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20 May 1992. The day that changed Barcelona’s history

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Header Image by Stockhoff via imago

On a day like today in 1992, a free-kick from Ronald Koeman gave Barcelona its first European Cup ever as it became a truly critical turning point in the Catalans’ history.


There was a time when not everything was rosy for FC Barcelona. While in the past decade a golden era has accustomed us to winning everything and aiming for perfection, in the form of trebles, not so long ago this was far from the case. Barcelona has always been a great club, an extraordinary club, with world-class stars and legends that have left their imprint on the institution and team. But, before Cruyff arrived in 1988, Barça wasn’t a winning club.

❛ Cruyff was a sensational player. He was also a winner. The change in mentality was brutal. It was like we had been drowning and now we were pulled out of the water ❜

Juan Manuel Asensi
Cruyff’s former teammate

Johan, like he did in his time as a player between 1973 and 1978, changed the culture at the club. He changed the approach and way of seeing things. Yet he also changed the mentality. Before 1990, Barcelona had won ten league titles in their entire history and no European Cups. The 1986 European Cup final had done a lot of damage to the culé fanbase. After a 0–0 at Sevilla against Steaua București, the Catalans lost in the continental final in the shootout as they missed all four penalties. It was a traumatic defeat.

Therefore, it was not surprising that, when Barça reached the European Cup final again six years later, few local fans were optimistic. There were even people who did not want to play that final, because of fear of another defeat. However, this time it was Cruyff who was in charge of the team. And that meant a lot. If anything described the Dutchman, that was his fearlessness and boldness to implement his ideas. Former winger Txiki Begiristain recalled: “Johan Cruyff was not scared of anything. When there are doubts, people tend to seek safety in numbers, to go with the herd. Not Cruyff. His first solution was always to be more attacking, more expansive. Three at the back and the centre-back is Ronald Koeman? Instead of full-backs, midfielders? Every time he sought a solution, he attacked more. And when he told us what he was doing, we thought: ‘Is he mad or what?'”.

❛ It is better to fall with your ideas than someone else’s ❜

Johan Cruyff

Cruyff transformed the club, not only in the style implemented, but in the mindset too. From the fans to the footballers to the directives, everyone’s character changed. It was about relieving the pressure of playing football. His ultimate goal was entertaining, the viewers and themselves. So, before Barcelona took the field to face Sampdoria on 20 May 1992, Johan pronounced the iconic “Salid y disfrutad” (Go out and enjoy). That’s what the azulgranas did, as they prepared for the European Cup final at Wembley.

Nevertheless, it’s easier said than done. The Barça players were noticeably nervous in the opening minutes of the clash against a talented Sampdoria. The first half was a bit rusty, in which goalkeeper Zubizarreta and versatile defender Chapi Ferrer were the standout performers. After half-time, though, Barcelona abandoned their nerves and started enjoying. With Laudrup pulling the strings with his vision and tremendous technical quality, the Spanish giants had the better chances while they set up in a fluctuating 3–1–2–1–3 against the Italians’ man-oriented defensive approach.

As evident as the improvement was, the ghosts of the 1986 final appeared again. Minutes passed, but Barça couldn’t break the deadlock and transform their superiority into goals. With a goalless draw, the game went into extra time. It was time to pray, because most feared the worst. Again, minutes went by and the ball couldn’t find the net. First half of extra time, gone. Penalties were on the horizon.

Until Koeman appeared and dressed himself as the hero to cement a place in the club’s immortality. It was the 112th minute. 25 yards out, in an indirect free-kick, Ronald spotted the gap in the rushing Sampdoria defensive wall and beat the goalkeeper with an unstoppable strike. Koeman sprinted towards the sidelines to celebrate, using his fingers to hold back tears. This was it. This was finally it.

