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José Ramón Alexanko: The brains with the brawn

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Photo via Imago

Our Guest Author: Amal Gosh

The 1992 European Cup final, last edition of the famous trophy before it transformed into the present-day Champions League; an ambitious FC Barcelona restructured and manoeuvred by legendary Johan Cruyff, was hanging on a one-goal lead against the vibrant Sampdoria side, thanks to a spectacular extra-time free-kick goal by Ronald Koeman.

Immediately after the goal, Cruyff made his second and final substitution of the match. It was not an intricate substitution, rather one that made sense under the circumstances. The Italians were agitated after conceding the goal in the dying minutes and were already in pursuit to get it even. With only a handful of minutes left before Barca’s first European triumph and Cruyff subbed in a player wearing jersey number 12 and before stepping into the field, Cruyff whispered in his ears “Go…keep the home safe.”

It was José Ramón Alexanko, Barcelona captain who turned 36 a day before the final. He was not a starter but was assigned to hinder the rushing Sampdorian attackers in the final minutes of the game. A nonchalant Alexanko stepped into the pitch like a cold breeze in a sultry afternoon.

He kept the backline tethered until the final whistle, and was given the honour of doing what he fought for more than a decade. In front of an ecstatic crowd at Wembley Stadium, he lifted the last ever European Cup and the first one in the history of the club. It was the moment of redemption and to erase that path down in the memory line, where his failed penalty shootout attempt in 1986 shattered the glory. 

The rise and switch of Talin Alexanko

Alexanko, popularly known as Talin, is arguably one of the greatest defenders and captains in the history of La Blaugrana. His story being a teen Basque lad who left his dream club in search of glory and became the talisman of one of the greatest teams in the history of football is eventful and inspiring.

Alexanko was born on May 19th 1956, in Barakaldo, a city near Bilbao in the Basque province. He was picked up by the local club Villosa de Llodio CD and before turning 16 scouted by Athletic Club Bilbao who signed him for their B team. It was his childhood dream to play for the Basque giants and in 1976 he was given a first-team contract but was first loaned to Deportivo Alaves in the Segunda division.

Alexanko Spain

Scruffy hair, gold chain, unimpressed look. The game was over before it started. (Photo by Imago)

He returned after a six-month loan spell and debuted in a 5-2 win against Espanyol. His solid and astute defensive performances made him the most reliable player in the Bilbao backline.

However, it was in the 1977-78 season, he came close to achieving glory for the first time, as Bilbao reached both the Copa del Rey and UEFA Cup final. However, the Basque outfit stumbled tragically in both the finals, as they lost to Real Betis in penalties, and suffered a last-minute equalizer leading to an away goal defeat against a mighty Juventus.

Alexanko became a familiar name in Spanish football, from that season onwards and his rapid growth in the following seasons hailed him as one of the best defenders in Spain. It was in 1980, after a miserable seventh-placed finish in the league forced Alexanko to pursue a future outside the Basque. 

There is no visible acrimony between Bilbao and Barca in the present day, however, it was an entirely different scenario in the past. Alexanko’s move to the Blaugrana side was quite shocking and invited a lot of mixed feelings between the clubs.

Since the early days of Spanish football both the teams had firmly registered as two of the best clubs in the country, representing the best of Basque and Catalonia respectively. This turned into a rivalry ever since the inception of La Liga and Copa del Rey.

The prolonged dispute since the 20s resulted in no transfer of players between the clubs. Everything changed in 1978, when Jose Luis Nunez, a Basque businessman from Barakaldo became the club President, and Alexanko emerged as the primary target for the club in 1980.

It was, in fact, the culmination of his quality and maybe Nunez’s personal connection with him what made the transfer deal possible. Signing for Barcelona at a still-developing age of 24, the Spaniard would go onto become part of the club’s longest-serving defensive duo in history with Migueli.

After the departure of Cruyff in the summer, Barca was going through a transition phase. Alexanko was signed along with Bernd Schuster in midfield, Allan Simonsen and Quini in the attack. Together it was a team that would become a strong contender for a much anticipated European triumph.

The start, and cementing of something special

Alexanko debuted under club legend turned manager Ladislav Kubala who was dismissed after two months and replaced by Helenio Herrera, who shared the same fate of his predecessor. Even in such a chaotic time, Barca managed to hold their position in top five in La Liga and won the Copa del Rey final against Sporting Gijon.

