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Més que uns Capitans

José María Bakero: Talking the talk; Walking the walk

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Photo via Imago

In 1988, FC Barcelona signed a Spaniard who would go on to captain the Catalans to European glory. Jose Maria Bakero joined FC Barcelona from Real Sociedad for €2 million and would go on to become one their best captains. The Spaniard was a pivotal part of Johan Cruyff’s infamous Dream Team and now is a Blaugrana legend, forever etched into the club’s rich history.

Bakero’s story started in 1980 when he made his senior debut for Real Sociedad at the age of 17. He ended the season with 27 appearances. Twenty-seven appearances for a 17-year-old player serves as a testament to the faith that manager Ormaetxea had in Bakero. Eight years later, at 25 years of age, Mari Bakero would be presented in the Garnet and Blue of Barcelona at the Camp Nou.

Handpicked by Cruyff

Bakero was made Barcelona captain in 1993. While captainship was originally going to go to Andoni Zubizarreta after Jose Alexanko’s exit, Johann Cruyff decided to make Bakero captain, mostly due to his commanding attitude and his second-to-none leadership skills.

On top of that, Cruyff also preferred to have a midfielder as a captain, because he thought a midfielder has an eye on everything happening on the pitch. All of these aspects, along with the fact that Bakero took responsibility for his actions, made him an invaluable player for the legendary manager.

Even to this day, his fierce attitude has not faded. In an interview in 2018, Bakero spoke about how important it is to be accountable for your own actions, to take responsibility for your shortcomings instead of searching for excuses that will do you no good in the long run.

Every day there are things that will make you think and with football, it’s the same thing. You have to learn from what happens every day. You can get mad at the coach or your teammates, or your dad, but you have to learn what has happened and what you have done wrong.

Jose Maria Bakero

Evidently, the Spaniard tried to extend beyond the realm of just the sport. His words are something to live by, and he served as a role model with his attitude, inspiring the next generation of players with his off-the-pitch leadership.

While that is a more common concept today, with players like Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata, and Raheem Sterling among others taking incentive to focus at issues that revolve out of the sphere of the game, it was quiet alien back in the day. Bakero preaching his beliefs was, and still is something that fans can be proud of.

Bakero the Player

Bakero was not only a splendid captain, he was quite the player as well. His tenacity and his ability to lose his marker made him a formidable player. He often positioned himself in front of the opposition goal after manoeuvring past the defensive line. He was an absolute demon in the air and was able to head almost any ball, from anywhere, right into the net.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Bakero! (Photo via Imago)

The Spaniard amassed a total of 339 appearances for the club, with his most iconic game for Barcelona, being against Kaiserslautern in the second leg of the European Cup, Round of 16.

It was the 6th of November, 1991. Barcelona was down 0-3. There were 30 seconds left. Ronald Koeman swung the ball into the box and in a moment of magic, Bakero snuck in between Kranz and Scherr to head the ball into the back of the German net. It was ecstasy.

That goal allowed Barcelona to advance on away goals, which paved the path to Wembley, and we all know how the night in Wembley ended. As a direct result of his clutch goal, Barcelona were European Champions for the first time ever, and the impression that achievement left on all young players is what eventually led to the Golden Era of the Catalan Giants.

Bakero is the embodiment of the term “club legend”. He spent 8 seasons at Barcelona and produced innumerable moments of joy. In his 8 seasons at the club, the Spaniard played 432 games and scored 115 goals.

In 1996, Bakero concluded his chapter in Blaugrana colours, after winning it all; one European Cup, four La Ligas, one European Super Cup, one Copa Del Rey, four Spanish Super Cups, two Copa Catalunya Cups and one Cup Winners Cup – 14 trophies in eight years, sheer greatness.

Beyond all the silverware, Bakero’s greatest gift to the club was the unforgettable memories he helped form. If Bakero had never joined Barcelona, the Dream Team might not have ever been successful, the night in Wembley might not have happened, Cruyff’s philosophies might have been abandoned, and maybe Pep Guardiola may have never been appointed as manager.

