Every stage has an end. As painful or difficult as a farewell is, all those moments of success must be remembered. The 1995/96 season was the end of an 8-year career as a coach for the man who changed the history of Barça: Johan Cruyff. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a meritorious farewell. At least, not by the board.
Barcelona headed into the 1995/96 season after a dramatic campaign such as the 1994/95. Everyone thought it was already the end of Johan Cruyff’s time as the manager of the Catalans. But, to everyone’s surprise, the Dutchman continued for another year, a year that would become his eighth as the blaugrana boss. Doubts started to raise around the system that had given Barça its first European Cup: the Cruyffism, the style that Cruyff had adopted at Barcelona. Despite the fact that the board and a few fans no longer trusted this system, Johan continued to have faith and conviction in its philosophy.
❛ We all feel that hunger in football. With Cruyff, it was different. He deepened and changed the hunger so you became conscious of why you were getting better ❜
This 1995/96 course was considerably better than the previous one, even if great icons left the club such as Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov and Txiki Begiristain. Barça finished third in La Liga, reached the Copa del Rey final and were knocked out in the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup, today known as the Europa League. Still, Cruyff managed to regain some of the intensity and confidence in the dressing room, in addition to giving minutes to many youngsters from the second team.
Another trophyless season for Barça in the 1995/96 season
As mentioned before, in the summer of 1995 three key players packed their bags to leave the Camp Nou. Centre-back Ronald Koeman was sold to Feyenoord. Hristo Stoichkov, one of the best strikers who was gradually distancing himself from the dressing room, was sold to Italy’s Parma. And finally, Txiki Begiristain, an interior that could play as a winger, left to Deportivo de La Coruña, which was one of the best teams in that era.
At the time it was a hard blow for Barça and Cruyff, as they were three leaders of the renowned Dream Team. But, on the other hand, these were movements that sooner or later were going to be carried out, since they all had arrived because of Johan and they knew that the coach was not going to last much longer.
In this 1995/996 season Cruyff incorporated many Barça B players into the first team
As a consequence of the sale of the superstars, Barça urgently needed some replacements. They did not fail in the search for new players. The most illustrious arrival at that time was Meho Kodro, a striker of Bosnian origin and 1.88 meters tall. He was characterised by being a lethal finisher, always with power both in the air and on the ground. Kodro was a Zlatan Ibrahimović-style of player. Kodro came from recording 23 and 25 goals in La Liga in the previous two seasons, respectively, with Real Sociedad. His statistics in Barcelona endured, but he was never the merciless Kodro of the txuri-urdines.
Barcelona also signed Gheorghe Popescu, who seemed the perfect replacement for Koeman. Popescu was a Romanian who had almost the same attributes as Ronald: fantastic footwork, ability to start plays and a huge amount of goals for a centre-back. Even in the only two seasons that he spent in Catalonia, he managed to be the captain of the team and earned the love of the fans. For several he was one of the best captains in the history of the club for his big influence.
At last, the replacement of Begiristain, much better known today than the other two: Luís Figo. The Portuguese came from Sporting Lisbon as a future promise, but surprised everyone and got a place in Cruyff’s XI. One of the coach’s favourite footballers in that season. He adapted very quickly and offered things that were no longer seen in Barcelona. Tactical intelligence, imbalance, goals, assists, but, above all, and without being Catalan, he greatly loved the city and local culture. This caused his adaptation to be even faster, and many culés to buy Figo’s shirt.
La Masía Pick
This year’s La Masía Pick is for Roger García, who at just 19 years of age was able to feature in 46 games and be a starter for Barcelona. A versatile attacking midfielder with inventiveness and confidence when playing, he could create his own shot as well as opportunities for his teammates. Roger was the one who had the greatest impact, but that year Cruyff also gave many chances to several other Barça B talents: Iván de la Peña, who was also a starter, Albert Celades and Óscar García, Roger’s brother.
The squad changed but the system remained the same. Carles Busquets became a strong candidate for the Zamora award for the goalkeeper with the least conceded goals in the league. The duo of full-backs in Albert Ferrer and Sergi Barjuán was improving more and more in a four-man defence. In the centre-back partnership, Popescu partnered up with Miguel Ángel Nadal, who recovered the starting spot in the initial XI. Meanwhile, Abelardo Fernández added competition and was the back-up for the two centre-backs.
