Fernando Redondo in Milan: A time of frustration, grace and standing ovations

Fernando Carlos Redondo Neri cuts an angry figure as he reads from a prepared script. At what should be an exciting time for the player, he delivers carefully chosen words with frustration, fury and sadness etched across his face.

Redondo had just signed for Italian giants AC Milan after a fee of £11m was agreed between the Rossoneri and European champions Real Madrid. The transfer enraged the defensive midfielder as new president Florentino Pérez engineered the move without the consent of the player, who never wanted to leave the Sanitago Bernabéu.

The statement was both damning and heartfelt as the particulars of the deal were revealed to the world’s press. “I want to give you the facts. The only details I knew about this transfer I read in the newspapers. Nobody from Real Madrid contacted me to tell me what was happening until Wednesday night.”

Earlier in the week Redondo had insisted, adamantly, that he had no interest in leaving Madrid with many professional and personal ties at the club and in the city. The former Tenerife player had guided his employers to Champions League success just weeks before. His adoration for the club and the supporters was mutual and he defiantly rejected the notion that he wanted to leave the Spanish capital.

“It really hurts that Real have tried to confuse the fans claiming it was my ‘expressed desire’ to leave. That is not true and I refuse to allow my honour to be put in doubt. This has been done to stain my name and my image.”

Elusive and elegant, the midfielder was in his prime after leading the club to their second Champions League title in three years, a feat that rewarded him with the UEFA Club Footballer of the Year award.

The transfer sparked uproar in Spain as fans protested against the sale of their icon with angry displays held outside the famous walls of the Santiago Bernabéu. His footballing ability and commitment was never questioned in Madrid and the reason for his arrival in Milan was purely political.

Redondo had publically supported outgoing Real president Lorenzo Sanz in his campaign against Perez for the control of the club. Sanz believed that the successes in Europe’s pinnacle club competition in 1998 and 2000 would be enough to retain his position at the top table, he was wrong.

Florentino Perez was elected with a victory of more than 3000 votes with the Madrid socios choosing the lure of the Spanish businessman. Perez cited mismanagement and financial difficulty overseen by Sanz during his campaign but also promised a new policy at the club. The new president pledged to sign one superstar every year in an era known as the galácticos. Perez already had his first target, with Barcelona’s Luís Figo the name promised during the election process. The incoming president was true to his word and Figo’s arrival announced the beginning of the galácticos just days later with a world record fee of €60m shocking Europe.

Redondo had won his second Champions League title after first winning the competition in 1998; the first time Real had lifted the trophy since 1966. The tournament always got the best out of the Argentine who is remembered most fondly for an audacious back-heel on a famous European night at Old Trafford. The sublime nutmeg bamboozled Henning Berg allowing the Real Madrid captain to tee up Raúl for the simplest of finishes.

Ivan Campo jokingly said: “If he had done it to me, I’d have kept running to Buenos Aires” after a performance that left Sir Alex Ferguson questioning whether the Argentine had magnets in his boots.

In a match littered with great names, one man stole the show. The number six dominated arguably the most celebrated midfield of a generation as Roy Keane and co failed to deal with the left-footed defensive midfielder, who individually dictated the pace and tempo of the fixture like a metronome in the heart of the midfield.

Regardless of the circumstances, there can be no doubt that the Rossoneri were signing one of the biggest talents in world football and the star name that Vice-President Adriano Galliani longed for. Redondo was equally as impressive in both attack and defence with vision and technique that belied his role as a defensive midfielder. Described by Fabio Capello as “tactically perfect” he was known across Spain as ‘Rivaldo’s worst nightmare’, such was the toughness and aggression of his man marking towards the Brazilian.

Redondo takes on Real Madrid. Credit: acmilan.com

The stage was set for El Principe, The Prince, to make his mark in Milan. The city longed for a return to the summit of European football and that moment had surely arrived.

Redondo’s time in Italy started poorly, a sign of things to come. The midfielder injured his thigh whilst running on a treadmill at the training complex, delaying his debut. The former Real Madrid captain recovered only to suffer a major setback, rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

The early signs suggested that he would be ruled out for six months as Milan fans awaited the first glimpse of their new signing. The reconstructive surgery attempted to repair his damaged right knee led to complications and Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi was irate. Berlusconi believed that Real Madrid knew of the injury problems prior to the sale of their star midfielder, a claim firmly denied by the Spanish giants and medical professionals, who cited bad luck for the injury.

Nevertheless Berlusconi’s rage was unstoppable and he vowed for this never to happen again, setting up the Milan Lab in 2002 with the aims being to prevent similar situations in future and extend the longevity of player’s careers.
The severity of the injury meant that Redondo would be out of action for around two and a half years in total, an injury that his knee, and his career, failed to fully recover from.

Frustration once again set in as El Principe struggled with the expectations and pressures on his return. Ever the grounded professional, he grew tired over questions about his recovery and expected return date, now serving only to burden the Argentine. His personality shone through again as he chose to forgo his salary during his rehabilitation period as well as offering to return the house and car received from the board, during his transfer from Madrid, a proposal refused by the club.

Galliani paid tribute to the character of his player. “I have never seen anything like it during my career as a director,” he said. “Fernando is an incredible man.”

Redondo finally made his debut for the club in December 2002 in a Coppa Italia match against Ancona before making his Serie A bow just days later. A packed San Siro rose in unison to finally welcome him to the club as he replaced Andriy Shevchenko for the remaining minutes against Roma. It would not be the final standing ovation of Redondo’s career as AC Milan drew Real Madrid in the Champions League group stage.

The Rossoneri had already qualified for the next round when the Italian side travelled to the Spanish capital, and Carlo Ancelotti gave Redondo and Los Blancos fans closure on the ordeal that separated them.

The midfielder’s name was chanted pre-match as the players warmed up under the lights of the Bernabéu but the goodbye was not yet complete. On 79 minutes regular starter Andrea Pirlo replaced the veteran Argentine and, alongside an overwhelming standing ovation, Real Madrid fans displayed a banner that read: ‘God returns to paradise.’ Finally, the fans got to show their appreciation and thanks to a player with whom they shared a remarkable connection that remains today.

Redondo went on to win a third Champions League crown in Milan as his side defeated Italian rivals Juventus at Old Trafford in a competition and venue responsible for his most famed moment. The defensive midfielder was then given a one-year contract extension, playing a minor role in a season that gave him his only Scudetto and the club’s seventeenth.

The Milan fans enjoyed a mere 33 appearances of Redondo and his gifted left foot in black and red, including half an hour of his final game against Brescia. The match, a celebratory affair that congratulated the side for the successful season, also bid a fond farewell to one of the most complete footballers the game has ever produced.

Redondo’s time in Italy will be marred with regret and ‘what ifs’. But it was also a time that saw The Prince once again steal the hearts of a fan base and display an empathy rarely seen in modern football. He will always be remembered among the fans in Milan for his grace both on and off the pitch.

Injuries and a lack of playing time meant that the San Siro missed out on the best of the humble Argentine, but the down to earth former law student left his mark on the club. His career consisted of remarkable highs and unquestionable lows, but there are no signs of there ever being another Fernando Redondo, a player of remarkable toughness and poise that complemented his natural flair and intellect.

Words by Harry Collins @HarryCollins9