WORDS: ROB FIELDER
The decade of the Dream Team, Fernando Redondo’s magical Old Trafford back-heel and the divide-crossing antics of Michael Laudrup and Luis Enrique, the Nineties saw Barcelona and Real Madrid spawn many legends, but what if you were asked to select the ultimate XI from both teams…
Now frequently dismissed as a two-team league, there was a time when La Liga was markedly more competitive.
As Tom Victor observed in his selection of the best players in Spanish football not to feature for the traditional “big two”, the Nineties was an era in which other clubs could realistically dream of the title, and the duopoly enjoyed by those sides was far from set in stone. Yet, simultaneously, the decade was actually the time when the hegemony of those two giants was brought back to life as Barca awoke from a long-lasting slumber to return as a competitive force.
Although rather hard to imagine now, in the 30 years after Barca’s capture of the 1959-60 title (capping a run of seven domestic crowns in 16 seasons), Real Madrid won 19 league titles to Barca’s two. Johan Cruyff’s first season as a player, and Terry Venables’ debut as a manager, were the only years in three decades when the league trophy made its way to Catalonia.
The return of Cruyff as manager in 1988 changed that, and in many ways set about creating the Barcelona behemoth that we know today. With eight league titles and three Champions Leagues between them, the Nineties (given that football doesn’t neatly follow calendar years, seasons 1990/1991 to 1999/2000 for my purposes) marked a new dawn in the dominance of Spain’s two greatest sides. That period of domination gives me rich pickings from which to select a team of the decade from across the two clubs. The result, I hope, is a team that will happily match up against Tom’s rival “Non-Clasico” XI.
Note: The appearances and goals provided relate to league matches in the seasons 1990/1991 to 1999/2000).
Although on the international stage Buyo was largely overshadowed by the presence of Andoni Zubizarreta, for league form alone he more than merits his place. The first man to play in 500 La Liga matches, the Coruna native was universally regarded among the finest goalkeepers in Spanish football for a period of almost 15 years.
Buyo’s competitive nature and enduring ability were perhaps best demonstrated upon the return of former Real Madrid cantera product Santiago Canizares in 1994. Canizares had previously been forced to leave the club in search of playing time due to Buyo’s dominance, but returned from Celta Vigo as Spain’s no. 2 following the World Cup in the USA. With the arrival of the youngster, Buyo was expected to slip down the pecking order, but instead he missed just one game as Madrid recaptured the title after four painful years of Barca dominance. Only at the age of 38 was Buyo finally displaced – by World Cup winner Bodo Ilgner, during Fabio Capello’s first spell at the Bernabeu.
Honourable mention: Andoni Zubizarreta
A model of consistency during his eight years at the Camp Nou, the right-back won an army of admirers before his departure to Chelsea. Lacking in physical stature, Ferrer made up for any deficiencies with intelligent positioning and plenty of hard work. Ferrer might not quite fit the image of the buccaneering full-back that many expect in the modern game but he was eager to venture forward when the opportunity arose and could drop well aimed crosses into the area.
At internnational level, the 1992 Olympics aside, Spain largely reinforced their reputation as perennial underachievers while Ferrer was in the team, frequently touted as dark horses only to disappoint once the competition began. That of course was in marked contrast to his days with Barca for whom titles, both domestic and international, came naturally. Now an excellent pundit, Chapi was a constant source of surety for the Blaugrana.
Honourable mention: Chendo
Having begun his career as a statuesque central midfielder, Hierro’s transition to become one of the world’s finest ball-playing centre-backs was seamless. Arriving at the Bernabeu as a raw 21-year-old, Hierro quickly adapted to his elevated surroundings and was a full Spanish international within months of moving to the capital. Class on the ball and excellent anticipation were hallmarks of his time in midfield, but they proved to be ideally suited to a deeper role. Like Koeman, Hierro was a renowned dead ball specialist whose clean striking of penalties and free-kicks alike allowed him to regularly contribute offensively.
