Around 60 minutes before the Euro 2012 final, Vicente del Bosque takes out his mobile phone and begins to tap out a text message in that old-fashioned style: phone held flat in the left hand, right index finger jabbing away. His fingers are those of a working man and the keys are small and fidgety at a time when tension is rife and history is beckoning. But he has something on his mind. With music blaring out in the dressing-room  to dissipate nerves — “In my day the trainer asked for silence but now you should hear the ‘music’ they play before a match. God wouldn’t listen to it.” — Del Bosque is overcome by thoughts of how it all began and the people to whom he owes a debt. How a 17-year-old boy so tall and thin that he was nicknamed Palillo (toothpick) was spotted in the beautiful city of Salamanca and propelled to fame and greatness; and Antonio Martín, or Toñete as he is normally known, the man he has to thank for his career. The last thing the coach of Spain does before his team becomes the first to win three successive continental and world titles, is to send a little gesture of thanks and friendship to the scout who set the whole story in motion 44 years earlier.

TOÑETEThis will get me emotional just thinking about it. We exchanged text messages all the way through the World Cup, but I got this one just when I knew he should be in the dressing-room  and getting prepared for the final against Italy. He wanted to thank me for everything. His message really only expressed his gratitude for bringing him to Madrid and starting all this off. I thought to myself, “How has this man got time to think of me when he is about to coach Spain to history against Italy?” And he did it again before the Confederations Cup final, too! He has a heart that’s too big for his body. He is extraordinary. Being friends with Del Bosque, having taken him to start his career at Madrid, these things are far, far bigger than winning the lottery for me.

It was a typical gesture from a man whose nobility has always shone through, since long before King Juan Carlos made him the first Marquis Del Bosque in February 2011. Friendship, respect, honour, dignity — these concepts matter much more to Del Bosque than victory, fame or wealth. He wants to win — from time to time he will make hard-nosed decisions and not flinch. However, if working in football were to rob him of some of those base values, he would quit in an instant.

What Del Bosque was taught by his parents and by growing up in Salamanca in Spain’s impoverished 1950s have been fundamental to what he has achieved and how he has done it. “I suppose everything I am today is a product of that childhood,” he said. When Spain lost their opening match of World Cup 2010, unleashing a hurricane of criticism which would have overwhelmed lesser managers; when the Clásico-war in 2011-12 threatened to ruin all he had built with La Roja, Del Bosque’s equanimity, class, compassion and calm led him through the tests. 

He was badly wounded when Madrid dumped him in 2003 after 35 years of excellent service as player and coach, but he has yet to hit back in the media, yet to vent any of his pain and anger. That’s not his way. The most pungent thing he has ever said in public is, “Had they not removed me like that I am certain my team was equipped to carry on winning.”

When his much-loved son, Álvaro, was beseeching him to re-instate Raúl and take his former Real Madrid striker to World Cup 2010, Del Bosque both appeased the lad and, elegantly, handled the growing public questions about a recall so that Raúl, scarred by his defenestration under Luis Aragonés, suffered no further damage.

Football is fortunate that this gentle, interesting and humorous man exists at all. All it would have taken is one capricious moment from a fascist dictator or his secret police and Del Bosque would not have been born. When he was still in primary school, young Vicente discovered his father Fermín was a radical and committed fighter against the exploitation of working men and women. It transpired, to his sons’ great surprise, that the stern and disciplined man who came to watch Del Bosque striding through youth-team games but who never commented on his boy’s football development was also a genuine rebel. The Del Bosque home in Salamanca was a hiding place and distribution point for literature preaching democracy, workers’ rights and the basic freedoms taken for granted around most of the rest of Europe. These were actions which could have resulted in the disappearance of Del Bosque’s father under the oppressive dictatorship that ruled Spain.

Until his death in 1975, Francisco Franco’s regime did not allow the vote, abhorred liberal or left-wing thinking and repressed expressions of distinct cultural identity — particularly among Basques and Catalans — and tried to seal off Spain from the values and ideas of Western Europe. Opponents betrayed by friends and neighbours, with or without justification, were often jailed and tortured.

It was at this stage of their development his two sons learned that during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), just over a decade before Vicente was born, Fermín del Bosque had been denounced by a neighbour, arrested without trial and held in a prison camp for three years. 

During Franco’s rise to dictatorship, partially backed by Nazi Germany, there was bloody slaughter throughout Spain. There was also poverty, starvation and disease. Hundreds of thousands died, some of those in concentration camps and prisons, due to torture and execution. Had Fermín been murdered, worked, or starved to death, this was a time when there would have been few questions and certainly no call for justice.

