Remembering Laurie Cunningham's time at -- and impact on -- Real Madrid

Sergio and Silvia sit in the living room of their flat not far from the Paseo de la Castellana, the long central avenue that runs through the middle of Madrid, a pile of photos on a small marble table in front of them. Memories of Laurie Cunningham, killed in a car crash on the notorious bend of the La Coruña road at Puerta de Hierro just northwest of the city in the small hours of Sunday July 16, 1989. The son of a Jamaican jockey, born at the Whittington Hospital in Archway, North London, Laurie would have turned 60 years this week.

The anniversary has seen renewed interest: a campaign has begun to build a statue at Leyton Orient where he began his career, and there is a blue plaque going up on the side of the house where he grew up near Finsbury Park. A documentary has already been made and there are plans for a feature film. A biography is being written, too.

His is a deep, fascinating, important and sad story. Laurie Cunningham was a man who broke the mould and challenged prejudice, a supremely talented footballer who played in four different countries and at 10 different clubs. He was also Sergio's father and Silvia's husband.

There are press pictures and family snaps, weddings and christenings, action shots and posed portraits. Cunningham bare-chested, in a pair of short shorts -- "he was voted the 'Sexiest Sportsman' in Britain, or something like that," recalls Silvia. Sergio Cunningham, in his 20s now but still little then, dwarfed by a full Wimbledon kit: "That was dad's from the 1988 FA Cup final," he explains.

And perhaps the most famous picture of all, carefully kept if a little curled at the corners, signatures scrawled across the surface: Brendan Batson, Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham, Helen Scott, Valerie Holliday and Sheila Ferguson. The Three Degrees with The Three Degrees, a photograph that inspires and instantly identifies, embodying the huge impact of the arrival at West Bromwich Albion team of three black players in the late 1970s, confronted by and confronting racism.

There is also a photo of Cunningham with arms outstretched alongside the Santiago Bernabéu, a solitary Seat in the background locking him in his time and his place. It is from July 1979 when he was unveiled as a Real Madrid player; he was the first Englishman the club had signed and only the second black player ever to join them, following the Brazilian Didí in 1959. He was also the second most expensive player in the world at the time after Kevin Keegan.

Cunningham wears an immaculate grey suit, thick tie, gleaming white shoes and a brilliant smile. Here was a man who, the press noted, had arrived with five suitcases full of clothes, the latest fashions, a gold bracelet on his wrist and creases so sharp he could slice his shin. He had signed for the biggest transfer fee in Madrid's history, a £995,000 deal finally struck in a kitchen in Sutton Coldfield. "He must be the best attacker in the world considering how much Madrid have paid for him," Alfredo Di Stéfano said.

It didn't matter that the "contract" Cunningham signed before the media was in fact a blank piece of paper, that the shirt they brought him to pose in was too small -- a member of staff was sent scurrying off to find another -- or that that the baggy shorts he wore were Vicente del Bosque's, nor even that the boots too were borrowed. It didn't even matter that most people knew little about him. He was their new star player. The crack. "The best player Britain produced since George Best," according to Ron Atkinson, his coach at West Brom. Cunningham, Atkinson remarked, was so graceful that he could run on snow and leave no footprint.

The game that "sold" Cunningham to Real Madrid was a UEFA Cup third round tie against Valencia in November 1978. "It reached the point," says Atkinson, "that even Valencia's fans were willing him to run at the defender, he was that good." He was given a standing ovation that night; he was given a standing ovation on his greatest night as a Real Madrid player, too.

It was Sunday Feb. 10, 1980 and Miguel-Ángel Portugal, a substitute that day, recalls watching the game from the Real Madrid bench, just metres from the edge of the pitch where Cunningham was flying up the wing. Portugal was laughing his head off. He and his fellow substitutes were rolling about, calling out to Barcelona's Argentinian full-back Rafa Zuviría. "Hey Rafa! We'll get you a photo of him if you like! Maybe then you'll see what his face looks like!"

Presenting highlights of the game, TVE's anchorman urged viewers to keep an eye out for the winger who cruised past defenders on his toes, utterly unstoppable. Portugal says: "he was unbelievable, a rocket." Marca reported:
"Barcelona had no response to the absolute command of the black man who plays football like the angels and whose name is Cunningham -- the man to whom today we take off our hats."

He was so good that the Camp Nou stood to applaud a Madrid player. "Cunningham, the conquistador," declared one headline. "Yesterday, Cunningham conquered the supporters in the Camp Nou, who surrendered to his great afternoon and gave him constant ovations." As Marca put it: "Cunningham had Barcelona's fans in his pocket."

