The epic 1993/94 LaLiga season: when the title was decided by a single kick

The epic 1993/94 LaLiga season: when the title was decided by a single kick

Europe’s big leagues have seen their fair share of final day drama over the years. Sergio Agüero wrote his name into Premier League folklore with his 95th-minute title winner for Manchester City in 2012. A decade earlier, Bayern Munich controversially clinched the Bundesliga thanks to a stoppage-time strike from Patrik Andersson to deny Schalke their first title in over 40 years.

However, in terms of raw tension at the end of a title race that had gripped a nation, nothing quite compares to the final day of the 1993/94 LaLiga season, when the destiny of the league ultimately boiled down to a last-minute penalty and a single kick of a football.

It was a season which had relatively quickly descended into a two-horse race – just not the one that everyone had been expecting. Real Madrid, a close second to Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona in each of the previous two years, had one of those nightmare campaigns that seem to plague them once a generation. They suffered 12 league defeats, just two fewer than minnows Logroñés, and conceded more goals than relegated Lleida.

They were pipped to third by an entertaining Real Zaragoza side that was packed full of goalscoring midfielders, including Gustavo Poyet, Francisco Higuera and Nayim, who would cap a golden era for the Aragonese club with his outrageous lob of David Seaman in the following season’s Cup Winners’ Cup final.

Ahead of them, the emerging Spanish football force that was Deportivo and defending champions Barcelona were in a class of their own at the top with ten points ultimately separating the duo from the best of the rest, a significant gulf in the era of two points for a win.

While the title race would ultimately be decided by the finest of margins, there were few similarities between the two sides. Barcelona were a devastating attacking force in the only full season where they were able to count on the outstanding pairing of Romário and Hristo Stoichkov up front. Both men were amongst the very best forwards in the world at that time; the Bulgarian master perfectly complemented the tricky talents of his strike partner as the duo struck up an unlikely bond on and off the pitch.

With Michael Laudrup the chief creative force, Barcelona fired in 91 goals in LaLiga, their best tally in 35 years. Just over half of them came from their front two, with Romário winning the Pichichi by netting 30 times in only 33 appearances. He’d have almost certainly bettered that tally were it not for a suspension dished out after the diminutive striker made the brave, bordering on downright foolish, move of landing a left hook on Diego Simeone during a game at Sevilla midway through the campaign. 

Read  |  Romário: the thousand-goal icon who helped deliver a new generation of Brazilian striker

That was just one of 11 red cards received by Barcelona players during the 1993/94 season. Stoichkov was sent off twice, as were homegrown talents Pep Guardiola and Albert Ferrer during a chaotic campaign when Barça frequently veered from the brilliant to the bizarre with defensive frailties and discipline issues a recurring theme.

Deportivo, by comparison, were almost everything that Barcelona weren’t. Having spent most of the 1970s and all of the 1980s in the lower leagues, the Galicians were only in their third season back in the top flight. They had made a statement of intent with a surprising third-place finish the year before but few saw it as a genuine sign that they were on the brink of shaking up the established Spanish pecking order.

Coached by the experienced Arsenio Iglesias, nicknamed the ‘Wizard of Arteixo’ in reference to his tiny hometown on the outskirts of A Coruña, Depor were defensively sounder than their illustrious title rivals. They kept an extraordinary 26 clean sheets in LaLiga, shutting out the opposition in 68 percent of their games and would finish the campaign having conceded 24 fewer goals than Barcelona.

Iglesias, in his fourth spell as coach of his local club, had few big names in his ranks but he could rely on the ever-present Francisco Liaño, who had a record-breaking season in goal. He could also count on the services of a fellow Galician on the pitch, with midfielder Fran already on his way to cementing himself as an icon of what would come to be known as the Super Depor era.

In 1993, though, they were still very much perceived as a small, provincial club with their presence at the top end of LaLiga defying any real logic. The key to their transition from a functional side who made for awkward opponents to something far more threatening was the presence of three Brazilians. Holding midfielder Mauro Silva added an extra layer of protection to an already solid back line, but in the final third of the pitch, it was Donato and Bebeto who provided a touch of genuine quality that helped them open up a clear lead at the summit of LaLiga.

Despite their defensive reputation, they were very much the neutrals’ choice as Spain became increasingly gripped by the possibility of the title going somewhere other than Barcelona or Madrid for the first time in a decade; since an era of Basque dominance in the early 80s. While there was no sign of the kind of impending collapse that can derail even the most likely of title challenges, as the weeks went by and the season inched towards its climax, Barça slowly started to eat into Depor’s advantage at the top.

