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In conversation with Fernando Morientes: Real Madrid's forgotten champion

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Fernando Morientes speaks, ahead of his interaction with SK
Shambhu Ajith
FEATURED WRITER
Modified 06 Jul 2018, 19:12 IST
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Nobody likes being told they're second best. Not even if you're playing for the best club in the world and the player they're bracketing you with is Ronaldo. O Fenomeno.

As the Galacticos started rolling in at the Bernabeu and the Los Blancos OGs who had brought the club unprecedented success were swept to the backstage, Fernando Morientes was, unfortunately, removed from relevance.

Unfortunately for Real Madrid, that is.

They had not a clue.

Exiled to France and condemned to the status of an asylum seeker, Morientes kept plugging away in his fresh red and white kit. His buoyant AS Monaco side was drawn against the heavily star-studded Real Madrid, the Galacticos in the quarterfinals of the 2003-04 Champions League.

And guess who wrote the script that killed off the luminaries of Europe?

Morientes scored an all-important goal in the first leg to keep his side in the tie and then followed it up with another in the second to stick the French team's flag in his dream club's heart. He would repeat those heroics against Chelsea in the semi-finals and earn his way back to Madrid.

When life throws you a curveball, autograph it with your boot and send it back fizzing.

But Fernando Morientes keeps his warrior-hood restricted to the grass. When asked whether it was vendetta on his mind as he took on Real Madrid, he says,

"It was very difficult because I was facing my amigos and it was a quite a strange sensation because I was on loan at Monaco. As soon as I realized that we could win over Real, there was this sensation... of the pleasure of proving that they want me because they thought I wasn't good enough to be playing for them. So it was a sort of mixed feeling."
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He and Real Madrid go back a long way.

He was all of 17 years of age and breaking into life when Fernando Morientes was first called into senior professional footballing action. Even while playing for a club like Albacete, your destiny could be scrawled at the instance of one gaffe.

Make or break.

But as for Morientes, he didn't have the slightest clue that he'd be breaking bread with the world's best in a few years.

Euro2008 Qualifier - Spain v Denmark
Fernando Morientes at the Euro2008 Qualifiers - Spain v Denmark

The Caceres born forward, a private militia inside the box all by himself, hung his boots after beavering away for Real Madrid, AS Monaco, Liverpool, Valencia, Marseille and Santa Ana in a senior professional career that spanned 17 years.

Morientes was still in his salad days when he secured a move to Real Zaragoza and sent the crowd to raptures with a debut day golazo before immediately flipping the script and getting sent off within the next 7 minutes for striking Real Betis' Jaime. It wasn't the only time the hotheaded young gun fired a goal and then got sent for an early shower. But by the time it happened again, his fate had been sealed.

Los Blancos had come knocking and Morientes was going.

He says,

"It was big news. Suddenly realizing that the best club in the world wants you to play for them is the biggest news you can get. You work for that."

Real Madrid, at the time, were Spanish giants but hadn't been up to anything worthy of commendation in Europe for a very long time. After measuredly integrating two top - but very young strikers - Fernando Morientes, and a little someone called Raul, Real Madrid looked ready to step up to anything you could throw at them.

And by combining the zest of youth and the know-how of age, Los Blancos worked out a Champions League winning formula. They laboured their way to their first title in 32 years. Something which Morientes describes as the most special title he has ever won in his life.

He recollects winning the title with the same shine in his eyes he had when inspiring the ugliest curses from his distraught opponents,

"The first one is the most special to me. It was highly emotional because Real Madrid had gone 32 years without winning and it was my first year playing for them. There was so much celebration on the streets of Madrid, and seeing the streets with all the people dressed in white was just... so special."

The youngster who had joined from Real Zaragoza ended his debut season as Madrid's top scorer after playing deputy for most of the season. He kicked on from there and went on to form one of the most lethal striking partnerships in Europe. Morientes-Raul was a force that could be talked of in the same breath as Yorke and Cole at the time.

There was an overwhelming sense of harmony... of notes being played to perfection as they both ran about the pitch felling bodies like they belonged to a cartel in Mexico. If Morientes sharpened the guillotine, Raul cut the rope. If Raul set the fire, Morientes poured the gunpowder.

It's perhaps a cliche that made them so good. Opposites attract. Speaking about his favourite strike partner, Morientes says,

"There are different things. Firstly, we are two radically different players. I was a pure nine and liked to be always inside the box while Raul was different [as] he was more coming from behind, playing from different areas of the field. So we complemented each other very well. Also to adapt to each other, it was important that we had a great relationship outside of the pitch."

They did not stop. Though their run in Europe was impeded by 'the class of 92' of Manchester, Real Madrid would again lift the Champions League trophy in the 1999-00 season and Fernando Morientes was, by then, monopolising the business of scoring goals.

Real Madrid were truly back to the fore and with Morientes and Raul being their shining lights going forward, they went on to win the Liga and the Champions League in the next couple of years.

