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If Barcelona is a religion and the Camp Nou the holiest of reliquaries, then Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar were the 21st-century apostles who disseminated the Blaugrana doctrine to the masses. For many of the most distinguished clubs around Europe and the world, their fortunes have been tied inextricably with a venerable triumvirate who would later pass into the realm of footballing myth.
For Manchester United, it was the holy trinity of Best, Law and Charlton; for Real Madrid, the serial Champions League winners, Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo. On the international stage, Brazil could boast Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho. And it didn’t always have to be forwards. Where else but in Italy would shrines be built to the art of defending? In Milan, the Rossoneri venerate Baresi, Costacurta and Maldini, while in Turin, the Juventus Stadium has become a monument to Bonucci, Barzagli and Chiellini.
But of all the clubs that straddle the pantheon of footballing greats, few can lay serious claim to having possessed not one but two wondrous attacking trinities. For, you see, as pious as they were prodigious, Messi, Suárez and Neymar are not unique in Barcelona’s storied history. They served at the altar to Pep Guardiola, but before them came the man who was the bedrock for this religion, the architect of this great cathedral to football, Johan Cruyff.
He who was resurrected in the cashmere roll-necks, meticulous ball retention and high pressing of his progeny, Guardiola. And, just as importantly, he who assembled the fabled “Dream Team”, which swept all before it on a bloody crusade upon domestic and European football between 1989 and 1994. At its head, for a little over one effulgent season, gleamed the trinity of Michael Laudrup, Hristo Stoichkov and Romário.
For those who witnessed the miracles they wrought in the fabled season of 1993/94, few would have thought it possible to repeat. However, rise once more did three faithful disciples of Cruyff’s time-honoured masterplan, as dangerous and captivating as their predecessors. And, like those who had preceded them, their collective genius was almost as fleeting. Yet, inevitably, though both would leave their own indelible marks on the fabric of Barcelona history, there will always remain the pressing question: of these hallowed trios, which was the greater?
It would be easy to assume that Messi, Suárez and Neymar were superior due to the sheer number of accolades bestowed upon them. In the three seasons they played together, they plundered 250 goals, registered 116 assists and won a staggering nine trophies, including the fabled treble of 2014/15. Statistics that almost defy belief. Statistics, however, that are not always indicative of the full picture – especially at a club like Barcelona, where style is almost as paramount as substance.
Read | Lionel Messi and the arrival of a great in the March 2007 El Clásico
After all, the rewards Messi and co. reaped came in a period when Barcelona were already at their most profitable. Incorporating those three into a Barcelona side that had won six of the last ten LaLiga titles, as well as three Champions Leagues in the same period, was like gilding a gold statue with, well, more gold. Barcelona were already the best team in the world. This was a side moulded by Guardiola, run by Xavi and Iniesta, marshalled by Puyol and inspired by Messi. It was positively quivering with talent.
On the other hand, the atmosphere that Romário, Stoichkov and Laudrup played through could not have been more different. As incomprehensible as it may seem to contemporary supporters, Barcelona at the end of the 1980s was a very different beast to the one that would host Messi, Suárez and Neymar in the post-Guardiola years. The Blaugrana had endured a prolonged fallow period that had seen them crowned LaLiga champions only twice since 1961. This was not a side accustomed to winning championships, either on a domestic or European front.
As much as they struggled to break the Real Madrid stranglehold on the league, Barcelona could at least appease themselves with their superior football. Throughout the 1980s, they were renowned for a brand of play that saw the likes of Diego Maradona and Bernd Schuster given the freedom to execute such audacious football as to occasionally border on the realm of temerity.
Yet, it wasn’t until Cruyff would make the transition from player to manager, by way of Ajax, in 1988 that Barcelona began to claim the silverware that their style merited. The long wait for LaLiga was over but confidence was fragile. Real had taken their eye off the league and let Barcelona in at the turn of the decade, but they were brooding in the background, a vengeful, bitter beast prowling at Catalan heels.
