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How Clasico Agitator Luis Enrique Went from Real Madrid Exile to Barcelona Idol

Alex Dimond@alexdimondUK Lead WriterOctober 22, 2014

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 21: Luis Enrique Martinez poses for the media during his official presentation as the new coach of FC Barcelona at Camp Nou on May 21, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Like his 11 players, the away manager in any meeting between Real Madrid and Barcelona can be pretty confident he will receive a fiery reception.

El Clasico is one of the most historic matches in football, a rivalry driven primarily by history of competition on the field of play but one broadened and deepened in its complexity and emotion by those off it as well.

Employees on either side know that going in; Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti will have long ago accepted he is never going to get a warm welcome at the Camp Nou, while his counterpart, Luis Enrique, knows the same is true whenever Barcelona visit the Bernabeu.

For Enrique, though, the reception he receives this weekend may be even stronger than anything his predecessors ever experienced, perhaps even more vitriolic. The 44-year-old will arrive at the Bernabeu not just as the leader of the enemy, but as a turncoat—having spent five years as a Madrid player before moving on to join Los Cules on a free transfer in the summer of 1996.

The betrayal is still remembered now; indeed he has not allowed it to be forgotten, considering the way he finished out his career with Los Cules, becoming such a beloved and respected figure with his new club that he always appeared to be on the managerial fast-track.

More generally, however, this is not the way the Clasico rivalry works—players do not usually leave one club for the other, let alone turn their backs on one to become a hero at the other.

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Enrique, however, seems unlikely to be concerned by the reception he is set to receive at the ground at which he spent half-a-decade of his playing career, and many of his formative years as a man. Indeed, he may well revel in it.

"I see myself on stickers and on television and I feel weird in white," Enrique said earlier this year, per Marca. "I think the blue and purple suit me much better."

Why did Luis Enrique leave Real Madrid in the first place, and how did he overcome initial suspicions to become such a key individual for his new club?


MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 27:  Players from Real Madrid and Barcelona line up prior to the UEFA Champions League Semi Final first leg match between Real Madrid and Barcelona at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on April 27, 2011 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Alex Live
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

In the 112-year history of El Clasico, just 33 players have represented both Real Madrid and Barcelona during their playing careers.

The path between the two archrivals is not one that has been well trodden—just 20 of those players made the move directly—for so many reasons. Generally, if a player is considered good enough to play for one of the two sides, then his current club are not going to consider selling him to an archrival unless under extreme duress. At the other end of the spectrum, if a player is no longer good enough to get in one of the teams, then it would logically follow that the rival is likely to consider his talents insufficient as well.

Since the end of General Franco’s reign in 1975—a regime that is widely credited with heightening the Clasico rivalry to something more complicated and fraught than a "mere" footballing issue—17 players have represented both clubs, with seven of those moving directly between the two sides.

Almost all of those moved from Barcelona to Real Madrid, a reflection, perhaps, of the fact Los Blancos have been the more consistently wealthy and successful of the two sides in the last 40 years. Of those six there are some famous transfers—Luis Figo, of course, but also Michael Laudrup, Bernd Schuster and, most recently, Javier Saviola (hey, they can’t all be winners).

Since 1975 only one has moved in the opposite direction: Luis Enrique.

The Spaniard spent five mostly successful years in Madrid—even scoring in a 5-0 win for Los Blancos in 1995—before surprising many when, as a 26-year-old just entering his prime, he upped sticks and moved to the Camp Nou on a free transfer in the summer of 1996. Now, 18 years later, he is manager at the club he represented for the remaining eight years of his playing career, preparing to take charge of his first Clasico meeting as a coach.

Only Schuster, who lasted less than two seasons at Real after being appointed in 2007, has played for both Clasico teams before going on to manage one of them in such a game. The German ended up burning bridges with both clubs: As a player he threatened to walk out on Barcelona, being ostracised for over a season before Real finally rescued him. As a manager 20 years later he was then sacked by Madrid, having claimed ahead of one Clasico that it was "impossible" to beat Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.

PFEIL/Associated Press

The German struggled to straddle the divide, and that was under the less intense glare that the rivalry now creates.

"The fans already knew that I was leaving for more than sporting reasons, not just because of money," Schuster recalled to German magazine 11freunde (in German) in 2011. "But still it was very difficult."

