When Emilio Butragueno’s career came to an end almost twenty years ago, few of the ambitions he harboured at the outset remained unfulfilled.
With six La Liga titles, two UEFA Cups and 69 international caps to his name, his achievements for Real Madrid and Spain made him a legendary figure in his homeland and further afield. “The Vulture,” as he was known, snared much of what he wanted and more besides but of the few regrets he harbours there is one in particular that irritates him.
That is that he feels he was denied the opportunity to test himself against the club side which he believes was one of the finest of his era. Liverpool, the team which he watched from afar with mounting admiration as a teenager, were the benchmark for Butragueno but just over a year after he made his debut for Real, the Merseyside club was banned from European competition in the wake of the Heysel Stadium disaster.
The scale of that tragedy, in which 39 people, mainly Juventus fans, lost their lives, lends perspective to any subsequent sporting disappointment but it does not remove it altogether. In Butragueno’s case, the frustration that lingers that he was unable to face the great Liverpool side of the 1980s is the kind that the most committed competitors naturally feel; the denial of one of the most basic sporting objectives – the chance to see how you measure up against one of the leaders in your field – inevitably prompts regret.
“Liverpool were very unlucky,” Butragueno says. “When they were banned they had a very successful team and one which knew how to win in Europe. They had what everyone in football wants – a winning team and winning mentality. They knew how to get through games even when they became difficult; the semi-final against Bayern Munich in 1981 is an obvious example, everyone thought they might have problems getting to the final because they drew 0-0 at Anfield but then they went to Munich and got a 1-1 draw. No problem. This is what great sides do.
“It was a pity for football that these incredible players could not play in the best competition. But it was also a pity for us because in my time at Real Madrid we played in England only once, against Tottenham Hotspur in the UEFA Cup in 1984/85. That was a fantastic experience because in England you experience football in a very special way. For a player, when you play a match and you feel this atmosphere it is unique. That feeling has lingered in my mind for a long time so I would have liked to have been able to play in this country a lot more.
“Liverpool was like a dynasty. They played many finals in a short space of time and won most of them. They were a very strong team. I remember the first final against Borussia Monchengladbach in 1977 which they won 3-1 and that performance showed just how good they were. They were one of the most admired and respected teams of that era. It was a real pity what happened at Heysel because at the time they were one of the best teams in the world but they remain one pf the most respected clubs in football, especially in Spain where the name Liverpool continues to mean a lot. They have made an enormous contribution to football.
“At the time they had players like Ray Clemence, Phil Thompson, Graeme Souness, Terry McDermott, Ian Rush, Kenny Dalglish; so many great players. Dalglish was the one I loved though. We played in more or less the same position and I can remember playing against Scotland for the national team at Hampden Park, it was the only time I came up against him, he scored a beautiful goal and we lost 3-1. He wasn’t able to play in the game in Sevilla which we won 1-0 and that was a shame for me because I loved the way he played.
“Rush was the main goalscorer but Dalglish was very intelligent and he was able to take advantage of his own body, a very, very clever player. Before him there was Kevin Keegan who also wore the number seven and John Toshack who became my coach at Real. Toshack would talk about Liverpool – the club, its culture and the supporters – with enormous admiration and I used to love listening to his stories because I learned a lot.”
The reason that Butragueno is discussing Liverpool during a flying visit to Merseyside is that next month he will finally get the opportunity to play at Anfield at the age of 53. While it will be a team of Liverpool legends that he will face along with his team mates in a Real Madrid veterans side featuring the likes of Roberto Carlos, Luis Figo and Steve McManaman, both the venue at which the fixture will take place and the history of the opposition means the legendary striker is already eagerly looking forward to the occasion even though his favourite Liverpool player, Dalglish, will not be involved.
“Obviously now this game gives me the opportunity play in England once again and I just hope that my body doesn’t react as slowly as it does normally these days,” Butragueno said. “I am hoping to enjoy the experience but obviously what is more important than that is that we raise as much money as we can for the Liverpool Foundation so that it can help children. This is what we did when the two legends teams played in Madrid in 2015 and on that occasion we were supporting the Madrid Foundation and all of the work that it does in many countries around the world.
“Our goal is the same this time so we need a full house. There is a great connection between these two great clubs and this game will only strengthen that relationship. When we hosted Liverpool a couple of years ago it was a really special occasion for us because Liverpool are one of the most important clubs in the world. Now we have the opportunity to play at Anfield and that is very exciting for all of us.”
Tickets for the Liverpool v Real Madrid legends game are priced at £20 for adults and £5 for juniors and are currently on general sale on the official Liverpool website.