VICENTE DEL BOSQUEMy dad was what we called a progresista and his imprisonment during the war was because of that. When I was about 11 or 12 I discovered that he was involved in receiving and storing propaganda leaflets. It was pretty explosive stuff. The atmosphere at home would be very tense at times like that. He listened to underground radio stations like La Pirenaica (a station funded by the Communist Party which broadcast independent news and thoughts during Franco’s reign, from Bashkortostan and then Bucharest) and Radio Paris. You have to remember the reality of the situation — we were living in poverty, unable to voice any kind of protest. Today I have plenty of right-wing friends because there is much more tolerance now. We have no problem in engaging in honest dialogue — that would have been impossible in those days. My father was overly responsible, fair and straightforward, to a degree that I’d say was noble. He was a man of good ideas, but too radical on many issues. His generation had to suffer a lot, to live through a war and then suffer the cruel post-war period. It was in the kitchen that, gradually, he told us about his experiences — things which had marked him. He was a righteous man.

It was a childhood of good upbringing but next to no money and certainly no frills. Typical of many great football stories, the young Vicente del Bosque traipsed around after his much-loved big brother, also named Fermín, kicking a ball through the streets, playing until dark and being told to go in goal because he was the smallest of the litter. In the very early part of Del Bosque’s life, Spain’s football landscape, too, was radically different from that of today. Athletic Club, Atlético Madrid and Barcelona were the predominant forces. Madrid was a club whose important executives had been decimated by the war (either because of the vagaries of conflict or because they were anti-Franco) and which was re-building, slowly, under Don Santiago Bernabéu. Only once President Bernabéu began signing, or developing, superstars like Alfredo di Stéfano, Paco Gento, Ferenc Puskás, Luis Molowny, José Santamaría, Raymond Kopa, Amancio and Ignacio Zoco did Spain, and Europe, fall under Madrid’s thrall. The exponential factor in Madrid’s favour is that this football explosion coincided with televisions appearing in some shop windows — ragged-trousered urchins would gather in front of them and Del Bosque and his gang became captivated by the first Galáctico era.

The family was too poor for Vicente and Fermín even to attend the Salamanca matches their father went to. The boys would sneak in when the gates were opened with 10 minutes left. A trip to watch Madrid, Barcelona or Athletic play was out of the question. Then grainy black-and-white images suddenly showed men in all-white kits dancing round tackles, conquering first Spain and then Europe. Di Stéfano, Gento and Kopa had Del Bosque hooked. 

The majority of those who admire his work as a coach have not seen Del Bosque play. His 400-plus games in that famous white shirt were not as widely televised or recorded as those of the players he managed at Madrid: Raúl, Ronaldo, Guti and Zidane. Del Bosque was a footballer of fine technical skills, good aerial ability and a knack of knowing when to hit the penalty box and either score or give an assist. Tall, elegant, not blessed with pace, his calm understanding of what to do made it seem like he was never hurried and the ball was his friend. He played like Trevor Brooking, the England international of the 1970s and early 80s; for a modern reference point, think of a cross between Sergio Busquets and Guti. 

Toñete was trusted by Madrid and was to help discover a handful of players who would etch their names in the club’s history. He worked to the rules of a manual put together by the head of fútbol base (youth development) at Madrid. The single most important criterion read: “Remember to distinguish between a good player and one who is right for Real Madrid.”

It was an era when their six European Cup victories in 13 years made it feel that the next one was just around the corner — not, as it actually transpired, 30 agonising years away. In fact, Toñete was actually gifting Real Madrid the man who would coach them to two of their next three European Cup wins.

Fermín del Bosque, on finally handing his son over to Madrid and heading back to Salamanca, had an expression on his face as if “his soul was broken”. This man who had been imprisoned for his liberal beliefs, taken massive risks to advocate democracy and socialist ideals, was giving his son to a club governed autocratically by a right-wing authority hate-figure who, even before the Spanish Civil War, had been a member of the Juventud Acción Popular, described by Sid Lowe in his book Catholicism, War and the Foundation of Francoism as “uniformed, paramilitary” quasi-fascists. Madrid’s all-powerful president, Santiago Bernabéu, also fought for Franco’s forces during the war under the orders of General Augustín Muñoz Grandes, who would go on to head Hitler’s infamous Blue Division in Russia during World War Two. Young Del Bosque was going to work for a man who had opposed and taken up arms against everything that his father stood for.

In the radical summer of 1968, when the Prague Spring caused a Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, when liberals and anarchists on the streets of Paris nearly brought revolution to France, when civil rights protests in America and Belfast brought riots and retribution, in this most volatile and febrile of moments in modern European history, a young man whose father had been put in a prison camp under Franco joined perhaps the most conservative of all football clubs, Real Madrid Club de Fútbol. 

It was a pivotal moment. For all his principles had cost him and the risks they still carried, Fermín del Bosque wanted his family to be tolerant and democratic and now he put those ideas into practice. 44 years later, the deft negotiations to bring peace to feuding Barcelona and Madrid players which helped Vicente del Bosque’s side make history at Euro 2012 did not simply come from the pages of a management manual. The values he was raised to hold made him the man for those times. 

Del Bosque also inherited his father’s determination to fight for what is right. While a Madrid player, he was a founder member of AFE, the Spanish footballer’s union. AFE was established in 1978 and it was deeply controversial when, as membership grew, there were strikes and a Bosman-style battle against clubs who could retain a contracted player for his entire career. Joining a union at that stage was at very least a minor threat to your continued employment, most particularly at Real Madrid.