The biggest rivalry in the sport will feature a manager whose first experience of it—whose first five years of it—were on the other side of the divide. When his contract expired in the summer of 1996, few people, least of all any of his present employers, thought he would up sticks and move to Catalonia. For the player, however, it was a straightforward move.

"It wasn’t [hard to leave], it was easy," Enrique told FourFourTwo earlier this year, when asked about that decision. "I signed a five-year contract with Madrid and I played for five years. I honoured my contract, I didn’t break it."

This is a familiar explanation. For all the emotion involved, sometimes it can be forgotten that, at heart, these are individuals making difficult decisions based on a variety of concerns.

Schuster, for example, moved to Real Madrid not because it was the move that would most antagonise Barcelona fans, but because it was the offer on the table that he felt was best for his family.

"I could have taken over from Michel Platini [at Juventus], but my kids had just started school, so I preferred to stay in Spain," Schuster said. "[Juventus] was the only time in my career I got a blank cheque in my hand…but I preferred the German school in Madrid."

For Enrique it was a similar decision, although footballing matters came foremost in his mind.


10 Oct 1997:  Luis Enrique Martinez of Spain in action during the World Cup Qualifier match against the Faroe Islands at Gijon in Spain. Spain won the match 3-1. \ Mandatory Credit: Clive Brunskill /Allsport
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Luis Enrique Martinez Garcia was born in May 1970, in Gijon, Asturias. His father was not a football man, but both he and his older brother loved the game—Enrique told FourFourTwo that his first memory of the sport was going to watch local side Sporting Gijon face Cadiz when he was 10 years old.

His first taste of playing the game was "futsal sala," the five-a-side version of the heavy-ball game that puts a premium on technique and spatial awareness over strength and power. It was these qualities, perhaps, that saw Enrique join the Sporting academy before he was a teenager—although between the ages of 14 and 17 he was allowed to leave for tiny La Brana (down the coast from Gijon), as his boyhood club harboured real questions about whether Lucho (a nickname he had picked up due to his similarity to a first-team player, Mexican Lucho Flores) had the strength, or the ability, to hold up to the challenge of professional football.

At 17, however, Enrique returned to El Molinon, and almost immediately "El Guaje" ("the kid") began to impress in the B team. After making his debut for the first team towards the end of the 1989-90 season, the then-20-year-old was almost ever-present the following campaign, scoring 14 goals and finishing joint fifth in the goalscoring charts as Gijon powered to fifth in La Liga.

As a result, that summer Real Madrid quickly came calling, and Enrique was sold. Gijon have not finished as high in the league since.

"On a personal level, you never think that a big club will come for you," Enrique recalled in FourFourTwo. "I didn’t dream of Madrid after a year and a half at Sporting, but Sporting needed to sell for money. It happened quickly and I signed a five-year contract.

"[Perhaps] I would have been better staying another year and developing at a club with a local perspective, not the pressure of winning every game like you get at Barca or Madrid."

Despite that heightened pressure, Enrique found it easy to adjust to life with his new teammates—the likes of Emilio Butragueno, Michael Laudrup and Fernando Hierro—although his assimilation into the side itself was less seamless. Having arrived as a striker, Enrique was initially deployed as a midfielder by manager Raddy Antic, who also somehow had to incorporate Laudrup, Gheorghe Hagi and Robert Prosinecki into his lineup.

Antic was sacked that January and replacement Leo Beenhakker followed him in the summer, with only Benito Floro’s arrival in the summer of 1992 stopping the turnover of coaches.

That instability had a knock-on effect on the players—there were still too many attacking talents for the starting places on offer—with Enrique ending up playing almost every position bar goalkeeper and central defence in his early years at the Bernabeu, yet rarely in his preferred attacking role.

"It was easy to play with [my teammates] because they are so good, but I went as a goalscorer," Enrique recalled. "Then they put me in midfield—I’d never played there before. What was I supposed to do? It was difficult. 

"Then to full-back. Normally, a player would leave in these circumstances. Madrid wanted to loan me to Sevilla. Then they decided I could stay and I stayed five years. I adapted to the position and did what my trainer wanted me to do."

