I’VE HEARD IT SAID that non-football fans are – to paraphrase Bart Simpson – the MTV Generation, knowing neither highs nor lows. Anyone not hooked up with a femme fatale of a football club – someone upon which you pour your affections, only to be scorned and disheartened at so many turns – is incapable of understanding the all-too-brief but euphoric highs of success for the object of your adoration.
Sometimes, though, albeit so very rarely, those highs linger and join together to offer an enticing view of a world full of joy and bereft of despair and disappointment, a sunlit upland that will be yours forever. Your club becomes dominant – the paragon, a beauty incarnate, the iconoclast that kicks down the rules of normal roller-coaster emotions. In the mid-1990s, Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona was one such a team.
After 20 years of playing success at Ajax and Barcelona up to 1978, the Dutch maestro returned to the Camp Nou as coach in 1988 after – very much in the style of his playing career – honing his skills with the Amsterdam club. Assembling a squad and ethos in his own image, Cruyff built what came to be termed as the ‘Dream Team’.
Winning the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1989, he then secured the Copa del Rey the following year, before embarking on a period of domestic dominance that saw four consecutive LaLiga titles delivered to Catalunya between 1991 and 1994. He then capped it off by winning the Champions League, defeating Sampdoria at Wembley in 1992 to take European club football’s premier trophy to the Camp Nou for the first time.
This was a team poised for immortality, and when they reached their second Champions League final in 1994, facing AC Milan, they were ready to be anointed as one of the best club sides in the history of the game. It appeared as though they were entering an era of domination, not only in Spain but across Europe.
On 18 May 1994, at the Olympic Stadium in Athens, though, the evening turned into a Greek tragedy for the pride of Catalunya. Instead of the Dream Team sailing serenely forward to gather more trophies, they faltered and were ultimately well beaten. Momentum stalled, then perished. They would win no further silverware under their iconic Dutch master, and two years later, after what was reported to have been a blazing bust-up with vice-president Joan Gaspart, Cruyff was sacked. The dream had turned sour.
Some have argued that the volatile Cruyff was always two steps and an elegant turn from an almighty argument, while others have ascribed the tumultuous fall to power struggles within the hierarchy at the club. More poetic observers have mused that the team was just too beautiful to live long in this imperfect world, doomed inevitably to destroy itself as it flew too close to the sun and its wings of wax melted in the self-inflicted heat.
Read | ‘That was Cruyff’: how one man changed football
There may be elements of truth in those or other theories seeking to explain the downfall of the Dream Team, but if there were a number of underlying causes, the trigger was inevitably the defeat in Athens that exposed the mendaciously perceived invulnerability of this Blaugrana vintage to a reality that would prove to be its death knell.
Ahead of the confrontation with Fabio Capello’s Rossoneri, there may well have been a warning that all was not well. The LaLiga title had been secured in the most fortunate of circumstances. Deportivo La Coruña had proved to be obdurate opponents in pursuit of the title and the Galicians had a golden chance to win the league when they were awarded a late penalty in their final game against Valencia. Score and they would be champions of Spain.
Regular spot-kick expert, Donato, was not on the field at the time, and his replacement from 12 yards, Bebeto buckled under the pressure and refused to take the kick. The spotlight was then turned to the unfortunate Miroslav Đukić, who stepped up but failed to convert. Depor and Barça finished level on points, but the Catalans took the title on the head-to-head comparison.
In reality, after winning the title by 10 points in the 1990/91 season, when Cruyff’s team became Spanish champions for the first time, their other league triumphs were closely run affairs. Both in 1991/92 and 1992/93, the margin had been a single point, but they had prevailed. Now, with the league won by the slenderest of margins just a few weeks before the match in Athens, there were thoughts that perhaps cracks were beginning to show. If that was the case, like some outlandishly talented leg-spin bowler bamboozling hapless batsmen on a deteriorating wicket, Capello’s Milan would exploit those cracks mercilessly.
All of this is easy to detect in hindsight. At the time of the final, it was very much not the case. In the eyes of the odds-makers, Barça were clear favourites, and within the club itself, that was also the perception. Cruyff was always confident in his ability – a staple requirement for the truly great exponents of any sport – but there’s a deceptively fine line between such a belief and over-confidence tumbling into arrogance. If reports suggesting the coach had his picture taken with the trophy ahead of the final were true, many may consider it evidence of crossing that line, without perhaps recognising the injudicious step taken.