Amid dwindling attendances, Cruyff’s Dream Team reinvigorated the city, imparting on the hordes of Culés that would return to ascend the steps of Camp Nou each week memories of such thunderous jubilation as can only be found in football. And then came the miracle season of 1993/94, the glorious pinnacle that was achieved when the collective ingenuity of their impudent forward trident was realised.
Whereas a succession of Barcelona managers had built their sides around Messi in the years following Guardiola, Cruyff already had two-thirds of his attacking triumvirate in place by the time he added a certain Romário into the mix. In Stoichkov, the Dutch tactician had a footballer who lived and breathed Barcelona. In the same way that Carles Puyol was ingrained into the fabric of this football club, Stoichkov was Cruyff’s general on the pitch as much as he was off it. Indomitable, the Bulgarian forward was as talented with a football as he was demanding of his teammates.
Read | Hristo Stoichkov: the architect in Cruyff’s Barcelona
If Stoichkov was Cruyff’s general in attack then Laudrup was his artist. Of course, the maverick Dane enjoys something of a lukewarm reputation amongst the Blaugrana faithful, in no small part to his decision to trade the Catalan capital for the white of Madrid in 1995 following a – some would say inevitable – falling out with Cruyff. Some feat when you consider that, amongst those fortunate to have seen both play, Laudrup is considered by many to be inferior only to the great Lionel Messi in Barcelona’s long history of glittering talent. A man whose close control was tighter than Ronaldinho’s, whose passing range surpassed Xavi’s, and whose intelligence outshone Busquets’.
Into this mix of belligerence and beauty, Cruyff inserted the final piece of his jigsaw. His Dream Team had been taking shape in the years between 1989 to 1993, sweeping all before them on the domestic front, as well as claiming the 1989 Cup Winners’ Cup and the 1992 European Cup, as he had rebuilt Barcelona virtually from the ground up. And then, in 1993, Romário entered the picture.
The volatile Brazilian arrived in Catalonia having claimed 127 goals in 142 matches for PSV and immediately forged a prosperous partnership with Stoichkov. The pair enjoyed something of a telepathic relationship in which – in a rare case concerning two supremely self-confident footballers – they seemed to inspire each other to perform better. With Stoichkov and Romário often unmarkable, the ammunition was supplied by Laudrup. ‘Made in Laudrup’ became the expression, as his teammates would attest. “Just run. He will always find a way of passing you the ball,” said Romário.
Given the monumental impact of Laudrup, Stoichkov and Romário and the extraordinary success of Messi, Suárez and Neymar, it’s easy to begin drawing parallels between the two. Anyone who watched the latter perform together could not help but be mesmerised by the complexity, the dynamism and the effortlessness of the football they played. In the modern world, where 4-4-2 was slowly phased out and the rise of the number 10 led to the prominence of the 4-2-3-1 and then, in turn, the return of the versatile 4-3-3, Messi, Suárez and Neymar were about as perfect a front three as you could want to compile.
Suárez with his direct, endless running and his proclivity for harrying and harassing opposing centre-backs was a manager’s dream centre-forward. Not only could he supply the goals in and around the penalty box and weasel his way out of the tightest of spots, but he would run the doggies that so few strikers deigned to lower themselves to.
Neymar, on the left, was as precocious a talent as South America had produced in recent years. Lithe, agile and supremely skilful, he would beat defenders for fun, with an array of dizzying tricks and feints, but it was his blossoming ability to co-exist with his teammates, to provide the assists as well as the goals, that endeared him to Barcelona fans. For a footballer so self-invested as Neymar, his greatest triumph lay in fitting into the Barcelona game plan alongside Suárez and Messi.
Of the latter, the final piece in this triumvirate, there remain no superlatives appropriate enough to describe his genius. No matter the language, the human collective, all 200,000 years of its developed knowledge, has simply run out of ways to adequately describe Lionel Messi. On their own, Suárez and Neymar were world-class; alongside Messi, they became greats. And it is eerie just how faithfully these 21st-century apostles mirrored the disciples that Cruyff assembled to disseminate the Barcelona scripture back in 1993.