2 Mar 1993:  Luis Enrique Martinez of Real Madrid sits on the pitch during the UEFA Cup quarter-final First Leg match against Paris St Germain at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid, Spain. Real Madrid won the match 3-1. \ Mandatory Credit: Mike  Hewi
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Over time Enrique became a valuable member of the squad, even if he struggled to earn the adulation of a Bernabeu crowd that was attracted to many of the brighter lights that surrounded him. By now he was also a regular member of Spain’s national team squad—famously being knocked out by a flying elbow from Italy’s Mauro Tassotti at the 1994 World Cup—but domestically he struggled to earn the same recognition, never scoring more than four goals in a campaign as he was asked to subjugate his own abilities for the good of the team.

A rare high point came at the Bernabeu in 1995, Lucho scoring the fourth goal as Real romped to a 5-0 win over their old rivals—going on to win the title in the process. His celebration of that goal was memorable, both arms aloft as he punched the air not once but twice in delight.

Considering that passion, it was something of a surprise when, 12 months later, it was announced that Enrique would be joining Barcelona at the conclusion of his contract at Madrid. He had averaged over 40 games a season for Los Blancos (in total he played 213 games, scoring 18 goals) and seemed to be an increasingly valued member of the squad.

Barcelona, in contrast, did not even have a manager at the time—Johan Cruyff, who initially pursued a deal with Enrique, left the club before the player’s arrival. Instead, Bobby Robson would be his manager—circumstances that surely threatened to see Enrique shunted out of position once more.

"I'm very excited. We are all very happy," Enrique said, per El Pais (in Spanish), when the deal finally became public. "It's a new era for me and the club. I have completed a cycle [in Madrid], one I will respect until the end of June. Then I start another."

On Robson he added: "I do not know him, but I made the decision primarily based on the institution."

First impressions were not great.

"The first time Robson walked into the dressing room, he looked at me and Pizzi, then turned to [Jose] Mourinho and said, 'Who are they?'" Enrique recalled. "We were internationals!"

CESAR RANGEL/Associated Press

Robson, however, would quickly come to know not just Enrique's name but his ability, and gave him the chance to often play in something approaching his preferred role. With Ronaldo—arguably at his explosive, irresistible best, long before injuries would take hold—as the main striker, Enrique was asked to play off the Brazilian, using the space he created to manufacture his own chances and those for his team-mates.

Enrique scored 17 goals in his first season at Barcelona (Ronaldo had 34—winning the European Golden Shoe as a result), improving that tally by one the following campaign as Ronaldo’s departure required him and Rivaldo to carry more of the workload.

Barcelona won the Copa del Rey both seasons, also winning the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1997 and La Liga title a year later.

101 Great Goals @102greatgoals

Barça's Luis Enrique on THAT photo with Pep & Mourinho: ‘A beautiful memory with good people’ http://t.co/hVZp34jwDl http://t.co/zoXVzYb7VQ

One of his goals in that title-winning campaign was more memorable to Enrique above all others—as he scored at the Bernabeu in a 3-2 win for Los Cules. The modern trend might be for muted celebrations but there was no prospect of that from Enrique, who celebrated the moment wildly.

Spanish newspaper El Pais (in Spanish) reported the moment thusly:

As the ball hit the back of the net, the former Real Madrid player ran like such a madman to a group once considered too dangerous, the Ultras … looking to the stands and clenching his fists, he slowly walked down the side of the pitch until his peers reached him and submerged him. He probably did not realise the range of objects that spat from the stands, or how the stands, in unison, chanted his name loudly accompanied by an insult—or maybe he did. But he cared little. 

He never received much affection from the Madrid fans, almost the opposite, and his goal, an immediate response to Raul’s equaliser, was the best form of revenge against such consummate abuse. 

"I do not care what these people think," a fired-up Enrique said after the final whistle. "I am proud to wear the shirt of Barcelona and score a goal in the Bernabeu."

With the passing of time and the cooling of emotions, he later added: "Without a doubt, the goal in the 3-2 victory in the Bernabeu [was the most enjoyable of my career]. Madrid had a great team: [Pedrag] Mijatovic, [Davor] Suker, Roberto Carlos.

"At that time, Barca hardly ever won in the Bernabeu. It was a really important game for me. We’d lost the previous [Clasico] 2-0 and I had an overhead kick which hit the bar, so I loved that moment of scoring."

