How Tenerife became the toast of Barcelona and the scourge of Real Madrid

How Tenerife became the toast of Barcelona and the scourge of Real Madrid

When you think about travelling to an away game in one of the main western European leagues, you don’t normally think of a trip of over a thousand miles. Even Marseille fans going to see them against PSG are looking at a trip of around 480 miles, while Bayern Munich fans travelling to Hamburg are just a mere 335 miles apart. In order to hit the thousand-mile mark, you need to consider a far-flung outpost of Spain, the Canary Islands, and its biggest team, Tenerife.

Tenerife is one of the most important tourist destinations in Spain, with five million visitors a year, and is the largest and most populous of the eight Canary Islands. Its centre is dominated by the Teide National Park in which sits Mount Tede, the third largest volcano in the world.

In 2019, its population was still under a million, with around a third of those living in just two cities around the edge of the island: Santa Cruz de Tenerife and San Cristobal de La Laguna, both in the North-East region of the island.

Within Santa Cruz de Tenerife can be found the main football team of the island, Club Deportivo Tenerife. The team was founded in 1912 and has spent the majority of its time playing in the second tier. Playing in the Spanish league system means that most of their away games involves travel to the mainland, although there is one significant rival within the Canary Islands: Las Palmas.

Although almost always in the second division, CD Tenerife did enjoy a purple patch in their history when they played in LaLiga for ten seasons between 1990 and 1999. Since then, they have only reached LaLiga twice more, in 2001 and 2009, and were immediately relegated in both circumstances.

Their best ever final standing was fifth in both 1992/93 and 1995/96, earning them a place in the UEFA Cup in both cases. The 1993/94 UEFA Cup saw them eliminated in the last 16 by Juventus, before an incredible run in 1996/97 saw them go all the way to the semi-finals, eliminating Lazio and Feyenoord on the way, before losing out 2-1 on aggregate to Schalke, an amazing achievement for such a small side.

But if you ask most followers of Spanish football what they recall about Tenerife, it is likely neither the 1996/97 UEFA Cup run nor the two fifth-place finishes. The reply will also likely vary according to which set of supporters you ask. Ask Barcelona fans and they will open a bottle of Rioja, serve you tapas and spent a beautiful evening reminiscing with you; ask Real Madrid fans and you will likely be given an icy scare followed by a bill for years of therapy. That’s because Tenerife is a name that elicits strong emotions from both.

So why such a strong emotional response concerning a small team that has rarely been in LaLiga, has never finished higher than fifth and is based over a thousand miles away on a small island in the Atlantic off Africa? The reason can be traced to two successive seasons, in 1991/92 and 1992/93.

Prior to the 1990/91 campaign, Real Madrid had been champions of Spain for five years running, dominating the late-80s. This was the team of Hugo Sanchez and La Quinta del Buitre, comprising Manuel Sanchis, Martin Vazquez, Michel, Miguel Pardeza and the original vulture himself, Emilio Butragueno.

As well as the five championships, the same time period had seen Real Madrid claim two UEFA Cup titles in successive years against Videoton and Koln. Along with the AC Milan team of Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard, they were probably the two most dominant in Europe during that time.

Barcelona, meanwhile, had been suffering in Real Madrid’s shadow, finishing second to them in three of the five seasons. It was the era of Terry Venables and Luis Aragones as managers; the era of Gary Lineker, Mark Hughes and Steve Archibald; the British years.

Finishing second to a Real Madrid team was not in itself a poor achievement and during this period Barcelona did also lift the Cup Winners’ Cup and lose a European Cup final, but with Josep Luis Nunez as president, it was never going to be enough. A change was needed, and the change needed to be seismic.

With that in mind, the start of the 1988/89 season saw the announcement of a new Barcelona manager: Johan Cruyff. A former club legend from his playing days in the late-70s after his emergence as one of the greats at Ajax, Cruyff was indeed a seismic choice. A man who was never afraid to say what he thought with a huge stubborn streak throughout, this was not the kind of choice a high-profile hands-on president might typically make. But it turned out to be magnificent.

Cruyff’s first season had seen Barcelona finish second behind Real Madrid as he started to reform the team that he had inherited. The next season saw them finish third as Cruyff brought in players such as Ronald Koeman and integrated a young Pep Guardiola. The team was starting to mould to his way of playing as the 1990/91 season commenced, sparking hopes that the five year Real Madrid dynasty could finally be ended.