Of course, such hypothetical statements can be made about any player, but they certainly hold true in Bakero’s case due to the direct impact he had on the team.

While his chapter at Camp Nou may have concluded, a new story is still being written. In 2017, he took charge of the professional youth football at FC Barcelona along with another former Barcelona player, Guillermo Amor. Today, Bakero is the Director of Football for Barcelona’s U19 team, and has a strict ideology about how the youth team should be run. How is his position and influence changes with the new board will be interesting to see, especially if Xavi Hernandez joins as manager.

What we look for is talent. Sometimes talent comes with the smaller players and talent is often connected with how intelligent you are, and the most important thing is their mind. The difference for someone who makes ten million and another who makes one million is that this one scores and this one doesn’t get there. The margins are small and normally it’s up here (points to his head).

jose mari bakero

Bakero’s philosophies are in line with what Cruyff once infamously said: “Football is a game you play with your mind.” He agrees that football, just like everything else in life, is difficult, but he’s a firm believer in the idea that if there is a will, there is a way.

Today’s Barcelona has lost its colour and character because of the lack of determination present among the players. The captains refuse to show their faces and come face to face with the fans after humiliating results; there is constant feud and drama going on behind the scenes.

FC Barcelona today, in all honesty, is an embarrassment. The resignation of Bartomeu and his board members is sure to pivot the club in a better direction, however, at the end of the day, football is played by the players, not by the management or the board. If the players are not willing to play their hearts out on the pitch, the same cycle of humiliation will keep repeating.

While no one doubts Lionel Messi’s footballing prowess, his leadership skills can be criticized. Three out of the four captains – Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Sergi Roberto, went silent for weeks following the disaster in Lisbon at the hands of Bayern Munich.

Gerard Pique was the only captain who broke the ice off his boots, and faced the music with integrity and offer up his place in the team to young blood. While Ronald Koeman has been quite efficient in cleaning the squad but cutting out deadweights like Arturo Vidal, Luis Suarez, and Ivan Rakitic, revolutionalizing Barcelona will take time.

Committed players like Bakero are the ones who made Barcelona into an iconic footballing institution and are the type of players the Catalan giants are severely missing right now. For context, current Barcelona full-back Jordi Alba, after the Anfield humiliation, came out to target the fanbase: “Fans are spoiled.” Mediocrity has seeped into the club’s veins, which is why the same mistakes are repeated every year.

Bakero took pride in the armband, it was part of his flesh. (Photo via Imago)

It can be argued that with Bakero’s commanding profile and with his formidable mentality, results such as the 0-3 in Rome, the 0-4 at Anfield or the recent 2-8 in Lisbon would never have happened, but one thing that is certain is that Bakero would have been the first player to show his face to the press, the fans, the first one to take responsibility, the first one to sacrifice his place in the team for the sake of the team.

My name is Malhar. I've been watching Barcelona ever since I saw Barca's Spanish players dismantle opponents for fun in the 2010 World Cup. Over the years, my love for Barcelona has evolved into a passion to write about Barcelona. I love writing about the club. I usually have very unpopular opinions, but I'm proud of them and I stand by them. Feel free to discuss about anything related to football, with me!

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Més que uns Capitans

Andres Iniesta: The master of time and space

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Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso

Time and tide wait for no one. 

The famous saying hits harder in sporting environs than anywhere else. One moment, you are on top of the game you love and cherish, garnering the love and adulation of fans across the world; the next, you are staring into the abyss, painfully aware that the time on top is fast approaching its end. The same holds for footballers, even someone who so expertly controlled time and space for years on end. We are, of course, talking about Andrés Iniesta Luján.

One of the best midfielders in the world, Iniesta has gone on to earn the admiration of fans, colleagues, counterparts and coaches the world over. However, despite his staggering stature, Iniesta was not someone who you would pass off as a potentially world-class player on first glance.

