Bullfighter, stamper… legend: why Juanito is an all-time Real Madrid hero

No Madrid player is more beloved by die-hard Blancos than the irascible wideman, who died in a car crash at 37 – though Lothar Matthaus wasn’t a fan...

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There are tears in Juanito’s eyes. “I’m cursed,” cries Real Madrid’s right-winger to the Spanish press corps at full-time of Real Madrid’s 4-1 defeat at Bayern Munich in the first leg of their 1986/87 European Cup semi-final. “I thought that I'd changed as a person and as a footballer, but clearly I haven’t.”

The emotional 32-year-old from Andalucia, with his all-encompassing will to win, has been sent off on a chilly April evening in Germany for stamping on Lothar Matthaus’s head.

“Things like this could result in my retirement from this sport,” he adds. “In those moments, you’re not yourself. There’s another person controlling you; you do things you don’t realise. Seriously – I didn’t know what I was doing.”

The video replays, shocking in their brutality, go around the world. UEFA decide to ban Juanito from playing in European competitions for five years. Real Madrid’s disciplinarian manager, Leo Beenhakker, can no longer tolerate this loose cannon with an extensive rap sheet of carnage that also includes spitting, punching a referee and even clandestine bullfighting. His summer sale to second-tier Malaga will soon be confirmed, ending a decade-long spell at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Los Blancos’ fans are distraught by his departure, however. Perhaps more than any other player, the winger had come to define madridismo – the very essence of what it means to wear the famous white jersey of Real Madrid. “If I wasn't a player,” Juanito once said, “I’d be an ultra sur.” One of them, essentially.

He was Madrid's version of John Terry: almost universally hated outside of his club but a winner who’d do anything for the cause. He’s a winner still present at every Madrid game, despite his tragic death in April 1992 at the age of 37.

“He was the opera singer; we were just the accompaniment”

Juan Gomez Gonzalez grew up kicking a football with dad Juan Sr around the beaches of Fuengirola, a fishing village on the Costa del Sol increasingly loved by lobster-tanned, sun-seeking Brits in the 1950s.

Juanito’s route to Real Madrid would inform the rest of his playing career to follow: a triumph of hard work and never-say-die spirit. After three years in Atletico Madrid’s youth team, a serious knee injury forced the 17-year-old into semi-obscurity at Burgos, where he excelled. In his second season there, 1975/76, he almost single-handedly won the club promotion to the top flight – and then kept them there the next year. Prestigious magazine Don Balon named him player of the season.

“He was a crack,” team-mate Pepe Navarro recalled. “He was explosive. He’d drop his shoulder and be off. He was the opera singer, and we were just the accompaniment.”

Spain’s giants soon came calling, and Real Madrid beat arch-rivals Barcelona to the most coveted signature in the country. Juanito wasn’t the quickest, the most skilful or the most prolific goalscorer, even if he did win the Pichichi trophy in 1983/84 as the league’s top marksman. He was, however, the team’s correcaminos: the roadrunner who would never tire and never acquiesce to defeat.

“Juanito’s arrival was so important for Real Madrid,” said Carlos Santillana, the centre-forward and main beneficiary of Juanito’s right-wing supply line. “He had spark, and genius in doing what was needed. He was a winner and he’d sweat through his shirt for 90 minutes.”

He took his work home, too. The winger’s daughter, Jenifer, recalled: “Whenever Madrid lost, there were two days of silence. You couldn’t talk about football, and only about sport in general if it was in a very low voice. He hated losing, even if it was at cards.”

Juanito won three consecutive league titles with Real Madrid and reached the 1981 European Cup Final in Paris, where they lost 1-0 to Liverpool. And he was the team’s light relief, claiming that defeat was all the fault of his great friend, Santillana, for allowing his wife to wear unlucky yellow to the final. He was only half-joking: once, at a casino in the early ’80s, Juanito laughed at a team-mate for putting their chips on 13. When it came in, he kicked over the roulette table and stormed out.

Further success on the pitch was headlined by back-to-back UEFA Cup wins in 1985 and ’86, despite losing his regular spot in the starting XI during the mid-1980s to a group of youth-teamers led by striker Emilio Butragueno that was nicknamed La Quinta del Buitre – the Vulture’s Squadron. Juanito even acted as mentor and room-mate to Michel, his direct replacement.

It was his personality that Los Blancos prized most. The consecutive UEFA Cup triumphs were underpinned by some stunning second-leg comebacks to see off Anderlecht (6-1), Inter (3-0), Borussia Monchengladbach (4-0) and Inter again (5-1). He became the inspiration for the remontada, or fightback, that characterised this era of success for the Madridistas.