The start of the next campaign saw a key new arrival at the Camp Nou in Hristo Stoichkov. This feisty Bulgarian would quickly become a darling of the fans. His 14 LaLiga goals saw Barcelona finally crowned champions, ahead of Atletico Madrid by a whopping ten-point margin in the days of two points for a win. Barcelona had won 25 of their 38 games that season, five ahead of the next best, Real Madrid, who finished third.

Tenerife, meanwhile, finished 14th with 35 points, just two points above the relegation zone. The emergence of Cruyff’s Dream Team was beginning.

Going into the 1991/92 season, Barcelona were looking to build on breaking the Real Madrid dominance. Under fellow Dutchman Leo Beenhaaker, Real brought in Robert Prosinecki and Luis Enrique to strengthen their challenge. Barcelona struggled early on, losing three of their first five games, while Real Madrid started at a frantic pace, winning all five.

By the end of week 13, Real were unbeaten and setting a red-hot pace, winning 12 of their 13 games and drawing the other 1-1 with Barca. The latter, meanwhile, had arrested the losing habit but had only won seven games at this point, meaning they trailed Real Madrid by a sizeable eight points as December commenced.

The next 13 games saw Real start to falter. Winning only four games during that period, they lost five as their form on the road completely deserted them. Barcelona had started to hit their stride and the same 13 games saw them only defeated once. As March came to an end, the Blaugrana’s recovery saw them overhaul the eight-point deficit to draw level with Real Madrid with 12 games left.

April saw Tenerife play Barcelona at home and secure a surprise 2-1 victory courtesy of two goals from Juan Pizzi. That victory meant that, with just six games left, Real had opened up a two-point advantage. Five games in May saw Barcelona win four and draw one, with the victories yielding an impressive 15 goals. But Real were also holding their nerve and so, going into the last game of the season, they still held a one-point advantage over Barcelona.

The final fixtures were held on 6 June. Barcelona faced a home game against Athletic, who were sitting just above the relegation zone, while Real made the trip to Tenerife, managed by Jorge Valdano and in danger of being dragged into the relegation playoffs. On paper, Barcelona had the easier tie, but they had to still secure a point more than Real Madrid to regain the title.

After just eight minutes, Fernando Hierro headed Real Madrid into the lead; just the start they needed to calm any nerves. Things continued to go from bad to worse for Tenerife when they had to replace their starting goalkeeper after 24 minutes due to injury. The replacement keeper, Manolo, had been on the pitch for just four minutes when Real got a free-kick around 30 yards from goal. Up stepped Gheorghe Hagi, who drilled the ball into the top corner, giving Manolo no chance. Real were 2-0 up and cruising to the title.

The,n on 36 minutes, the first stirrings of change occurred. A superb run from Tenerife’s Estebaranz from just inside the Real half saw him take it all the way to the edge of the area before drilling a low shot into the corner. At practically the same moment, a Stoichkov header saw Barcelona take the lead in their game. Things were starting to get interesting.

Then, on 49 minutes, Stoichkov added a second. It was now looking clear that Barcelona were going to win their game. Going into the weekend, Barcelona also had a one-goal advantage over Real, meaning that if they won and Real drew, they would snatch the glory. So now all eyes were firmly on events at Tenerife; Barcelona were doing their part but needed a second Tenerife goal in the Canary Islands.

As TV coverage swung back to Tenerife, Real immediately grabbed a third, only for it to be incorrectly disallowed for offside, allowing Barcelona fans to breathe again. On 63 minutes, Tenerife brought on Pier to replace Berges, and with 20 minutes to go, Real Madrid continued to hold a lead.

Then a key moment occurred. A mistimed tackle by an already booked Villarroya saw him receive his marching orders and suddenly Real were down to ten men. On replay, it was hard to see if Villarroya had in fact made contact. If Real fans had been nervous before, things had just ramped up.

Now it was backs to the wall time for Real as Tenerife smelt blood. They resorted to time-wasting and niggling fouls to break up play. Hagi was substituted in order to shore up the defence, leading to the surreal sight of him being interviewed live on TV as he reached the sideline.

Tenerife continued to push forward but, on 73 minutes, Real broke and the ball came through to Butragueno one-on-one with Manolo. The title was there for the taking, but Manolo guessed right and saved the striker’s shot. A valuable chance for a two-goal lead had been wasted.

Again Tenerife pushed forward, with legendary results. Filipe drove into the area and his low cross was turned into his own goal by the unfortunate Brazilian centre-half Ricardo Rocha. Real now had just 23 minutes left to save their season and grab a winner. But almost immediately, a Tenerife long ball down the left saw a high back pass to goalkeeper Buyo, only to watch in horror as the ball appeared to be floating over his head towards the goal.