Indeed, his diminutive figure could fool many. But this was a footballer who packed a punch in typically graceful fashion whenever he took to the pitch. Iniesta, though, did not really have the best of beginnings at Barcelona.

Capturing the attention of Guardiola

When Andres Iniesta joined La Masia back in 1996, he was so overwhelmed by being separated from his parents that he has gone on to describe the occasion as the worst day of his life, a day when he “cried rivers”. Little did the timid kid who hailed from Fuentealbilla know that he was one day going to become one of the best players that the game has ever seen.

young iniesta

Andres Iniesta took a long time before breaking into the Barcelona team, and becoming captain. (Photo via Imago)

However, many who viewed him in action even before that big day knew that Iniesta was destined for greatness. Former Albacete coach and casino employee Andre Manuel Balo recounts how he needed to watch Iniesta for just five minutes at his trial, iterating how it was more than long enough to be sure of his talent.

“We watched him at the trial, and after five minutes we said: “Take that little kid off; we’ve seen enough.” In fact, it wasn’t even five minutes. It didn’t take him long; we were convinced. After everything we had been told and with what we had just seen, that was more than enough. It was wonderful to watch him: so small, the ball at his feet, bigger than he was. Why did we take him off so soon? Because we were so sure and we had to use that time to watch the other kids, the ones we had doubts about. There were no doubts with Andrés. Andrés played in the middle, and once he got the ball, there was no way of getting it off him. It was impossible. Pretty much like it is now, in fact.”

Andre Manuel Balo | An extract from The Artist: Being Andres Iniesta (Autobiography)

The trend would continue as Iniesta joined a fabled academy, where his life would change forever. The soon-to-be teenager was extremely shy and reserved when he made his way to La Masia. However, he really did not need to speak a word, as his game was enough to force people to sit up and take note of his captivating abilities.

And despite his quiet nature, Iniesta provided the first demonstration of his leadership qualities when he captained Barcelona Under-15 to lift the 1999 Nike Premier Cup. Not only that, but he also scored the winning goal in the final and was named the player of the tournament, typically leading by example, as he would all through his senior career.

Iniesta never scored an awful lot of goals, but he did get used to scoring winners, coming up clutch on the biggest of occasions, as Chelsea and Netherlands can recall correctly – just two teams that suffered the wrath of the maestro’s pitch-perfect timing.

iniesta Chelsea

Iniesta always came through for Barcelona. (Photo via Getty)

The first time Iniesta really caught the eye of those who mattered, though, was when he was invited to train with the first-team not long after that triumphant Nike Premier Cup campaign. It is here when he left Pep Guardiola, a Barcelona legend who would go on to coach him at Camp Nou a few years later, absolutely dumbfounded. 

Even in this instance, though, his reserved nature prompted Guardiola to send Luis Enrique fishing for the prodigious teenager. It is on this day when Guardiola famously proclaimed, “Remember this day, the day you first played with Andrés,” before pulling Xavi, who would later become Iniesta’s partner-in-crime, to one side to whisper, “You’re going to retire me. This lad is going to retire us all.”

Iniesta was not too dissimilar to Guardiola himself in that he embodied the famous La Masia principles of ball retention, passing and using space — “Receive, pass, offer, receive, pass, offer.” He knew when to pick the right pass, how to set the tempo of the game, boasting spatial and time awareness unlike any other. He would later go on to be the flag bearer of the academy at a time when youngsters would, more often than not, have an unclear pathway to the first-team due to the conveyor belt of foreign players arriving at Camp Nou in the past decade or so.

Xavi iniesta

Xavi and Iniesta dominated the world of football for years to come. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)

Coming of Age

Less than a decade after impressing Guardiola, Iniesta would go on to inspire the now-Manchester City boss. However, he was not really on a bed of roses upon his promotion to the first-team. Instead, Iniesta slowly grew into his role of a midfield mainstay and was a deputy to Xavi and Deco till a game that changed his life and defined Barcelona for the next decade or so. This was also the game when Iniesta provided an early indication of his leadership abilities within the first-team.