Ángel, a former Madrid teammate, remembers the climate: “It wasn’t easy to play for Real Madrid and be a member of a union, but we joined up. Not for ourselves, because we were comfortably off, but for the penniless guys who spent their nights in sleeping bags during or after their careers. We were demanding the introduction of a form of social security.” 

Between 1968 and 1984, when he retired, Del Bosque won La Liga five times and the Copa Del Rey on four occasions. He played with some all-time legends of Los Blancos — José Antonio Camacho, Santillana, Juanito, Paul Breitner, Uli Stieleke, Günter Netzer. Some may have endured longer, but in his prime none of them outranked him. He played against Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Luis Aragonés, Franz Beckenbauer, Jupp Heynckes, Uli Hoeneß, Kevin Keegan, Graeme Souness, Gerd Müller, Johan Neeskens, Zico, Kenny Dalglish, Allan Simonsen, Hugo Sánchez, and Mario Kempes. In his time he was coached by Miguel Muñoz, Luis Molowny, and Alfrédo di Stefano – five-star legends. He had direct professional experience of the majority of the most important football figures across four decades. 

His playing career, however, was scarred by one major flaw: Madrid simply could not win La Séptima. After six European Cup victories in the 1950s and 1960s, there was first an assumption that Madrid would continue to lift the trophy, then anxiety about when it would happen again and finally a deep obsession. Across the four decades when Madrid sought La Séptima there were some epic, thunderous attempts. Del Bosque was part of many of them, as player and coach. 

The first time I saw him play was in November 1975, when Derby drew Real Madrid in the second round of the European Cup. Both legs ended 4-1 to the home team, but during extra time in the return at the Santiago Bernabéu, Del Bosque flicked the ball to Santillana who lobbed it up over his marker and volleyed home in the style of Paul Gascoigne’s famous goal for England against Scotland at Euro ’96. Two thundering ties to make you love football for the rest of your life: 6-5 to Del Bosque’s side — but still not enough to drive them past Bayern Munich in the semi-final.

By the 1979-80 season, the European Cup was once again singing its siren song to Del Bosque and Madrid — the Santiago Bernabéu stadium was going to host the final. Billy McNeill’s Celtic threatened to end the dream in the quarter-finals, but the tie became a testimony to the fact that Del Bosque, now ageing, remained a wonderful footballer. 

Celtic won the first leg 2-0 in front of one of those fevered Celtic Park audiences which make such nights gargantuan.

In the Spanish capital, it was bedlam and the second leg became another in a series of what are called Los Remontadas Históricas de Madrid — Real Madrid’s historic fightbacks. Black market ticket-touts were arrested the day before the game in possession of 700,000 pesetas from a mixture of stolen and fake tickets; more than 100,000 fans crammed into the historic stadium which at the time had fences and a small ash track around the pitch. Madrid’s coffers benefitted to the tune of 60 million pesetas.

Pumped up, Del Bosque broke from the halfway line and started sprinting towards Peter Latchford’s goal even before Károly Palotai had blown for kick-off as Real Madrid, in the very first seconds, tried for the long ball to the tall man for the knockdown.  Del Bosque’s nice exchange of passes with Laurie Cunningham led to the crucial second Madrid goal, when Santillana headed down the Englishman’s cross for Uli Stielike to score. Then, with four minutes left, Ángel crossed for Juanito to put the Scottish club out. The Celtic boss McNeill was incensed by refereeing decisions he blamed for the defeat. Despite that ire, his admiration for one player was undimmed. “Once again Del Bosque stood out,” McNeill said. “I admired his performance against us just as in the first leg. He is one of the best players I have ever seen.”

Davie Provan, a winger of the highest quality and today an eloquent and incisive football analyst on Sky Sports, recalled the performance of Madrid’s No.6 over those two matches. 

DAVIE PROVANBack then there was very little European football on the television. It was our first experience of seeing many of the Real Madrid players, but Del Bosque had featured in big Billy’s pre-match briefing. What often wrong-footed teams coming to play us then, and still does today, was the tempo — it was frenzied. That night we were so up for it, but I remember Del Bosque bringing the ball down and walking with it. Walking! That was his message to the rest of the Madrid team: We dictate the pace, not Celtic. His managerial career has been so good, so successful, that it has overshadowed what a fantastic player he was. His self-assurance then, and now as a manager, comes from class — real quality. 

By the second leg of the semi-final in 1980, it seemed that Madrid were heading for the final and a chance to lift ‘their’ trophy in their stadium. Kevin Keegan’s Hamburg, also featuring Felix Magath and Horst Hrubesch, had been beaten 2-0 in Madrid, but the night of 23 April 1980, at the Volksparkstadion, became perhaps the single most painful night of Del Bosque’s playing career.