Eventually, they hired Udo Lattek the following season, the legendary figure who built the Bayern Munich team that would dominate the European football and then repeated the same with Borussia Monchengladbach.

In the midst of the 1960s world football recognized a new position-the sweeper, or a libero, which is a player who enjoys more freedom on the pitch than other players. Lattek nurtured the offensive sweeper role into perfection by deploying Franz Beckenbauer in that position.

Udo Lattek

With Lattek at the helm, a lot changed for Barcelona, and more specifically for Alexanko. (Photo via Imago)

Under the guidance of Lattek, Alexanko transformed into an offensive sweeper who often ventured into the midfield spaces, carrying the ball from the defence to initiate the offensive transition or to provide a line-breaking pass to the attackers.

Unlike the defenders of that time, who would depend on their physical attributes to prevent the opposition from scoring, Alexanko exhibited a distinct style, elegance in his game. He was brilliant with the ball on his feet and his poised nature in progressing the ball, coupled with accurate passes cemented his role in Lattek’s new system.

Alexanko preferred smart positioning and precise passes over leg-breaking tackles. It was his composure that often helped his partner Migueli to play his tough game. This is a strategy widely deployed today, by teams like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and even Manchester United.

He was tasked with the ball progression from the defence to circulate the ball around Schuster and Simonsen. At times, he would play one-two passes with the defensive midfielders to move forward, occasionally advancing to the opposition half to provide an assist or even scoring the goal. Although he was solid in defence, Migueli’s presence in the pitch often covered the menace created by him while losing the possession or moving ahead.

Alexanko flourished in Lattek’s system and the 1982 Cup Winners Cup final 2-1 win against Standard Liege stands as proof to the statement.

Lattek only lasted two seasons, after which 1978 World Cup-winning coach Luis Cesar Menotti was appointed. His tenure, too, lasted two seasons, but Alexanko’s role remained the same during that time, since Menotti’s system also preferred playing an offensive sweeper who was solid and disciplined.

The Argentine, having worked with a similar player like Daniel Passarella, attempted to invigorate the defensive work of Alexanko, thereby upgrading the entire defensive line. However, the lack of world-class full-backs and defensive midfielders failed his tactics, which resulted in a huge amount of conceded goals.

In spite of the departure of three renowned coaches with zero La Liga titles and European Cups, Barca’s defence remained stable and consistent, mainly due to Talin’s versatility and technical prowess to sustain in every system he had played.

In 1984, Nunez hired English coach Terry Venables, who had managed Crystal Palace and Queens Park Rangers. Even though his profile was not impressive enough at that stage, Venables was the man who finally won La Liga in the 1984-85 season, with an impressive ten points difference over runners up Atletico Madrid and 17 points above rivals Real Madrid, who finished fifth.

This success was led by a tweak in the tactical setup as Barça moved to a conventional 4-4-2 formation with Alexanko and Migueli deployed as the traditional stopper backs. The club regained the confidence under Venables to finally achieve European glory.

“We never focused solely on La Liga, we wanted to win all trophies for the fans. We were closer every season and the team truly snapped under Terry. We really were one of the top sides in Europe. Teams would fear us, something had to go really bad for us to not win a game. But it was also an obligation.”

Alexanko

The change in system and role under Venable did not affect Alexanko, in fact, it explored and improved the physical aspects of his game. The then 28-yearold was demanded to be physically imposing on the opposition which earned him the nickname Popeye.

Barca reached the 1986 European Cup final and they were one victory away from lifting their maiden trophy. However the final against unexpected finalists, Romanian club Steaua București at Seville was a night to forget for both Barça and Alexanko.

The goalkeeper of Steaua, Helmuth Duckadam — who perhaps displayed the greatest goalkeeping performance in the history of the tournament — denied the Catalans in the penalty shootouts and gave an excruciating memory to reminisce. Helmuth saved all of Barça’s penalties including Alexanko’s first penalty. The dream season ended as Barca went trophyless and Venables was sacked and replaced by Luis Aragones.

Heavy hangs the Armband

In the following season, Alexanko wore the captain’s arm badge. It was not only a reward for his performances but for the attitude, sportsmanship, and the level of morale he formulated on and off the pitch.

