Fernando Hierro experienced a lot during his two-decade career as captain and star for Real Madrid and Spain - including winning five La Liga titles and representing Spain at six international tournaments.
But the now 51-year-old La Liga Santander ambassador says that what he misses most from his playing career was day-to-day life with his teammates on the training ground.
“We all miss the day today, the smell of the grass, being in the dressing-room with the other players,” Hierro says. “It is a profession that you choose because you are passionate about it. It is short, ends quickly, and just going to training every day is what I miss the most.”
Going to work each morning with Real Madrid’s galacticos of the early 2000s was magic, he recalls.
“Together with Ronaldo Nazario, Luis Figo, Raul, Zinedine Zidane, Roberto Carlos… every training session was just a delight,” he says.
“Even if I was injured, or could not train for whatever reason, I would go along just to enjoy it. To watch the magic that one or another would come up with.”
The legendary defender remembers one of them – one who inherited the captain’s armband from him – particularly fondly. “Raul was underrated because he never got a Ballon d’Or he deserved,” he adds.
Born in Malaga in 1968, Hierro played for two seasons at Real Valladolid, before joining Real Madrid in 1989. He won 16 trophies during his time at the Santiago Bernabeu, including five La Liga titles and three Champions Leagues. Before finishing his career with short but memorable spells in Qatar with Al-Rayyan and then-Premier League side Bolton Wanderers.
“14 years at a club like Real Madrid, at that level, you have to be satisfied and proud,” he says now. “That was the club I dreamed about playing for when I was a child. I felt privileged. The nine months with Al-Rayyan was the right thing for me, to see another culture and another way of thinking.
Bolton was such a family club, with a marvellous heart. It had always been a dream to play in England too.”
A total of 105 goals in 497 La Liga games was a phenomenal record for a defender, while Hierro also scored 30 times in 88 senior caps for Spain.
He generously says his achievements are now being matched by current Blancos captain Sergio Ramos, who currently has 21 goals for Spain and 64 in LaLiga while playing for Sevilla and Real Madrid.
“What Sergio Ramos does isn’t normal,” Hierro said. “Sometimes I played as a midfielder. Gerard Pique also scores goals, but Sergio is out of this world, for his club and for the national team.”
Hierro played for Spain at four World Cups and two European Championships between 1990 and 2002, and also served as technical director as La Roja won the 2010 World Cup and coach during the 2018 tournament.
He recalls his favourite moment for his country as the flying header which sealed qualification for the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
“I don’t know if it was my best goal, but I always remember the one I scored in 1993 against Denmark to qualify Spain for the World Cup,” he says.
His most difficult opponent as a defender, he remembers, was later to be a future teammate at Real Madrid and is now president at Hierro’s first La Liga club Valladolid – who, incidentally, shortly host Real Madrid in a La Liga clash on Sunday, January 26th.
“Defending against Ronaldo was terribly difficult, during his year at Barcelona,” he says. “You knew that wherever the ball went, he was going to get there first. And if he got clear at the goal, he would score for sure. He was a marvellous player.”