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 ❜
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.
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’ ❜
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.
Josep Samitier, the artist and hero of Barcelona’s first golden age
Josep Samitier was a surrealist artist on and off the pitch and a legendary midfielder that brought Barcelona its first successful era in the 1920s, as well as some controversy throughout his career.
Surrealism, a deceptive interrogation of reality that transcends the human subconscious to manipulate or alter the coherent understanding of existence. Josep Samitier Vilalta, or “L’home llagosta” (The lobster man) was the most surreal portrait in the history of FC Barcelona. He was called the ‘surrealista’, because his genius produced the illusions on the pitch that were perplexing to fathom as reality.
History is constructed up on the interdependency of figures and events. Samitier was one of those figures who created a rift in the annals of world football to produce the first reverberation of football in the streets of Barcelona. The footballing revolution in Catalonia peaked in the early 1920s, especially in Barcelona, as it was the beginning of the first golden age.
With the construction of the Les Corts stadium, the club assembled a group of talented, young players. Josep Samitier, along with Paulino Alcántara, Ricardo Zamora, Emili Sagi-Barba, Vicenç Piera and Agustín Sancho became the first generation of the club idols. Samitier, among others, was an integral part of Barcelona’s rebuilding of character and went on to become one of the most significant personalities both in terms of sporting and cultural relevance.
Samitier was born on 2nd February 1902 in a Catalan working-class family. As a young boy in the streets of Barcelona where the roads of passion and dreams lead to the grant Les Corts, ‘El Sami’ would kick the ball around waving at the passing commons.
After the club’s establishment, FC Barcelona had quite an attachment with the proletarian class. Especially at the time of industrial unrest, the institution always kept them close and the stadium was always packed with the same working-class populace. Young minds like Samitier who would grow up in the streets of Barcelona always had the ball on their feet and club in their heart.
Samitier started playing for FC Internacional before making his debut for Barcelona at the age of 17 in 1919. The club museum still preserves and cherishes his signing bonuses, a shimmering watch and a three-piece suit. By 1925, Samitier became the highest-paid player at the club and thus became the highest-earning player in the country.
The division of labour was evident in the early years of European football. Whilst the backline remained static to protect the goal, the forward line had to pick and fight the battle on their own. Samitier was among the key figures who created a paradigm shift from this prevailing ‘Basque style’, where the attackers held the sole responsibility to win the ball and navigate their own way to find a goal. Samitier was among the first players to orchestrate the game from the back. He was like a master of the opera performance where he controlled and navigated the rhythm and flow of the game.
Josep Samitier (middle), alongside teammates Emili Sagi-Barba (left) and Vicenç Piera (right) from the successful Barcelona team of the 1920s | Photo by FC Barcelona
Samitier was an exceptional player who could manipulate the ball like a wizard, and he dribbled the ball around the pitch like a ballet dancer. He was the first midfielder general in the history of Spanish football, whose role was the hybrid between a Pivote (central midfielder) and the Leñero (chopper) or sweeper. Samitier was the harbinger of the modern-day box-to-box role. Despite being positioned in a deep-lying role, Samitier was an outstanding goalscorer. It was rather unusual for a midfielder of that time to score an astonishing 184 goals for any club in Europe.
Even though Barcelona was graced with many prolific players, Samitier was the core of the magnificent Barça team of the 1920s. He would hack the ball from the opposition to carry the ball from the midfield to provide a line-breaking pass in the final third. His glorious days at Les Corts were filled with thrilling langosta (lobster) kicks which would eventually evolve into the modern ‘chilena’ or bicycle-kick. Samitier was an entertainer on the pitch. His ostentatious performance attracted the Catalans into the stadium.
His glittering thirteen years in a blaugrana shirt were decorated with 11 Catalan Championships, 5 Spanish Championships and the first Spanish league that began in 1928. Moreover, his time with Barça was embellished with title-winning goals in the Copa del Rey finals of 1922, 1925, 1926 and 1928.
