Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona of the 1990s were so all-conquering, so revered, so confident, that when they treated 1994 Champions League final as all but a forgone conclusion, it wasn’t instantly cast aside as misplaced hubris.
Barcelona weren’t up against any old team either. A Milan side led by Fabio Capello, who had just sewn up their third straight league title and reached the Champions League final the previous year, awaited them in the showpiece.
However, when Cruyff – who had been pictured with the trophy the day before the final – declared that his side were ‘more complete, competitive and experienced’ than during their previous triumph in the competition two years earlier, it was a sentiment shared by many. Spanish papers all but declared them victors and even Milan’s Paolo Maldini conceded the Catalans were favourites.
Yet, just six years earlier, as Barcelona recorded their worst league finish for 25 years, they could scarcely dream of entertaining such lofty ambitions.
A decade after leaving the club as a player, Cruyff returned as manager in the summer of 1988, joining an institution in debt and in the aftermath of a player-led revolt. His maiden season may have earned just a runners-up finish and second-tier European trophy, but Cruyff immediately set about radically changing Barcelona’s playing style.
Midfielder Eusebio Sacristan explained the set up in Jonathan Wilson’s The Barcelona Legacy, gushing: “From the start he wanted to impose a style that was revolutionary: playing a 3-4-3… It was, wow, something we’d never seen.”
The next year Cruyff added the players that would thrive in this system, with the instrumental trio of Michael Laudrup, Hristo Stoichkov and Ronald Koeman all joining in 1989.
Laudrup, the side’s creative lynchpin, and Stoichkov, the sharp-tongued striker, both idolised Cruyff growing up – the Bulgarian forward still had video tapes of his manager’s playing days when he joined Barcelona. Cruyff’s compatriot, Koeman, had been coached by the legendary figure at Ajax and understood the manager’s demands implicitly. Cruyff was crafting a team of his disciples.
However, he would be hard-pressed to find a more devout member of the Cruyffian cult than a certain youth team player who broke into the senior side the following summer.
‘Pep Guardiola’ was the immediate answer Cruyff’s long-time assistant Charly Rexach provided when Barcelona were short of holding midfielders. Having initially dismissed the slight Catalan as ‘slower than my granny’, Cruyff handed Guardiola his debut during the 1990/91 campaign before he became a fixture of the side the following season.
Cruyff’s Barcelona were built on the fundamentals that Guardiola would instil in his side decades later, playing fast, attacking football with quick passing and a high press. The emphasis Cruyff put on attack was epitomised by his description of Guardiola and Koeman, nominally the side’s holding midfielder and sweeper who often swapped positions, when he said: “As the central defensive duo, they weren’t fast and they weren’t defenders.”
But it worked.
Between 1991 and 1994 Barcelona won four consecutive La Liga titles, but their greatest moment unquestionably came in the middle of that run.
Four seasons into Cruyff’s tenure, Barcelona reached the third European Cup final of the club’s history. Their failure to win the trophy – magnified by Real Madrid’s domination of the competition – was suffocating. Against Sampdoria at Wembley, Cruyff’s side earned the most cathartic of victories, with Koeman’s 111th minute free-kick enough to end their hoo-doo and earn the ‘liberation’ Rexach described it as.
The Olympics held in Barcelona later that same summer saw the USA’s star-studded men’s basketball team steamroller their way to gold under the moniker of ‘the Dream Team’. That Barcelona side were rapidly given the same name.
In the summer of 1993, Cruyff added the ultimate individualist to a team bristling with its fair share of soloists, tossing the Brazilian striker Romario into the mix. For 12 wonderful months, it worked perfectly as Romario lived up to all of his self-aggrandising prophecies en route to Barcelona’s fourth consecutive title – and the third won on the final day of the season thanks to another club’s failure.
Four days after that triumph, they met Milan in the Champions League final. Ultimately, a 4-0 humiliation ensured Cruyff’s confidence was misplaced and the Dream Team ended that sorry night.
Yet Cruyff and his side marked a distinct point in the club’s history. Before 1990, Barcelona had won ten league titles and no European Cups in their entire history. Since 1990, they have claimed 16 league titles and five European Cups.
His legacy extends beyond a well-stocked trophy cabinet.
Guardiola – the Dutchman’s ultimate disciple – summed up the great man’s impact best, telling The Guardian: “Before he came we didn’t have a cathedral of football, this beautiful church, at Barcelona. We needed something new. And now it is something that has lasted. It was built by one man, by Johan Cruyff, stone by stone.”