The confidence certainly spread to the press in Spain with El Mundo Deportivo reporting that Barcelona were at the height of their powers, while Capello’s Rossoneri were described as ‘the poorest Milan of the Berlusconi era’. There was an inevitable amount of bluster in the newspaper’s words, but underlying it was at least some evidence for the description of the Milan team that Barcelona would face. The Dutch trio Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard were now just a memory and two of the fabled Milan back line, Alessandro Costacurta and the immaculate skipper of the team and libero, Franco Baresi, were both absent through suspension.
Read | Fabio Capello and the iconic AC Milan years
For Cruyff, however, it was less the players than the approach of the different teams that marked out the greatest contrast. “We’re more complete, competitive and experienced than at Wembley,” he proclaimed. “Milan are nothing out of this world. They base their game on defence, we base ours on attack.”
He added he had taken Romário to the Camp Nou and the outstanding Brazilian striker had repaid the faith by netting 30 goals in just 33 games. Milan, he said in comparison, had spent the same amount of money on Marcel Desailly – a defender – declaring: “That is telling.” Hubris was alive and well, kicking down the doors within the Barcelona camp. Victory was surely theirs for the taking
Legend has it that at Wembley in 1992, Cruyff’s team talk had been to entreat his players to, “Go out and enjoy yourselves.” In contrast, two years later, the call was that, “You’re better than them, you’re going to win.” The first call was inspirational. The second, folly. Later he would lament that. “It was not that we played badly,” Cruyff said afterwards, “it was that we did not play at all.” If so, there will doubtless be some that would look to the coach’s approach as the reason why.
Many suspected that the game would be one where a team dominated and merely took apart their opponents. And so it was, but the roles apportioned to each of those teams were not as many had expected.
In 1992, facing Sampdoria, a team that had traditionally worn blue shirts, lots had been drawn to see which team would change colours. Barcelona lost out, and turned out in a strip to reflect the blood and gold colours of the Senyera – the Catalan flag – before changing back to their traditional blue and red colours to collect the trophy. In this final, again with a potential colour clash, it was the team from Lombardy that had to change, and Barcelona won the right to wear their traditional colours. It was one of the very few things that would go their way.
With both Costacurta and Baresi absent, many had expected Capello to slot the towering presence of Desailly into the back four to compensate, but shrewdly, the Milan coach had other ideas. He placed the Frenchman in the centre of the Milan midfield alongside the eternally underrated Demetrio Albertini. It was a move that all but decided the outcome of the game.
The bustling energy and astute play of Desailly smothered the much-vaunted midfield of Barcelona. Guillermo Amor and José Mari Bakero were almost side-lined as Pep Guardiola was prevented from using his pivot role to set up Barcelona’s play. As a result, Romário and Hristo Stoichkov were bereft of service. On the night, the money spent on Desailly seemed by far the best value and whilst the France international strode around the midfield harrying and gaining possession, Albertini created, probing the exposed Barcelona defence as Daniele Massaro and Dejan Savićević buzzed around effectively.
Read | Hristo Stoichkov: the architect in Cruyff’s Barcelona
On 22 minutes, the Montenegrin forward, Savićević, drove into the area from the right. Andoni Zubizarreta plunged to block his effort on goal, but the ball flew over him towards the far post, where Massaro arrived to tuck neatly home. It was a goal that had been coming and underscored the fact that Barcelona had a real fight on their hands. For the remaining minutes of the first half, Cruyff’s team pressed with increasing urgency, but limited success and, as the first 45 minutes drifted into added time, Milan struck again.
The nearest Barcelona had come to levelling was when a Romário shot was deflected narrowly wide of Sebastiano Rossi’s near post, but when a run from Donadoni took him to the byline, his cut-back found Massaro who drove home for his second goal. A yellow card given to the striker by English referee Philip Don moments earlier was instantly forgotten in the ecstasy of the moment.
While the Milan bench exploded with joy when the ball hit the back of the net, Capello merely thrust his hands into his pockets and turned away. Cruyff may have considered the job done before a ball had been kicked, but two goals up and half the game gone, Capello still knew there was work to do. At the break, the Italian insisted to his team that at least one more goal was necessary to break the resistance and belief of the Catalans. Two minutes after the restart, the third goal came with a dream of a strike by Savićević.