Pepe Samitier’s momentous career at Barcelona transformed him from a sporting figure to a cultural icon in Catalan society. His reputation at the club produced a strong political outline for himself among the intellectuals in the society. It was an unprecedented period in the socio-cultural scenario of Europe. The entrée of subjective art and understanding by Salvador Dalí, Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh among other artistic prominence overtook the existing concepts of impressionism and naturalism.
Samitier aligned with surrealism, indulging the spirit of subjectivity. He reflected this both in the game and in his outside loyalties. His acquaintances mostly consist of radical artists and political figures of the time, including the tango maestro Carlos Gardel, Mauricio Chevalier, Salvador Dalí and, in contrast to his idol figure in Catalonia, he also had a close relationship with the dictator Franco.
In 1933, after a dramatic feud with the Barcelona management, an ageing El Sami dropped from the first team. Real Madrid, then called Madrid CF, took advantage of this dispute and were able to convince him to join the club. However, it was his secret allegiance with General Franco that helped Madrid to accomplish the operation.
Even though his short stint at Madrid wasn’t really celebrated, Samitier did guide them to win the La Liga title in 1932/33 and the Copa de España in 1934. But he played a significant role for Madrid, not as a player but as a super-agent in a decade-defining transfer of Alfredo Di Stéfano, whose intended destination was Barcelona. This signing was the inflexion point for Madrid in the 1960s, as Di Stéfano would go on to score 216 goals and play an important role in their European domination. Although Samitier’s allegiance with General Franco was visible, this transfer saga threw the relationship open into society.
Real Madrid’s signing of Alfredo Di Stéfano (right) changed Real Madrid’s history forever | Photo by Staff / AFP via Getty Images
Before the Spanish civil war burst out in 1936, Samitier spent a brief time in managing Atlético de Madrid, succeeding Fred Pentland in the middle of the season, but failed to keep them in the first division. Nonetheless, the season was scrapped as soon as the civil war started and Samitier, who had strong ties with the nationalist side, found himself blacklisted and arrested by the anarchist militia.
Eventually, he was released by the militia and fled to France. His exile to France was later utilized by the Franco regiment to spread the anti-communist propaganda by portraying this event in a film titled ‘The Stars Search for Peace’, where Samitier enacted himself. During his time in France, Samitier joined OGC Nice as a player, where he would unite with his old teammate Zamora. He went onto score 47 goals in 82 matches. In 1939, he retired as a footballer and briefly managed OGC Nice in 1942.
After two years and 8 months, the civil war ended and the nationalists alliance under General Franco demolished the second Spanish republic to establish the new Spanish state. Josep Samitier returned to Spain in 1944, and he took charge of Barcelona. His homecoming was celebrated as he guided Barcelona to win their second-ever La Liga title in 1945 and lifted the Copa de Oro Argentina by beating the Copa del Generalísimo winners Athletic Club de Bilbao.
Subsequently, Samitier became the chief scout of the club and his keen vision in recognising the talent resulted in the discovery and recruitment of Ladislao Kubala, a player who went on to become a legend at Barcelona. The recruitment of Kubala was the status redemption for Samitier, who had lost its shine after the Di Stéfano transfer saga.
In 1972, Samitier rested his soul and left his showmanship and sorcery to cherish in the memories of Catalans. Despite serving Madrid and his close relationship with General Franco, he was given an honourable state funeral as a Catalan hero. Samitier was the most symbolic player in the history of the club. His close affiliation with both the cultural and sporting context of Barcelona formed an irrevocable stature of him in the Catalan society.
Samitier, as a footballing visionary, is a reference to the modern-day midfielders and, on the other hand, he was an imperative cultural icon who embraced a revolutionary socio-cultural movement in his life. Samitier’s journey from being an ambitious boy in the streets of Barcelona to a footballing legend remains one of the inspiring and reviving narrative in the history of the game. Even today, walking down the Josep Samitier Street, one could still gather an enigmatic chanting celebrating the greatest artist in the history of Barcelona.