an inevitable next step in the career of a graduate who shone among the Galacticos.