F.C. Barcelona are considered by many the best club side in the world and with the squad of players they currently boast and their recent trophy haul, it would be hard to argue against this school of thinking.
It hasn’t always been that way for the blaugrana (a Catalan nickname for Barça derived from the blue and maroon of their shirts). During the Franco dictatorship Catalunya suffered terrible oppression from the centralist regime and the football club as a symbol of Catalan nationalism was hit hard.
The club suffered varying degrees of fortune, but didn’t really come into their own until the Dutch revolution in the 1970’s. Johan Cruyff was brought into the club with coach Rinus Michels as a star player at a time when foreign players were not allowed into the Spanish league. Special dispensation was made to allow the Dutchman to sign and a league title was won in his first season.
A 0-5 win at the Santiago Bernabéu against bitter rivals Real Madrid made the title even more special for the Catalans as they saw the side in white as the regime team and any win over them was seen as a moral victory.
Ally to this the fact that Cruyff named his son Jordi (the Catalan equivalent of Jorge and the patron saint of Catalunya) at a time when children were only allowed Spanish names as Catalan names were banned and the Dutch star was fast becoming an icon and of legendary status.
Years later Cruyff would return to Catalonia as Barça coach towards the end of another period of difficulty for the club and would again bring stability and a new identity and style of play.
One of his disciples and who some saw as his general on the pitch was Pep Guardiola. A willowy figure, not many saw the young Catalan having much of a future. But, his footballing brain and technical ability outweighed his physique and Pep led a Barça side that would dominate both domestically and in Europe.
The team were so prolific that they were given the monicker of the Dream Team (the side won the European Cup in 1992 at Wembley, the same year that the Olympics were held in Barcelona and the US Basketball with the same nickname won Gold) and had such global stars as Koeman, Stoichkov, Laudrup and Romario in their ranks.
Barça had a sustained period of success over 4 years winning consecutive league titles and appearing in two European Cup finals. It would be the second of these that would spell the start of the decline and end of the Cruyff years at the club.
Favourites going into the match, Barça were beaten 4-0 in the Athens final in 1994 by a resurgent AC Milan side that systematically dismantled the Catalans and effectively brought about the end of the Dream Team and in particular Spanish goalkeeping legend Andoni Zubizaretta’s time at the club.
Cruyff would eventually leave and after one successful season under Bobby Robson, winning every trophy except for the league title, Louis Van Gaal was brought in. The Dutchman had two separate spells at the club with relative success, but his real legacy was giving debuts to Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernández, the latter being Guardiola’s eventual replacement in the 1st team.
Van Gaal further developed the idea of the cantera, the quarry, where youth players could be developed and brought into the 1st team. There has been a steady production line of talent over the years and la Masía (named after a farmhouse in the Camp Nou grounds where the youth players used to live and study before the Joan Gamper sports complex, named after the club’s founding President, was opened) is now one of the most famous youth academies in the World.
Another famous graduate of la Masía is Pep Guardiola. His is the modern story of success at F.C. Barcelona, but his appointment almost never happened.
After a successful period (following 5 years without a trophy) under another Dutch coach, Frank Rijkaard, where the club finally won its second European Cup and 1st Champions League title in Paris in 2006, defeating Arsenal 2-1, the side once again went into a dark period.
Star names such as Ronaldinho and Deco appeared to be lacking discipline and Rijkaard seemed unable to pull them out of their stupor. More worrying still was the fact that young rising star Lionel Messi was heavily influence by the Barzilian and was in danger of following his example.
Club President Joan Laporta had a big decision to make and eventually parted ways with the coach he had brought in. He now had to bring in a coach capable of stopping the rot and turning around the club’s fortunes. A humiliating league campaign where Barça had to form a guard of honour to league champions Real Madrid, followed by a 4-1 defeat at the Bernabéu finished off the Dutchman.
José Mourinho, a former assistant to Robson and Van Gaal, was in the frame for the hot seat and rumours were that he had been interviewed for the role. But then came the bombshell.
Josep Guardiola was a club legend and had been coaching the club’s B team for two seasons. Not many would have had his name in the hat for the job and many feared the role too big so early in his coaching career. However, Laporta had faith in his friend and fellow Cruyff disciple and on advice of the Dutch legend took a chance on Guardiola.