The first major swing in Barcelona’s favour came on matchday 26 as the two title contenders met at the Camp Nou. Depor had a strong early penalty appeal turned down but quickly found themselves 2-0 behind, Stoichkov heading in the first before setting up Romário for a quickfire second. Laudrup’s second-half strike ensured the Catalans not only closed the gap to four points but gave them the superior head-to-head record, something that would prove significant when it came to the decisive final day.

Read  |  Hristo Stoichkov: the architect in Cruyff’s Barcelona

That victory was part of a blistering sequence that saw Barcelona reel off five straights league wins, scoring 22 times in the process to ramp up the pressure on Depor. The Galicians were held to draws in each of their next three fixtures but, just when it seemed inevitable that Barcelona were about to seize control of the title race and wrap up a fourth straight league success under Cruyff, it became clear that Iglesias still had a few tricks up his sleeve.

All of a sudden Depor started to throw some caution to the wind and they found a new lease of life in the spring. Braces from Bebeto in big wins over Athletic and Real Oviedo sparked a five-game winning streak of their own. It meant that Depor, who had never won a major trophy and were aiming to become the smallest club to be crowned champions, still held a three-point cushion heading into the final four fixtures of a gripping title showdown.

With Cruyff doing his level best to play a few mind games in the media by this point, Depor finally appeared to crack as they were held to successive goalless draws by strugglers Lleida and Rayo Vallecano, two sides who would ultimately be relegated. Barcelona, meanwhile, were on a charge, recording two 4-0 wins either side of a Champions League semi-final victory over Porto.

Even so, Depor still held top spot heading into the penultimate weekend and with Barcelona faced with a Clásico trip to the Bernabéu, the Galicians had a chance to win the title with a game to spare. Needless to say, Real Madrid were in no mood to do Barça any favours and the prospect of derailing the title challenge of their eternal rivals gave life and meaning to what would otherwise have been the most uninspiring of ends to their campaign.

Revenge was also very much in the Bernabéu air given Los Blancos had been on the wrong end of a Romário masterclass in the reverse fixture, the Brazilian scoring a hat-trick in a thumping 5-0 Barça victory at Camp Nou.

The second Clásico of the season was a much tighter, edgier affair, with Vicente del Bosque now overseeing things for the hosts following the dismissal of Benito Floro. Only in the second half did the game start to open up, with Emilio Butragueño spurning a glorious chance for Real as he somehow fired over from two yards with the entire goal gaping. They would ultimately be made to pay with midfielder Guillermo Amor popping up to score the game’s only goal late on to seal a vital first Barça win at the Bernabéu in ten years, temporarily moving them above Depor.

The Galicians, who had been leading LaLiga for five months at that stage, headed to relegation-threatened Logroñés the following day aiming to regain their place at the summit to ensure they would be masters of their own destiny come the final day. Again, they would struggle to break down lowly opponents for close to an hour but a masterful free-kick from Donato set Depor on their way to a 2-0 victory to tee up the most nerve-jangling of final weekends. 

Order  |  Spain

Both title contenders had home fixtures that would kick off simultaneously, with Valencia visiting the Riazor. Over 600 miles east, Barcelona played host to Sevilla. Depor were in the box seat, needing to win their game to clinch their first league title. Failing that, they had to at least match Barça’s result.

In keeping with the general trend of the season, almost all the goalmouth action came in the game at the Camp Nou. Of all the plausible scenarios that had been speculated over during the intense build-up to the final day showdown, Sevilla twice taking the lead at Camp Nou was pretty low down on the list of possibilities, despite the sprinkling of individual talent they possessed. 

That, though, was exactly what happened as Simeone and Davor Šuker headed the Andalusians into a 2-1 advantage at the break in Barcelona. With no goals in A Coruña, Depor were on course to win the title by two points, but events at the Camp Nou would have been far from the mind of Iglesias as he gave the most important team-talk of his long coaching career.

Barcelona were a side that could score just about any type of goal at any moment and they only took five minutes to level the game following the restart as Stoichkov fired in his second to restore parity. A trademark Romário goal followed as the Brazilian produced a blistering turn of pace to leave his marker for dead before firing home from close range to move the Catalans above Depor in the live table for the first time on the final day.