In Laudrup, Barcelona had a player so intelligent, so sharp of mind as to see moments on the pitch unfolding even before they had happened. Like Messi, Laudrup was an artist and the turf of the Camp Nou was his canvas, upon which he would paint in such deft, beautiful strokes that his first touch belonged in the Casa Batlló rather than a football pitch. But that was only half of his game.
For all his artistic endeavour, Laudrup was equally renowned for his intense professionalism and dedication to football akin to the way a mathematician approaches an equation: analytical, focused, and efficient. “Had Michael been born in a poor ghetto in Brazil or Argentina with the ball being his only way out of poverty, he would today be recognised as the biggest genius of the game ever,” Cruyff said, referencing the one missing piece that Laudrup didn’t possess: bite.
Then there was Romário, a man for whom bite was no issue. Few Culés would argue against his reputation as the finest striker Barcelona ever possessed – greater even than Ronaldo. Like Suárez, he was a menace in the box – quick, determined and able to turn with alarming agility inside the penalty box in order to lose his marker. Whereas Suárez was prone to suffering through fallow patches, Romário genuinely scored in almost every game he played in.
As Guus Hiddink recalled of the Brazilian’s time in the Netherlands with PSV: “If he saw that I was a bit more nervous than usual ahead of a big game, he’d come to me and say: ‘Take it easy, coach, I’m going to score and we’re going to win’. What’s incredible is that eight out of the ten times he told me that, he really did score and we really did win.” Of the three forwards, Cruyff considered the Brazilian striker the most talented he had ever worked with. And few would argue with him on that.
Finally, the most temperamental of the three, there was Hristo Stoichkov. Like Neymar, he was never far from the limelight and often for the wrong reasons. However, where Neymar was rolling around on the pitch in fits of mock agony, Stoichkov was stamping on referees’ feet and earning himself the moniker ‘mal leche’ (bad milk). The Bulgarian was the bite Cruyff’s Barcelona sorely needed. He was erratic, sometimes inconsistent, often irascible, but above all, he was talented. So, so talented. As former Barcelona player Lobo Carrasco once put it: “He is the best forward in the world. He can run like Carl Lewis, play passes like Ronald Koeman, and finish every bit as well as, or better than, Gary Lineker.”
Read | Romário: the thousand-goal icon who helped deliver a new generation of Brazilian striker
When in full flow, both sets of players were mystical, almost divine to watch, as though some higher power surely guided their movements, so instinctive and cohesive were they together on a pitch, yet therein lies something inexplicable about the way in which Laudrup, Stoichkov and Romário melded as if a single entity. Whereas Messi, Suárez and Neymar were part of a Barcelona team that oozed with depth, Laudrup, Stoichkov and Romário were the stars of a side that didn’t have the wealth of talent today’s Barcelonas can boast. They were the glittering jewels in Cruyff’s sceptre when he ascended to the pulpit of the Camp Nou.
One of the greatest endearing qualities Laudrup, Stoichkov and Romário possessed over their modern contemporaries was their ability to overcome hardship. Right from the off, it appeared as though the Bulgarian and the Brazilian were destined to clash. “Signing a fourth foreigner is plain stupid,” Stoichkov insisted, “but if the board think it is absolutely necessary, I would tell them to sign [Lubo] Penev. How much does Romário cost? 600m Pesetas? I’d take 200m from my own pocket and sign Penev.”
As for Romário, he was equally bellicose. Yet, though they appeared as abrasive as each other, the two became immediate friends. Stoichkov, ever the enforcer, ensured Romário turned up to training every day, while Romário, considered something of an introvert within the club, only ever spoke to the Bulgarian. Their children would attend the same school and their wives became best of friends. This staunch friendship translated to the pitch where the two roved in tandem along Barcelona’s front line, prowling the channels while Laudrup sought them out with inch-perfect passes. It was as much a conveyor belt as it was a work of art.
