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.
Lionel Messi: The unconventional captain
“Here he is again. Here he is again. That’s astonishing! That’s absolutely world-class!” “Look at this, Kevin! It’s a brilliant run from Messi. Can he go all the way!” “But here’s Messi. Away from two…three…four. Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful!”
They say mere words cannot express beautiful stories. Yet these few lines are enough to send shivers down the spines of Barcelona fans all over the world. They bring back raw emotions of those glorious days of the past. Those fervent Champions League nights, Cup finals and El Clasicos. A point in time when all the ardent Barça supporters used to have their eyes glued to their TV screens to watch the magic unfold in front of them.
The all-conquering team donning the historic blue and red colours brought exuberant smiles on the faces of every Culér out there, and at the heart of it all, was one man — Lionel Messi. An outlier in a generation of extraordinary footballers.
Born in Rosario to working-class parents, Lionel Messi had relatively humble beginnings. But his passion and love for the beautiful game was apparent from the start. He was ready to give his all for the sport.
“He would never say no to anything. If I told him to run, he would run. If I told him to do an exercise, he would do it. All I had to do was to encourage and support him.”Enrique ‘Quique’ Dominguez | This is Football (Amazon Prime Documentary)
This quote from his coach Enrique Dominguez, during his Newell’s Young Boys days, goes to show that his dedication was not something he learnt. It was a virtue he already had from the beginning, etched on his heart from a very young age.
Life did not start at high speed for Lionel Messi. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
As with any artist, Messi had the sublime levels of talent and the desire to fight for his dreams. All he needed was a canvas to paint on. And when his father took him to Barcelona for trials, he caught his lucky break. Before he knew it, he had been picked up by Barcelona and thus began the journey that defined an era.
It was not plain sailing, though. A success story never is. Carles Rexach, Jospe Maria Minguella and Horacio Gaggioli, the three figures behind the signing, faced opposition from board members and coaches. To comply with FIFA regulations, they had to pay an amount unheard of for a player in the under 14s to keep him at Barcelona. Yet they took the risk, and Barcelona supporters all over are reaping the rewards today.
The False Nine
When talking about Lionel Messi, it is impossible not to talk about the false nine position under Pep Guardiola. It is not easy to become the very definition of a particular position, but the six-time Ballon d’Or winner managed to achieve the feat nonetheless.
Everyone knew Leo was going to be a world-beater when he began making headlines at the age of nineteen. But the true potential of Barça’s crown jewel was on display when Guardiola’s team destroyed Real Madrid 2-6 at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Lionel Messi left no scope for Real Madrid in this encounter back in 2009. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
A false nine is a centre forward who drops back between the lines of opposition players creating spaces and opportunities to score. ‘La Pulga’ excelled in the position because it took full advantage of his repertoire of sublime traits. Unlike most players, Messi possessed a lethal combination of skillsets that brought out the need for the use of such an unorthodox role.
Beleaguering defences at all times and causing havoc on the pitch was Messi’s job. However, he achieved it with unforeseen levels of elegance. Be it his mazy and intricate runs or his telepathic connection with midfielders like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, or with fullbacks like Dani Alves, Jordi Alba, the #10 never fails to surprise.
Messi’s understanding of the game allowed him to form sensational on-the-pitch connections. (Photo by Joern Pollex/Bongarts)
While he was a bodacious dribbler and a natural goal scorer, his supernatural passing and astounding vision made him a priceless asset. He was also a phenomenal reader of the game. But nothing was more important than his adept decision making. Not only was he almost always right in his choices, but he also made them at the blink of an eye.
“Its about understanding the game. When in every situation, he takes the right decision at the right moment. And every time, his decision is correct.”Pep Guardiola | This is Football (Amazon Prime Documentary)
A different kind of skipper
Leo Messi is, for the most part, a silent leader. His performances speak for themselves. Especially in recent times, when he has an off day, the team heavily suffers. His mere presence on the pitch is enough to lift the team spirit. He has a magical aura around him that can strike fear in even the toughest of players and one that can turn an average team into levels above.
The number of times the 800-capped La Masia graduate come to Barça’s rescue is ineffable.
But one thing that many people forget to speak about is his personality. Whenever a new player comes to the team, it is understandable that it is tough to adjust to the new environment. Especially at a club like FC Barcelona, a player may have varying levels of maturity.
Lionel Messi’s performances speak a lot more than he does. (Photo by GERARD JULIEN)
Be it an established player like Antoine Griezmann or a fledgeling talent like Pedri, Leo is one of the first to help them feel comfortable. He uses what he has learned throughout the years to help others elevate their game. Leo’s influence on his teammates is an equally important and much-overlooked aspect of being a captain.
“From day one, Messi has been good to me. He gives me a lot of advice on the pitch. He is an incredible person.”Pedri | Dynamo Kyiv Pre-game Presser
The imperfect captain
Whilst the little magician is a master of playing the beautiful game, he is not exactly an ideal leader, on the pitch anyway. When Andres Iniesta finally decided to leave his beloved club in 2018, it was natural that the mantle would fall to fellow La Masia graduate and teammate.
He had been brought up in the Barcelona academy, and the team’s principles were deeply instilled in him. Having already proven himself as a player, it was a new challenge for the Argentine. However, it was a provocation that brought with it some problems.