Ronald Koeman Barcelona Sampdoria 1992 European Cup

A free-kick that changed Barcelona’s fate forever | Photo by Sven Simon via Imago

It was “liberation”, as Carles Rexach, Cruyff’s assistant coach and best friend, described it. “There were lots of people waiting for us to screw it up again, and the feeling was that another life starts. We were released”. It was third time lucky. After the defeats in 1961 and 1986, Barcelona finally got their hands on the big European trophy. Following 120 agonic minutes, the historic fatalism was defeated. With the goal of the greatest goalscoring centre-back of all time, Koeman built a indelible legacy and removed a heavy burden from Barça’s back.

❛ Barcelona were always thinking about inferiority, they had Madriditis. We were always thinking we were the victim but in my way of thinking there was no victim. I said: ‘Let’s look at ourselves, let the
rest do whatever they want; we know what we want’ ❜

Johan Cruyff

While that was the only European Cup title from the Dream Team, as they would later lose in the final against Milan in 1994, the single continental trophy, alongside the four consecutive league titles and the enduring memories created, unleashed the national and international dominance of Barcelona for many years to come and particularly during the late 2000s. After the glorious triumph over Sampdoria 28 years ago, Barça finally started to believe that they could aim at the bigger prizes.


See more

Life at FC Barcelona before Cruyff

Johan Cruyff: The Journey

Barça 1991/92 season: European catalyst from Cruyff’s Dream Team

• How much should Barcelona spend on Lautaro Martínez?

As someone once said, football is the most important of the least important things in life. Football, though, is a passion lived 24 hours, 7 days a week. My life could not be understood without Barça. Having always lived in Barcelona, the deep love for this club was transmitted to me from before I can remember. With an affection that can be found in my most profound roots, my goal now is to share this admiration with other football enthusiasts.

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Historic

Ricardo Zamora: The greatest between the posts

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Photo by Central Press/Getty Images

Guest Author: Amal Ghosh

Ricardo Zamora has a rollercoaster of a footballing career, flooded with controversies. Despite that, he is said to be arguably the greatest goalkeeper of all time.


“He is alone, condemned to watch the match from afar. Never leaving the goal, his only company the two posts and the crossbar, he awaits his own execution by firing squad.” Eduardo Galeano perhaps wrote the most melancholic description of a goalkeeper’s life of solitude.

The memoir of a goalkeeper lies between the thin line of glorious feats and eternal damnation. There were not many of them in the yesteryears of world football that we still reminisce. In fact, many of those who survived the rushing cavalries of the opposition attack were shot, shun, or shaded by that one slip or misplaced dive.

At the beginning of the 1900s, when the game was a far cry from the sophisticated version of the present day, the football pitch was a grant arena to celebrate the sparring between the defence and offence. Stars and idols were born and illustrated for the knack to score goals or the flamboyant display on the pitch.

In 1916, a skinny sixteen years old from Barcelona, who had a fortuitous debut for Espanyol against Real Madrid, went on to become the first superstar in the history of Spanish football. Moreover, the first goalkeeper to make a name for his style and to become an inspiration for the generations to come. Ricardo Zamora Martinez was one of the greatest goalkeepers both in the history of FC Barcelona and La Roja. He was the first and finest of his kind and left a gargantuan legacy behind.       

Zamora could do things never seen before. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Born on 14th February 1901 in Barcelona, Zamora grew up and learned his craft in goalkeeping on the backstreets of the Catalan city. What started as a leisure activity in the neighborhood, it maneuvered Zamora’s interest in the game and transformed him into a guardian in between the sticks. Challenging and extreme measures to prevent the opposition from scoring often would end up in frayed clothes and bleeding elbows. His parents were unhappy about his pursuit to become a professional footballer as his father wanted him to inherit his field of medicine.

In 1913, Zamora was sent to attend university, which was a turning point in his life. Along with picking up nicotine addiction, he also joined a local team, Universitari SC, and started playing full-time football.

At the same time, the founder of Barcelona, Joan Gamper (Hans Kamper) was scouting for young and fresh talents across Catalonia to bolster the transitioning Blaugrana outfit. Gamper inadvertently encountered a young Zamora who was delivering a staggering performance in front of the goal. Enthralled by his astounding shot-stopping technique and anticipation along with the aplomb character on the pitch, Gamper encouraged him to pursue professional football. Despite acknowledging his talent, Gamper was unsure about recruiting him due to his age, which would make it difficult for him to serve as an immediate replacement at the club. However, at the age of fifteen in 1916, Zamora signed for the rivals Espanyol and made his debut at sixteen. 

