In the Wembley changing room before the 1992 European Cup final, the Barcelona players, including a young Pep Guardiola, were riddled with nerves. The Catalans needed to shake their runners-up tag, and feared what it would mean to lose again; to lose with this team and with this manager.
Dealing with that kind of moment is what defines great teams, but it’s also what defines great managers. Blaugrana boss Johan Cruyff, usually so aloof and tactically minded, left his players with one final message: “Go and enjoy it.”
Before Cruyff became Barca coach in 1988, the club had won 10 league titles and zero European Cups in its 89-year history. In the 32 years since, they have claimed 16 league titles and five European Cups.
His eight years as manager in Catalonia set a template for beautiful attacking football that has defined the club ever since, reshaping FC Barcelona – and revolutionising European football as a whole. The project, the ‘Dream Team’, was first vindicated by a 1-0 victory over Sampdoria.
“Liberation” was the word used by Cruyff’s assistant Carles Rexach to describe the historic Wembley win. “There were a lot of people waiting for us to screw it up again. And the feeling was that another life starts. We were released.”
Eusebio went further. He described the game as “confirmation that the idea was good. We needed that to be confirmed by results because results lay down the judgement.”Advertisements
That might sound like an overstatement given Cruyff had already ended Barcelona’s six-year wait for the league title, finishing above Real Madrid in 1991, but the European Cup had become the Holy Grail in Catalonia. In five previous attempts, Barca had reached the semi-finals three times and the final twice, losing on penalties to underdogs Steaua Bucharest in their previous appearance in the tournament decider, in 1986.
Terry Venables’ side were humiliated, and after the crisis-laden years that followed, Cruyff’s revival would not feel complete until Barca finally laid that ghost to rest. With just two league titles in 30 years and 10 runner-up medals in that time, Barcelona had to show they had a winning mentality.
It would prove a stroke of genius, then, for Cruyff to give such an out-of-character instruction to his players before kick-off. It worked to an extent, with Barcelona dominating the game, but Sampdoria’s packed defence held firm. It wasn’t until the 22nd minute of extra time that a Ronald Koeman free kick made the difference.Advertisements
“It was the beginning of big changes,” Koeman later said. As for Cruyff, he was typically blunt when assessing the moment in his autobiography: “After four years, my mission had been accomplished.”
Cruyff had already changed Barcelona’s culture before that first European Cup win, his tactical philosophy having been the perfect fit for the unique socio-political climate of Catalonia, but the earthquake would not have been so seismic without the crowning glory at Wembley.
The summer of 1992 also brought the Olympics to Barcelona, and coinciding with the European Cup triumph helped establish the city as the cultural hub it is known as today.Advertisements
Putting politics to one side, though, it is plausible that FC Barcelona would not have returned to Cruyff’s template under Pep Guardiola without overcoming that mental barrier in 1992; would not have been ready for their 21st-century success without Cruyff establishing the club on the European stage.
So much of Guardiola’s methodology is borrowed from his mentor.
Cruyff introduced Barcelona to possession football, to high-pressing, to compression and expansion of shape, to a revolving short passing aesthetic, and to prioritising technique over physicality. He also overhauled La Masia to create players capable of following his possession-centric demands, instructing every age group to play with the same tactics as the senior team.Advertisements
The Cruyffian philosophy crumbled in 1994 when Fabio Capello’s AC Milan beat them 4-0 in the Champions League final, but it was to be revived and perfected by Guardiola 13 years later at Barcelona. Since his rise in 2007, European football has been defined by the aesthetic first laid down by Cruyff in 1988-1990 but vindicated – and showcased to the world – in the final against Sampdoria.
It is difficult to overstate the influence of Cruyff on modern football, or indeed how much of the sport would be missing without his presence at Barca between 1988 and 1996.
Without Cruyff, there is not even Guardiola the player, never mind the manager. He was deemed too slight to play in such a robust and physical position before Cruyff stepped in.Advertisements
A world without Guardiola’s influence is one without possession football re-emerging; perhaps the Benitez-Mourinho axis of defensive tactics – still going strong in the 2000s until Guardiola’s Barca – might have been reinforced over the last decade.
Without Cruyff, there is no modern La Masia, meaning no Xavi or Andres Iniesta, no Lionel Messi in Spain – or perhaps no Messi at all. Barca were the only club willing to pay thousands of pounds for Messi’s growth hormone treatment as a teenager. If not for belief in their world-class production line, started by Cruyff, would Barcelona have taken that risk?
Without Cruyff, there is no first European Cup win. And without the relief of that victory, both exorcising demons and sweeping away their runner-up tag, Barcelona surely could not have become the super-club they are today.
“They were the generation who paved the way for us,” says Xavi. “They gave Barcelona a winning mentality.”
There is a beautiful moment just after Koeman’s free kick when, amid wild celebrations, the defender pulls away from his team-mates, stops dead, and puts his head in his hands, overcome with emotion.
The significance of the goal crystallised for Koeman in that moment. But not even he could have known the impact it would still be having on European football some 30 years later.