There was a photograph in the Madrid dressing room at the time which showed Camacho, Pirri, and Benito all throwing themselves at a shot, desperate to block it. That picture embodied the team then. As Isidro recalls: "Madrid were all fight; Laurie was the fantasy." Del Bosque adds: "Laurie was something different, the leap in quality." Isidro Díaz calls him: "the business, a phenomenal athlete, so fast it looked like opponents were going backwards." "His acceleration was unbelievable. Voosh! He was like an airplane taking off," remembers José Antonio Camacho.

Expectations were high when he signed. "With Cunningham, the league is not enough: we have to win the double," Madrid's president Luis de Carlos announced. Which they did. Cunningham scored eight times as they won the league and took the Copa del Rey too, beating their own youth team in the final. The year after that, they reached the European Cup final against Liverpool. And yet by then things had already started to go wrong.

Ultimately, Cunningham's time in Spain is remembered (when it is remembered) with fascination and a kind of wonder but a tinge of sadness too, a sense of bad luck, of what might have been.

Trodden on during a game against Real Betis in November 1980, Cunningham broke his big toe. When the doctors gave him the all-clear, he went out to celebrate. That night he was caught at a disco, still wearing his plaster cast. Teammates think he genuinely didn't realise that he was doing anything wrong -- he'd been discharged, after all -- and the idea that he was controversial baffled him but Madrid's reaction was furious. He was suspended for two months although the injury made that merely symbolic. It was so draconian that captain Goyo Benito admitted that the players "are a little shocked and scared."

Somewhat unfairly, dancing in a plaster cast became one of the most lasting images of Cunningham's time in Spain, along with the ovation at the Camp Nou and his penchant for taking corners with the outside of his foot.

Talking to those who shared a dressing room with him, the fondness is immense. One word keeps recurring: "entrañable" -- endearing, loveable. The Rayo Vallecano coach Félix Barderas noted that Cunningham was the only player he'd ever known to shake his hand and wish him luck before games even when he had been left out of the side. He was a nice guy -- too nice, some thought -- and there were doubts. Laid-back and forgetful, one of his former teammates once said: "If only Laurie could have been focused, serious. He was the best player I have ever seen -- he had the talent to be a super-crack. Laurie was stupendous, incredibly fast, technically very good but inconsistent..." Some in the media criticised him, labelling him as a player who wasn't all fight like his teammates, and he became an easy target. Cunningham would later tell friends that he thought there were teammates who were not passing the ball.

But it was the broken toe that really did it. "That was the moment that destroyed him," insists one teammate, "because of the reputation it lumbered him with, but also -- and much, much more importantly -- because it was confirmation of an injury, of the start a series of injuries, that ruined a wonderful player."

There were failed operations, too; Cunningham's toe was left rigid and painful and he could no longer run as he once did, leaving no trail in the snow. Knee ligament problems, and complications, followed. Cunningham later suggested that the club had handled his injuries poorly, and teammates privately admit he was right, one even calling the club doctors "a joke."

When Real Madrid reached the final of the 1981 European Cup, it might have been Cunningham's redemption; instead it was virtually the end. He'd missed much of the season and was not fully fit. He should not have played but he was rushed back. One director even warned him that he had to; if not, his career at Madrid was "over." It turned out it was almost over anyway. The final was, he later remembered, "horrific." Liverpool won a dreadful game 1-0.

The following year Cunningham played just three times in the league, none the year after that; Madrid could only have two foreigners and they decided that he was no longer going to be one of them. At the end of that season he briefly played at Manchester United (but not in the FA Cup final) and there were spells at Charleroi, Leicester City, Marseille and Wimbledon, where he won his only medal in English football as a late sub in the FA Cup final against Liverpool.

But there was something about Spain that brought him back. He spoke good Spanish, albeit with an accent that still has former teammates doing cod impressions two decades on. A year on loan at Sporting Gijón and two spells at Rayo Vallecano, where he is still the image of the fight against racism and where he lined up alongside Diego Maradona's brother, Hugo.

Aged 33, Cunningham was waiting to find out if he would be offered a new contract at Rayo when he suffered a fatal car crash in July 1989. The country's oldest sports newspaper said his career had "been marked by bad luck virtually from the day he joined Real Madrid." "Algunos nacen bajo una estrella, Laurie nació estrellado", sighed the Madrid president Luis de Carlos: "some people are born under a star, others are born already crashed to earth."

"He never had the luck he deserved," said teammate Juanito. An obituary here called him "one of the classiest players ever to set foot on our fields."