Roger García, Luís Figo, Guillermo Amor, Gheorghe Hagi and Iván de la Peña all transformed into versatile players because of Cruyff
In the middle of the axis there was Pep Guardiola as the pivot, who was in one of the best moments of his career in terms of quality. With the exits of Koeman and keeper Andoni Zubizarreta, Guardiola had more weight in the group. Roger García stayed inside from the left, and Bakero was a little more offensive as an interior.
In attack, Iván de la Peña and Luís Figo occupied the flans, while Kodro stayed upfront. The versatility of the likes of De la Peña and Figo made Cruyff use them as wingers in many cases. There was a lot of flexibility, since all offensive players, with the exception of Pep and Kodro, could take up various roles. Players like Guillermo Amor, Albert Celades, Óscar García and Gheorghe Hagi had a crucial task in the rotations.
But what happened to Jordi Cruyff, the son of Johan who had shone in the previous campaign? Jordi suffered an injury that did not allow him to play many games in his second season as a professional. Without a doubt, it was an unfortunate absence for Barça.
Stats and competitions
In the 1995/96 season, La Liga comprised for the first time 22 teams in the first division, so each club had to play four more games than usual. In total, 42 games per team. In the national league, Barça was in the fight for the title for most of the year, but in midseason the azulgranas had a couple of games in which they dropped points. That’s when Atlético de Madrid took the advantage.
Even so, Barcelona had a great campaign in La Liga, including victories such as the 3–0 in El Clásico against Real Madrid, and an average of almost two goals per match. On the other hand, the club lost twice to Atlético, 1–3 in both encounters, and once to Valencia. Both sides finished with more points than the Catalans.
Óscar García was the second top goalscorer in the 1995/96 season for Barça
Barça also managed to reach the final of the Copa del Rey. But in extra time, Atlético de Madrid scored the winner and took the title. Moreover, Barcelona failed to qualify for the Champions League, so they had to play the UEFA Cup. After a great run, they were eliminated by Bayern Munich in the semi-finals. A Bayern in which legends Lothar Matthäus and Oliver Khan were the main references. In the first leg, Barcelona achieved a good result after a 2–2 draw with goals from Óscar and Hagi. However, the Germans managed to pull a surprise at the Camp Nou with two goals. Barcelona were able to score just one goal in the final minutes, but it was not enough to force the extra time.
The end of Johan Cruyff’s era as a coach
This is how the last season of the man who changed the history of FC Barcelona ended. Hendrik Johannes Cruijff had established a unique philosophy and style, and brought unequalled success by that time. In his eight years as a coach, Cruyff’s Barcelona won four La Ligas, one Copa del Rey, one European Cup, one European Cup Winners’ Cup and one UEFA Super Cup. The so-called Dream Team set a new standard of excellence at the Camp Nou, to which their subsequent reincarnations have aspired. Nothing like this had been seen in the azulgrana team before Cruyff’s arrival.
❛ Cruyff defined a philosophy and a style of how we had to play: positional play, type of players, even the profile of the coaches ❜
Still, Johan Cruyff was fired due to disagreements with president Josep Lluís Núñez, who was resentful of the Dutchman’s influence. Cruyff had more autonomy than a coach in Spain normally enjoyed, and Núñez wanted to change that. But even when Cruyff’s legacy was undervalued and often denigrated by fans and executives of the moment, his DNA ran throughout the club, almost subconsciously. It was integrated into the spirit of the shirts, incorporated into everyone’s mentality. He became FC Barcelona, as had happened with Ajax in Amsterdam.
But Núñez was jealous. At Barça, Cruyff was the leader and the board was in the background. After the 1994 European Cup final against AC Milan, which the blaugranas lost, Núñez seized the opportunity to make excuses that this style was not working. He wanted to take credit away from the creator of this philosophy. But it was impossible. Taking credit away from Cruyff was taking credit away from Barcelona, because what Núñez didn’t know is that Johan Cruyff and Barcelona were one single unit.