As Barcelona lined up to take on Arsenal in the UEFA Champions League final in 2006, Iniesta was unsurprisingly named as a substitute. However, a slow start to the game had seen Barça fall behind Arsenal despite having the numerical advantage after an early dismissal for the Gunners’ goalkeeper Jens Lehmann. Then manager Frank Rijkaard, though, was in inspired touch on the sidelines, making three changes that would alter the course of the game.

iniesta arsenal 2006

Iniesta looked ice-cold on the grandest stage in club football, playing among some absolute superstars. (Photo via Imago)

But while Henrik Larsson provided two assists and Juliano Belletti scored the winner, Iniesta’s contribution went under the radar in the game. Installed in the ‘pivote’ slot after replacing Edmilson at half-time, the young prospect was assured rather than star-eyed playing a role he was not accustomed.

Iniesta, though, did exactly what Rijkaard wanted from him – pick the ball up in deep areas and dictate play. Soon enough, his teammates would follow his lead and dance to the tune of his moves. Perhaps for the first time in his senior career, had embraced added responsibility and come out of the experience a man who would go on to boss games as second nature for years to come.

The Guardiola era was soon ushered in and Iniesta went on to become the bedrock of the Barcelona side that dominated football for nearly half-a-decade and is often labelled as the best team of all time. It is at this time when the Spanish wizard started taking on even more responsibility. Alongside Xavi, he would go on to essay the tiki-taka brand of football to perfection, guiding Barcelona to unparalleled success.  

Slowly but surely, it had become difficult to imagine a team without Iniesta at its very heart. Such was the sheer impact of Iniesta’s performance that Sir Alex Ferguson singled him out in his pre-match preparation ahead of the 2009 Champions League final, at the end of which Barcelona returned to the summit of Europe.

iniesta Xavi Rooney Manchester United 2009 icl final

Barcelona and Iniesta showed Barcelona no mercy. (Photo by CARL DE SOUZA/AFP)

Post the chastening that United had just received, Wayne Rooney marvelled at the mention of Iniesta, exclaiming in the dressing room that the Red Devils had just been beaten by a team overseen by the best player in the world. He was, of course, talking about Iniesta and not Xavi or Lionel Messi. The baggage of leading the team as its club captain would soon follow.

Succeeding Xavi

By the time of the 2014/15 season began, it had already become clear that Iniesta was next in line to become the club captain at Camp Nou. Over the course of that campaign, which saw Barcelona become the first club in the history of the game to win the treble of the domestic league, domestic cup and European Cup twice, Iniesta had already donned the armband in the absence of Xavi. 

iniesta captain Xavi

Iniesta already knew the responsibilities that came with the armband. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

Soon enough, the Spaniard inherited the famous armband from Xavi for good. It is at this time when a painful transition began at Camp Nou, one that continues to haunt the Blaugrana to this day. However, the mere presence of Iniesta on the pitch meant that the passing of the torch to the next batch was elongated, although many-a-time, it was agonizingly obvious that a lot needed to change at the club. 

No longer were Barça a feared quantity, which was clear in the way they were booted out of the UEFA Champions League by AS Roma, after they had appeared to be comfortable in the quarter-final tie. By the time the 2017/18 season came to a close, Iniesta had once again played his part in a league and cup double, scoring the winner in the Copa del Rey final in a man-of-the-match performance. 