Madrid were two down and thus level on aggregate after just 17 minutes; Laurie Cunningham scored an away goal which meant Hamburg required two more to advance, but the Germans produced both within the space of five horrible minutes before half-time. Worse, Del Bosque was sent off with six minutes left, before Caspar Memering made it 5-1 to Hamburg. The red card came when, in an extraordinary moment for a man so placid and self-controlled, he took a swipe at Kevin Keegan with the intention of clipping him round the head. There is an emotive picture of him, a blanket over his shoulders, sitting on a kit box on the edge of the running track at the Volksparkstadion with the massive electronic scoreboard looming over the back of his head, showing the score of 4-1: elimination, humiliation, shame. 

He had three more seasons to come, but this was the beginning of the winter years for Del Bosque, the footballer, at Madrid.  Due to injury and new signings, the next season he played only a moderate role as the Spanish champions advanced to the quarter-final, against Spartak Moscow. He got a testimonial five minutes in the Soviet capital during a 0-0 draw and then the first half of what became a 2-0 home win. The nervous Bernabéu were not generous with their former hero. He departed at half-time.

In El País the match reporter, Julian García Cancau, wrote, “The Bernabéu fans are going to push Del Bosque out long before his time. They have converted him into the scapegoat every single time the team around him is not functioning well.”

DEL BOSQUE [1981]Fans need to realise that if I am on the ball so much it is because I have run sufficiently to get free of my marker. But I am tall, I am easy to spot and I appear slow. Moreover, I prefer to play football, not just to get the ball forward at the first opportunity. I try to wait for, or to create, the best opportunity for the right pass. I have been around for many years and I guess the fans tire of you, but that will change back. Passion for a player comes and goes with the Spanish public. Today they are on your back, tomorrow they glorify you again.

When Sergio Busquets, playing in a similar position to Del Bosque 30 years later, was hung out to dry following Spain’s defeat by Switzerland in the World Cup, the coach’s experience allowed him to empathise with his player and ignore the white noise which came after that upset. Busquets, like Del Bosque, does work which is far easier to appreciate when you are the recipient of his support rather than the beholder.  In the qualifying series before the 2014 World Cup Xavi, still the brain of Del Bosque’s Spain, is losing pace and athleticism with age. The fact that he has a coach with a personal understanding of the process should help manage a great player and a delicate situation. 

The European Cup final of 1981 was Del Bosque’s first and last as a player. Sadly it was a drab affair, notable, unless you were a Scouser, mainly for its stats — Bob Paisley became the first man to win the trophy three times; it was the fifth consecutive victory by English clubs and Liverpool’s third trophy. Alan Kennedy’s goal with eight minutes remaining ensured Del Bosque left Paris without conquering Europe. For the meantime, at least. 

One of Liverpool’s key players that night told me what facing Del Bosque’s Madrid had meant to them. 

GRAEME SOUNESSI looked back at that final a couple of months ago because Jamie Redknapp rang me to tell me it was on television. I realised, watching it after such a long time, that for players like Del Bosque in midfield we must have been a nightmare to play against because we were already putting into practice many of the things which are in vogue now: pressing all over the pitch, full-backs pushed high up their touchline so that I stayed sitting in front of the two centre-backs protecting them. I see much of that as central to the success of Barcelona and Spain nowadays.

Those who criticise Spain for their manner of winning now know nothing about football. We were hugely successful at Liverpool and we were taught, from day one, to keep the ball. Don’t try a pass through the eye of a needle; win the ball, circulate it, start again and again if you have to, but seek the right opportunity. Again, that’s what Spain do excellently today. I’d put Del Bosque’s Spain side up with Brazil of 1970, no question. Del Bosque has been a part of a change in the essence of Spanish football. In my day, and Del Bosque’s, Spanish football was full of stuff you hated — dirty tricks, kicks and shirt pulling. Cynical and horrible. Now it’s about quality, control, technique and winning and it’s the most attractive stuff around. That’s a remarkable change and they have a good man in charge.

Despite being plagued by injuries, Del Bosque had chances to augment his collection of silverware in his penultimate season — and to add a European trophy. However, this was to become known as La temporada de cinco copas perdidas (the season of five lost cups) — both a nod in the direction of Barça’s famous temporada de cinco copas (in 1951-52) and an acknowledgement that Real Madrid in 1982-83 lost five ‘finals’.

Madrid went into the final day of the la Liga season with the expectation of lifting the title, but were defeated 1-0 at the Mestalla by Valencia as Javier Clemente’s powerful Athletic Bilbao won in Las Palmas to take the championship. Del Bosque did not play in either the Copa del Rey final defeat by Diego Maradona’s Barcelona or the Supercopa finals against Real Sociedad, which Madrid lost by an aggregate of 4-1. The two-legged League Cup final was no better. Del Bosque scored in the 2-2 draw against Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabéu but at the Camp Nou, three days later, the Catalans won 2-1. The coup de grâce came in Gothenburg, where Del Bosque was left out of the Real Madrid team which lost 2-1 to Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final. 