Barça 1996/97 season: The Bobby Robson and Ronaldo Nazário era
With Johan Cruyff’s departure, the azulgranas were beginning a transition stage. The club found his replacement, Bobby Robson, along with a new star: Ronaldo Nazário. The Barça of the 1996/97 season was lethal with the Brazilian, but they lacked a bit of luck to get most titles.
Barça entered into a stage of transition with the departure in 1996 of coach Johan Cruyff, who had spent eight years in charge of the club. As a replacement, the club decided to hire Bobby Robson, an English manager who arrived after doing great jobs with England’s national team, PSV Eindhoven and FC Porto. However, a different philosophy and external pressure made the Robson era more complicated.
Still, the English coach obtained results, in part thanks to Barça’s great signing that season: Ronaldo Nazário. In this campaign, Barcelona won the Copa del Rey, the Spanish Super Cup and the now abolished UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup. The team was also very close to winning La Liga, which was tight until the end, but two cruel afternoons against a newly promoted Hércules deprived them of six points with which the blaugranas would have been champion.
The Bobby Robson era was congruent with the spell of Ronaldo Nazário at Barcelona
Before analysing the signings, a very important point must be taken into account: the Bosman ruling. It is necessary to know that the Bosman ruling began in that summer of 1996 and increased the possibility of having multiple European players in the squad. Previously, teams could only have a maximum of three foreigners on the pitch. This ended in 1996 after former footballer Marc Bosman asked for his rights and changed the history of football. This law favoured all sides, especially the international ones, and Barcelona wasn’t an exception. More freedom was allowed in the transfer market.
One of Robson’s first tasks was expanding the squad depth that the team had been losing in the previous seasons. His first great signing was a young Ronaldo Nazário. After two seasons at PSV, where he scored 42 goals in 46 games, O Fenômeno caught the attention of many clubs, including Barça. In the end, the Dutch club and Barcelona reached an agreement to transfer him for 15 million euros. Without a doubt, one of the Catalans’ best decisions that term.
As a consequence of the Bosman ruling, the blaugranas managed to sign more players. Among them was Vítor Baía, who became the starting goalkeeper, and Giovanni Silva, a creative and skillful playmaker. In addition, the return of Hristo Stoichkov added quality on the bench. Luis Enrique, after being criticised by fans at Real Madrid, arrived to Barcelona to regain his confidence. At last, others like Laurent Blanc and Juan Antonio Pizzi joined the group too.
The Bosman ruling allowed Barcelona, and other teams, to have a deep squad
Barcelona also let several players go to recover the investments made, as was the case of Gheorghe Hagi. Moreover, Mehmed Kodro also departed as he never became the striker he was in his time at Real Sociedad. Jordi Cruyff, after a series of injury problems and, most importantly, the departure of his father Johan, signed for Manchester United, where he was a great squad player under Sir Alex Ferguson.
The La Masía Pick goes to Francesc Arnau. In this campaign there was almost no confidence in Barcelona’s reserves, and Arnau was one of the few who could get his debut. A goalkeeper who started in the background this term, but whose minutes would increase in the subsequent years.
Bobby Robson, unlike Johan Cruyff, was a very conservative coach. While Cruyff liked to risk the defence to get big opportunities in offence, Robson preferred to wait for the counter-attack and increase the defensive capabilities. Surprisingly, it worked in most cases. Well, it must be said that the Englishman had the right players at his disposal to be able to apply his game system.
Vítor Baía, who had a pretty decent first season, was the goalkeeper. As the centre-back duo there were the legendary Laurent Blanc alongside Miguel Ángel Nadal. A solid partnership at all times, with the Frenchman ready to start plays from deep. And as full-backs, the well-known Sergi Barjuán and Chapi Ferrer were the starters, despite their importance decreased as the new system did not benefit them as much as in previous courses.
Not many agreed with his methods at the start of the season, but Bobby Robson ended up being an innovative coach
Barcelona played a 4–2–3–1 formation with a double pivot. Robson had the brilliant vision to discover the versatility of Gheorghe Popescu, a natural centre-back used as a defensive midfielder. Popescu formed a brilliant connection with Pep in midfield. While the Romanian focused on defensive tasks, Pep had more stamina to distribute and attack. It worked perfectly. In front of them was Giovanni Silva, who connected the pivots’ line to the front three. On the left side was Luis Enrique, a pure finisher who could also operate in his more natural central position. And on the right there was Luís Figo, key to enhancing the Catalan attack.
