Football: Saintly Sanz proves a real father figure

The European champions are fast becoming a thriving family business.
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The Independent Online
AS IF debts amounting to a cool pounds 80m, the most demanding heritage and support in world football and a team with the personality of an unpredictable temptress were not enough, Real Madrid's elegant president Lorenzo Sanz has had to face a barrage of criticism because one of his players was deemed to be off-form and of questionable natural ability. For most men in his position, it would have been enough to divert the problem to the manager, coach or a leading spin doctor, but for Sanz, it was far more personal: the player was his son, Fernando.

At 24, the lanky, languid and stubble-chinned defender is in, perhaps, the most unenviable position in the European game. He plays alongside Fernando Hierro at the heart of the Real Madrid rearguard where, apart from lessons and advice in anticipation, movement, marking, heading and tackling, he also has to suffer comparisons with one of the finest defenders of them all. It is a tough school. Tough for him and tough, too, for his 55-year-old father whose world-weary looks betray little of the joy he feels in running the historic institution created by Santiago Bernabeu.

"Honestly, it does not worry me at all," said Sanz senior after seeing Real beat Spartak Moscow 2-1 to reach the quarter-finals of the European Champions' League. "I can accept anything that is fair, but not attacks that are unfair or personal. My son has enough to worry about in holding his place in this team, at this great club. Normally, it is not an issue for anyone. Certainly neither of us. But when this kind of thing happens, I am not so happy."

The incident which upset Sanz was created by two successive reports in the Madrid daily newspaper El Mundo, both of which suggested his son's poor defending was to blame for the team's 3-1 defeat by Internazionale in Milan two weeks ago and hinted that he owed his place in the team more to accident of birth than skill. When Sanz made a personal visit to Real's Ciudad Deportivo training ground in the northern suburbs of the capital on Monday to implore his players to beat Spartak (such is the importance of a rich vein of cashflow to a club recovering from massive financial haemorrhaging in the early 1990s), he refused to talk to El Mundo's reporter.

"I am talking to everyone else, it is not a big issue," he said, brushing it aside as a trivial episode in a life that, in recent years, has seen him turn Madrid round from a club losing pounds 10m annually to one now showing profits of around pounds 2m each year. The recovery of the club's marketing rights - for replica shirts and all other kinds of commercial merchandise - from the agency to which they were sold by the previous, panicking, board recently cost Madrid around pounds 60m, but is believed to be money well spent. The stricken giants, as their success in Europe and the World Club Championship has shown, are on the mend.

"Of course, it is important for Real Madrid, the champions, to progress in this competition," said Sanz. "That is why we are all here. It is the trophy that is our special dream. We are linked to it. We are the holders and the seven-times winners..." As he talked, in a melee of back-slapping fur-coated bodies in the cold late-night air, Sanz kept a good distance from the players as they emerged. Each star man, Fernando Hierro, Roberto Carlos, Seedorf, Raul and Pedrag Mijatovic was mobbed. Only when Fernando emerged, unshaved and with his long wet hair slapping his face, was the crowd notably less animated.

"I don't care because they all know me here so well and I am just one of the boys," said Sanz, the player. "I have been here for 16 years, as a boy and a teenager, always coming to Real Madrid. I have grown up here so everyone knows me as I am. I am just one of the players and that's all. I know I am not a star."

Born in Madrid in January 1974, Fernando Sanz Duran also had his career marked by spending six months of the 1994-95 season on loan in Chile where he played for Union Espanola. By English standards, it is equivalent to going to play in the Welsh League. "I wanted some more experience," he explained. "I had heard a lot about the Copa Libertadores and it was bonita. But the English league is beautiful, I think, too."

His playing style is similar to that of Darren Peacock, another long- haired crisp-tackling ball-winner not blessed with a glorious first touch. Against Ronaldo, his pace was challenged. Against Roberto Baggio, his reading of the opponent's intentions. But against Spartak's Alexandr Shirko, he was in hard and heavy and most often emerged with the ball. "That is my way of playing, I know myself well," he said. "I am not Seedorf, Raul or Mijatovic."

That admission summed him up on the pitch. Off it, he said, he is different. "I am not at home any more," he laughed, waving his left hand and a wedding ring. "So, I am not always talking with my father. When we meet, we talk about the family, the weather and the world, but not my work or the club. We still laugh together, if we stay the way we are. I hope we can. The coach knows I am just a player. My father has said the same thing. And that is all I want to be. A footballer. Not the president's son."