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The Most Dangerous Game: Theo, Hugo Sánchez and the path from Atlético to Real Madrid

Theo Hernández and Real Madrid broke the so-called “non-aggression” pact this summer, but it’s not the first time this path has been traversed.

Golden Foot Awards
Hugo holds up a memento of his time at the Bernabéu.
Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images for Golden Foot

In the 1999-2000 season, Atlético Madrid could manage only 38 points from 42 matches and were relegated from LaLiga for the first time. A year later, club legends Fernando Torres and Luis Aragonés would arrive to restore some semblance of respectability. But at the turn of the millennium, Atlético were a sinking ship.

Midfielder Santi Solari read the tea leaves. Uninterested in plying his trade in Segunda - and hoping to maintain his place in the Argentina national team - Solari jumped at the chance to move across the city to Real Madrid. Solari played mostly as a substitute for Los Merengues and spent five workmanlike seasons at the Santiago Bernabéu, winning LaLiga twice and the Champions League once.

A de facto, unspoken pact between the two Madrid clubs was born in the aftermath of Solari’s transfer. The press - even in Spanish - referred to it as the “non-aggression pact.” Real usually stay away from Atlético’s established players and vice versa. The pact is the reason that Sergio Agüero currently plays for Manchester City, even though Real were reportedly interested in his services in 2011. The pact is the reason that Antoine Griezmann - who has spoken about both the pact and how much he would hate Manchester winters - would never move across town, even though he could still enjoy the same, sunny climate and keep his house in La Finca.

Last month, the pact was broken. An unapologetic, white-mohawked 19-year old who fetched €28 million despite never playing a minute of first team action for Atlético was the one to break it, and he will likely become one of the great Atlético villains in recent memory.

It seemed as though Theo Hernández left Atleti for Real to send a message to Diego Simeone and club brass, who made him play on the B team and then sent him out on loan when he was clearly overqualified. And honestly, both sides have a point. Theo was clearly amazingly talented. But he was never going to get playing time over Filipe Luís, and Cholo knew it. Theo would surely get first-team minutes at Alavés. But ultimately, he shone a little too brightly.

Though Theo will initially play behind - with apologies to Filipe - the best pound-for-pound left back in the world in Marcelo at the Bernabéu, there is still the sense that he will come back to haunt Atlético. Given his sheer athleticism, if you squint hard enough, Theo looks like a young Gareth Bale. He has pace for days. He is a great crosser. He scored an absolute golazo against Barça in this year’s Copa del Rey final - played in the Vicente Calderón, in a cruel twist of fate, which gave Atleti supporters a taste of what they would never have.

Before Solari, there were a number of players who moved north from the Calderón to the Bernabéu. Most of them weren’t superstars, and there’s certainly a chance that Theo flames out without regular first-team football. However, there is one player on that list who stings more than anyone, the one who broke records at Madrid after leaving Atlético. The worst case scenario for Atleti in the Theo affair is Hugo Sánchez.

Before Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo set fire to LaLiga, the league’s all-time leading goal scorer among non-Spanish players was a 5’9” Mexican with a flair for the dramatic and a penchant for volleys and chilenas. In 347 league appearances, he scored 234 goals. Over a six-year stretch from 1984-1990, he won the Pichichi five times. He also favored Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang-style somersaults after goals, thanks to his childhood background as a gymnast and a sister who competed in gymnastics in the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

Hugo Sánchez actually joined his sister in those 1976 Olympics, bursting onto the scene with the Mexican national team. He would also win the Mexican league that year with Pumas de UNAM, the famed university team. He was 18 years old at the time.

In the early ‘80s, much like the Premier League, La Liga was still fairly closed off, suspicious of all foreign-born players, especially Mexicans. Hugo moved to Atlético in 1981, and his eight-goal debut season did little to ease the pressure. Nevertheless, “Hugol” would acclimate quickly. He became a fan favorite, got better every year and won the Pichichi in 1984-1985, a season in which Atleti would hoist the Copa del Rey and finish as runners-up in La Liga.

It was in May of that ‘84-’85 season when things got weird. Much like former Indiana Pacer Paul George did recently, Hugo didn’t hide his desire to play elsewhere. And just like George, he had named his desired destination: Real Madrid. With Hugo’s contract set to end in the summer of ‘86, club president Vicente Calderón set about finding something in return for Hugo, rather than losing him for free the next year.

On May 9, Barcelona vice president Joan Gaspart called Hugo and offered him a five-year contract that would pay him 50 million Spanish pesetas per season. The next night, Barça officials flew to Madrid to dine with Hugo and Calderón at Viejo Madrid on Cava Baja, a legendary tapas street in the La Latina neighborhood. After a lengthy, fruitless dinner, the Catalan embassy left convinced that Hugo wanted to play for Real Madrid and Real Madrid alone.

