Emilio Butragueno is first and foremost a gentleman footballer. Known as El Buitre (The Vulture) he was like a throwback to the golden age of the 50s and 60s when he burst on to the scene at Real Madrid as an elegant and highly skilled centre forward, and watching him felt like witnessing the last of a dying breed. Equally cultured on and off the field, he was a natural leader and as he developed as a player so too did those around him, until the entire Real side itself seemed to be lifted on to another level with the emergence of the famous Quinta del Buitre (literally The Vulture’s Cohort, but maybe Vulture Club translates better).
To have one youth product playing in the side is always a matter of pride for any club, but for five to come through at once was special and – like Man United’s golden generation of 92, they didn’t hang about when it came to collecting silverware. Playing alongside Rafael Martin Vazquez, Michel, Miguel Pardeza and Manolo Sanchi, Butragueno amassed six league titles for Real Madrid plus two Spanish Cups, two Spanish Super Cups, two UEFA Cups and a Spanish League Cup.
One of The Vulture’s biggest regrets is that the club never won the big one, the European Cup and it was a similar story with the national side. Despite the five of them becoming regular internationals, the team never really achieved what it could have done: younger readers might not believe this, but for decades it was Spain rather than England who were regarded as Europe’s perennial under-achievers, despite often illuminating the Euros and World Cups with some stellar performances.
One in particular stands out for fans of a certain age: Butragueno’s outrageous four-goal haul against highly-fancied Denmark during Mexico ’86. Bearing in mind the Danes had beaten their arch-rivals and eventual finalists West Germany 2-0 and absolutely spanked a respectable Uruguay side 6-1 in the group stages, when the match got underway nobody really gave Spain that much chance. With their reputation as big game bottlers well-established, the most they could hope for was to take it to penalties, and so it was no surprise that the first half was a tense affair with the sides going in for the break level at 1-1, our man having equalised a Jesper Olsen penalty. What happened next has gone down in Spanish folklore, with the side completely outplaying the Scandinavian favourites and scoring four goals in the second half, with Butragueno netting four times in total as they ran out 5-1 winners.
This was a great Danish team – perhaps even better than the side that surprised everyone by winning Euro ’92 – containing the likes of Brian and Michael Laudrup, Preben Elkjaer and Soren Lerby alongside Manchester United’s flying winger, Olsen, while a young Jan Molby could only make the bench. The Spanish side was on fire that day though, none more so than Butragueno himself. Lining up in a fluid 3-5-2, he was the spearhead of the attack, ably supported by a strong spine in Zubizarreta, Camacho, Goicoechea and his club-mate Michel, in a side that at the time many regarded as the greatest in Spain’s history.
Unfortunately, there were a number of “Best Ever” XIs doing the rounds during Mexico ’86, with the Soviets and the French both being able to make similar claims, while the Belgium side were sublimely gifted and unfortunately for Spain they laid in wait in the quarter-finals. Boasting a golden generation of their own, Belgium had four genuine world-class talents in the talismanic Enzo Scifo, goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff, captain Jan Ceulemans and legendary veteran Eric Gerets at right back. In addition, a young Nico Claesen played up front while the manager was one Guy Thys, easily the most successful Belgian coach of all time. In the end it came down to penalties, that’s how well-matched the two sides were. Spain lost to a Belgium team who ended up a creditable fourth in the tournament having themselves been halted by Diego Maradona’s Argentina in the semi’s. Butragueno did enough to end up second top-scorer and went on to set a record number of international goals for the Spain with 26 in 69 appearances. They came close to causing a real upset though and it’s a tournament that’s fondly regarded in Madrid, especially.
The Vulture netted 123 times for Real Madrid in 341 games in total before winding down his career in – where else ? – Mexico, with Celaya where he also enjoyed a 1-in-3 strike rate. He remains Spain’s seventh highest scorer, after David Villa and David Silva, Raul and the three Fernandos: Hierro, Morientes and Torres. Never the most prolific of goal-scorers, the player himself was supremely modest about his achievements in the game, downplaying the four-goal haul against Denmark while his dad went mental in the stands.
Emilio Butragueno is a true great in the history of both Real Madrid and the Spanish national team. Fittingly, he was employed by Real as their Director of Institutional Relations having completed a Sports MA and subsequent MBA in the US and enjoys as much regard now as he did in his playing days. His love for the game is plain to see, especially for Real, and he still pulls on his boots in charity games and testimonials from time to time, despite having reached his late fifties. Having witnessed him in his prime, I can’t help wondering how many more goals he would have scored playing in the current Spanish side, a team that often plays without a recognised centre-forward mainly because of a lack of real options in the position. What price would ‘The Vulture’ at his peak be now I wonder?