The last match of the 2003/04 season, a dead rubber, and the tail end of Real Madrid’s galáctico era. Both teams made changes and this was a chance for some youngsters from La Fábrica to impress as Madrid looked to put a disappointing season behind them. However it was the lanky young winger on the opposition team who stole the show.
Having previously only played 200 minutes in the league Xabi Prieto started for Real Sociedad at the Bernabeu opposite Roberto Carlos. Many young players would have frozen under the pressure of having to perform in such a situation, in fact, the Madrid youngsters did so, but Prieto played as though he were a child on the sand of La Concha beach. Unsure of his place in the squad after playing most of the season for Sociedad’s B team, Prieto took his chance and began his journey to becoming a legend in San Sebastian.
Prieto opened the scoring in the twentieth minute by latching onto a loose ball on the edge of the box and lashing it past César Sánchez in the Madrid goal. Not content with only scoring a golazo in the Bernabeu, Sociedad’s number 26 then proceeded to overshadow Figo and Ronaldo by creating opportunity after opportunity for Darko Kovačević. One of these was converted after a beautiful cross from the by-line to put the Gipuzkoans two nil to the good. De Paula made it three before Figo scored a penalty to pull a goal back for Madrid.
Despite the all round man of the match performance, it was what happened after an hour that marked Prieto as a player with a maturity years ahead of his peers. Agustín Aranzabal won a soft penalty for Sociedad and veteran regular penalty taker Valeri Karpin picked the ball up and turned to walk to the spot; however, he didn’t get there. As he turned around he heard someone ask him for the ball, it was Xabi Prieto and he wanted to take the penalty. Karpin acceded to the request and watched as Prieto ambled three steps from the edge of the box and glided a panenka into the middle of the goal. Most footballers wouldn’t dare take a panenka in a competitive match, let alone at the Bernabeu but Xabi Prieto had no doubt in his mind.
This was the birth of La Liga’s greatest ever penalty taker. Xabi Prieto took 21 penalties over his career and only missed one, against arch-enemies Athletic Club when Dani Aranzubia saved. Not all of his penalties were panenkas but each of them was taken with a consummate technique that left even the best goalkeepers flummoxed. His ability to put the ball into either corner or straight down the middle without betraying any obvious changes to his run up remained consistent throughout his career despite the rest of his game changing radically. The raw young winger seen that night at the Bernabeu matured and became the fulcrum of his team as a number ten. Xabi Prieto became the calm at the centre of the storm, his ability to take a touch and simply wait, la pausa, became a crucial part of his game and makes his panenka at the Bernabeu a fitting first addition to this new series cataloguing the magical moments which stitch together the rich tapestry of La Liga.