Del Bosque’s international career did not end with the number of caps his talent merited. A broken leg suffered before the 1978 World Cup denied him an opportunity to compete for a place in the Spain squad. He returned just before the tournament but László Kubala, the Spain coach, left him behind. In February 2013, a 3-1 win over Uruguay saw Del Bosque equal Kubala’s record for the number of matches as Spain coach: 68. He spoke kindly about the Hungarian, but the statistics tell a story. Del Bosque’s 68-game record stands at 57 wins, five draws and only six defeats with 170 goals for and 45 against. The Spain team in Del Bosque’s playing era, during Kubala’s 68 matches in charge, had 31 wins and 21 draws. 

The 18 games Del Bosque played for his country at least brought two notable benefits. First, he shared midfield with Ángel María Villar, the man who would re-shape Spanish football as its president from 1988 until the present — and who employed Del Bosque when replacing Luis Aragonés must have seemed an invidious task. Secondly, there was Del Bosque’s only international goal, which came against Cyprus in his hometown of Salamanca. 

Del Bosque’s last competitive match for Madrid was in the Copa in 1983, when Madrid drew Barça Athletic, now known as Barça B. The Quinta del Buitre (The Vulture Gang, a pun on Emilio Butragueno’s name) including Manolo Sanchis, Michel, Martín Vazquez and Miguel Pardeza were pushing through from Madrid’s youth ranks and Del Bosque, shrewdly went the other way. By 1984 he was preparing to coach in Castilla, Madrid’s youth academy.  Del Bosque had always thought about precisely how to organise a game’s tempo, how to prompt and push from midfield rather than just using the ball at the first opportunity. He soon found that these were principles he could explain to others. 

Del Bosque was both a linchpin in the development of some truly great in-house talent and also the only Madrid coach to make Florentino Pérez’s Galáctico philosophy properly successful. It was not his fault that the success of the latter deeply damaged the former.

The strategy was initially called Zidanes y Pavones: Madrid would buy the world’s No.1 superstar every year, but theoretically promote excellent home-bred players from the cantera too. Poor old Paco Pavón, an honest but not exceptional central defender, had the misfortune that his name was seconded to Pérez’s scheme. The Pavónes were never given the time or encouragement to flourish. 

This Bacchanalian behaviour inevitably made the club ill, but when the feast was high there was an orgy of terrific football, a sense that this was cutting-edge strategy and seemingly without horizon. However, the young seedlings from the youth system were almost immediately trampled upon. In those early, heady, days there was no time for players such as Roberto Soldado, Juan Mata, Borja Valero, Álvaro Arbeloa, Álvaro Negredo, Juanfran and Javi García to find their feet and flourish. When the players in their way included Luís Figo, Zinédine Zidane, Ronaldo and David Beckham, that was comprehensible; by the time that became Michael Owen, Jonathan Woodgate, Carlos Diogo, Fernando Gago and Julio Baptista, far less so.

It became infamous that the Galáctico era, steered by Del Bosque, largely meant barren times for products of La Fábrica (Madrid’s youth system). From the emergence of Iker Casillas from mid-1999 until Arbeloa was re-purchased from Liverpool 10 years later, no youth-team product hit the Real Madrid first team and stayed there. The last three to make it before the dawn of the Galácticos were Raúl, Guti and Casillas — each of whom had been significantly helped in his formative youth development by Del Bosque, while a cantera coach.

Presidents, first-team coaches and superstar players came and went, but Del Bosque endured in various roles, always inculcating the right values, teaching ‘the Real Madrid way’, making sure that footballers grew up with intelligence, technique, judgment, honesty, bravery and a will to win.  Midway through the 1999-2000 season, John Toshack’s Madrid lay eighth. A long, simmering tension between the manager and his president, Lorenzo Sanz — not helped by losing the Madrid derbi to the Atlético of Claudio Ranieri and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink which would end the season relegated — culminated in the Welshman’s sacking. It was a time for expediency on the president’s behalf. Presidential elections were just around the corner and a wealthy, politically active industrialist by the name of Florentino Pérez was beginning to make belligerent campaigning noises. Sanz imagined that it was more important to announce a star coach like Arsène Wenger or Fabio Capello in May or June, rather than try to persuade one to come midway through what appeared, to him, a doomed season. Instead, he promoted Del Bosque for the interim.

The quiet, moustachioed former midfielder very quickly confounded Sanz. So successful was he that, by May, a stellar coach was not required. From November 1999 to May 2000 lay the roots of the biggest treason committed against Del Bosque during 46 years in professional football. Despite a pair of four-goal thrashings from Bayern Munich in the group stages, Del Bosque and Toni Grande convinced their players that they could win the European Cup.

DEL BOSQUE [1999]I want to win the players over appealing to their competitive nature, without a lot of drama or false camaraderie. The football world seems, now, to be all about image and self-publicity, very little boot room. Let’s see if we can win this squad over with a little bit of the boot-room work ethic instead of showboating.

In mid-November 1999, Del Bosque put together the majority of the technical team which would be in place when Spain won the 2010 World Cup. Paco Jiménez was returned to scouting opponents and potential transfer signings. Toni Grande came up from the cantera as assistant coach and Javier Miñano, previously with Madrid Castilla, became the first-team fitness coach. For several months under Toshack, the team had been operating without one.