The Brazilian soon left the pitch to a standing ovation to head to the dressing room where a few others were already anxiously watching events at the Riazor, where the game remained goalless as Depor struggled to find a hole in a resolute Valencia defence. Laudrup and José Mari Bakero added to Barça’s tally at Camp Nou to wrap up their seventh straight victory in all competitions and leave the destiny of the Spanish title resting solely on Deportivo’s ability to find a late breakthrough in Galicia.

Depor had by this stage gone almost 600 minutes without conceding in LaLiga and there was no sign of that changing against a Valencia side that had little motivation to score a winner. However, having been held to 0-0 draws in four of their previous ten matches, there was more than a sense of déjà vu as the minutes passed and the clock ticked towards 90 with the league that Depor had led for virtually the entire season seemingly slipping away.

An eerie hush descended around a packed Riazor as word of Barcelona’s comeback filtered through. There was a sense of disbelief the fairytale title success was going to ultimately elude them in the dying embers of the season.

Depor were camped in the Valencia half of the pitch by this point. A free-kick on the edge of the box clattered into the wall with five minutes to play. Dead-ball specialist Donato had just been substituted. A corner, Depor’s 17th of the match, soon followed but again Valencia cleared their lines after a brief scramble in the box.

Read  |  The warm Riazor evening when Deportivo tore AC Milan apart

Then, out of nowhere, a lifeline. The home team’s latest assault on the Valencia goal resulted in a ball played back to the advancing Nando on the edge of the penalty area. The left-back, who had joined Depor from Valencia two years earlier, briefly feigned to shoot before dinking the ball past José Pérez Serer. As he attempted to ride the challenge of the Valencia centre-back, and perhaps aware that there was cover, Nando dragged his right leg slightly towards Serer and went tumbling to the ground upon contact.

The referee didn’t hesitate. Penalty Depor in the final minute of the season. A huge roar went up to lift the gloom that was starting to set in around the Riazor as everyone from coaches to ball boys jumped for joy, some of them spilling onto the pitch in celebration as if the title had just been won. Iglesias did his level best to instil a modicum of calm to the situation but there was no getting away from the enormity of the moment.

Whatever the outcome, it would be by far the most significant kick in the 88-year existence of Deportivo, perhaps even in the entire history of Spanish football. Never before had a title race reached such a dramatic climax, nor had such responsibility rested on one man’s shoulders. It was Depor against Barcelona for the title, but by this point, besides fans of the Catalan club, it was all of Spain who were willing the Galicians on to convert the penalty and become only the ninth different club to win LaLiga.

However, there was a problem. Depor’s regular penalty taker during the 1993/94 season had been Bebeto, but he had missed a few spot-kicks and had asked to be relieved of his duties only a few weeks earlier. Donato was the designated penalty taker for the final day but he was already off the pitch. Therefore, the responsibility shifted to Miroslav Đukić, a 28-year-old defender who had only scored five goals during his four seasons at the club.

Đukić wouldn’t have been human if the nerves weren’t trembling and, in truth, he wasn’t hiding that anguish particularly well as he tentatively placed the ball on the spot and took several slow strides back. Thirty-eight games and over eight months of football had come down to a single penalty to decide who the champions of Spain would be. It wasn’t Bebeto, Donato, Romário or Stoichkov who would determine the outcome of a brilliant title race, but effectively Depor’s third-choice penalty taker and Valencia’s back-up goalkeeper, a man by the name of José Luis González Vázquez.

Đukić took a deep intake of breath before embarking on a long, leggy run-up as silence descended on two stadiums in separate corners of Iberia. Perhaps caught between two minds, his connection was a poor one, a side-footed effort that went to the keeper’s right but not at any great velocity and as close to the centre of the goal as the corner. 

To the despair of the Riazor, González guessed right and safely gathered the ball at the first attempt. The 29-year-old, in his final game of an otherwise unremarkable stint at Valencia, punched the air having unwittingly written his name into Spanish football folklore. Although brief, his celebration remains a source of anger for Depor fans to this day given Los Che were supposedly playing for nothing but pride.

Read  |  The rise and fall of Deportivo La Coruña

However, González’s outpouring of emotion didn’t compare to the jubilant scenes that were to follow at the Camp Nou, which celebrated word of Đukić’s penalty miss as wildly as it had any of Barcelona’s five goals. Their game was still ongoing but it was already the furthest thing from anyone’s minds, with many of the Barça players looking more than a little detached from the match they were supposed to be playing.

Directors and fans gathered around radios to await news of the final whistle at the Riazor, almost in disbelief at the late reprieve which looked as though it was going to deliver them a fourth straight title, a feat only Real Madrid had previously managed in Spain. Many of Barça’s substitutes had raced into the changing rooms to watch the penalty, leaving Cruyff almost alone on the sideline were it not for the army of photographers and cameramen who were busy capturing every emotion.