The Catalan stepped into the role and brought along his long time friend and assistant from the B team, Tito Vilanova. His 1st task was to sort out a fragmented dressing room and he took the extraordinary decision of selling both Ronaldinho and Deco. Samuel Eto’o was also rumoured to be on his way out, but managed to convince Guardiola that he was worth a chance.
Amongst the high profile departures were a number of new additions and there was hope that this renovated side could cast aside the memories of recent years and return to former glories.
Things didn’t start well, with a 1-0 defeat away at Numancia on the opening day of the 2008/09 season followed by a 1-1 home draw with Racing Santander. However, the new players seemed to gel in week 3 and a 1-6 away win at Sporting Gijón sparked a side that would go on to win the league title (including a 2-6 win at the Bernabéu), Champions League and the Copa del Rey, the first time any Spanish side had won the treble.
The European Super Cup and Spanish Super Cup followed that summer and the year ended with Barça winning the FIFA Club World Championship for the first time and completing a unique calendar year with six trophy wins.
José Mourinho would eventually be brought in by Real Madrid President Florentino Pérez in an attempt to end the blaugrana’s dominance. In the 2009/10 season his Inter side had put Barça out at the semi final stage of the Champions League and gone on to lift the trophy defeating Bayern Munich in the stadium that would become his new home, the Santiago Bernabéu.
Mourinho would have a rude awakening on the 29th of November 2010. A packed Camp Nou witnessed what was one of the most one sided clásicos of recent memory. Xavi, Pedro, Villa with 2 and Jeffren would score the goals that would consign Madrid to a 5-0 defeat and a humiliation that would alter Mourinho’s tactics and mindset for the matches between the two two come.
The following clásicos, including another Champions League semi final would descend into an all out war with the coaches at the forefront in the media battles. Many believe that it was these tussles and the constant pressure from Mourinho that led Guardiola to eventually stand down as Barça coach and be succeeded by his assistant Vilanova.
The fact that Vilanova took over was surprising as he had suffered from cancer towards the end of Guardiola’s time as manager, another reason cited for the Pep’s departure and desire for a break from the pressures of football management.
Vilanova had won his battle against illness and took over the Camp Nou hot seat. His side started off in spectacular fashion and set a record for the 1st half of a season. A great number of people began to question whether the success had been down to Vilanova all along.
Certainly some of the petty squabbles with players that had been rumoured to have blighted Guardiola’s relationship with some of his stars were no longer being reported. However, some sectors were reporting a breakdown in the relationship between Guardiola and Vilanova, two long time friends who had known each other since their time together in the youth set up.
Sadly, Tito Vilanova’s illness would return and the coach left for treatment to New York with Jordi Roura, his assistant, stepping in to cover in his absence. Vilanova would return to oversea the league title win, amassing 100 points.
Unfortunately, he appeared to have not fully recovered and it was announced that Vilanova would step down as coach to concentrate on his recovery.
A new coach would therefore be required. Would the line of succession continue? Luis Enrique, a former player and club legend was touted as Tito’s replacement, but in the end Club President Sandro Rosell opted for a relatively unknown coach, Gerardo “Tata” Martino of Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina.
Would the new coach be faithful to Barça’s traditions of style and flair, only time would tell. But, judging by his start and 8 wins from 8 matches in the league and 2 wins in the Champions League added to his 1st title, the Spanish Super Cup, the future looked bright. However the season fizzled out and they won no further silverware. Atlético Madrid knocked them out of the Champions’ League and Real Madrid took the Copa del Rey. In an amazing final game of the season, Atlético Madrid travelled to Barcelona knowing a point would be enough to claim La Liga. A 1-1 draw on 17 May, meant that the home team finished second above Real Madrid and minutes after the final whistle, Tata Martino resigned. Earlier in the month Carles Puyol announced his retirement and Victor Valdes confirmed he was also leaving.
Off the field tragedy struck when Vilanova passed away and in the boardroom Rossel had to step down amidst many accusations and counter-accusations. The new presidente, Josep Maria Bartomeu, held a press conference after the final game announcing far-reaching changes with immediate effect.
For the 2014/2015 season, Luis Enrique has been appointed manager.
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