Pere Gibert, the starting goalkeeper for Espanyol was absent and the club approached young Zamora to accompany them on their trip to face Real Madrid. Zamora delivered an impressive performance against a Los Blancos led by Santiago Bernabeu. The match against Madrid announced the teenage sensational in the Spanish football and promised the starting spot ahead of Gibert. He safeguarded the Espanyol goal till 1919 and inspired them to lift the Campionat de Catalunya in 1918.

However, a dispute with one of the Blanquiazul directors resulted in him leaving the club and signing for the cross-town rivals Barcelona. Zamora dawned the garnet and the blue for the first time on 31st May 1919 in a friendly match against an international eleven consisting of players from the allied nations that had succeeded in the First World War (France, Belgium, and England).

The mere friendly match at the old Carrer Industria ground was in fact much more. It was a monumental instance for its symbolic representation of diplomacy and the introduction of two of the greatest players in the history of Blaugrana — Zamora and Josep Samitier. Both the players became the Blaugrana legends and defined the history of both Barcelona and Spanish football.

Zamora (R) captained Spain through a revolution. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

The 1920s witnessed the first footballing revolution in Spain. It was the dormant period for the political insurgencies in Catalonia, where the proletarian uprisings and anti-anarchist movements ceased temporarily. Instead, the populace was witnessing another revolution, the rise of the first golden generation at the Les Cortes. Moreover, it was the inception of the Spanish National Team as a major footballing power in world football. Zamora along with Samitier and Paulinho Alcantara were the three pivots responsible for the transformation of Barcelona in the 1920s. Zamora was selected to represent the Spanish national team in the 1920 Antwerp Olympics.

It was the first-ever Spanish team to compete in an international tournament. He made his debut in La Roja’s first international match with a 1-0 victory over Denmark. Though the rampant Spaniards defeated in the final against Belgium, Zamora’s performance throughout the tournament established him as the best shot-stopper in the world.

It was an eventful tournament for Zamora in some other ways as well, who also grabbed some unwanted attention on and off the pitch. He was sent off in the match against Italy for punching and breaking the jaw of an opposing player. Another time, airport customs officials caught him smuggling Havana cigars across the Belgian border which caused the entire team to get detained and searched before leaving for Spain.                                        

At Barcelona, he earned the nickname El Divino (The Divine One) and his road to stardom surviving the assaults from opposition attacks bagged massive applause from the Culés. He possessed an immense threat in anticipation to charge down attackers in his own box and had all the physical attributes that modern-day football demands from a player. Enormous, build stature, and nonchalant character, Zamora wore the iconic high-necked polo jumper and a hard cap and stood in front of the goal to wait for the unleashing thunderbolts and storm. His style was imitated by many of his contemporaries, who could mirror all but that nerve-wracking stare at your soul.

Calm, composed, yet aggressive. (Photo by A. Hudson/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

At Barca, he moulded into one of the athletic goalkeepers of the time. His agility and quick reflexes along with the physical superiority often perplexed the attack. Zamora helped Barcelona to lift two Copa del Rey titles and three Campionats de Catalunya. He led a lavish and celebrity life; in fact, he was the first one to explore the scope of marketing the sporting stardom in Spanish football. The Spaniard spent his time with Tango singer Carlos Gardel, smoking three packs of cigarettes a day and drowning in his favorite cognac tipple. Zamora and Samitier had famous night outs in the 1920s, at the time when Barcelona was becoming one of the fashionable cities in Europe. There were poems and songs flattering his honor, cocktails were named after him. Zamora even acted in a film called ‘Zamora Weds At Last’.        

