Everyone loves a good Legends game. Since the more formalised Masters Football tournaments ceased to take place in the UK in 2011, charity matches featuring various ex-pros have provided the only opportunity for fans to immerse themselves in reminiscence and nostalgia. Their popularity is immense: Anfield saw its biggest attendance in forty years when 53,000 people turned out in March last year to watch former players take on some of Real Madrid’s stars of the past. However, some of these 53,000 are likely to have looked non-plussed when one name on the Real team-sheet was announced: Ruben de la Red.
To those who follow the blossoming Legends scene, the name will have been familiar. De la Red is a regular feature in these squads, and at the relatively young age of 33 he is often a stand-out performer. There is little surprise given the age advantage he has on some of his opponents; he was up against Alan Kennedy at times in the match at Anfield, a man who is more than three decades his senior. De la Red netted in that game, but could not prevent a 4-3 loss. By contrast, when Real Madrid took on the Manchester United legends, de la Red scored the winner in a match that ended 2-1. He also played in a Legends Clasico in which Barcelona ran out 3-2 winners.
At this rate, de la Red is at a risk of making more Legends appearances than he managed for the senior team. The Spanish midfielder played only seventeen league games for the Real Madrid first team over two spells with the club, before he was forced to retire at just twenty-five with a heart issue. Questions could be asked about why this relative nonentity is regularly lining up alongside the likes of Luis Figo, Emilio Butragueño and Roberto Carlos in a team billed as legends.
A charitable interpretation would be that Real Madrid are lending a hand to a player whose career was cruelly cut short due to no fault of his own. But veteran matches can also be a lifeline to ex-pros struggling to adapt to life beyond the game. These struggles can only be exacerbated when a player is forced to retire so early, as in de la Red’s case. However, with such a raft of legends at Real Madrid’s disposal, the sheer consistency of de la Red’s starts suggests somewhat less laudable motives.
Despite the continued lack of a formalised league or tournament structure, the increased regularity of these Legends games in recent years has led to a more competitive feel. A 33-year-old is an undoubtedly useful asset in a match filled with players most of whom are at least ten years older. Looking in from the outside, it appears as though Real Madrid might be stretching the interpretation of ‘legend’ to breaking point in order to gain a competitive advantage. At first-team level, Captain Sergio Ramos epitomises the win-at-all-costs mentality which has become synonymous with Real Madrid. Perhaps some of this spirit has been carried over to the Legends.
That said, de la Red may well have truly earned his place alongside the game’s greats had it not been for a fateful day at Real Unión. His story is a sad one. A boyhood Madridista born and raised in the suburbs of the capital, de la Red came through the academy of the team he loved. It was not an easy path and a transfer to CD Móstoles was briefly sanctioned before the academy swiftly moved to re-sign him. He turned professional in 2004 and soon became a regular for Real Madrid’s B team, RM Castilla. His struggles to impress, however, were far from over. Though he caught the eye of the coaching staff with his performances across nearly 100 games for Castilla, it was a mammoth task to get minutes for the first team ahead of the likes of Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham.
Sure enough, de la Red was moved on in the summer of 2007 having made just ten league appearances. He joined Michael Laudrup’s Getafe side for the relatively trifling fee of £2.4 million. Quique Sanchez Flores, who had coached de la Red in Real Madrid’s youth setup, had tried to make this move happen three years earlier when he was in charge of Getafe but at the time Los Blancos had been unprepared to let go of the talented midfielder. They remained wary of letting such a clearly gifted player leave the Bernabéu and made sure to insert a buy-back clause into the deal that saw him eventually depart for Getafe.
Real Madrid ended up activating it earlier than they could have imagined. De la Red only netted twice in his 31 appearances for Laudrup’s side but he impressed hugely on the way to a UEFA Cup quarter-final and Copa Del Rey final. Such was the level of his performances that he was included in Luis Aragonés’ squad for the 2008 European Championships. Not only that, he played and scored. He was limited to 90 minutes in a rotated side, once again finding himself towards the bottom of a pecking order packed with elite talent, but his well-taken goal against Greece was enough to start the revival in Spain’s 2-1 comeback win. Spain, of course, went on to win the tournament.
Fresh from playing his part in setting Spain on their way to an era of international dominance and amidst reported interest from Arsenal, de la Red returned to Real Madrid for a fee of £3.6 million. His dream of making it at the club he had always supported was not yet dead as it had looked to be just a year earlier. In fact, at the start of the 2008/09 season, de la Red seemed finally to be making it a reality. Although he was initially limited to appearances from the bench, he impressed and soon began to feature in the starting eleven. One such start came in a fiercely-contested 2-1 win over city rivals Atletico Madrid. After ten games, he had managed two goals and two assists. The eleventh match, a seemingly unremarkable cup fixture against Real Unión, would prove to be the last competitive game he ever played.
Thirteen minutes into the Copa del Rey fixture at Stadium Gal, de la Red passed out. There was no obvious cause and the midfielder regained consciousness shortly after being taken off the pitch, but Real Madrid announced after the game that he would not play again for the rest of the campaign as a precaution. Spain was still rocked by the tragic death of Antonio Puerta of Sevilla who had died of heart failure the previous year, and while the cause of de la Red’s collapse remained unknown there was no prospect of him returning to action.
Despite further tests over the course of the season, doctors could not determine the exact nature of de la Red’s heart issues. A statement was issued at the beginning of the 2009/10 campaign stating that de la Red remained unavailable for selection. The need not to take any risks was emphasised by a further tragic death in August 2009: Dani Jarque of Espanyol had lost his life following heart failure.
In the end, despite delaying the inevitable until November 2010, de la Red’s battle with his heart condition proved to be the one obstacle he could not overcome. He was forced to retire at the age of just twenty-five. He remained a Madridista through and through, and for five years after his retirement he stayed at the club to help coach the youth teams. He harbours ambitions of one day becoming a manager at the top level. His hopes of becoming a legend on the pitch, however, were over.
Regardless of the reasons for de la Red’s inclusions in the Legends squads, it is hard to begrudge them to him. There is no getting around the fact that he was never able to fulfil his potential and become a great, but it is good to see him able to don the famous white shirt once more in some capacity. There are always more than enough true legends on show to attract the crowds, and if they knew his story perhaps they would be equally delighted to see de la Red playing again. As for where that leaves opposition sides: well, Alan Kennedy will just have to hit the gym!