Remembering the great Paco Gento: My teammate for a day

"Don't you know that's Paco Gento!"

That's what I yelled when I uncharacteristically entered the fray as a couple opponents got into a chest-puffing shoving match with my stocky 5-foot-7 teammate after he reacted angrily to getting fouled.

Though usually one to head a different direction when the danger of a fight emerged on the field, I wasn't about let these guys have a go at one of soccer's greatest players ever. Whether our foes retreated because we intimidated them or they realized they were messing with a man whose name demanded respect, I don't know. But the situation de-escalated quickly in this game that took place on Feb. 27, 1989, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

I was a 24-year-old Soccer America writer covering the U-20 World Cup who back then would pack cleats in case a playing opportunity, such as a media game, arose. Francisco "Paco" Gento was a 55-year-old who 18 years earlier played his last game for Real Madrid.

On the day before the Bob Gansler-coached USA fell, 2-1, to Nigeria in an unprecedented run to the semifinals, our Saudi hosts set up a game that pitted local media and event staff against foreign media. Among my teammates were journalists I had met earlier in the tournament, including an Iraqi who also lamented the lack of postgame beer, South Americans, Europeans and Africans. As we warmed up, the man taking charge of our squad was the great Gento. He was at the tournament scouting for Real Madrid and hanging around with Spanish journalists.

It's one thing to meet a legend. And quite another thing to line up next to one on the frontline. To impress Gento, after the Saudi crew kicked off, I sprinted around on all cylinders. Gento gestured to me to calm down. After that, whenever I got the ball, I would look first to deliver it to Gento.

I cannot remember the final score, but I'll never forget Gento's gestures and smiles that assured me we combined well. This was long before smart phones and social media, or else I would have posted the experience -- "I played with Gento!" -- and selfies with me and Gento shortly after the final whistle. Upon my return to the hotel lobby, I was glad to encounter U.S. assistant coach Ralph Perez and force him to listen to a play-by-play of my greatest game.

Gento died on Tuesday at age 88.

The sad news was accompanied by accounts of glory that include the unmatched accomplishment of six European Cup titles: Real Madrid's five straight in 1956-1960, and a sixth time in 1966. (Argentine teammate, Alfredo Di Stefano, whose goals left winger Gento so often set up, lifted the first five. Hungarian Ferenc Puskas was part of the amazing trio for European Cup titles in 1959 and 1960, and celebrated with Gento in 1966.)

Gento also won 12 LaLiga titles and he played for Spain at the  1962 and 1966 World Cups.

He was born in the Cantabria town of Guarnizo -- hence the speedster's nickname La Galerna del Cantábrico (the Gale of the Cantabrian Sea) -- and debuted at the top tier with nearby Racing Santander in 1953. The 19-year-old was called up to the first team when its squad was undermanned because of a flu virus for a game against Real Madrid, which signed him three days later.

In Saudi Arabia, when I first met Gento and queried him on U.S. players, he responded without having to think about it. He said striker Steve Snow, defender Troy Dayak, goalkeeper Kasey Keller, and midfielder Dario Brose impressed. All four could play at least in Spain's second division, said Gento.

It marked the first time I’d heard praise for young American talent from a soccer legend.

When we crossed paths again, he told me he'd give Real Madrid a list of three players to consider without revealing their names, but that one was an American. Later in the conversation, he asked me where Snow was from. When I told him Illinois, Gento said Snow played "as though he has South American blood."

Snow's career ended shortly after the 1992 Olympics and a stint in Belgium during which he suffered a severe knee injury. I recently learned Gento tried to lure a 19-year-old Argentine Diego Simeone to Real Madrid, but his team, Velez Sarsfield, had already promised him to Serie A club Pisa. Real Madrid ended up signing Mutiu Adepoju and Christopher Ohen from the Nigerian team that finished runner-up to the Carlos Queiroz-coached Portugal, whose Joao Pinto went to Atletico Madrid.

Gento's work as a scout may have been a small part of his career, but one I'm grateful for. It resulted in the most cherished compliment of my playing "career." When I volunteered to take a break as teammates on the sideline asked to enter, Gento said to me:

"No, no. You stay."

Photo: PA Wire via ZUMA Press/

8 comments about "Remembering the great Paco Gento: My teammate for a day".
  1. frank schoon, January 20, 2022 at 9:02 a.m.

    Thanks, MIKE, for bumming me out this morning for having to read Gento died...We called him in my days as a kid Gento the Jet. Real Madrid was the team of teams in those days, especially when you have PUSKAS, probably the greatest shooter of all time, in which PELE'S father told him to watch PUSKAS and learn from him and DiStefano ,the PELE before PELE. What a front line and not to mention KOPA the other great winger on the right..
    Watch the video on Gento, he was not only fast but he had moves, he stops all of sudden while on the run can employ both feet on the dribble. You don't know what he's going to do, perhaps a tricky unforeseen pass. He makes maneuvers forcing his opponent to turn to his left while Gento cuts to his left away from defender. And note, he only runs when necessary ,he never wastes his sprints... Watch how he dribbles the ball or how he consistently touches the ball with all out pace without losing the ball. Today our players would lose the ball and would have to go out to the parking lot to look for the ball underneath the cars....

