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.
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.
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 (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.
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’.
Andres Iniesta: The master of time and space
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.
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 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 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 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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.