How do you remember Guti? An iconic figure with a long-standing career at Real Madrid, or a player who never lived up to his full potential? The latter line could be asserted to a number of football’s could-have-beens. Perhaps both apply here. But the story of José María Gutiérrez Hernández is a little different to them all.
Opinions of the midfielder always were, and still are, divisive. For some, he was the embodiment of Madrid's youth policy. One of their own. A madridsta, and loyalist to the Castilian regime, with his style of play illustrating everything that it stands for; panache, swagger, and a certain level of arrogance.
The Bernabéu's infamous Ultra Sur would still sing in chorus to the name of Guti, even if it were to the boos and whistles of everyone else. Including Madrid fans themselves. Ironically, he grew up supporting Barcelona, although Madrid soon changed that.
Those in favour of Guti include the coach that awarded him his first-team debut, Jorge Valdano, in 1995. Valdano is an outspoken, yet very well-respected, figure in football literature, and once colourfully compared Liverpool and Chelsea’s 2008 Champions League knockout encounter to “shit hanging from a stick”.
He also referred to Guti as a “player of worship, a real madridsta” at one point too, who had given the best moments of his life to the club. The two certainly had times where they did not see eye-to-eye, but the respect for one another was unwavering.
Another would be Vicente Del Bosque. “He told me when I was 14 that if I didn’t cut my hair, I wouldn’t go far in football. I didn’t do too badly, though, I played for many years,” Guti told Spanish radio show Punta Pelota in 2013.
“[Del Bosque] was very special to me, and always said things to try and help me,” he added. There were times when Guti flirted with returning to Spain’s national team setup and had adversaries there who could have made it happen.
When he demonstrated what he could bring in a game against Deportivo ahead of the 2010 World Cup, some called for him to be considered. Assistant coach Toni Grande said: “We are talking about a player who I have known very well since he was a kid. We will not close the door to anyone, especially a player with his characteristics.”
But others saw a petulant primadonna who had all too often desecrated the shirt with impetuous behaviour. When stood beside David Beckham during his time in the capital, some wondered whether he was imitating the Englishman just to stay relevant considering how few times he started.
Those in the against camp will refer to his row at half-time with Manuel Pellegrini when Madrid were humiliated 4-0 away from home at lowly Alcorcón. Guti’sresponse to being substituted was less than ideal and subsequently dropped for a month. The incident was almost a month removed from when the former Villarreal and Manchester City boss reassured him that it was best that he stayed at the club.
People began to weigh in, but both continued to downplay what happened. “It was an amicable discussion,” said Guti. Pellegrini denied the connection between that night and the Spaniard’s disappearance from the team sheet.
His job at the Bernabéu was already under siege and managed to divert attention to the club’s hiring policy ahead of a clash with Getafe instead. “Eight coaches have been and gone in the last six years [since 2010] and just two trophies have been won from a possible 18 in that time, which seems like a very poor return,” he said at a press conference.
“Sacking the coach is not the way. The best football Spain has ever seen over the last few years has been played by Barcelona and Villarreal, but you need time to develop that.”
Guardiola agreed. “People think you just turn up and win the treble but it takes timeto achieve success.” Soon enough, Pellegrini was gone by May.
Other views continue to be contrasting, depending on who you talk to. Guus Hiddink, who coached him in his seven-month tenure at Madrid, described Guti as his “student”.
He was the silver lining for Vanderlei Luxemburgo during the Galácticos’ trophyless years, but Juande Ramos, Fabio Capello, and Bernd Schuster all felt that he was more effective coming off the bench. Each time the press asked about his future, he opposed a desire to be elsewhere, but the message was that he simply wanted to play.
When Guti wasn't delivering an inch-perfect pass to dispatch defences, he was in the headlines regularly for all the wrong reasons. Typically, if he felt that he wasn’t involved enough in the first-team, there wasn’t a reporter too far from him to tell them about it.
The decline was noticeably rapid from his heroics in the 2001 campaign. Even at his peak, it wasn’t enough to grant him a place in any of Spain’s World Cup or European Championship squads, either.
At that time, John Toshack was still relevant. Before moving on from Swansea City, success at Real Sociedad and capturing the Spanish league title with Madrid at a nine-point stroll convinced the board that a second stint was in their best interests.
It wasn’t, because he was sacked in the same month he had left the first time around following defeats to Mallorca and Numancia in the winter break. In came Del Bosque and a different perspective.
Madrid finished fifth in the league but seized el octavo – the eighth – European Cup title in its history against Valencia in Paris. Del Bosque’s faith in Guti was returned with 18 goals in all competitions. A record that remained his best-ever up until he decided to call time on it all.
