By Jack Heale
José María Gutiérrez Hernández, more commonly known as Guti, epitomised the saying ‘what could have been’ regarding a footballer. When he was at his best, he was unplayable, but likewise, when he was not up to standard, the Real Madrid faithful made sure he knew. The two contrasts seemingly encapsulate his 15-year-long professional career.
Growing up, everyone had their footballing idols. They would range from the salient figures of a childhood club to the unique individuals where at a young age, it could not be pinpointed where the soft spot for the player emanated from, but it was almost intrinsic.
In my eyes, Guti was that latter player. In a time not too distant from now over a decade ago, Spanish football and particularly the Real Madrid side of that time caught my eye. With restricted coverage of English football, never mind Southwestern Europe compared to the current broadcast-centric world of sport of today, such brilliance had to be appreciated when it was witnessed.
The likes of Raul and Robinho displayed such ability I had not seen before on Real Madrid TV as it was shown in the United Kingdom. Highlights of the games, goals or performances from the Galácticos of Los Blancos would be there for all to see. At the time, Guti was entering the twilight of his Madrid journey, but that did not stop him from standing out afar from the crowd.
Not only was he so comfortable on the ball and able to slow the game down and dictate the tempo, but he could also drive forward with the ball, injecting a fear into opposing defenders who were unaware as to whether he would utilise his eye for goal, or pick out a pin-point pass to a teammate. Perhaps, what was most impressive, was the manipulation of his body and appreciation of space. Guti knew exactly how and when to use his body to beat an opponent, often without him touching the ball itself and where to find space in between the lines to receive a pass and create space for others, a trait I feel of his that was underrated.
Before I was able to feast my eyes on his ability, he had been around the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium for some time prior to that. Aged eight, the Spaniard joined La Fábrica, or ‘The Factory’, a term used to recognise Madrid’s renown talent for developing some of world football’s hottest prospects, Guti went onto play for their C and B team before deputising for the first-team under Vincente del Bosque in 1995.
It was the 1999/2000 season whereby Guti kicked on in terms of his development and output as versatile midfield, most adept in an attacking, creative role. He netted six times that campaign and sparsely contributed to a second Champions League win in three years, a trait that would be considered the norm for the Madrid side of today, but not the one on the turn of the century. On the topic of traits, Guti was emerging with a tendency to become rather erratic if he was prompted, a trait that would not go on to be one of his most valuable and inevitably contributed to his unfulfilled potential as he notched up eight sending’s off in Spain in the League alone.
The next season would be better for Guti in a footballing capacity as he netted 18 times across 46 games for Madrid, utilised mainly in a role he had not played since he was a youngster with full focus on his football, that being striker in Fernando Morientes’ absence. The false nine role allowed Guti to drop deep to aid with the build-up, but to also use his proficiency in front of goal to the best of his ability. As well as a pleasing season on a personal note, it was his goals that contributed to a League and Cup double.
From an attacking output perspective, that was to be his finest in a Madrid shirt. However, at just 23, Guti’s brilliance would still be waxed lyrically about for some time yet. He followed his next two seasons with 13 goals in each, however, with the arrival of Ronaldo, O Fenômeno, ahead of the latter of the two campaigns, his opportunities up top would be limited.
Ronaldo’s addition, twinned with the preference of other midfield options from a starting role, meant that newly-enlisted vice-captain, Guti, would still play his fair share of games, however, they were regularly off the bench, which in a way, suited Guti. His inconsistent performances from a starting role, varying from average displays that would leave the crowd frustrated to dominating the midfield showing nothing short of sheer brilliance, meant that when coming off the bench, he was able to take advantage of the wearing opposing side and impact the game more often.
Guti’s career seemed to have a lot of ups and downs with no real sustainability in terms of a guaranteed place in Madrid’s side for a significant period of time, despite his aptitude. Zinedine Zidane’s retirement meant that ahead of the 2006/07 season, it looked like he would have the creative midfield berth all to himself, in which he did excel and there is where is where my admiration for his playstyle stemmed from.
The competition in creative midfield was strengthened with the additions of Wesley Sneijder and Rafael Van der Vaart, but it took Kaka’s acquisition to truly threaten Guti’s gametime as for his last two seasons in Madrid his appearances were reduced by a third as he was once again limited to more substitute appearances. At the end of the 2009/10 season, Guti swapped Spain for Turkey as he left behind what felt like unfinished business at Madrid, but he certainly left a lasting impression during his time there with five La Liga, and three Champions League medals to his name.
Possibly, the most iconic memory of Guti that will be ingrained in football fans’ heads for years to come is his piece of wizardry to assist Karim Benzema away at Deportivo de La Coruña. Kaka plays through Guti for a one-on-one and without looking, he backheels the ball to Benzema which the goalkeeper has gone to save as he thought Guti would shoot, leaving an open net for Benzema to score. The video perfectly sums up the Spaniard’s ability to think outside the box and unconventially not follow the norm, which sets players apart from the rest.
Unfortunately for Guti, despite making a first international appearance for Spain in 1999, he was only able to manage eight more over his six-year association with the senior team. His inconsistent form and the plethora of options for José Antonio Camacho, Iñaki Sáez and Luis Aragonés to deliberate over, meant that alike on the domestic front, he did not reach his full potential in a Spanish shirt either.
The lasting impression for some may not be the sweetest in Spain in relation to his behaviour. Guti may not have conducted himself as well as he could have, and he gained a reputation for not working hard enough on and off the pitch. His spell at Madrid certainly lingers with the phrase ‘what if?’, but, nevertheless, what he did do over a remarkable career has certainly left a lasting impression in mine and many others’ minds.