Eventually, there was a smile on Cruyff’s face which mirrored those of the tens of thousands in the packed stands of Camp Nou as, after just 90 seconds of added time, the game at the Riazor was brought to a close with a final score of Deportivo 0-0 Valencia. The most incredible of finales ended with Barcelona the champions in a season in which they’d seldom led the league.

Overwhelmed by emotion, Stoichkov collapsed to the ground as his teammates quickly embarked on an impromptu lap of honour. Meanwhile, over in A Coruña, fans spilled onto the pitch, unsure of quite how to react. This was, after all, still a miraculous tale of how a provincial club, which had only three times previously finished amongst the top six sides in LaLiga, had pushed the mighty Barcelona all the way to the very last minute of the season. 

Deep down, the Depor fans would’ve sensed that they were unlikely to ever get a better chance to land the biggest prize in Spanish football. They had blown the league – and not just because of Đukić’s penalty miss, as his teammates were quick to point out. During the final two months of the season, Depor were held to goalless draws by all of the sides who would ultimately finish as the bottom four. Despite that, when people look back on the season, it’s not talk of Depor’s dropped points against Osasuna or Lleida, Rayo or Valladolid that they reflect on and nor is it the attacking brilliance of Barcelona. 

Mention the 1993/94 season to any football fan in Spain and they will tend to overlook all that and instead instantly reference Đukić and one of those rare moments when time seemed to stand still as perhaps the most significant miss in Spanish football history took place. Football can be cruel like that. 

Far from being made a pariah, though, Đukić curiously reflects on the moment that his football career is unfairly best remembered for, and its immediate aftermath, as a period which reaffirmed his love for Depor. Many others in a similar boat would have been forgiven for wanting to get as far away from the blustery north-western corner of Spain as possible and never return.

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The city was quick to rally around the unfortunate villain of the piece in a fashion that you sense most likely wouldn’t have happened at a bigger club in a bigger town. “A Coruña is a city to which I have a very special affection,” reflected Đukić many years later. “I made great friends there and people always welcome me well’ he continued before adding that going on to manage the club ‘would be a dream come true.”

While the disappointment of events on 14 May 1994 clearly took some time to digest, Depor would ultimately manage to move on and eclipse everything they achieved that season. They would win the Copa del Rey, fittingly beating Valencia in the final the following year, to bring major silverware to the Riazor for the first time. They’d go on to be crowned champions of Spain six years later, despite suffering seven more league defeats than were inflicted on them during their close brush with glory under Arsenio Iglesias.

Đukić had left Depor by that point to join, of all clubs, Valencia, but reflecting on his former club’s success he was quoted as saying: “Now I have peace in my soul.” He too would finally get his moment of redemption as a league winner with Los Che in 2002.

As for Barcelona, perhaps a combination of the celebrations that followed and the sheer emotional drain of that dramatic final day were factors in their crushing 4-0 defeat against a classy AC Milan side in the Champions League final four days later, a result which definitively ended a 20-game unbeaten streak in all competitions.

Stoichkov and Romário would pick themselves up to star at that summer’s World Cup but their brilliance would ultimately come to be unfairly overshadowed by another decisive penalty miss, this time by one of the true stars of the world game on the biggest stage of all.

Despite Depor’s subsequent decade of genuine success, the wounds of that cruel evening in May 1994 are still occasionally reopened. Many years later, it was revealed that Barça paid each of the Valencia players three million pesetas for their efforts that day in reward for avoiding defeat at the Riazor. The money was reportedly transferred to a Valencia official at a service station in rural Spain a week after the match to be divided amongst the team, a practice that was certainly not uncommon at that time and hasn’t totally disappeared from the Spanish game.

The incident sparked something of a rivalry between the two clubs that would intensify during the period when Depor and Valencia were arguably the two dominant forces in Spanish football in the early 2000s. To some extent, that ill-feeling lingers to this day. Depor fans certainly never forgave González; more for that infamous clenched fist rather than the save itself. He was on the wrong end of a barrage of abuse when he visited the Riazor as a goalkeeping coach for Hercules in the 2010/11 season.

Spanish football hasn’t seen a finale quite like it since. Seldom in sport has one moment come to underline just how fine the margins can be between success and failure, nor how sometimes it is tales of the villains and not the heroes that truly stand the test of time.

By Mark Sochon @marksoc1

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