    The problem in guarding Gento and those types of players in the 'old day's' is that you couldn't read what they were going to do. Today, everything is so programmed, that I can close my eyes and know already what's going to happen two moves ahead. Players ,today, play like robots, programmed like robots and when they enter the field an assistant coach with his laptop, his flip chart, and his dossier telling him what he should do. I mean, seriously, I'm sorry but unless you have experienced soccer ,the growth and the development of the game since the 50's you'll come to the conclusion that soccer with all the latest 'socalled new trends has really not changed except for the skills, the game savviness and overal knowledge of the player has gone down...
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  2. Milton Espinoza, January 20, 2022 at 9:18 a.m.

    A truly amazing experience to read about. To be able to share the field with a Titan. Thank you for sharing!

  3. frank schoon, January 20, 2022 at 9:40 a.m.

    How many coaches today are even familiar with Gento, Jimmy Johnstone, Stanley Matthews, Keizer, Dzajic, Best, Garrincha, Gray, Rensenbrink, Rep ,etc..............There were so many of those wingers,and today we had Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, FIGO, Messi, David Ginola, etc.

    The problem today like Cruyff states is that when a youth asks his coach 'can you show me 5 winger moves ,he would faint. I would recommend  any youth coach, to watch the Gento video and study it for it were those guys that made the mold for winger play and moves. In an interview, Jimmy Johnstone was asked how he learned to play wing ,he stated he watched Stanley Matthews  ,a player who molded certain moves. All kids when I grew studied watched certain player and if you were good ,technically , you watch and studied the wingers for that position is where you learn  to play 1v1 and be creative....

    There are so many technical aspects you can learn and teach to your players from this video without first going into Gento''s nice moves and that has to do with control. For example, have the youth from a standing position with ball in front of him explode and dribble 4x fast and then stop. That exercise in itself will take a quite a bit of time to learn. This is a good drill for our TURBO boys to learn. The point to learn to stop when you want to stop without ending up in the parking lot. The problem with our TURBO boys they don't think ahead for the next movement or what I would 'transistion of play. If you watch Gento when he's sprinting ,he sort of has his foot on the brake for the next transistion to come, his mind is already a step ahead.

    What I mean by transistion, is while he does his sprint and depending on what you sense the defender is going to do, the transistion might be to place your body between the opponent and the ball shielding it more  or speed up with or without the ball or change direction 45 degrees away from the defender or 45 degrees inwards towards the defender without trying to outrun him skillfull make a cross step diagonally in front of the defender thus blocking his route to the ball. The cross step is a way, if I think I'm going to lose the ball to him, to block him with my near foot from getting to the ball and at the same time he's will unfortunately trip and foul me from behind, although I caused it.  So many players try to outrun each other in the sprint, pushing each other going shoulder to shoulder and  all you have to really do is to cross step diagonally in front of him with the near leg. So instead of having to probably run 10yards you can accomplish it within 5yards..

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  4. frank schoon, January 20, 2022 at 9:51 a.m.

    I'm surprised they don't have a course for coaches that strictly cover the history of wingers and how they play, their style and how effect they the game and show them how to teach the various moves.

    Realize players are also different for example , some wingers prefer to start from a stationary position like Figo and then he begins his zig-zag dribbles and other prefer to meet the ball on the run thereby avoiding tackles.....

    This is the problem with youth coaches they are not taught the deeper insights of the game ,especially relating to the positions and capabilities of the players. As far as i'm without wingers soccer is boring and the problem is that coaches are getting way to programmed with their little laptops, and wish all players were chipped. Any youth coach should be watching this video from beginning to end.....

    It looks like I'll be watching GENTO videos today,  RIP !!!

  5. humble 1, January 20, 2022 at 10:19 a.m.

    Thank you Mike, then Frank for your commments.  Players with moves.  Always great to watch.  Never heard of the great Paco Gento, I was not watching futbol in those days.  Thank you for the introduction in the form of the rememberance.  We have no lack of speed today, players with moves, this is lacking.  No basketball player in their right mind shows up to a team practice unable to dribble or shoot.  This is all honed at home and/or the park.  Should be the same in soccer.  Learn to dribble and strike on your own, hone these skills on your own.  The wall is your best friend.  There are many many more moves you can do with the ball at your feet than in your hands.  Some day ... Thank you! 

  6. frank schoon replied, January 20, 2022 at 10:41 a.m.

    Humble, True , you're right we lack players with moves today for they don't for they are not honed in the park or at home. And you're we have no lack of speed today, for that really doesn't take much to learn, for most you either have it or don't to start out with....

    The problem with speed is that it is not coupled with technique and brains and that is why I explained the 'controlling aspect of how Gento does it....It is too bad you never heard or watched Gento play, but at least watched the whole video.....

  7. James Madison, January 20, 2022 at 2:21 p.m.

    Thanks, Mike.  A touching tribute to a worthwhile subject who died too young.

  8. stewart hayes, January 21, 2022 at 5:21 p.m.

    Thanks Mike, I remember seeing him run at opponents in the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in 1867 with RM's long sleeve white jereys.  The fans lit small fires to kept warm in the concrete stands and drank copas de cognac.

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