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Born: Wednesday 31 July 1929, Montevideo, Uruguay
One of the finest central defenders in the world throughout the 1950s and 1960s, José Santamaría enjoyed an incredibly successful club career in Uruguay and Spain and represented both countries at the highest level of the international game. Although it was the attacking players who regularly claimed the headlines, Santamaria's defensive performances played a crucial role in the triumphs of the great Real Madrid team of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
José Emilio Santamaría Iglesias was born in Montevideo on 31 July 1929, to parents who had migrated from Galicia in Spain at the beginning of the decade. Through his teens he studied accountancy and on leaving school began a career in banking, but also played junior football with local team Atlético Pocitos. At that time Santamaría usually played in a more advanced half-back position along the lines of a modern defensive midfielder, and it was in that role that he caught the attention of Nacional, one of the dominant forces in Uruguayan football.
Santamaría signed for Nacional in 1947, giving up his job in the bank to become a professional footballer. Within a year was an important member of the first team, being denied a chance of a league title in 1948 when a players' strike forced the abandonment of the season with Nacional top of the table. In 1950, Nacional's new manager Enrique Fernández recognised that Santamaría's strength, power and organisational skills made him ideally suited to play in the deeper position at centre-half, a role which would prove to be by far his best position and which he would play for the remainder of his career.
That season brought a first major honour of Santamaría's career as Nacional overhauled great rivals Peñarol to claim the league title. As for much of the history of Uruguayan football, Santamaría's career was characterised by regular battles between Nacional and Peñarol at the top of the league and the two clubs would fill the top two positions in the table in every season of his time with Nacional. After a play-off between the two, another title came the way of Nacional in 1952, the year in which Santamaría also made his international debut in a 6-1 win over Panama in the Panamerican Championship.
Although the next couple of years brought disappointment at domestic level, Santamaría became an established member of the Uruguayan national team as they approached their defence of the World Cup in Switzerland in 1954. The team stormed through the early stages of the competition, winning their group without conceding a goal and sweeping aside England 4-2 in the quarter-finals. In the last four they met favourites Hungary, whose dominant forward line was just too strong for Santamaría and his fellow defenders. Although Uruguay fought back from 2-0 down to force extra-time, they conceded twice in the extra period to fall to their first ever World Cup defeat.
Santamaría had made quite an impression at the World Cup, being named in the tournament's all-star squad, and soon leading European clubs were chasing his signature. Santamaría however remained with Nacional for another three years, help to lead the club to league titles in both 1955 and 1956. After another impressive major tournament in the South American Championship in 1957, Real Madrid identified Santamaría as the player who could give their already talented team more balance between attack and defence.
Midway through the 1957 season, with Nacional heading for a third consecutive championship, Santamaría moved to Spain. Joining an already dominant team who had won the first two European Cups, his first season with Real brought a league title and another European Cup, with only a 2-0 defeat to Atlético Bilbao in the final of the Copa del Generalísimo denying the team an unprecedented treble success. His charisma and influence over the team quickly made him one of Real's most popular players.
As with many South American players who moved to Europe at that time, Santamaría took advantage of the more lenient rules on international status to switch nationality and represent Spain, making his debut in a 6-2 win over Northern Ireland in October 1958. Santamaría was very proud to represent the country of his parents, declining to exchange shirts at the end of the match as his first Spanish shirt was so important to him.
Over the next few years, Santamaría's defensive performances earned him the nickname 'The Wall', as he helped Real continue their dominant run of success. Two more European Cups followed by 1960, as well as the inaugural Intercontinental Cup at the end of that year. Another league title in 1961 was followed twelve months later by a domestic double, as Real finally claimed cup success after three final defeats in the preceding four seasons. Again they fell agonisingly short of a treble, this time losing the European Cup final 5-3 to Benfica.
On the back of that double winning season, Santamaría was selected in Spain's squad for the 1962 World Cup in Chile. That tournament was not a success for Spain, with defeat against Czechoslovakia in their opening match leaving them an uphill struggle to reach the quarter-finals. Santamaría missed their must-win final group game against holders Brazil with injury and in his absence, Spain lost 2-1 despite leading with 20 minutes to go and exited the tournament. Santamaría's international career was over, after 36 appearances for Uruguay and Spain combined.
Despite the disappointment of the World Cup, success at club level continued to come as Real won three more league titles in a row between 1962 and 1965. They added another European Cup in 1966, although by this time Santamaría's appearances were beginning to be more infrequent as age and injuries started to take their toll. Early in the 1966-67 season, he took the decision to retire from professional football at the age of 37, with a tribute match against West German side Hamburg. He had made almost 450 appearances in all competitions for Real Madrid, and helped the club to eleven major trophies.
After his retirement, Santamaría moved into management with RCD Español (now Espanyol), who he coached from 1971 to 1978, reaching a highest league position of third in his first season. His next job was with the Spanish national federation, overseeing the national teams. Two years later he was named manager of the Spanish senior team as the country prepared to host the 1982 World Cup, and two years of friendly matches brought some encouraging results.
Unfortunately, the finals proved to be a great disappointment for Santamaría's team. They stumbled through their first round group despite a draw with Honduras and defeat to Northern Ireland, before taking just one point from their second round group games against West Germany and England and going out of the competition. Santamaría left his post with the national team after the tournament, amid strong criticism of the team's performances from the media. Hurt by the media reaction, Santamaría left management and later devoted many years to working with the Real Madrid former players' association, where he remains a very popular figure.
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- Published on Friday, 05 October 2012 12:05