As people began to take notice, his confidence grew, because there was even a time where he considered himself Ronaldo’s closest rival. The Brazil international arrived at the Bernabéu to join forces with other household names and evolve into a team of superstars.
Perhaps Guti felt slighted, because even though he had the trust of others in him to perform, it still prompted a warning shot.
“I know that Ronaldo will soon be fit to play, but I’m ready to compete with him,” he told Corriere Dello Sport. “With these two goals [against Roma], I think I’ve demonstrated that I have all the qualities to play in a great time like Real Madrid.”
His abilities were never in doubt because at his brilliant best Guti was reminiscent of when he was playing football in the streets of Torrejón de Ardoz. The windswept-haired kid who joined Real Madrid’s Juvenil side, aged nine, and would represent the city that he had known all his life.
Often he would often be remiss not to praise the special connection he has with one of Spain’s biggest clubs.
“I believe you have to be aware that there are stages that close and, in this case for me, it is a very glorious stage for me that is coming to an end,” he said in his farewell press conference.
“It is a complicated and difficult moment,” he added, “but you have to know that these things happen in football and that at certain moments, regardless of the talent you have, it is your time to leave the club or leave football and life goes on.”
To identify him as a ‘troubled genius’ would imply that his struggles are outside of his control. Far from it. Guti was often the architect of his own downfall, which all the more confuses and frustrates those that wanted him to do much more.
He knew it himself but, as it appeared, it was all too much of a game for him to take it seriously enough and live up to the – although high – standards that others had made for him.
For the most part, it was an unhealthily cyclical relationship between himself and his coaches that probably lasted far too long. After feeling unwanted, he gets a run in the team where he is irrepressible but then gets complacent again.
In between, he clashes with those around him and becomes isolated again. Unrelated, the then-manager leaves, he stays, and the process repeats.
Florentino Pérez perhaps all too often relented to let him go, like a mother with a troublesome teenager. The evidence was clearly up against him that could lead to his departure, but for one reason or another he stayed.
At the same time, coaches were given the luxurious dilemma of selecting between him, Raúl and Zidane. The others were, quite frankly, better, and although it could be seen as unfair on him, there was never a shortage of other clubs that he could call home. Guti simply never wanted to leave.
In his career, Guti had overseen 16 different managers take over and leave since he first wore Madrid’s colours. Less than two months after he debuted in a 4-1 win against Sevilla, aged 19, Jorge Valdano was sacked.
Vicente Del Bosque overtook operations in the interim before Arsenio Iglesias would be formally appointed full-time.
It took another two months after he had scored his first-ever La Liga goal that it would not be Iglesias, but Capello, that would oversee his future progression that summer in May 1996.
By the time he netted his first Champions League goal in September 1999, there had been three more coaches who had come and gone.
Real Madrid, ladies and gentleman.
In any case, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that Guti was talented. Spain’s “eternal promise”, Calderón said. He could win - and lose - you matches, within seconds, all on his own. If he wasn't providing two assists in a 32-minute cameo to win you the title, then he was probably in a strop and a card away from reducing you down to 10 men.
The contradiction you face with him is that, on the surface, his career reads that of a revered and iconic figure. He stayed long enough to help Madrid capture five of its last seven league titles in the last two decades and be part of three successful Champions League campaigns.
To put that into context, Guti won more major honours than Ronaldo, Zidane, and Figo did in their careers at the club combined. To stay that long, even as a player through the system, you need to be doing at least something right. The 500-plus appearances in all competitions and service as vice-captain when in the presence of talented, rarefied company raises his profile considerably.
Guti has seen it all. He provided the assists to Robinho and Ruud Van Nistelrooy to help Madrid see off Sevilla in that dramatic title showdown. He also saw then-president Ramón Calderón mercilessly put before his own players after calling Beckham a “half-baked actor” among other things. Both in the same season.
However, it’s the underlying narrative riddled with petulance, a lack of application, and an overall underwhelming career when put under the microscope that leaves a beleaguered look on those that watched him mature gradually in his 15 years at the Bernabéu.
Calderón shared the sentiments of many in that fateful secret recording by a journalist, ruing how Guti had never lived up to his full potential. “It doesn’t affect me,” was his retort when told about it. “It didn’t affect me then, and it doesn’t now.”
Nevertheless, being subsequently sent off for kicking a fallen player or insulting your manager in the wake of dire circumstances never reads well, no matter how you present it.
Since his retirement, he has been a part of Real Madrid’s coaching staff at youth level. Let’s hope it’s his good traits that are passed on, and the bad are forgotten.
Nick is @n_kituno.