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Born: Saturday 21 October 1933, Guarnizo, Spain
Playing on the left wing, Francisco Gento was an important member of the Real Madrid team that won the first five European Cups and remains the only man to have won that competition on six occasions. Spending a remarkable 18 years at the club, he played in more than 500 senior matches for Real and won more the 20 major trophies, making him one of the most decorated players in the history of football.
Gento was born in Guarnizo in Cantabria on 21 October 1933, where he grew up with dreams of playing for local team Racing de Santander. At the age of 14 he was forced to leave school in order to help his father work on the family farm, but displayed considerable talent both for football and athletics. His first junior team was SD Nueva Montaña, from where he moved on to Astillero and came to the attention of many clubs across the region when he scored nine goals one game.
Gento's greatest gift was undoubtedly his incredible speed. His personal best over 100 yards was not far outside the Spanish record and he was able to maintain much of that pace even when running down the wing with the ball at his feet. Having moved on to Rayo Cantabria, he got his chance to fulfil his childhood ambitions when he signed his first professional contract with Racing de Santander at the age of 18.
Playing a handful of games for a mid-table Racing side in 1952-53, Gento caught the eye of Real Madrid who saw him as an exceptional talent. He signed for Real in the summer of 1953 but although the club won the league title in his first season, Gento did not get off to the best of starts. After a string of unimpressive performances there were suggestions that his incredible pace masked a lack of technical ability, but the arrival of team-mate Héctor Rial in 1954 proved a turning point.
Gento followed Rial's advice and relied less on pure speed, learning to time his runs better and concentrate on providing accurate crosses into the centre, as well as using his powerful left foot to contribute several goals a season. In 1954-55 Gento was transformed, playing a crucial role in Real's successful title defence and making his debut for Spain in a friendly against England in May 1955. A crucial part of one of the finest forward lines ever assembled, he was ever-present in Real's success in the first ever European Cup in 1956.
That Real team went on to dominate the second half of the 1950s at both domestic and European level. Having lost their domestic title in 1956, they won it back in style a year later and defended it in 1958, with only a 2-0 cup final defeat to Athletic Bilbao denying them a double that year, a final in which Gento did not play. Real had also completed a hat-trick of European Cups, with Gento scoring in consecutive finals. Undoubtedly his most significant contribution came against AC Milan in 1958, scoring in extra-time to seal a 3-2 win.
By 1960, Real's run of European titles had reached five, culminating in an incredible 7-3 win over Eintracht Frankfurt. That success was followed by victory in the inaugural Intercontinental Cup, where after a goalless first leg Gento scored one of five goals against Peñarol to seal a 5-1 aggregate triumph. Sadly for Gento however, success at club level was not matched on the international scene.
He had already been a part of the Spain team that lost to Scotland in Glasgow during World Cup qualification and ultimately missed the 1958 finals in Sweden. The first European Championship also brought further disappointment, when having reached the quarter-finals the Spanish authorities refused to allow the national team to play the Soviet Union and withdrew then from the competition.
Real's hold on the European Cup was broken by fierce rivals Barcelona in 1960-61, but having gone two years without a domestic trophy they won the league title back in fine style, finishing twelve points clear of city rivals Atlético. The following season brought a league and cup double, sealed by a 2-1 win over Sevilla in the final of the Copa del Generalísimo. When Real led Benfica 2-0 and 3-2 in the European Cup final they seemed set for a historic treble, but a Eusébio-inspired fightback sent them to a stunning 5-3 loss.
Despite that disappointment, that summer Gento finally got the chance to appear in a major international tournament for the first time at the World Cup in Chile. He captained his country in the win over Mexico, but Spain lost their other group games to Czechoslovakia and Brazil and were knocked out in the first round. His international career was destined to be marked by regular disappointment. Despite scoring a vital winner against Northern Ireland in Belfast in qualifying for the 1964 European Championships, he was left out of the final squad as Spain took the title on home soil.
Although the stars of Real's great team of the late 1950s gradually retired or moved on, Gento remained a constant presence in the side as they continued to dominate the Spanish league. By 1965 they had won five consecutive titles, giving Gento nine in 12 years at the club. Although they lost the European Cup final to Internazionale in 1964, a sixth continental title was not far away.
In 1965-66, Gento contributed two vital goals to help overturn a first leg deficit in the quarter-final against Anderlecht, before leading Real to a 2-1 win over Partizan Belgrade in the final. He considered it to be the greatest of the six European titles, given the rebuilding of the team that had been needed since the previous win in 1960. The match was Gento's eighth European Cup final, a record which has since only been tied by Paolo Maldini, and his six wins have never been matched.
As he moved into his 30s, Gento began to lose some of his legendary page but as the senior player in the Real squad, was still an extremely strong influence on the team. He helped Real to another hat-trick of league titles from 1967 to 1969, as well as scoring five goals in seven games in the run to the European Cup semi-final where Real narrowly missed out to Manchester United. By 1970, he had completed an incredible run of participating in each of the first 15 seasons of European Cup football.
Gento won the Copa del Generalísimo for the second time when Real beat Valencia 3-1 in 1970, going on to reach a ninth European final in the Cup Winners' Cup twelve months later. Real faced Chelsea in the final, losing after a replay in which Gento came off the bench but was unable to force extra-time. His league appearances had become rarer during that season however, and with his 38th birthday approaching he took the decision to retire in the summer of 1971.
He left Real with 12 league titles to his name, along with two cup wins, six European titles and one Intercontinental Cup. Moving into coaching, Gento worked with Real's reserve team as well as Castellón, Palencia, and Granada, but was unable to repeat the successes of his playing career. He eventually returned to Real in an ambassadorial role, with the club honouring his loyal service with three testimonial matches in 1965, 1972 and 2007.
References (all accessed 16 October 2012):
- Published on Tuesday, 16 October 2012 22:19