How a Chain Smoking Coach and Bad Milk Changed Barcelona’s Fortunes

I have watched a lot of football through the years and seen thousands of goals but for some strange reason one strike plays back time and time again. Ronald Koeman’s thunderous cup winning strike against Sampdoria in the 1992 European Cup final wasn’t the prettiest but it was enough to engrain it forever in my memory as a great goal. Perhaps it wasn’t Koeman’s goal at all that I remember, instead the team he played in, one of the great Barcelona sides of the past thirty years. Laudrup, Stoichkov, Salinas, Giokoetxea, Zubizarreta and Guardiola all in the same team, as part of Barca’s first ever dream team.

Led by Dutch icon Johan Cruyff who revolutionized Spanish football by introducing the 3-4-3 formation focusing on technical ability and finesse more than stature and graft, Barca’s history would be forever changed. Cruyff’s decision to change the tactical direction of the club at all levels fundamentally paved the way from the product line of superstars that Barcelona now relies on. Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and Thiago would never have been considered in the old approach where only players of 5ft 9in and above would make the cut, regardless of technical style and ability. Building from the back, Cruyff started to build a team of champions all with the mindset of scoring more than their opposition.  Cruyff argued that it did not make sense for a flat back four to defend against two strikers, whilst the same happened at the other end so his switch to three centre backs allowed more players to be pushed up field. Now with three forwards and two support wingers, Cruyff understood that opposition defenses would not be able to cope and Barcelona could create more chances to score. The chain smoking coach, who was often spotted on the sidelines during a game with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, placed emphasis on talented ball passers like Pep Guardiola and José Mari Bakero, employed in the centre of the park specifically to keep the ball moving and spread the ball wide to creative wide players like Michael Laudrup, Txiki Begiristain and Ion Andoni Goikoetxea. Once in possession, the trio were able to run at defenses with pace and conviction creating chances for the strikers. His system worked to a degree but it wasn’t until the introduction of Bulgarian legend Hristo Stoichkov that his plan was complete. The temperamental Bulgarian who was known in the media as mala leche (Bad Milk in Spanish) transformed Barcelona’s attacking play and played a pivotal role in their success.

The dream team was officially born at Wembley as Cruyff’s Barcelona took on Sampdoria in the European Cup final in 1992. Koeman’s strike, deep into extra time gave Barcelona it’s first European Cup and paved the way for future Barcelona sides. As Koeman positioned the ball, just a few meters’ from the 18 yard line with Juan Carlos and Stoichkov hovering nearby, he paused briefly to examine the scene. In front of him was a five man wall, positioned perfectly by Sampdoria goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca to cover his left hand post. Pagliuca moved over to the right hand post and took up his position, comfortable in the knowledge that he had all the angles covered. Or so he thought. Koeman’s short run up and thunderous strike flew past the diving Italian stopper and crashed into the net to give Barcelona the lead. As the Barcelona players celebrated, Cruyff (who had switched from smoking cigarettes to sucking on lollipops after undergoing double heart bypass surgery in 1991) rose from the bench and made his way towards the race track that surrounded the old Wembley to applaud his players but in a way also to bask in the glory as he knew that that strike would change the clubs fortunes forever and cement his place as an iconic manager.

During his eight year reign, Cruyff secured 11 trophies including four La Liga titles, one Copa Del Rey, three Supercopa de España, the Cup Winners Cup, European Cup and European Super Cup, making him one of Barcelona’s greatest ever coaches. Whilst his departure from the club was less than ceremonious, Cruyff remains a legend to many associated with Barcelona and the reason behind the clubs modern day successes. Spain too owes him its gratitude as his transformation of the Catalan club and its overall approach gave birth to the likes of Iniesta and Xavi who inspired Spain to three successive international titles (European Championships in 2008 and 2012 plus World Cup 2010). Koeman’s goal in the 1992 final proved to be the turning point for Cruyff and will live in the memory of lots of football fans for many a year to come.

To see Koeman’s strike, click here:

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