The 1993/94 season for Barcelona was, if you will, bloody weird.
In many respects it was a campaign of towering achievement, which featured a title win, a crushing victory over their hated rivals and a second Champions League final in three years. This was the time of the Johan Cruyff Dream Team, a group so stuffed with talent that Michael Laudrup frequently had to sulk on the bench, with Hristo Stoichkov and Romario up top, Ronald Koeman at the back and that Pep Guardiola lad in midfield.
But at the same time it was an underwhelming season of ‘just about good enough’, winning that title on goal difference with the help of nefarious means and a bottling Brazilian, losing to half a Milan team in that final and underlying tension which saw the break-up of that side and the decline of the Cruyff era.
Along the way though, some remarkable football was played, not least in that 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid, Romario bagging a hat-trick, one of five – five! – that season as they humiliated the great enemy. This was, in many people’s eyes, the apex of the Dream Team, a 90-minute distillation of their brilliance.
“They were astonishing,” said Alvaro Romeo on the Totally Football Show. “They were capable of playing really beautiful football, and they scored 91 goals that season, which was an oddity at that time.” For reference, second-placed Deportivo scored 54.
But the context of the Real win summed up their strange season. The game before, they lost to Sporting Gijon. The two games after saw them draw 0-0 with Sevilla and lose to Real Sociedad. Shortly after that came a home defeat to Athletic Bilbao then a remarkable 6-3 defeat to Real Zaragoza. They were capable of brilliance but also maddening inconsistency, as well as divisions within the squad that would widen and become Cruyff’s undoing.
“In that victory [over Real],” said Alvaro, “there was a moment that encapsulated their problems in the future. Only three foreigners could play, and Michael Laudrup did not start – he came on, gave an assist and didn’t celebrate. He was on bad terms with Cruyff, and there was a bit of a strange atmosphere. They had some volcanic characters in the dressing room.”
Quite so. Stoichkov, who would often charge around the pitch in the early minutes of Clasicos to make sure he got the first foul in, was sent off against Valencia for stamping on someone’s foot. Romario, displaying bravery verging on idiocy, was dismissed for sparking out Diego Simeone. “It was worthy of Mike Tyson,” said Stoichkov of the hit (in truth a sneaky suckerpunch), meaning it as a compliment.
That Zaragoza defeat left them in third place, six points (in the days of two for a win) behind Depor tivo La Coruna at the top. But from there they went on a remarkable run, drawing two and winning 12 of their final 14 games, meaning they went into the last game of the season a point behind Depor, needing to beat Sevilla and hope their opponents would slip up against Valencia.
Barca did their part, Stoichkov and Romario among the scorers in a as they came back from a half-time deficit to win 5-2, so it was over to Depor the following night. Things didn’t go to plan: it was 0-0 going into injury-time against a Valencia side who were nowhere, down in seventh after a season in which they got through three managers, including Gus Hiddink.
Then, in injury-time, Depor were awarded a penalty. Perhaps we were a little harsh at the top of this piece: the common story is that Bebeto, who would go on to star for Brazil in that summer’s World Cup, bottled taking the spot-kick, but accounts differ for the reason he didn’t take the penalty, and he may have just been taken off duty. He had missed two in recent weeks and his compatriot Donato had been assigned penalty responsibilities in his place, the only problem being that the midfielder had been substituted with 15 minutes remaining, a winger brought on in his place as they chased a goal.
Still, others have accused Bebeto of shirking. “When the referee called the penalty I went to Bebeto and told him that the opportunity was theirs now,” said Valencia defender Fernando Giner, years later. “If that was what he wanted they had already achieved it. He disappeared from my sight, he hid himself and Djukic had to take that penalty. Bebeto wrote himself out. That pissed me off.”
Whatever the truth was, Depor needed a penalty taker and defender Miroslav Djukic stepped up. It’s hard to imagine a more high-pressured moment: score and Depor would win their first league title (first major trophy of any sort, in fact), miss and he would be forever known as the man who lost La Liga.
He missed, scuffing an effort into the waiting arms of Valencia keeper Jose Gonzalez, a reserve goalie making just his third appearance of the season but remarkably already his second penalty save. He celebrated surprisingly emphatically – “It has become an iconic celebration,” said Alvaro, “he became the ‘protagonist’ of the season” – for a save that essentially meant nothing to him or his team, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Djukic, unsurprisingly, was distraught. In his book ‘Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty’, Ben Lyttleton writes that Djukic fell collapsed on the floor in the dressing room afterwards, weeping uncontrollably and either refusing or unable to get up until a teammate called his wife.
