By Ken Pendleton - EUGENE, OR (Oct. 27, 2005) USSoccerPlayers – No club had expected more and accomplished less than Barcelona before Johan Cruyff became manager in 1988. Despite all the money and all the star-power, the purchases of Diego Maradona and Cruyff himself come quickly to mind,
Barcelona only managed to win the Spanish League twice between 1961 and 1990. They did secure three Fairs/UEFA Cups and two Cup Winners Cups, but they were almost always overshadowed by Real Madrid, who captured the Spanish title 19 times during the same period. Worst of all, Real Madrid had won six European Champions Cups to Barcelona’s zero.
That all changed with the arrival of Cruyff, who, because of a remarkable combination of intelligence, adaptability, and self-belief, proved capable of bearing the weight of expectations and changing the course of the club’s history. The culminating moment came on May 20th, 1992, when Barca won the European Cup by beating Sampdoria 1-0 at Wembley.
Such an accomplishment would not have seemed possible four years earlier. Not only did Cruyff have to change their fortunes on the field, he had to restore order in the locker room because many of the players had instigated a public mutiny. The cause was money. Many of the players had signed two contracts, only one of which was meant for the tax man’s eyes, and Barcelona’s President, Josep Nunez, made the players foot the bill when this was discovered. The players made a joint statement that made it quite clear that they were furious that the club would hold them entirely accountable for this double-dealing. “Nunez has deceived us as people and humiliated us as professionals.”
By the time Cruyff assumed command, only six established players were left and it would have been five if Cruyff had not intervened to prevent the transfer of the captain, and chief mutineer, Alexanco. Cruyff addressed this problem and displayed his authority and self-belief the first time he was introduced to the Barca fans (called the Cules). “I like the fact that you have applauded the president because we are beginning a new season, but what I like less is the way you have whistled at the person I have chosen to be captain of the team ? We need the support of the fans, not their protests.”
Cruyff, turning lemons into lemonade, also saw the lack of established players as a positive because it allowed him to build the club from the ground up. In his first season he acquired no fewer then eleven Spanish players, including the attacking midfielder Bakero and striker Julio Salinas, and promoted others, such as Amor and Josep Guardiola, from the youth ranks. He recognized that there was an exceptional generation of Spanish players coming good, but also understood that, “?if a coach has to choose between a foreign and a local with equal qualities, he should go for the local. That way the fans are les likely to whistle him if things go wrong.” Finally, he added three world-class foreigners – Ronald Koeman, Michael Laudrup, and Hristo Stoichkov – who provided the passing, the running, and the nerve that proved to be the difference against Sampdoria.
The Dutch sweeper Koeman was especially influential. Sampdoria, though hardly cynical, were quite content to sit back and let Barcelona make the running. When Barca overcommitted, they would counter with Attilio Lombardo’s blistering pace on the right wing and Roberto Mancini’s inventive passing. The goal was to set up their viper of a striker, Gianluca Vialli, but he was largely ineffective because Barcelona were able to keep possession without sacrificing their shape for long spells.
The key was Koeman, who scarcely made a bad or ill-advised pass the entire evening. Pace was never one of his strengths (it would prove to be his undoing in the 94 European Cup final against AC Milan), but Sampdoria’s deep-lying defensive approach ceded him the space to dictate the entire match. He could play simple balls to Guadiola, who was very nearly his equal as a passer, ambitious ones to Laudrup and Stoichkov, who constantly criss-crossed up front, or even join the attack for brief spells.
To be fair, Sampdoria’s approach did yield the enough clear-cut chances to win the match, especially in the second half when Barca really pressed matters. In the 58th minute, Samp’s deep-lying midfielder Pari quickly played the ball up the right wing to Lombardo, who made a perfectly timed cross for Vialli, only to see him scoop the ball over the bar. They contrived another chance on the break nine minutes later, which was well saved by Zubizarretta (the only starter left from the previous era). Finally, a minute later, in what would turn out to be their last really good opportunity, Mancini put Vialli through, but he shot just wide.
Barcelona couldn’t score either in regulation time, but it was not for lack of effort or chances. In the 48th minutes, Salinas fought his way through the penalty area and rocketed a shot to the far post, which Gianluca Pagliuca just manager to deflect. Immediately thereafter, Pagliuca has to dive to block a cross by Stoichkov, which bounces off Barsa’s midfielder, Eusebio, before being cleared. Several minutes later, Laudrup picks out Stoichkov running through the inside right channel. He races clear of the defense and shoots past Pagkiuca but cannot beat the post. In the 69th minute, Nando heads a Koeman free kick just wide of the right hand post. And in the 86th minute, Koeman somehow manages to pass over the top of the Samp defense to Goikoetxea, but Pagliuca beats the ball away with his fists while he is closing in on goal.
Extra-time did not live up to the skillful, end-to-end quality of the second half because Barcelona was tiring and Sampdoria were not prepared to seize the initiative. Nonetheless, this period produced the goal this match, and Barcelona’s attacking emphasis, so richly deserved.
In the 110th minutes, the referee awards Barca a controversial indirect free kick after Eusebio and Invernizzi become entangled a few yards outside the Sampdoria penalty area. Sampdoria’s players and managers were so incensed that they refused to attend the press conference after the match,, but this does not do justice to how well Koeman took what was only a half chance. The ball was lifted into the air and Koeman smashed it past the onrushing defenders and Pagliuca into the left corner of the net. It was a miracle that the net survived. Koeman would later explain that, “That was the most important goal of my life. I train each day with the goalkeeper so I can do just that.” It was a goal worthy of winning Barcelona’s European Cup.
Not surprisingly, Cruyff claimed that, “I never had any doubt about the outcome,” and exhibited his loyalty by substituting in Alexanco, the infamous mutineer, so that he could lift the trophy as captain in his last match. It may have chagrinned President Nunez, but Cruyff certainly was within his rights. He had proven that he was the first person big enough to realize all of Catalonia’s ambitions.