DEL BOSQUE [1999]This is my decision, which I think is vital, and that doesn’t mean that I’m saying Toshack’s methods are less viable than mine. I just believe that as we are about to turn the corner into a new decade and a new millennium it is the right time to appoint specialist and efficient collaborators and to know how to delegate.

Just before Christmas 2012, I asked Del Bosque to explain how he selected the location and training facilities for the tournaments his team won. 

DEL BOSQUE:I set the parameters of exactly what I require and then the people around me in the technical team, discrete, excellent specialists, are in charge of their area. I have huge faith in them and their abilities. They handle the details of what we eat, where we live, how good the training pitch is — if I were to get involved with the doctors or the communications strategy or the training hotel then I would not be able to do my job properly. I let my specialists know what I want, they deliver and if the players are happy then they, too, will do the job I need them to do.

There are 13 years between these statements, yet they are almost identical in philosophy. Appoint excellence all around you — then delegate. Back in 1999, Del Bosque’s manner, his tactical changes, his history at the club, his use of Miñano, plus the lure of another European Cup were combustible influences, as one of his players recalls.

STEVE McMANAMANAs a coach, he was very honest and down to earth. He showed no airs or graces. We might not have been in crisis, but we were having a difficult time so he appeared a bit sour-faced and it wasn’t a laugh a minute then. But most of the time you knew exactly how he was feeling. I recently watched the comments coming out of my old club Manchester City about Roberto Mancini and how much was said behind people’s backs. Well, there was none of that with Del Bosque. Everything — good or bad — was up front. He was the type of manager who didn’t want to speak to his players constantly, only when he had something specific to say. Otherwise he kept with his staff. What was immediately apparent is that if we won and he was content with the form then, so long as you were fit, you would continue to play. That made people happy and motivated. It is also true that the immense sense of club history he brought with him, when he stepped up, added continuity and everyone around the club drew strength from that.

Aside from winning big trophies, showing a tremendous aptitude for gaining an edge in knockout football, even from knowing how to man-manage a group of superstars, there was another element which clearly emerged here and which correlates directly to Del Bosque’s success in charge of Spain.

Under Toshack, Madrid were conceding nearly two goals per game. From when Del Bosque took over until they won the Champions League on 24 May 2000 that dropped to less than a goal per game. Of the 38 games in La Liga and the Champions League, 14 were clean sheets. As national coach, his team played seven knockout matches without conceding on the way to their tournament wins in 2010 and 2012.

DEL BOSQUEPeople highlight the attacking side of the game, which is fine, but if you rob the ball from the opponents 25 or 30 times in a match when they are trying to create scoring opportunities against you, that is equally valuable.

Iker Casillas, future Spain captain, was promoted by Del Bosque to become the permanent Real Madrid No 1 in place of Albano Bizzarri. Four days after the goalkeeper’s 19th birthday, he started against Valencia as Del Bosque won the first of two Champions Leagues titles as coach.

To Del Bosque’s enormous embarrassment, Sanz chose to interrupt the pre-Champions League final press conference to announce that the manager would be “renewed as coach” and “would stay at Real Madrid in one capacity or another for the rest of his life”. 

I was there in the ridiculously ornate Trianon Palace hotel in Versailles, a haunt for Generals Eisenhower and Patton, Marlene Dietrich and Queen Elizabeth II across the years, and witnessed Del Bosque’s thinly-contained anger that the press conference was hijacked by a grandstanding president. When Sanz wandered in, commandeered the stage and publicly confirmed Del Bosque’s new contract, the manager feared that the focus on winning a Champions League final had been undermined.

DEL BOSQUE [2000]: It is a personal decision that I have decided to accept the club’s offer and, as such, it is private. So I have got nothing to say. The club judges it appropriate to announce this now, but as far as I am concerned it is a very minor subject compared to winning the final.

Real Madrid romped it, over-running and out-thinking Valencia in a 3-0 win, the goals coming from Fernando Morientes, Steve McManaman and Raúl. A festival of Spanish noise, colour and flair in the French capital, a fiesta for Real Madrid and an eighth European Cup.

DEL BOSQUE: This club, for its history and for its legend, always has the capacity to win the European Cup. Our cup. Football gives you second chances and this is a wonderful way to erase the memory of losing in Paris to Liverpool nearly 20 years ago.

Just as in the aftermath of the finals of the World Cup and Euro 2012, Del Bosque was quickly absent from the dressing-room , foiling the plan of his players — later revealed by Fernando Redondo — to throw him into the Jacuzzi. This was the players’ triumph and it was their moment to sing and drink and celebrate. 

McMANAMAN: It was striking how he hid away. He really didn’t want any glory, especially not to get in the way of the players in the limelight. He was remarkably humble.