Finally, the number 9 was the best player on the team: Ronaldo Nazário. A physical and mental phenomenon, the Brazilian was energetic and always went with intensity to his beloved purpose: goals. His skills, connection with teammates, finishing ability in the box, intelligence to get off his mark, initiative and ball-protection skills made of R9 an unstoppable forward in his time as a blaugrana. Although many know him for his time at Inter Milan and Real Madrid, Ronaldo had his best individual season at Barça. He scored the ridiculous amount of 47 goals in 49 games. The world got to know O Fenômeno.
Stats and competitions
Barcelona had won nothing in the previous season. Still, being runners-up in the Copa del Rey allowed them to qualify for the Spanish Super Cup due to Atlético de Madrid winning the domestic double. The 1996/97 term started with Barça lifting the Super Cup trophy against Radomir Antić’s Atleti. The first leg was a 5–2 victory with a Ronaldo brace in his first official appearance with the Catalans. Robson’s team achieved a good advantage against the best team in Spain that year.
In the second leg, Barcelona did not have Ronaldo, Giovanni, Baía and Figo due to the international break. So a young Julen Lopetegui had to be the goalkeeper of that match along with other players on the bench. In the end, the clash ended in 1–3 for Los Colchoneros, but the aggregate result was of 6–5 for Barça. A title to build confidence in Robson early in the season.
Ronaldo Nazário only stayed for one season at Barcelona, but he made a legendary impact
The 22-teams dynamic in La Liga still existed for this campaign, so all sides played a total of 42 games. Barcelona was a strong candidate to win the league. However, defeats against Real Valladolid and Hércules in the final matchdays made the azulgranas drop important points. In the end, Real Madrid won La Liga with a two-point lead.
In the Copa del Rey, the culés had a brilliant tournament to remember. In the first round, they faced Real Madrid. Barcelona beat Los Blancos after a 3–2 win at the Camp Nou and a 1–1 draw on the road. In the quarter-finals, Barça faced Atlético Madrid in one of the most exciting play-offs in the club’s entire history. The first leg ended in a 2–2 tie at the rojiblancos‘ stadium after a spectacular duel.
Nevertheless, the reverse fixture was a thousand times better. At the Camp Nou, the visitors achieved a 0–3 advantage in the opening 30 minutes with a hat-trick from Milinko Pantić. Time later, in the 47th minute, Ronaldo Nazário opened the scoring for the locals, and just four minutes later he scored the second. The comeback was getting closer until, a few seconds after the 2–3, Pantić scored another goal to complete his poker and lower Barcelona’s motivation. Even so, the azulgranas continued fighting. Figo, Ronaldo, completing his hat-trick, and Pizzi turned the game around to send Barcelona to the next round after a dramatic encounter.
After that, Barcelona comfortably eliminated Las Palmas in the semi-finals and were preparing for the final against Real Betis. The final of the Copa del Rey was as exciting as the run to it. Losing by 1–2, in the final minutes the Catalans equalised the game and sent it to extra time. Here, Luís Figo dressed as a hero and gave Barça the title after a 3–2 victory through the 120 minutes.
Besides, in the 1996/97 season Barça didn’t participate in either the Champions League or the UEFA Cup, currently known as the Europa League. Rather, they took part in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup. This was a European tournament that involved the Cup winners of each European country, or the runners-up in case the league and the Cup champions were the same team. The latter was the case for Barcelona, and after an extraordinary run, they reached the final to face Paris Saint-Germain. The game was won by Barça by 1–0 with a penalty goal from Ronaldo in the first half.
All in all, Barcelona managed to win three trophies, even if the minor ones, and were close to achieving La Liga. Still, Bobby Robson agreed with the club to not be the coach for the following season, but remained in a secretary position for a year and was important to the adaptation of the next coach, Louis van Gaal.
In addition to his results, the affection Robson received from culés must be highlighted. His press conferences, with a young Mourinho as a translator, are still remembered. And with the passage of time, that squad has also drawn attention for the high number of players who are coaches at present. Names like Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique, Laurent Blanc, Julen Lopetegui, Abelardo, Juan Antonio Pizzi or Albert Celades are among them.