Despite being the centrepiece of the team, it was clear that Messi’s reign as captain was not going to be insouciant. Unlike the days of the past, Barcelona were in need of a complete overhaul. The old guard’s time was nearly up, and it was the dawn of a new era for the Azulgranas. The following years were bound to be long and gruelling. Now more than ever, the team was in desperate of a skipper who could guide the team on and off the pitch.
Barcelona were no longer the club Lionel Messi once joined, and it was time to say goodbye. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
It was evident that gone were the days where Barcelona could steamroll past opponents on their way to glory. Year after year, heartbreak followed the team as performances reached an all-time low. Roma, Liverpool and then finally the drubbing against Bayern left fans desolated and drained.
It was the number ten who came under immense scrutiny for the failures and his desire to leave the club at such a delicate time was the final nail in the coffin. Media erupted with claims of Messi’s disloyalty. He became a scapegoat for the press.
There was a hint of truth in the claim that Messi was not a deserving bearer of the armband. Much like cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar, Leo did indeed let the pressure affect his performances. However, his love for the badge shone through the darkness.
Irrefutable loyalty through controversy
Loyalty is just another one of Leo’s characteristics that makes him so incredible. Be it off the pitch towards his family and friends, or on the pitch to his team, Messi’s fidelity never falters.
Most Culés know that the faults ran far beyond the Argentine, starting with the underwhelming board of directors. Years of controversies and deceit marred their five years at the helm. The Lionel Messi transfer saga looked to be the next in a line of outrageous mistakes and choices made by the board.
Leo, wanting to win the Champions League one more time before he hung up his boots, wanted to be at a club where the sporting project could enable him to fulfil his desire. Barcelona were miles away from taking the number ten close to his dream and thus he sought for a different club, such as Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Lionel Messi – Pep Guardiola reunion stories had already caught fire, and it tore apart Culés. (Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON)
The transfer looked to be on for a free because of a clause in Messi’s contract, but club president Josep Maria Bartomeu intervened with the smallest of irregularities in the same. His argument was extremely fragile and would easily have been overturned legally. Yet the Argentine could not bring himself to take the team he loved to court.
He instead decided to stay and fulfil the agreement. All those who ever had the slightest doubts as to where his allegiance lies were silenced once again. Even if the little magician does indeed end up leaving, he would have left behind one last parting gift: the resignation of the irresponsible leadership of the club.
He came out and spoke the truth as to what was going on behind the scenes. He lashed out against all the accusations and revealed the true situation behind the scenes. This even prompted other players like Gerard Pique to hint at just how poorly the club was being run. The Barcelona Socios had finally had enough, and thus began the referendum that sent the board running from their posts to avoid embarrassment.
Like a devoted leader, he saved his team from the hands of the bureaucrats who were about to lead the club to bankruptcy.
Lionel Messi stood by the club, like any captain would. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Not to mention, he also led the charge against the board when they claimed that Barcelona players were not agreeing to a pay-cut during the pandemic, with each player releasing a statement on their social media to challenge the same. Lionel Messi’s charge as captain has been dominated by off the pitch work rather than vocal shouts, or tactical improvement – important all the same.
Respected by all
Being the best player in a club’s history brings you love from Culés all around the world. But a sensational talent like Leo is not loved only by Barcelona fans, but by football fans everywhere. The respect he has earned through his incredible performances is unimaginable.
An example of the same was when the Blaugranas faced Real Betis at the Benito Villamarin on March 18, 2019. It was the 85th minute and Messi had just scored a sensational chip from outside the box to seal the victory for Barcelona and to complete his hat-trick in the process.
One would have expected the stadium to jeer and whistle after seeing a player demolish their team 4-1 almost single-handedly. But the sight that unfolded was one that makes a person fall in love with football all over again.
The entire stadium gave Lionel Messi a standing ovation befitting the beauty that they had just witnessed. The chants of ‘Messi! Messi!’ echoed the stadium as the fans from both teams took a moment to absorb and applaud the genius of the little man.
Garnering such levels of respect and love from opposition fans is one of the most difficult things in any sport. But what else can one do but admire an artist painting out his masterpiece?
Name etched in diamond and gold
Whether he decides to stay and finish his career at the Camp Nou is something that only time will tell. After all that Leo has given to this club and the fans, not respecting his wishes would almost be a crime. He is 33 right now, and once that day comes when he leaves the club – and it definitely will, it will feel like a sword to the chest.
As his illustrious time at the very top of the game draws to a close, supporters can do nothing but reminiscence in the memories that he has left for us. Even though he may be an out-of-sorts captain if there is anyone who deserves to wear that armband, it’s him.
The day Lionel Messi decides to retire will be a sombre one for the football community. It will be difficult to see starting XIs without his name, and even harder to imagine a Camp Nou that does not shout “Messi, Messi” in unison game after game after game. Just like so many things in life, that goodbye is fast approaching.
Lionel Messi does not have a long time left with the ball. And that in itself is horrifying thought. (Photo by David Ramos)
The Ansu Fatis and the Kylian Mbappes will come and go, but there might never be another Lionel Messi in the world of football. But long after he retires, his legacy will remain, just like it did with Pelé, Johann Cruyff, and the late Diego Maradona.
Many people will have his future on their minds as the summer 2021 transfer window approaches. Many will dread the prospect of him leaving the club. But all good things do come to an end, and so will the extraordinary relationship that is Lionel Messi and FC Barcelona. Whatever happens, fans need to remember that it is time to move on. And as the great Dr. Suess said, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”