Years later, on a Spanish TV show, Djukic talked through his moment of abject despair. “I always waited for the keeper to move and right then I was thinking ‘Well, I cannot wait any more, I will have to hit it hard.’ I got to the ball without knowing clearly how I was going to hit it. And the worst is to have those doubts.”
The plot thickened later on though, when it was alleged that Barcelona had offered an ‘incentive’ to the Valencia players, to the tune of 50 million pesetas (around €300,000), to ‘encourage’ them.
“A week before the game we knew what we had,” an unnamed player told El Pais in 2011. “We got the money a week after the game. A player from our team and a player from Barcelona met and exchanged the money in the Barcelona to Valencia highway. One of our team’s players kept the money at his home and then shared it with the squad. We got €18,000 each. Those players who played less often, like Diego Ribera, got a smaller share from the lot.”
Giner, however, was happier to be identified and quoted: “Of course we had a bonus from Barcelona,” he told El Confidential, “a very generous one in fact, but in my case friendship is more important that money. Voro and Nando had just arrived at Deportivo that season after having a stint at Valencia. I wanted them to win a league they deserved. I remember I gave comfort and lifted from the floor those Deportivo players who were devastated. Yes, I got my bonus, but that was bitter money.”
It seemed that even the Depor players knew about the payment, Giner claiming that Bebeto had spent the whole game saying they had “sold themselves”, cursing them and asking if they were ashamed. “It was Deportivo who lost that league, we didn’t make them lose it,” he said.
Still, the title was Barca’s, and four days later they were in Athens for the second leg of the double they had achieved in 1992. To say they were favourites against Fabio Capello’s Milan was an understatement, and confident too. “Milan’s game is nothing special,” said Cruyff beforehand, and some players had their photo taken with the cup prior to the game too.
Not that their confidence was necessarily misplaced: this was the Dream Team against a Milan side without the suspended Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta (meaning Paolo Maldini had to play in the middle and Christian Panucci at left-back), plus the injured Marco van Basten and the world’s most expensive player, Gianluigi Lentini.
Milan were even hit more by the Champions League’s three foreigners rule: it meant Capello had to pick a trio from Dejan Savicevic, Zvonimir Boban, Marcel Desailly, Florin Raducioiu, Jean-Pierre Papin and Brian Laudrup, ultimately leaving out the latter three. Cruyff dropped Michael Laudrup, which according to Capello was his first mistake. “Laudrup was the guy I feared but Cruyff left him out,” he said.
Milan had won the Scudetto that year by somehow only scoring 35 goals, so the last thing Barca were probably expecting was an onslaught. But that’s exactly what they got, Milan taking the lead with two from the oft-maligned Daniele Massaro before Dejan Savicevic’s masterpiece and Marcel Desailly’s emphatic fourth tied a bow on an extraordinary win. ‘The Dutch coach’s shoulders visibly sagged,’ wrote the Guardian’s Russell Thomas, and you could easily argue that they didn’t raise up again for the remainder of Cruyff’s tenure.
“This is a game that had tremendous consequence for Barcelona,” said Alvaro on the Totally Football Show, “and a few players had a great cloud on top of them. Andoni Zubizaretta [who was blamed in part for the Savicevic goal], Laudrup…went to Real Madrid that summer.
“Laudrup was very angry with Cruyff throughout the season, and not playing in the final was the cherry on top of the cake. After that game, everybody played their cards – the club, the player, the manager – many players understood that was a moment to make a move.
“Cruyff understood that he had to change the squad, but that summer he made some signings that didn’t make any sense: Xabier Eskurza, Igor Komeev, Georghe Hagi, who was a player that never fitted for them. Laudrup left in the summer, then Romario left in January  because he had problems with Cruyff.
“In the 1994/95 season they only got 46 points [and finished fourth in La Liga]. In the same way that the defeat at Anfield last season had an impact on everything they did the summer after, what happened in 1994 had a tremendous impact on what happened in the next five years.”
They didn’t win another major trophy under Cruyff, and in some respects it was amazing he lasted another two years, given how quickly he could make enemies. He was ditched a couple of games before the end of the 1995/96 season, arriving at the training ground one morning, irate at stories in the papers that the Barca hierarchy had agreed a deal with Bobby Robson. After a confrontation with Joan Gaspart, then vice-president, he was out.
‘It was ten o’clock,’ wrote Jimmy Burns in his book ‘Barca’. ‘Johan Cruyff, one of the greatest footballers of all time, who had won Barça more titles than any other coach in its history, had been given his marching orders like a part-time lavatory attendant who had overslept.’
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