GIVEN the size of the club and its importance to global football, it is surprising that Barcelona had to wait until 1992 for their first European Cup triumph. The club had already made a mark on the continental stage, winning six trophies and finishing runners-up in another four between 1958 and 1989. The truly big prize eluded them, however, the most painful defeat being the 1986 final of the European Cup in Seville, when Terry Venables’ much-fancied team lost on penalties to Romania’s unadventurous Steaua Bucharest.
Finally, in 1992, Barcelona won the competition with a star-studded team managed by Johan Cruyff, making him one of the few men to have won the European Cup as a player and manager. Cruyff had three winners’ medals from his hat-trick of triumph with Ajax Amsterdam as a player in the early 1970s and he hoped to add to that haul when he left for Barcelona in 1973, but he only got as far as the semi-final.
Cruyff took over as manager in 1988, a time when Real Madrid were the dominant force in Spanish football. Barca had won La Liga in 1985, but Real had won three consecutive titles. Cruyff rejoined the club after enjoying some success with Ajax, including the 1987 European Cup-Winners’ Cup. He never managed to win the Dutch league with the club that launched his playing career.
Cruyff was as revered in Barcelona as he was in Amsterdam and his style mirrored the best elements of “total football”. His influence on Spanish football was reflected in the approach taken by those who saw him as a mentor, including Pep Guardiola. Guardiola was a young emerging player when Cruyff took up his new role and gave the tall, skinny midfielder his chance to shine. Guardiola was a product of La Mesia, the academy advocated by Cruyff when he was a player at the club. In 1988, Barca had England striker Gary Lineker in their ranks, but mostly it was an all-Spanish squad. They were heavily in debt and many saw the club as a soap opera.
By the end of 1988-89, Barca had won the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, beating Sampdoria in the final. In the summer of 1989, Cruyff persuaded Michael Laudrup, Denmark’s brilliant attacking midfielder, to join the club from Juventus and also secured the services of Dutch international Ronald Koeman. Cruyff felt that these two players were the final pieces in the jigsaw that was the team he building at the Camp Nou. He was a big admirer of Laudrup, a player who had many of the qualities of Cruyff himself. “When Michael plays like a dream, a magic illusion, no one in the world comes anywhere near his level,” said Cruyff. But while there was no doubting his skill, he felt the complex Laudrup lacked the “ghetto instinct” that characterised some of the game’s all-time greats born into poverty.
In 1989-90, Real Madrid were still the champion club, but in the close season of 1990, Barcelona added another star name in the form of Bulgaria’s Hristo Stoichkov. Cruyff felt Barca needed a bit of nastiness in their line-up and Stoichkov had that certain mala leche – bad milk – that could complement a team of “nice guys”.
Straight away the CSKA Sofia striker made a name for himself with Spanish referees, who he claimed knew nothing about the game. He was suspended after stamping on one of them, thus missing a big chunk of the season. Barca’s so-called “dream team” still won the league with a 10-point margin over Atlético Madrid and Stoichkov scored 22 goals in all competitions, despite playing only 24 league games.
Barca also reached the final of the Cup-Winners’ Cup but underperformed against Manchester United and lost 2-1. Many felt the team had completed their task for the season in winning the league and already had one eye on their holidays.
The league title gave Barca and Cruyff the chance to have another crack at winning the European Cup. Another big name arrived in Ajax’s Robert Witschge, a player with excellent technique. Barca were among the favourites for the 1991-92 European Cup, along with teams like Arsenal, Marseille, Sampdoria and holders Red Star Belgrade. This campaign would be the last before the transition to the Champions League and would also include an English team for the first time since 1984-85. Compared to modern line-ups, the field now looks relatively weak.
Barcelona were desperate to win the European Cup, it was the only piece of silverware missing from their trophy cabinet. Real Madrid’s record in the competition, although rapidly being buried in the past, only served to irritate them even more. They were sick of being taunted by their bitter rivals.
Barcelona started the 1991-92 season with three defeats in their first five games, but they soon recovered and were neck-and-neck with Real Madrid for most of the campaign. Their European Cup programme started with a 3-1 aggregate victory against East German champions Hansa Rostock. In the second round, they were within seconds of being eliminated after going three goals down against Kaiserslautern. Barca had won the first leg 2-0, but were 3-2 down until José Mari Bakero netted in the 90th minute to send them through on the away goal rule.
Victory put them through to the last eight, which comprised two groups of four teams. Barca’s group included Sparta Prague, Benfica and Dynamo Kyiv. The other group included Sampdoria, Red Star Belgrade and Anderlecht.
Barca won four of their six games, slipping up in Prague and drawing in Lisbon with Benfica. Stoichkov was on form, scoring four times. They topped the group and were through to the final, which was to be held at Wembley Stadium. Joining them were Italian champions Sampdoria, a team that had a very dangerous front line in Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini as well as an often under-rated midfielder in Atilio Lombardo.
The game at Wembley was one of the better European Cup finals of the period and, thankfully, was not decided by an unsatisfactory penalty shoot-out. Four of the previous eight finals had been determined by penalties, including the dire encounters in 1986 and 1991.
Barcelona ran the game, although Sampdoria turned the clock back more than two decades with a decidedly cautious approach, packing their defence and almost inviting Barca to run themselves out of steam. But they were also masters of the counter-attack and Vialli had more than once chance to snatch a goal. Furthermore, Lombardo deceived three Barca defenders but was denied by goalkeeper Andon Zubizaretta, who pushed his shot around the post.
The second half saw both teams up the tempo and Barca went close when Stoichkov, picking up from a sublime angled pass from Laudrup, struck the woodwork. Sampdoria also had their chance when Vialli tried to chip Zubizaretta, but after 90 minutes, it was still 0-0 and Sampdoria seemed to be content to run the game down to penalties.
Barca looked fatigued against a defence that was getting deeper and deeper. The purists were to get their relief, though, as in the 111th minute, Eusebio tapped his free kick to Koeman and he sent a long range effort past Sampdoria keeper Gianluca Pagliuca.
Catalonia had its moment, the long wait for the trophy they had coveted since the mid-1950s. “After four years, my mission had been completed,” said Cruyff some years later.
There was more to come in 1991-92. On the final day of the season, Barca were one point behind Real Madrid as they faced Bilbao at the Camp Nou. Real had to travel to Tenerife and were favourites to win La Liga.
Real went 2-0 ahead in the Canary Islands while Barca went in at half-time a goal ahead thanks to Stoichkov. In a two minute spell in Tenerife, Real went from being 2-1 ahead to trailing 3-2. Barca cruised to a 2-0 win with Stoichkov adding another goal. Their game ended just before Real’s and Cruyff and his players stood in the middle of the pitch to await the final score. The “dream team” had created history and, in the words of a Barca official, “spoke to the public”.
Barca won La Liga in 1992-93 and 1993-94 and were back in the UEFA Champions League final in 1994 to face AC Milan. Cruyff’s side was taken apart by Milan in one of the most impressive team performances of the modern age. Two years later, Cruyff left the club. As he said after beating Sampdoria, his mission had been completed.