While he was initially viewed with a certain amount of suspicion upon his arrival in Barcelona, that celebration helped confirm the Spaniard as a hero of his new supporters. The gradual, creeping effect of injuries ensured he would never be so influential again (he scored 11 goals in 26 league games the following season and then never hit double figures again), but he remained beloved for his work rate and quality on the ball, the more mature Enrique now more willing to play in whichever position his manager, and his team-mates, required if it helped the cause.

When he retired in 2004, following two particularly injury-hit seasons, he had reached 300 games for the club now closest to his heart, contributing 109 goals (leaving him only just outside the club’s top 10 all-time scorers). Upon his departure it was rumoured that the 34-year-old would return to Sporting for a final swan song, but the player decided that would not be fair on his boyhood club.

"I do not see myself being able to compete, so I'll watch this season from the stands," he confirmed, per the BBC. "I wouldn't be able to reach the level I'd demand of myself—I wouldn't be doing Sporting much of a favour by going there." 


BARCELONA - NOVEMBER 23:  Luis Figo of Real Madrid is bombarded by missiles as he attempts to take a corner during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid played at the Nou Camp Stadium, Barcelona, Spain on November 23, 2002. (Photo by Firo
Getty Images/Getty Images

It would be easy to draw comparisons between Enrique’s Madrid departure and that of his team-mate Luis Figo, who made the opposite move in 2000. Enrique got off lightly compared to Figo, however, perhaps because he was never so revered at the Bernabeu as the Portuguese had been in Catalonia.

On his return to the Camp Nou in 2002 Figo was famously subjected to a volley of missiles—including a pig’s head—whenever he tried to take a corner at his former stomping ground.

"I used to offer Luis the chance to take the short corner, drawing up close to him near the touchline, but not this time," Real full-back Michel Salgado said, in journalist Sid Lowe's book Fear and Loathing in La Liga, of that game. "Missiles were raining down from the stands: coins, a knife, a glass whisky bottle. Best to keep away. Short corners? No thanks."

Figo’s transfer was not entirely of his own making; in his book Lowe explains how a misjudged (and somewhat) greedy agreement between Figo’s representatives and Real presidential candidate Florentino Perez ended up leaving the Portuguese winger little choice but to commit to a transfer when his buyout clause was met.

Nevertheless, he became an instant pariah at the club he appeared to have loved deeply, a player never welcome to return.

That was obvious not only when the "cochinillo" was sent his way but also by the reaction from the club that used to revere him to the whole incident—manager Louis van Gaal and president Joan Gaspart accusing the player of "provoking" the whole affair.

Figo, who could admittedly have been slightly more circumspect in some of his actions (or, as Xavi pointed out, simply not taken the corners that night), expressed his shock at the reaction from his old club, but over time his opinion mellowed.

CESAR RANGEL/Associated Press

"I’m not bothered too much by the fans’ reaction," he said in Michael Fitzpatrick's book El Clasico: Barcelona v Real Madrid, Football's Greatest Rivalry, per Goal.com. "What matters to me is that I lived there and had happy times there, and what I achieved there. My conscience is clear. I couldn’t have done more, I think."

Enrique, watching from the other side as Figo endured a jeering even he only got a taste of, thought the player was affected by it all.

"It was strange that they only threw the pig’s head; I thought they might throw the whole pig!" Enrique joked, when asked about that night. "I’m a friend of Figo’s, but they took Barca’s best player in his best moment. It would be like Manchester City taking Ryan Giggs in the best moment of his career, or Everton taking Steve Gerrard.

"It was a double action, weaken the opponents and strengthen their own team. Luis suffered. He’s human. You could see in his face that he was suffering."

Perhaps because of this, or perhaps for unrelated factors, Real arguably never saw the same brilliance from Figo that he had produced for Los Cules. Like Enrique, he would ultimately leave Real at the end of his five-year deal, joining Inter Milan on a free transfer. In that respect he was also the opposite to Enrique, who undoubtedly produced his best football after his biggest move.

That left Figo something of a nomad in Clasico terms, a controversial figure at Barcelona and not one elevated to Real’s inner circle (in the same way as Zinedine Zidane has been, for example) after his retirement (instead, he is now an ambassador for Inter).

Enrique avoided that conclusion to his own career; by bowing out so nobly and beloved at Barcelona, he was soon given a privileged opportunity to start his own coaching career in some of the most illustrious surroundings. 


BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 20:  Head coach Luis Enrique of FC Barcelona looks on during a training session ahead of their UEFA Champions League Group F match against AFC Ajax at Ciutat Esportiva on October 20, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ra
David Ramos/Getty Images

After a four-year spell away from the club, during which Enrique recuperated from his various ailments and began partaking in ironman competitions to sate his desire for sporting competition, he returned to Barcelona as head coach of the B team—having been offered the opportunity after Pep Guardiola, his old team-mate and the former B coach, was elevated to the top job.

Enrique continued the good work that Guardiola had started, even surpassing some of his achievements along the way. In Enrique’s first season he returned the B team to the Spanish second division for the first time in 11 years, while in his third season the side qualified for the play-offs (regulations prevent the B team from playing in the same league as the first team).

That same season Enrique surprised many as he announced his decision to leave the club, despite having two years remaining on his contract. It was clear that he had another opportunity lined up, and so it proved—Enrique became the new manager of AS Roma that same summer.

The Spaniard endured a difficult spell in the Italian capital, his first experience of management at the highest level perhaps complicated by his lack of familiarity with the particular vagaries of Serie A. Results were not quite as expected, while Enrique also courted controversy occasionally for his handling of Roma icon Francesco Totti, something that eroded his own authority within the club and his popularity around it.

Despite finishing seventh in the league, and again having two years left on his deal, Enrique left the Giallorossi at the end of that first season, perhaps already aware that the fit was not quite right for both him and the club.

After a year away from the game Enrique returned as manager of unfancied Spanish side Celta Vigo, following the sacking of veteran Abel Resino—who had seen the Galicians finish 17th in their first season back in the top flight in 2012/13.

Enrique, however, came in and immediately made an impact on the squad—bringing in Rafinha Alcantara from his old B-team days, while improving both the fitness and tactical awareness of his squad as they began to play progressive, attacking football.

In due course results picked up and were often impressive, with Celta eventually finishing in an unexpected ninth position. They also helped crush Real Madrid’s title bid with a win over Los Blancos late in the title race, a result that did not harm Enrique’s popularity with his other old club one bit.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 18:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates with his teammate Neymar of FC Barcelona after scoring his team's third goal during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and SD Eibar at Camp Nou on October 18, 2014 in Barcelona, S
David Ramos/Getty Images

In many ways it felt like, since his arrival at Barca B, Enrique was auditioning for the chance to manage the club he once represented so brilliantly. Perhaps, if he had stayed on in 2011, he would have been the one called upon to replace Guardiola when the Spaniard decided to leave in the summer of 2012.

Instead he had already decided to make the move to Roma, although the troubles he had there—coupled with Tito Vilanova’s presence at Guardiola’s side—made his appointment at that particular moment impossible. But his successful return to Celta revitalised his career, and considering Tata Martino’s many problems, a return to a man with an intimate knowledge of the club (and, considering the impending transfer ban, an understanding of the quality of the youth players coming through) made a huge amount of sense.

"I want to play attacking football—that's what Barca are identified with," Enrique said, via the BBC, at his unveiling. "That's why millions around the world have fallen in love with Barca's style, even if they are not Barcelona fans they love the attractive way Barca play.

"I'm going to bring certain things in but I'm hoping to get an attractive, yet effective, Barcelona."

So far, he seems to have delivered on that aim, helping to unlock the best of Lionel Messi again even if the Argentine appears to be calling some of the shots himself (during last weekend’s 3-0 win over Eibar, for example, the Argentine clearly appeared to refuse Enrique’s desire to substitute him).

Going into this weekend’s game Barcelona are top of La Liga, having won seven of their eight games (drawing the other) and scoring 22 goals without conceding in the process. Real Madrid will be an altogether tougher test, but Enrique will already be well aware of that.

"We will be going there to win, as we have done over the last few years, but right now I just want us to rest and recover," Enrique told reporters after that Eibar win. "There are still a lot of games to play and I don’t think the game [against Real] will be decisive."

Of course, Barcelona managers are ultimately judged by the titles they win—something that invariably requires getting the better of Real Madrid in head-to-head battle. Enrique will not live and die by his Clasico results, but they will dictate much of the tone.

That starts at the Bernabeu on Saturday, almost 14 years after the best moment of his playing career. If anyone knows the Clasico rivalry it is Enrique—whether that helps him to victory, however, remains to be seen.

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