A high ball towards the left flank of the Barcelona defence caused a moment’s confusion for Miguel Ángel Nadal. Seizing the moment, Savićević stole the ball away from the defender. As it bounced clear of the tussle towards the penalty area, the forward saw that Zubizarreta had advanced from his line to cut out the danger. With vision and sublime skill, Savićević lifted the ball over the ‘keeper and into the net. The Barcelona stopper was stranded and the lead was now three goals.
As television pictures showed the Milan players celebrating, in the foreground, Guardiola throws his arms up in the air. He knew there was little if any chance of coming back from this deficit. Milan still had the coup de grace to come, though, and fittingly, it would be delivered not only by a Frenchman, but the player derided by Cruyff in comparison to his signing of Romário. It was a “telling” moment.
Just before the hour mark, Desailly stepped forward to break up a Barcelona attack for the umpteenth time. Instead of playing the ball off to a colleague, though, as had been de rigueur for much of the game, this time he strode powerfully forward past a dispirited defence and then curled an immaculate shot around Zubizarreta to put the icing on the cake – a French Fancy indeed – not only for Milan’s triumph, but also on a virtuoso performance by the Frenchman himself. Four goals clear; even Capello was celebrating now.
Read | Romário: the menacing, outspoken but consistently majestic Samba star
After the game, the Barcelona dressing-room was quiet. “Dead,” in the words of one of the backroom staff. “Dead, dead, dead,” he recalled. “Just then, when the team needed support, they didn’t get it.” Cruyff paced, then left in silence. He may not have known it at the time, but that member of the staff had foreseen the eventual demise of the Dream Team. Cruyff’s loyal lieutenant Carles Rexach had his own explanation about the loss. “We rested on our laurels,” he recalled later. “We didn’t plan properly for the future carefully.”
It didn’t take long for things to start to fall apart, as Cruyff ripped the team asunder. Ahead of the final, goalkeeper Zubizarreta had been promised a new contract. The day after the game, reportedly as the team bus headed for Athens airport and the flight home, he was told that there would no new deal, and that he would be leaving the club.
Michel Laudrup had been left out of the squad for the final, a victim of UEFA’s three foreigners rule. Ironically, it was a fate he shared with his brother, Brian, who was omitted from the Milan squad for the same reason. A few days after returning to Spain, he announced that he would be leaving the club. The sting in the tail was that he would be joining Real Madrid. He had been courted by Los Blancos, and Cruyff’s decision to leave him out sealed the deal for the Dane.
After USA 94, which followed that summer, things deteriorated further. Stoichkov and his Bulgarian teammates had been one of the surprise successes of the tournament, but things were different back in Spain. His relationship with Romário soured and he accused the Brazilian of never really returning after the World Cup. “His body was there but his mind was still in Rio,” he said of his former close friend. Not long afterwards, it was Stoichkov asserting on radio that, “It’s Cruyff or me.” The team was disintegrating. There would be no turning back.
To many fans of Barcelona, Johan Cruyff will always be a hero, the man who set in train the process that produced the great sides that have been born in the club’s celebrated youth system and fed into a first team which collected silverware like some voracious magpie on speed. There is, however, a lingering sadness about how the end came for his Dream Team that looked to have the world at its feet.
In the Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde contends: ‘Each man kills the thing he loves.’ The poem then goes on to say: ‘The coward does it with a kiss, The brave man with a sword!’ Perhaps that’s the moral here. Perhaps Cruyff became so enamoured with his creation that he believed was destined for greatness and renown, that Milan could not possibly defeat them. Perhaps the glare of the light that shone from his team bedazzled and deceived him. What some saw as hubris may well have been merely the expressions of delight and joy. In the closing stanza, Wilde concludes that: ‘Some love too little, some too long. Some sell, and others buy; Some do the deed with many tears, And some without a sigh: For each man kills the thing he loves, Yet each man does not die.’
Was Rexach correct? Had Cruyff loved his team too long when he should have thought to sell and buy others? If so, did this kill the thing he loves? Was it an inevitable cognitive dissonance? Perhaps. In this case, though, it was just the dream – the Dream Team – that died, but the many components of that team still progressed to other great achievements. Perhaps it was time for the rollercoaster to click back into gear. After all, what is joy if you don’t know disappointment, and who wants to be part of the MTV Generation forever?