Buyo threw a hand up but only succeeded in pushing the ball across the goal-line in front of the empty net, where a waiting Pier, the substitute brought on earlier, gratefully tapped home. Cue pandemonium. TV coverage went back to show a celebrating Camp Nou as word filtered through of the third Tenerife goal.

As Beenhakker looked on in disbelief, the clock ticked on with ten-men Real now needing two goals. But it wasn’t to be. Barcelona’s game ended first and then winning-goal hero Pier was sent off to complete an eventful afternoon for the substitute.

TV coverage then went to an on-pitch interview with Cruyff, despite the Real game still going. Finally, after five minutes of stoppage time, it was all over. Bedlam broke out throughout as Barcelona secured their second consecutive title under Cruyff’s leadership. A young Guardiola was shown celebrating with the fans as a day that had been expected to be a celebration of winning the European Cup turned into a double party.

A shattered Real Madrid had to pick themselves up three weeks later to contest the Copa del Rey final against local rivals Atletico in the Bernabeu, but perhaps unsurprisingly, they lost 2-0 to end the season without silverware.

The post-season saw Beenhakker leave to be replaced by Benito Floro, who joined from Albacete having overseen two successive promotions to LaLiga and then a seventh-place finish in their maiden campaign therein. Ivan Zamorano was added to the squad while Sanchez and Hagi were moved on. All was now in place for another attempt at wrestling the title away from the clutches of Cruyff and Barcelona.

The 1992/93 season ironically enough started on opening day with Barcelona defeating Real Madrid 2-1, courtesy of a late winner from Stoichkov. January then saw Real avenge that defeat by the same scoreline. And so the season progressed to the final day where, amazingly enough, Real once again stood just one point ahead of Barcelona, and yet again facing a final game trip to Tenerife.

This was now a Tenerife team sitting in the top half of the standings, and a win could mean UEFA Cup qualification. Real Madrid had been unbeaten for the whole of 1993 in LaLiga, winning 15 games of 22 games before the 19 June showdown in the Canary Islands. The fans must have been filled with a sense of deja-vu and dread; lightning couldn’t possibly strike twice, could it?

The omens weren’t looking good when Floro decided to charter two planes to take the squad down to Tenerife. One of them had faulty air-conditioning, and as temperatures soared on board, players became sick and the plane had to return to Madrid. In all, the journey from Madrid to Tenerife ended up taking 15 hours – hardly the perfect preparation for a title-deciding game. Barcelona’s final game was at home against Real Sociedad.

The drama started early with some head-tennis in the Real box resulting in a headed goal from Tenerife’s Oscar Dertycia after just 11 minutes. As TV coverage replayed the goal in slow motion, a cry of goal for Stoichkov was heard in the background. A quick switch of venue showed a replay of the Bulgarian finishing a beautiful one-two with aplomb. It was all going horribly wrong rapidly for Real, with that man Stoichkov once again providing final day heroics.

The next drama occurred after 38 minutes when Real were denied what appeared to be a solid penalty shout. Two minutes later, another penalty appeal was denied. Nothing seemed to be going their way at this point. And then to cap off a first half of woe, on 42 minutes a cross was headed home by Chano to double Tenerife’s lead.

Both sides had chances during the second period but, as time ran down, Real’s frustration began to surface, finally resulting in a red card for Zamorano with just ten minutes remaining, who gave a pitchside interview while leaving.

The Barcelona game then finished, meaning they had their win in place and so all eyes were now on the final minutes in Tenerife amid wild celebrations at the Camp Nou. After six minutes of stoppage time, the referee finally put Real out of their misery. History had incredibly repeated itself and Barcelona snatched the title once again from Real’s grasp.

Unlike the previous year, Real did go on to win the Copa del Rey, beating Real Zaragoza 2-0, but that was scant consolidation for watching Barcelona crowned LaLiga champions for a third successive time.

The following season would see another dramatic finish, again resulting in Barcelona snatching the title on the final day, this time from Deportivo, but that is another story to tell in another article. Real would have to wait until the 1994/95 campaign to finally reclaim the title, ironically managed by former Tenerife boss, Valdano.

Cruyff departed as Barcelona manager in May 1996 having secured four LaLiga titles and a European Cup.

As for Tenerife, they remained in LaLiga until 1999, since when they have spent the bulk of their time in the second tier. But under the leadership of Valdano, they carved themselves a place in history as the title decider for two glorious seasons. What effect the team has had on Real fans’ psyches from that era remains a mystery but I would argue that a Tenerife fan should never have to pay for a beer in Barcelona.

By Dominic Hougham

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