José Maria Zárraga: Winner of five European Cups with Real Madrid

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The Independent Online

In any credible list of football's greatest matches, Real Madrid's 7-3 dismembering of Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup final would rank highly.

Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskás, who shared all Real's goals, enhanced global reputations which endure to this day. Yet their captain in Glasgow, José Maria Zárraga, remained a relatively unsung figure except among Madridistas of a certain age.

In a team brimming with invention, with Francisco Gento and Luis Del Sol also sending 127,000 spectators away from Hampden Park feeling that they had witnessed artistry from another galaxy, Zárraga supplied industry as a ball-winning, defensive midfielder. He was a "water-carrier", to use the term Eric Cantona applied to France's World Cup-winning captain of 1998, Didier Deschamps; the counterweight to more flamboyant players that successful sides need (although his pass also initiated the move for Di Stefano's equaliser after Eintracht had the temerity to score first).

Intriguingly, given the contempt in which fans in the Basque Country and Catalonia hold Real – stemming from the perception of them as the sporting arm of Franco's fascist government – Zárraga was also a Basque. Acknowledging the hostility they faced at away grounds, he claimed that their polyglot team were "completely insulated against local atmosphere," adding: "We carry our own ivory tower around with us."

Hailing from Getxo, near Bilbao, he was playing in Spain's third division for his local team, Arenas, when a Real scout arrived to assess their left-half. His report noted that the right-half, Zárraga, was better, quicker and able to use both feet. He joined Real in 1949, five days before his 19th birthday, and spent the next two years in their second team, Plus Ultra.

Real Madrid had won only two Liga titles, the most recent two decades earlier, when he made his debut against Valencia in 1951. By the time he retired 11 years later, they had added six championships, one Spanish Cup, and, in a run that created the aura which made Real arguably the world's most popular club, they lifted the European Cup in each of the first five seasons it was staged.

A measure of this achievement can be gauged from the fact that no team has won back-to-back Champions League finals since the competition was revamped in 1992. And from the Parc des Princes, Paris in 1956 to that spring rampage in Scotland, Zárraga, Di Stefano and Gento were the only players to appear in every final.

In a policy which found echoes during the modern era in the expensive signings of "Galácticos" such as David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo, Real constructed their hegemony on the capture of a new star every season. In 1952 it was Gento: then came Di Stefano, Puskás, José Héctor Rial, the Brazilians Canario and Didi, and Raymond Kopa, from Rheims of France, who Zárraga had marked in the first European Cup final. Amid all the glamour, however, he had no delusions of grandeur.

Not long after Real had finally lost a European tie, to Barcelona of all teams, after a 1960 match in which the English referee, Reg Leafe, disallowed four "goals" by them, he described his style in The Real Madrid Book of Football. "I'm a practical player, not a brilliant one. My task is functional, not decorative. I never cease to work or harass my opponent. Football must be played hard. I've been told I could pass for an English player, in my strength at least. Because I play the man close, I'm often accused of being tough, (but) this is a glib way of dismissing the type of player I am."

A total of 96 goals in 306 matches in all competitions for Real indicated that there was more to his game than preventing others from playing. But even among colleagues, his qualities were not always recognised. Gento, naming his fantasy "World XI", included nine current or ex-Real players, yet he omitted Zárraga and named Barcelona's Joan Segarra in the left-half berth he usually occupied.

Zárraga won eight international caps, the first in a 1-1 draw with England at his home stadium in 1955, when he recalled having "quite a job" helping Spain's left-back contain 40-year-old Stanley Matthews. He ended his own playing career rather earlier, just before he turned 32, and went on to coach Malaga and Real Murcia. Having recovered from a stroke in 1993, he died the day before Real Madrid routed Apoel Nicosia 5-2 to join Barcelona in the semi-finals of the competition whose mystique he helped to create.

José María Zárraga, footballer: born Las Arenas, Spain 15 August 1930; played for Arenas 1948-49, Plus Ultra 1949-51, Real Madrid 1951-62; capped 8 times by Spain; died Madrid 3 April 2012.