The rest of Hugo’s Atlético tenure became a bit of a farce. That same week, on the 13th of May, Atleti played a match against Betis in the Calderón. The fans let Hugo hear it, whistling him and calling him “pesetero” — mercenary, or money-grubber. Luis Aragonés was Atleti’s manager at the time and decided to substitute Hugo. As the fans rained down whistles upon him, Hugo kissed the crest on his shirt, indicating his respect for the club.

For the rest of Hugo’s Calderón tenure, he received a similar reception from fans, despite his consummate professionalism. He led Atlético to a Copa del Rey title with two goals against Athletic Bilbao in the June 30 final and won another Pichichi, but his reputation was forever sullied in the eyes of the fans. Ironically, the Copa final was played at the Bernabéu, Hugo’s future home.

After a lengthy, fruitless dinner, the Catalan embassy left convinced that Hugo wanted to play for Real Madrid and Real Madrid alone.

Although he performed well on the field, Hugo certainly didn’t help matters with quotes like: “My primary objective is to leave for Madrid. My objective in Atlético has already been completed. Now, I aspire to higher goals.”

So vicious was the vitriol from the fan base that Vicente Calderón had to put a bit of a bow on the transfer. Atlético only had 15,000 socios (members) at the time, and Calderón worried that fans would renounce their membership if he transferred his star player straight to Real Madrid. So, he came up with a creative solution.

On July 4, Atleti transferred Hugo back to Pumas de UNAM - his boyhood club - for a fee of 200 million Spanish pesetas. On July 13, UNAM turned a tidy profit by sending Hugo to Real Madrid for 250 million Spanish pesetas. Six days later, Hugo was presented, along with two other transfers, to 50,000 madridistas at the Bernabéu.

“I’ve won myself (the opportunity) to wear the Madrid shirt,” he said. “Everything that’s happened has been because of me. I could have gone to Italy or Barcelona for more money, but I know what I want.”

Ironically, in spite of his love for the club, the Bernabéu wasn’t particularly excited about his arrival. They had a hard time embracing him as a part of their squad, as he had been the enemy for the past four years. The fans even had a motto - “Uli sí, Hugo no” - embracing current striker Uli Stielike over Hugo.

However, once Hugo started doing things like this, Madrid supporters had no trouble hopping on board:

Indeed, Hugo hit a completely different level at Real Madrid. He won three Pichichis in a row after his arrival in 1985 and won a fourth in 1989-1990. Real won five straight league titles between 1985 and 1990, too.

Picture how Atlético fans feel about Arda Turan. Now triple it. That’s what Hugo dealt with when he returned to the Calderón. Atlético fans, in a disgusting display of racism, repeatedly called him a “f***ing Indian.”

Hugo, for his part, always seemed confused by the hate. Speaking recently on his crosstown transfer, he hoped that with some distance, the fans can now understand his motivations.

“It shouldn’t be weird (to the fans) because we’re professionals, and the footballer looks for the best (situation) for his career and trajectory,” he said. “The fans should understand. I did it (the transfer) and Atlético’s fans didn’t understand it but I hope they do now.”

Personally, I respect Hugo for trying to be transparent in his motives. But if Hugo expects Atléticos to think with their heads and not the hearts, he doesn’t know the club or its fans very well.

In fairness, Atlético have benefited from players coming the other direction. Luis Aragonés, Saúl Ñíguez and Juanfran all spent time in Madrid’s youth academy (Juanfran even played six times for los blancos), and even Filipe Luís spent a season on loan at Castilla. Each of those players is either already an Atlético legend or on his way to becoming one.

Nevertheless, Theo’s move stings. Like Hugo’s defection to the Bernabéu, it feels symbolic, like a message — you may make Champions League finals, you may finish in the top three in LaLiga, you may be second in UEFA’s rankings and you may have one of the best pound-for pound managers in the world, but you are not one of the biggest clubs in the world.

You may make Champions League finals, you may finish in the top three in LaLiga, you may be second in UEFA’s rankings and you may have one of the best pound-for pound managers in the world, but you are not one of the biggest clubs in the world.

Perhaps Theo isn’t a good fit for Atlético’s mindset, or someone who can represent the club’s values. Saúl has implied as much. He’s certainly shown that he’s prone to the occasional bout of immaturity, and allegedly even worse. And while we would never wish ill upon a person, if those accusations are true, perhaps it’s better that he’s gone. Cholo’s Atlético operate on core values and collective buy-in, arguably more than any other team.

And although it sounds haughty, and even though he could come back to haunt us like Hugo, and even if he’s truly the next Bale or Sergio Ramos, perhaps Theo Hernández’s departure will be a win-win. Like Hugo Sánchez did all those years ago, the young left back is playing a risky, dangerous game - but that’s how he seems to like it. After all, Hugo isn’t complaining these days.