Football. UEFA Champions League Final. Hampden Park, Glasgow. 15th May 2002. Real Madrid 2 v Bayer Leverkusen 1
Morientes (bottom right) with his Real Madrid teammates before the 2002 Champions League final

Then a little something called the FIFA World Cup happened and O Fenomeno, the OG Ronaldo, set the world on fire. He was shining so bright, Real Madrid took to him like a fly to light. Here emerged a conundrum. Ronaldo is perhaps the greatest striker of all time. Raul was a local boy who had undeniable talent and the unadulterated love of the masses.

So guess who had to take the fall.

Though he had fallen down the pecking order below Guti and Javier Portillo, he still wanted to give it all to Real Madrid once again.

Enter Michael Owen, Balon d'Or in tow.

A season spent largely on the sidelines and the hurt that comes with knowing that your dream fell to the mercy of outsiders caused him to tip over the line and he had a sideline confrontation with Del Bosque after being asked to come on as a substitute in the dying embers of the game against Borussia Dortmund in the 2003 Champions League quarter-final.

Morientes is not one to hold on to the petty. He still holds Del Bosque in extremely high regard,

"It was my mistake. I acknowledge that. I was under a lot of pressure, so my personal situation wasn't the best. So it was maybe a more of a reaction. But my relationship with Vicente Del Bosque is fantastic. He is almost like a father to me. It happens. When you're a top player and you're struggling for whatever reason, your mental situation is not the best and you can react that way."

But Morientes neither holds no hard feelings about Real Madrid's decision to send him away on loan nor does he think that the love the Merengues' fans had for him was in any manner less special than the love they had for Raul. He says,

"No, no, no, no, no. I've never felt that (fans favoured Raul more). When you're a professional, you know how things [can] happen. And my goal was to stay at Real for the longest time and I was aware that something like Ronaldo coming in could happen. You just have to keep giving it your best and get on with it."

And he did just that.

The phenomenon that Morientes was is best summed up by one statistic. By the time he was 28 years of age, he had appeared in a ridiculous 17 cup finals. 17! His playing career had only started 11 years earlier. And how he went about a cup final by the time he was a seasoned footballer was pretty much on similar lines to that of Pirlo. Pressure? What's that?

I asked him if he felt any sort of pressure at that point when faced with a daunting task. He smiled, looking down at the red carpet, reminiscing on those golden days and said,

"Of course, in the beginning, you're nervous while anticipating a final. But then when you play many of them, it becomes just another match."

I guess that's a champion's mantra after all.

You've got to normalize the monumental. The rest is gravy.

Eventually, the time to take the curtain call at Real Madrid had come. But it was still going to be tough to make Morientes swear his allegiance elsewhere. Any destination wouldn't do. So when Liverpool showed up with the papers, Fernando signed.

He says,

"It was really a special time in my career and once I decided to leave Real Madrid, I wanted to play for a special club and Liverpool is a truly special club. On top of that, siding with amazing players like Steven Gerrard was a fantastic experience."

When Liverpool announced the signing of Fernando Morientes from Liverpool, Steven Gerrard echoed the expectations of a city:

"It's exactly the kind of signing we need. If you ask any of the fans about the calibre of player they want us to be bringing to the club, he would be it. I feel the same way. You know you're not taking a risk. It's good from a symbolic point of view that we've signed someone who's so renowned as a world-class player. I just hope, after all the success he's had and trophies he's won, he's as hungry to do the same for us."
Liverpool v Middlesbrough
Morientes in action for Liverpool against Middlesbrough

But the sun didn't shine on him in England like it did in Spain and he was heavily criticized for not showing up like someone of his rep should have and was even likened to the bird flu that "was lethal in other countries but no sign of it in Britain."

Well, that should have been that. It should have been the story of an early bloomer who fell from grace and then ended up as a no-show in front of thousands of disappointed faces. Except for that wouldn't be the case, particularly if the man himself had something to say about it.

He packed his bags and ventured back to his nation's homely shore and forced the maligners into terming his €3 million move a bargain. Playing alongside that David Villa lad who had more goals in him than the good ol' big white sticks at Wembley, Morientes netted a hattrick in his first Champions League game for Los Murciélagos.

He went on to rake in 12 goals from 24 outings in the league and ended the season as the club's top goalscorer in the Champions League and was recalled to the Spanish national team.

Morientes drew a near perfect circle with a fading sketch pen to show that the artist never forgets his way around the canvas even when he's dealt a poor palette.

His record for La Furia Roja speaks volumes of his prolific streaks when he was peaking. He scored a staggering 27 goals in 47 games for the men in red before it was time to call it a day.

But, there ain't no Fernando Morientes without football. The master of the turnarounds, Morientes is ready to get back into the thick of things, this time suited up as a coach.

"I coached 3 years at the grassroots level in Real Madrid and then at Fuenlabrada. I am waiting for good offers both in Spain and outside. I'm just waiting for the right offer."

His is a name that gets left out at times when they talk about the greats of the game. Hopefully, Fernando Morientes can return to the field, in a new capacity, well equipped and prepared as he has always been and there'd be a lot for the young ones to learn from him.

After all, Morientes was a little boy from Caceres who loved playing football and scoring goals. He dared to dream and found his place among the stars.

Published 06 Jul 2018, 19:12 IST
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