And this is how Del Bosque sowed the seeds for the treachery done to him three years later. When Florentino Pérez won a substantial majority in the presidential elections two months later, the new man in charge of the club was, unexpectedly stuck with someone who was already a club legend, who had just won the Octavo and who was safe in a new contract. The two men had only one thing in common: their feelings for Real Madrid. Politically, philosophically, strategically and in sporting and human terms, they were poles apart. 

The uncomfortable truth for Pérez was that while the Salamancan kept winning trophies — two Spanish leagues, two Supercopas, the Intercontinental Cup and another Champions League — Del Bosque could not be sacked.

However, the division grew. There was brilliance to draw upon in the penultimate season — a 2-0 win at the Camp Nou in the Clásico Champions League semi-final of 2002 and then that awe-inspiring Zidane volley at Hampden to win Madrid their ninth European Cup — but it was also full of conflict. An El País magazine article detailing the republican, democratic and anti-Franco code by which Del Bosque’s father had lived, plus the coach’s own background as a union organiser, were in opposition to the politics of Pérez; Fernando Hierro became a loud voice on behalf of the players, often in opposition to diktats from the President’s office.

McMANAMANThere wasn’t player-power like you find now in England. It was a powerful voice exercised, always, for the good of the team. In England there might be one or two idiots who want to argue with the coach and do so to see what benefit they can get individually. It wasn’t like that under Del Bosque. Hierro was the No. 1 man, then Sanchis, then probably Raúl, but Hierro was the player-leader on and off the pitch. He was the voice of the dressing-room  and I am sure Florentino heard too much from him. The last game of the 2002-03 season was the final straw. There were some disputes and when the club ordered us to go to the cathedral and the town hall because the city council demanded it, but then denied permission to follow tradition and hang a Madrid scarf on the Cibeles fountain, the dressing-room  decided that it was all off. The post-match celebrations on the pitch were muted, there wasn’t as much of a lap of honour as expected and then chaos reigned. We had player meetings for hours on end until around 3am, when it was agreed that we wouldn’t be the council’s puppets just because the president ordered us to. Then, by 6am, it was all reinstated again and there were frantic text messages all around and search parties to make sure that all the players could be rounded up. It was a shambolic period and I think that might have partly dictated what happened next.

The five-minute lap of honour, Hierro’s refusal to lead the players back out onto the pitch, Del Bosque’s decision to allow his players freedom to make their own choices — these became reasons for the board to sack the best on-pitch leader and the most successful Madrid coach since the zenith of Puskás, Gento and Di Stefano. 

The next evening his wife Trini drove Del Bosque to the Bernabéu, as she thought, for him to pick up some papers from his office and to meet with the president about renewing his contract which was to expire later that month. Halfway there, the mobile phone rang. It was Hierro. He had been kicked out of the club. No new contract, as had been promised:

“Look out, boss.” 

“I suspect I’m going the same way as you in a few minutes.”

The coach hid his suspicion from his wife and she was as shocked as the rest of the Madridistas when he returned to the car having been told he was out, despite seven trophies in three and a half seasons.

DEL BOSQUE [2003]For about 20 days I had suspected this might be coming and I go proud of our work, our victories and in the sure knowledge that I have not committed any felony. What I and my assistants leave behind is something to feel satisfied with and now I find myself full of expectations for what lies ahead of me.

JORGE VALDANO [sporting director, 2003]: We simply told the squad, “Vicente won’t be continuing.” I know it’s a decision which flies in the face of what the man in the street wants, what the dressing-room  wants, but those who govern a club have to govern it.

FLORENTINO PÉREZ [2003]Real Madrid needs someone with a less out-of-date training manual.

DEL BOSQUE [2003]: I have cried, of course I have cried — remembering the 35 years I have been with this club makes me full of emotion.

Without Del Bosque it took Real Madrid six managers and four seasons to win anything other than a single Spanish Supercopa. Real Madrid spent seven years unable to get beyond the last 16 of the Champions League. 

McMANAMANIf that group of Del Bosque, his staff, Hierro plus [Claude] Makélélé and Morientes, who should never have been pushed out by Pérez, had stayed together they would have won more and more. No way on earth should Del Bosque have been treated like that. The deterioration started immediately and it went so far south that it was incredible. There should be statues of Del Bosque in every Spanish city given what he has achieved for that country, but most of all in Madrid. The club should come out and declare its love for that man, but too often it’s the guys who love a club the most, who are the heart of the club, who get treated worst of all.

RONALDODel Bosque was a great coach and an incredible person. He knew that Real Madrid squad inside out and my year with him was one of my best. He was the ideal man to manage that dressing-room  and get the best out of our squad.

Del Bosque had an ill-fated spell with Beşiktaş in Turkey where, to put it lightly, he was appalled at the egos and lack of self-discipline — this from a man who had just managed Los Galácticos. It led to one of the few times in his career where he lost his temper. 

DEL BOSQUEI had to watch my players strutting about like a bunch of little princes. They would be sitting in their rooms calling for cups of tea, pasta — I and my team had come from a world of top professionals who still managed to behave like normal guys. These fellows were used to being treated with absolute servility. There was no way I was going to tolerate it and I told them that in no uncertain terms. They were behaving like superstar players, which was a long way from reality, believe me.

