Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu is among world football’s most famous and iconic stadiums, an intimidating venue where many opposition teams have famously suffered ‘stage fright’ through the decades.
Barcelona’s Camp Nou and Atletico de Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano are for sure also difficult places for rival teams to get a result, while Valencia’s Mestalla and Sevilla’s Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan are some of the other fearsome and historic home grounds around La Liga.
But ask any Real Madrid player or supporter and they’ll tell you that there is something unique about the effect of a packed Bernabeu on visitors. And nobody has explained this special feeling better than a man who knows the stadium more than most: former Madrid player, coach and director Jorge Valdano.
In 1986, Valdano wrote a famous article for the Revista de Occidente magazine entitled ‘Miedo Escenico’ – which is best translated into English as ‘stage fright’, and was itself taken from an article by Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez about his fear of speaking in public. Valdano’s article explained how Real Madrid specialised in thrilling ‘remontada’ comebacks, especially in European competition, when a daunting first leg deficit would be turned around at the Bernabeu.
This history went back to a clash with then English league champions Derby County in the last-16 of the 1975/76 European Cup. Los Blancos lost the first leg 4-1 in England, but almost unbelievably won the return 5-1 to progress. In the following years, Celtic, Anderlecht, Borussia Monchengladbach and Red Star Belgrade all kicked off at the Bernabeu with an advantage only to see Real Madrid launch spirited comebacks to progress come the end of the tie.
The legend grew after a 2-0 first leg defeat at Inter Milan in the 1985/86 UEFA Cup, when Valdano’s teammate Juanito famously told Italian TV that “Noventa minuti en el Bernabeu son molto longo.” The ferocious Real Madrid attacker was telling Inter’s players and fans that their 90 minutes in the return leg would last a long time, and the prediction came through as Inter were beaten 3-0 on the night.
The explanation, according to Valdano’s article, was that a team was a “frame of mind” and on special occasions could defy tactical, technical and physical logic. These special occasions tended to happen more at the Bernabeu than anywhere else, he argued. And it is definitely true that the noise inside the stadium building to a crescendo through the closing stages as Europe’s all-time leading Champions League winners look to complete one of their famous ‘remontada’ comebacks is always special.
Recent years have also brought some special turnarounds at the stadium. Current coach Zinedine Zidane played when Bayern Munich were defeated in 2001/02 on the way to winning that season’s Champions League. Zidane was the coach in 2015/16 when Wolfsburg had a 2-0 advantage after a quarter-final first leg in Germany, but Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat-trick at a heaving Bernabeu turned the tie around. Real Madrid won that year’s Champions League trophy too.
Valdano’s poetic way with words has helped the ‘miedo escenico’ idea embed in the minds of Real Madrid supporters and players who draw on the idea for belief in the most difficult of situations. But the results and the reality show that the Santiago Bernabeu really can frighten the wits out of even the most experienced of opponents.