John Toshack, the club coach, was refereeing a six-a-side game. The players set about their task with a refreshingly juvenile enthusiasm. Champions all, World and European Cup winners worth between them more than a pounds 100m, they wanted to win as badly, it seemed, as if they were playing a League game at the Bernabeu.
The impression was confirmed when Toshack awarded a penalty against Fernando Hierro, the veteran centre-half and club captain. Disgusted, Hierro picked up the ball and hoofed it, like a rugby full-back, high into touch. As the players walked off the pitch at the end of the game Toshack, extending his arms in an appeal for understanding, approached Hierro. "Look, Fernando," he implored, in his workmanlike Spanish, "you pulled his shirt. Like this." Toshack tugged gently at Hierro's shirt. Hierro, seething with scorn and indignation, did not respond. He marched on, eyes set ahead, as if the large Welshman did not exist.
Less than four months have passed and Toshack is out of a job. His executioner was the Real Madrid president, Lorenzo Sanz, who on Wednesday increased to seven the tally of coaches he has lost in the last four years.
Had Toshack done a poor job? Not really, in terms of results. After he was hired in February this year he turned around a bad season and secured qualification for the European Champions' League. Real Madrid have since won their Champions' League qualifying group, with as many points as Manchester United but with six more goals, and they lie eighth in the Spanish League, five points behind Barcelona, with whom they drew 2-2 at the Nou Camp barely a month ago in a game they deserved to win.
But mathematics are of no assistance, logic of no value, in the effort to understand why Sanz does the things that he does. Otherwise how on earth to explain his decision to sack the German coach Jupp Heynckes in the summer of 1998, a matter of days after Real Madrid had won their seventh European Cup?
The little exchange with Hierro following that six-a-side game in July offers more clues than any statistical evaluation might to the causes behind Toshack's sacking, his second at Real Madrid this decade. Bluff and gruff as the Welshman might be, he never imposed his authority on his players. His problem was more than a question of team selection, or of tactics. It was a problem of power, the critical problem any coach must address when taking over a new team. But when that team are Real Madrid, with their wilful president and galaxy of stars, it is a problem almost impossible to surmount.
Toshack recognised in an interview in Nyon that his was the most insecure job in football, possibly in the world. "I have to remember that they could get rid of me at any moment," he said. "It could be in five minutes, in five months, in five years. But they will get rid of me. I know it. Sooner or later."
Toshack also recognised that his relationship with the players was a ludicrous inversion, in reality, of what it was supposed to be on paper. They called him "boss" (or "el mister", as they quaintly label the coach in Spain, in a throwback to the days when British football was king). But unlike any other boss in any other walk of life his power over the players was pure delusion. Bosses elsewhere can sack their employees, and the employees know it, which is why they do as the bosses say. The Real Madrid players, almost all of them, knew that Toshack had no say in determining their futures with the club. They knew that not them, but Toshack, would be the first to be fired.
Toshack could not have presumed to shout at, much less threaten, Raul Gonzalez, the 22-year-old striker emerging as the best player in the history of Spanish football. If Hierro, as skilful a central defender as you will find anywhere, were to have spat in Toshack's face, Real Madrid's inquest would have turned on the reason why Toshack precipitated such a response in the first place.
As for Nicolas Anelka, it was Toshack's misfortune that he was left with no choice but to play the scoreless French misfit in his team, because Anelka's purchase was not Toshack's idea, but Sanz's. Had Anelka simply been omitted, thereby allowing the excellent strike pair of Raul and Morientes to do their stuff uncluttered, and thereby allowing space for an extra man in a notoriously leaky midfield, Real Madrid would very probably be playing with more assurance, in a more settled pattern, four or five places higher up the table.
As it is, Toshack's Real have been unpredictable, disorganised and torn with dressing-room dissent, offering only dim prospects - mathematics aside - of titles this season, either in Europe or in Spain. Toshack's frustration, his increasing awareness that the responsibility his job carried grotesquely exceeded its power, made him bolshy. In recent weeks he has been openly - and recurrently - criticising his players, in defiance of the warnings of the mighty Sanz.
Criticising, bullying, threatening: this is Sanz's province. Toshack knew this. And yet he presumed to encroach; suggesting, as many Spanish commentators have inferred, that he committed hara-kiri, that he judged suicide to be nobler and less painful than death by a thousand indignities.
John Carlin writes for the Spanish newspaper El PaisReuse content