Though the two stars would overcome their rocky start, a greater obstacle loomed, one which would eventually tear the 1994 Barcelona side apart: the three-foreigner European rule. To modern football fans, it seems ludicrous and frankly antiquated that, 25 years ago, European competitions limited teams to fielding no more than three foreign players – and for Cruyff’s Dream Team, this posed a problem that the likes of Messi, Suárez and Neymar could never dream of confronting.
Cruyff was forced to drop one of his front three men throughout the 1993/94 season, partly owing to club captain Koeman’s imperious form at the heart of the Barcelona defence. One of the trio would inevitably give way, and this would cause friction. When left out, Stoichkov was described as being capable of fighting with his own shadow, while Romário would refuse to speak with anyone when it was his turn on the bench.
However, it was the dropping of Laudrup for the 4-0 mauling at the hands of AC Milan in the 1994 Champions League final that would prove the most costly omission of all. Barcelona were dismantled on the night, and it would serve as a metaphor of things to come; within six months, the club had been taken apart piece by piece as Cruyff, Stoichkov, Romário and Laudrup, the architects of once-in-a-generation football, all departed.
Read | Michael Laudrup and Preben Elkjær: a fantasy partnership devised in the heavens
Though they were part of a cohesive unit, both within their personal trinity and the team as whole, there always remained the notion that each of the three considered themselves the most important. In fact, Romário, when asked who he considered the five greatest footballers of all time, place himself fourth on his list. Tellingly, it was one place ahead of his contemporary, Stoichkov.
It was this individual insistence that the team was there only to serve them that would later bring about the dissolution of Messi, Suárez and Neymar, too. Neymar, long touted as the heir to Pelé, proselytised by the likes of Ronaldinho himself, was expecting to grow into Barcelona’s leading star as the magic of Messi waned. Instead, Messi, in another hallmark of his genius, merely adapted his game and once more rose to another level of brilliance that was simply unreachable by mere mortals. It was as if Messi ascended into godhood, a Catalan deification – and with it, Neymar’s patience finally snapped. Just like Romário, his productivity dropped and Real Madrid stole in to claim LaLiga.
Yet, it is symbolic of why Messi, Suárez and Neymar were always destined to succeed and why they never quite tugged at the heartstrings the same way Stoichkov, Romário and Laudrup did when you consider that, when Neymar departed, Barcelona resumed normal service and recaptured the title with Messi resplendent once more.
When Laudrup left in 1995 to join Real Madrid, he set in motion a series of events that would devastate Barcelona and leave them without silverware for three seasons. Perhaps, then, it is through the misty lens of time that Barcelona supporters around Catalonia, Spain and indeed the world view the hallowed trio of Laudrup, Stoichov and Romário as the greater. Or, perhaps, there was just something more exciting about them.
They wowed Barcelona fans when they were just getting used to winning trophies again. This was an era when Stoichkov was stamping on referees, Romário was punching Argentines, and Laudrup, despite being the best European footballer on the face of the planet, was being cruelly robbed of the Ballon d’Or year after year.
This was not the sanitised era of the unstoppable Barcelona juggernaut where trophies were expected and Messi, should he fancy it, could annihilate a team on his own with as much apparent effort as doing a few keepy-uppies in his back garden with his dog. Simply put, when it comes down to it, on a pure statistical level, there is no contest: Messi, Suárez and Neymar far outscored Laudrup, Stoichkov and Romário and collected more than thrice the number of trophies.
Yet, it’s perhaps the finest indictor of how intensely the Blaugrana congregation revere Romário, Stoichkov and Laudrup that virtually all of them would include those three in their top ten Barcelona players of all-time. They are no longer disciples; they have been canonised as saints. Of Messi, Suárez and Neymar, despite the records they shattered and the obstacles they toppled, especially in that momentous treble season of 2014/15, only Messi would be guaranteed to make the same list. The only consolation is that he’d be right at the very top.
By Josh Butler @joshisbutler90
Art by Fabrizio Birimbelli @pupazzaro