Zamora’s three-year-long stint at Barcelona came to an end under some controversial circumstances. It was reported that in June 1922, Zamora allegedly asked the Barca board for a wage of 50,000 pesetas. He wanted a move back to Espanyol and Barca was reluctant to approve of the transfer. Even though he managed to convince them for the transfer; in 1922, a yearlong ban from the association for deceiving the tax authorities about the transfer fee resulted in delaying his return. Zamora stayed at Espanyol until 1930, guiding them to win their maiden Copa del Rey title, and also played the first La Liga season in 1929.

In 1930, Zamora’s performance with a broken sternum in an international friendly against England at Estadio Metropolitano de Madrid was enough for Madrid to pick him up for an astounding 150,000 pesetas, of which he personally received an enormous 40,000 pesetas, making him the highest-earning player in Europe of the time. Zamora’s eventual move to Madrid resulted in a downfall with his once admired Barça fans, who suspected him of having allegiance with anti-Catalan institutions.

At Madrid, Zamora partnered with the stopper-backs Ciriaco and Quincoces to form one of the best defenses by conceding just 15 goals from 18 matches in the league and lifted the first LaLiga title with an unbeaten record. The following season Los Blancos signed his compadre and Barca teammate Samitier and retained the league title by conceding only 17 goals. In spite of the disappointments in the league in 1934 and 1936, he guided them to lift the 1936 Copa del Rey trophy by playing a crucial role in the final against Barcelona. It was inarguably one of the best and crucial performances of his career.

The Cup final tie played at Valencia between Barcelona and Madrid was the last competitive match before the Civil war. The match was going into the final minutes with Madrid leading 2-1 and Barca was pressing high and surrounded Zamora alone in the box. After receiving the ball in the final third, an inform Jose Escola who already scored one back, fired the ball hard and low aiming for the inside post. The dry pitch was covered with blinding dust and it was obscuring the view. The crowd was already screaming and started celebrating the goal. When the dust was cleared, Zamora stood there indifferently holding the ball in his hand. A photograph that was taken near the post, the dive he pulled off seconds before the stupendous save remains one of the iconic images of a goalkeeper in the world of football. A photograph that broke the heart and soul of cules.

The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936. Zamora who had a sound relationship with the Franco regiment was captured by the left-wing militia and imprisoned at the Modelo prison. However ABC, a pro-nationalistic paper reported the execution of Zamora and finding his lifeless body in a canal-side in Moncloa district. Nationalistic forces used this as an opportunity to strengthen their propaganda.

Zamora hailed as a gallant victim of the radical left violence. Nationalists were able to exploit the commotion caused by the alleged death of Zamora and in 1934 he was awarded a medal of the Order of the Republic by his namesake by then president of the second Spanish republic, Niceto Zamora. Whilst all this was happening, Zamora was in fact living his life with his regular three-pack cigarettes and cognac in the town of Nice in France. He was partnered with Josep Samitier who fled the country for the same cause, for the third time to play for the local club OG Nice.

Always in the public eye. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Zamora returned to his native in December 1938 to participate in a benefit match between Spain and Real Sociedad, for the Francoist militia. He was later honored by the Franco regiment by the Great Cross of the Order of Cisneros in the 1950s, an evident validation for the great services to the regime. Zamora died in 1978, leaving behind a rather complicated and memorable career. La Liga honoured his majestic contributions by naming the award (Ricardo Zamora Trophy) for the best goalkeeper in the league after him. 

“As with so many figures from the dark ages of football, it is difficult to separate the truth from the misty-eyed recollections, but everyone seems to insist that Zamora was the greatest, better than Yashin, Zoff, Banks, Arconada, and any others you care to mention”.    

Phil Ball | Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football (2003)

He remains one of the most important figures in the history of Barcelona and in Spanish football. He might have left on bad terms, but the Blaugrana still adorns the impact and legacy that Zamora left behind. The golden generation of the 1920s was the foundation that established Barça as one of the best sporting entities in Spanish football. His magnetic presence in front of the goal not only won them trophies but inspired the generations of talents to pursue the keeping role. The times when goalkeepers were overlooked for their contributions and presence on the pitch, It was the ‘the divine one’ sent by the heavens to finally write a new testament for those who guard the goal post.   

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