His composed nature motivated and organized both the backline and the entire team. He was not the most vocal or aggressive player in the team, but the player who dedicated his best interests for the club and his teammates.

Aragones managed to win Copa del Rey, by beating Real Sociedad with Alexanko scoring the only goal in the match to seal the victory. It was in the summer of 1988, though, when everything went wrong for Barca.

It started with the retirement of Alexanko’s defensive partner Migueli which disrupted the balance in the defence. Then, Nunez and his avaricious business endeavours resulted in a deep investigation by the La Liga, which led to the players united under Alexanko to publicly denouncing Nunez and declaring a strong contention against the management.

The infamous ‘Hesperia Mutiny’, though was a dark phase in the history of the club, also indicated the passion and dedication the players, especially Alexanko had for the club. The mutiny further established Alexanko’s power and leadership in the club and as a responsible captain, he fought for his teammates and ultimately for the club.

However, the aftermath of the mutiny was the massive exodus of players and the coaching staff from the club. Alexanko, Andoni Zubizarreta and Gary Linekar were the only retained players, as Nunez dismissed every other player and the manager Aragones. Eventually, he hired Johan Cruyff as the coach, and it was the rebuilding of the club with a new philosophy. Cruyff recognized the importance of Alexanko, both in terms of his technical brilliance and leadership quality.

“Alexanko did nothing except what was his duty as captain, he was the spokesman – he didn’t let his players down. That’s the character. The messenger often gets killed, not with me.”

Cruyff in his press conference

Along with the mutiny, there was a sexual harassment case charged against him at Papendal, the Netherlands in the same year. He was accused of raping a maid at the hotel with the charges were dropped, eventually.

However, that, coupled with him being the protagonist of the mutiny condemned his image among the fans. Alexanko was booed by the fans at Camp Nou during the pre-season unveiling. However, Cruyff considered him as an invaluable member of the club, in fact, he acted more as an assistant coach in his last years at the club.

Alexanko as the senior player and captain, helped the new signings to settle down at the club, thereby facilitating a gentle transition of the club to a fresh beginning. Even in the twilight of his career, Alexanko perhaps played his best season under Cruyff.

Alexanko Sampdoria

Alexanko (left), gets ready to play one of the most important, and eventually best game of his career. (Photo via Imago)

The 3-4-3 formation by Cruyff brought back the best version of Alexanko, where he nearly single-handedly kept the defence intact. The Cup Winners Cup final against Sampdoria which Barca won 2-0, brought out the best in him Alexanko, as he won all his duels, and provided line-breaking passes through the solid Italians.

Barcelona signed a young prospect Ronald Koeman to replace the 33-year-old Alexanko. However, Koeman’s long-term injury in the 1990-91 season meant a return for the former Bilbao sensation lining up in the defence to lift the La Liga title as the captain.

At last, in 1992, both Alexanko and Barca received what they have been striving for decades. A memorable European Cup final at Wembley, Alexanko wearing the captain’s arm badge, with sweat in his hand and tears in his eyes lifted the famous trophy. In 1993, after winning his fourth Laliga Alexanko waved goodbye to the Camp Nou. 

He returned to serve the club again during Joan Laporte’s tenure, taking care of the La Masia. Alexanko was a visionary and was the key figure behind teaching youngsters the tradition of being a Blaugrana. While Albert Benaiges, his partner in duty, was the tactical genius who worked alongside Cruyff to transfer the style and concepts to cultivate young talents at the academy.

It was their work that remodelled La Masia into one of the distinguished football academies in the world. Players like Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, Pedro etc. were just a few names who graduated under their guidance.   

Alexanko

Jose Alexanko during 25th anniversary celebrations of Barcelona’s first Champions League win. (Photo by PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images)

Alexanko was one of the best captains in the history of the club. He transformed the role of a defender at Barca and his tranquillity on the pitch became an example for the future players to learn. He also influenced a generation of Basque talents who became club legends from Javier Urruticoechea, Andoni Gorikoetxea, Jose Mari Bakero to Julio Salinas and other players like Luis Lopez Rekarte, Ernesto Valverde among countless others.

On a chilly night, when the mist came down to embrace the grass tips of the Camp Nou pitch, one could still feel Talin, whose veins pumped cold and heart murmured ‘Visca el Barca’.