A couple of quiet years later his regular lunches and cups of coffee with his former captain, Hierro, transformed into lunches and cups of coffee with the newly-appointed football director of the Spanish federation.

In the winter of 2007, Del Bosque received a phone call from Hierro, this time in the latter’s professional capacity with the federation. Hierro was preparing for a future beyond Euro 2008 and beyond Luis Aragonés. Gradually it became clear that, win or lose, the federation and Aragonés were going to go their separate ways. Having been a prime candidate in 2004, before Aragonés was appointed, and enjoying Hierro’s total trust and respect, Del Bosque profiled perfectly. 

Between then and July 2008, when Del Bosque’s succession was made formal, and shortly after mass celebrations across the country when Aragonés’s squad won the European Championships, there was an arctic tension between the two men — one icon of Madridismo, one icon of Atlético. Aragonés often carped about lack of respect from the federation; his work was finishing with a replacement already agreed, whose identity was an open secret and who had been selected by one of his own former players, Hierro, who did not enjoy a particularly close relationship with Aragonés.

Uefa held a national team coaches forum in Vienna three months after Euro 2008. Del Bosque was there in his new capacity as Spain coach, Aragonés as the man who had just won Uefa’s showpiece tournament. The great and the good from all over Europe were gathered for seminars, lunches, press conferences — the sharing of ideas and information. Aragonés and Del Bosque, chaperoned by Hierro, were like cat and dog, prowling warily around the five-star hotel. If one was in the bar, the other was in the conference room. If one was on the first floor, the other was down in reception. Hackles were raised. There was a potential for conflict which was raised when, during the 2010 World Cup, Aragonés was repeatedly critical in his tone as an analyst as Spain needed some blue-collar effort to get through their group. After the tournament was won and Del Bosque came back with World Cup gold to match up against Aragonés’ silverware, there was an opportunity for revenge.

Spain has a yearly award named after the Príncipe de Asturias, King Juan Carlos’s son. It is somewhere between a Knighthood and a Nobel Prize. Across all other categories, previous winners include Václev Havel, Nelson Mandela, Woody Allen, Umberto Eco, Bob Dylan and Al Gore. In sport, Martina Navratilova, Seb Coe, Michael Schumacher and Carl Lewis are among the honoured. In 2010, the Spain football team won the Premio Príncipe De Asturias by a landslide margin. One Friday night in October they, plus a glittering gala of socialites, politicians, artists, scientists, writers and the Royal family, gathered in Oviedo’s elegant Teatro Campoamor. This is part of what the Spain coach says while addressing them. 

DEL BOSQUEFor over 100 years football has formed part of Spanish daily life and it is inexorably linked to the hopes and dreams of millions of Spaniards. We speak about it with such frequency and intensity that it is as if football were a member of each of our families. It is omnipresent, it leaves nobody indifferent. As such we [the squad] are the privileged beneficiaries of a status and responsibility which we cannot ignore. We are the standard bearers for a universal phenomenon which demands that you seek to better yourself every day. We are the few who defend the highest levels of a sport which the multitudes follow and practise. This squad which tonight receives the Príncipe de Asturias prize exhibits the values which soar over any particular trophy success and other material gains in professional football — these players are legitimate heirs to a tradition which honours us all. 

Their values, both timeless and decisive, are effort, talent, sacrifice, discipline, solidarity and modesty. These men who won the World Cup have been true to sportsmanship and honour. They reached the final defending those values — had it been any other way we could not have managed it. Spain winning the World Cup has been a reward for these values, but also the total conviction of all the players that our football proposition, our football philosophy, was the right one and that they were giving everything to it. Neither concept was doubted at any time. We all knew that this was the only way in which we could cope with the adversities and difficulties which will always arise if you try to achieve what we set out to do. 

This team feels deep satisfaction at having attained this unique success and at having made millions of Spaniards proud. The humility and modesty of this group of athletes became as powerful a strength in their favour as the sweeping football they are capable of playing.

All that having been said, in front of an adoring audience and flanked by his World Cup-winning players, Del Bosque strode towards Prince Felipe, accepted the award and then suddenly detoured into the audience. He knew where the man he wanted to find was seated. Calmly, with a big fraternal smile on his face, he reached out his hand and gracefully requested that Luis Aragonés, predecessor, critic, sometime rival, step out of the audience and stand, with the squad, to receive the thunderous applause of the opera house audience and the appreciation of watching millions on live television.

Evidently taken aback, and just as evidently thrilled and honoured, Aragonés accepted with grace. Arms raised in acknowledgement, Aragonés, Del Bosque, the remnants of the 2008 squad plus the new boys who had won the World Cup in South Africa stood at not only the zenith of their lives but of the history of Spanish sport.

Somewhere, looking down, Fermín del Bosque — republican, defender of democracy, preacher of equal rights, believer in the brotherhood of man and father of young Vicente, would have been very proud.


This is an edited extract from Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble, published by BackPage Books.