Even in his cup swansong, which would be followed by the poignant and powerful farewell at Camp Nou, Iniesta was the best player on the pitch, again letting his game do the talking. However, the aforementioned farewell is what would capture the imagination while filling the Culés, in with a sense of fear about what was to come. 

iniesta captain Messi

Not quite what Iniesta would have wanted, but Iniesta’s final game with the Blaugranas was a thumping against Sevilla in the CDR, where he scored a rare goal. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty)

Iniesta’s time had hesitantly come. A player who often had the command over time and space at will on the pitch would soon no longer be putting on the famous Blaugrana strip. When the time finally, painstakingly came to bid him goodbye, Messi gave him the tightest hug seen on a football field, taking an extra moment to hold on to his dear friend. The new captain-in-waiting was aware that he would no longer be able to look towards Iniesta for inspiration. That absence is dearly felt to this day.

Doing the armband justice

Iniesta’s leadership style was another way to differentiate him from the run-of-the-mill player, the usual copybook captain. He does not scream and shout, barking out orders like a Roy Keane. He also does not look to take matters into his own hand like a Carles Puyol. He was a captain who would often lead by example, but that does not mean that that was the only way he would assert his authority or instil a sense of optimism.

The first instance of Iniesta displaying such a trait was in the early days of Pep Guardiola’s reign as the Barcelona manager. Barça had made a slow start to the season, and Guardiola was facing a baptism of fire. The team was well off being a champion outfit, let alone a feared quantity. With Guardiola buried in his notes, he heard a knock on the door. Out peeked the diminutive figure of Iniesta, who started:

“Hello, míster. Don’t worry, míster. We’ll win it all. We’re on the right path. Carry on like this, OK? We’re playing brilliantly, we’re enjoying training. Please, don’t change anything.”

Pep Guardiola recalling Iniesta’s words | An extract from The Artist: Being Andres Iniesta (Autobiography)

The vote of confidence did not come from the most influential of players at the time. It did not even come from the most vocal of players.

iniesta guardiola

Iniesta was a man Guardiola, or any other manager at the helm could trust. (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty)

However, in doing so, Iniesta proved that while he may not speak a lot, one has to sit up and take note on the odd occasion when he did. With Johan Cruyff publicly backing him and Iniesta buoying him behind closed doors, Guardiola had all the confidence in the world to guide Barcelona to a historic season. By the summer of 2009, Barça had won each of the six titles they had been vying 10 months ago.

As Guardiola would further state, “People usually think that it is the coach who has to raise the spirits of his players; that it is the coach who has to convince his footballers; that it is his job to take the lead all the time. But that’s not always the case. It wasn’t the case at the Camp Nou for me. You start, you lose at Numancia, you draw with Racing, you just can’t get going, you feel watched, and you feel alone and then suddenly, there’s Andrés telling me not to worry.

It’s hard to imagine, because it’s not the kind of thing that happens and because it’s Iniesta we’re talking about, someone who doesn’t find it easy to express his feelings. And after he’d gone, I asked myself: how can people say that coaches should be cold when they make decisions? Impersonal? That’s ridiculous! How can I be cold, distant, removed with Andrés?

Guardiola would further hail Iniesta by saying he helped him understand the game better, simply by wielding his craft on the pitch. Indeed, when on the pitch, he carried an aura that demanded excellence, nay perfection, by himself demanding that of him every single time. When his teammates were in need of a pick-me-up, though, Iniesta would even let his words spur them on to lift their levels. 

As he would privately with Guardiola, the midfield maestro knew just what to say at the right time, just as he would when releasing a pass at the most opportune of moments. Such moments also came when the time was right. By his way of leading, Iniesta taught us that leaders can be humble, unselfish, grounded and unassuming, all while leading a highly successful side.

iniesta Camp Nou alone

A photo that can bring any Barcelona fan to tears. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

In the end, though, his time at Camp Nou was over, just as it was for many before him, just as it will be for many more after him. The Andrés Iniesta chapter was duly closed. However, he departed Barcelona as a legend in his own right, embodying the club’s proud slogan, Més que un club.

Time and tide wait for no one. As with everyone, it did catch up with the diminutive midfield wizard. For a long time, though, when Andres Iniesta had the ball at his feet, time would often stand still, dancing to the tune of his orchestrating brilliance, and Futbol Club Barcelona were better for it.

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