Football: Not quite Real at the Bernabeu these days: Deeply in the red off the field, also-rans of the Spanish league on it, the former kings of Europe have fallen upon hard times

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The Independent Online
I WAS there. A 13-year-old lost among 127,621 at Hampden Park. We stood transfixed until the men in white re-emerged to take a bow. It was May 1960 and Real Madrid had hammered Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the European Cup final with four goals from Puskas and three from Di Stefano.

I get to watch them most weeks now. And it hurts. Nearly 34 years on, the once-mighty Real cannot fill their rebuilt Santiago Bernabeu stadium. The papers have taken to calling them Unreal or Surreal Madrid. Their twin problem is simple: they are deeply in debt and cannot find the net. They are at least 5bn pesetas ( pounds 25m) in the red, to be exact.

The fact that many of their loans and other deals were with the big Banesto bank, recently taken over by the Spanish Central Bank after it was discovered to have a financial shortfall of at least Ptas2.5bn, does not augur well for the club's finances. Real's president, Ramon Mendoza, was already having trouble getting loans before the Banesto crisis. To bankers, Real Madrid have become a bad risk.

On the pitch, they threw away the league title on the final day of the past two seasons. By a quirk of fate, Tenerife were their tormentors on both occasions and their arch rivals, Barcelona, were the ones who grabbed the title. As for their mental state, Real's collapse stems from that summer's day in 1992 when, 2-1 up against Tenerife in the closing stages and heading for the title, they gave away two goals that could only be described as surreal. A time-wasting 50-yard lobbed back-pass by veteran sweeper Manuel Sanchis looked like bouncing past the post until the keeper Paco Buyo, the sun in his eyes and trying to prevent a corner, stretched for it. He succeeded only in flicking it backwards across the goal- line, where an incredulous Tenerife forward tapped it home.

This year, los merengues are hanging on by their fingertips. But fourth place, five points behind the leaders Deportivo La Coruna, is three places too low for fans who expect the best.

The club's Chilean striker, Ivan Zamorano, is going through a lean patch, with only eight league goals so far. Real's last great foreign hope, Peter Dubovsky of Slovakia, has failed to impress, while the Croat Robert Prosinecki, despite his reported pounds 1.5m-a-year contract, has been gracing the substitutes' bench.

Even the state of the Bernabeu turf has become an issue of controversy. One goalmouth is barely playable. The reason? When the stadium was rebuilt, with towering walls, it did not occur to anyone that they were shutting out the sun.

Real's ignominy hit a new low last week when those bogymen from Tenerife - whose main claim to football fame used to be a pub called Lineker's, owned by Gary himself - gave them a football lesson in ousting them from the Spanish Cup with a 3-0 second- leg win in the Bernabeu. Real had three men sent off, one, Zamorano, for taking his role as striker somewhat literally with a well-aimed elbow to a Tenerife player's jaw.

Pointedly, Tenerife manager, Jorge Valdano, a former Real striker and World Cup winner with Argentina, said he hoped 'one day to give Real back what I've taken away'. Few doubt that Valdano, one of the most articulate and gentlemanly managers in the business, will end up back at the Bernabeu, perhaps after his Tenerife contract expires next year.

Out of the cup and seven points adrift in the league, Real's home game with Deportivo on Saturday was billed as the crunch. Had they lost, Real would have been nine points back with 16 games to play and the head coach, Benito Floro, would almost certainly have been looking for work. To make matters worse, injury or suspension had robbed them of half a dozen key players. Two youngsters, 19-year-old Dani Garcia and 20-year-old Jose-Luis Morales, were making their debuts.

During 57 minutes of uninspired football by both sides, the apocalypse appeared to be nigh. Then young Morales struck, scoring with an overhead kick from inside the six- yard box. The football did not get much better but when the Real veteran, Michel, scored a second goal in the 70th minute, the relief felt throughout the club was palpable.

So they are not out of the title race yet. And do not forget that, to many Real fans, there is only one thing better than seeing their team win, and that is seeing Barcelona lose. Barca, too, are on a losing streak, ousted from the cup by Second Division Real Betis last week and beaten in the league on Sunday by Athletic Bilbao. A large banner at the Bernabeu stadium on Saturday read 'Gracias, Betis'.

----------------------------------------------------------------- SPANISH TOP FIVE ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts Deportivo La Coruna 22 13 6 3 29 9 32 Barcelona 22 12 4 6 43 24 28 Sporting de Gijon 22 12 3 7 33 23 27 Real Madrid 22 11 5 6 31 24 27 Athletic Bilbao 22 11 4 7 38 26 26 -----------------------------------------------------------------

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