From an individual perspective, the 1991/92 season was the Madrid star’s strongest – his 21 goals from midfield leaving him second in the race for the Pichichi – but given his team focus it was largely disappointing. Instead, Hierro far preferred the team’s glory years, winning five La Liga titles and a hat-trick of Champions League crowns as he succeeded Manuel Sanchis as club captain.
Honourable mention: Abelardo
Among cules Ronald Koeman will forever be remembered first and foremost for his decisive free-kick in the 1992 European Cup final victory over Sampdoria. Barcelona had always regarded themselves as belonging in the uppermost echelon but lacked the ultimate prize to justify that claim, but Koeman’s thunderous set-piece, delivered in extra-time at Wembley, was a fitting riposte to any who questioned their place.
That strike was typical of the Dutchman, whose ability with dead balls was exceptional and who weighed in with a remarkable number of goals for a defender. His penalties were bludgeoned with such incredible ferocity that goalkeepers were forced to take evasive action, intent on avoiding mortal injury.
To define Koeman by his set pieces alone, though, would be a mistake. He was one of the finest long-range passers in the history of the game, capable of hitting raking balls the length of the pitch with pinpoint accuracy. A fine reader of the game and at his best bringing the ball out of defence, his six years at Barca were a time of unalloyed success.
Honourable mention: Manuel Sanchis
A hive of activity down Barca’s left flank, Sergi burst into the Barcelona side at the height of the Dream Team era. Although his first season ultimately ended in disappointment, with a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Fabio Capello’s Milan in the European Cup final, it marked a vertiginous ascent for the young full-back.
By the end of the 1993/94 season, Sergi was an established part of the Spanish national team and travelled to the USA where La Roja lost in contentious circumstances to eventual finalists Italy. At Barca, that first season proved to be something of a false start for the full-back as the Cruyff dynasty was coming to an abrupt end, but the arrival of Bobby Robson and, in turn, Louis van Gaal restored the club to winning ways.
As a player, Sergi’s greatest attribute was his ceaseless running, the ability to own the left touchline in a team for whom natural width was not always evident. The Spaniard never appeared to stay still with every activity performed at pace and a sense of adventure. To see off Roberto Carlos in any list of great full-backs requires something special and Sergi was certainly that.
Honourable mention: Roberto Carlos
One of the most stylish and elegant footballers of the last 20 years, many people remember Redondo by just one act. Surging down the left flank, ridiculing Henning Berg with a back-heeled nutmeg, before collecting the ball and centring for Raul to tap into an empty net – in a single moment the Argentine silenced the Old Trafford crowd and eliminated the defending champions in emphatic style.
That moment (later voted the greatest in the club’s history by Merengue mouthpiece Marca) was, however, atypical of a player who primarily excelled in regulating the pace of matches, delivering expertly measured passes and stifling opponents with well judged positioning. The true value of their midfield general was not fully appreciated at the Bernabeu at the time.
Under almost any circumstances, £11million for a 30-year-old holding midfielder (at a time when the world record fee stood only just above £30million) would represent phenomenal value. Yet the decision of the Madrid board to sanction Redondo’s transfer to Milan only months after that delightful piece of skill brought deserved scorn from fans, even if an injury, weeks into his San Siro career, effectively ended his time at the top level.
Honourable mention: Guillermo Amor
Embarking on a managerial career is a hazardous proposition for any ex-pro with an illustrious playing career to protect. Almost uniquely among recent players, the remarkable performance of Guardiola as Barcelona boss has elevated his already lofty standing to near stratospheric heights.
As a player, Pep was rather more understated in his style of play, dictating the game and controlling his side from deep positions. That metronomic model, taken on to even more polished precision by Xavi, was a source of continuous inspiration for Barca throughout the Nineties. Hauled from the Catalans’ junior ranks as a scrawny youth by Cruyff, Guardiola more than merited his mentor’s faith with a series of excellent displays throughout the decade. Already embedded in the first team by the time of the 1992 European Cup triumph, the central midfielder’s influence grew as the decade wore on, as he assumed the captaincy in his latter years before departing for Italy and fresh challenges. A midfield combination with Redondo would have ensured possession levels that even the current Blaugrana team would struggle to match.
Although far from the first player to represent both the Spanish giants (Josep Samitier, among others, crossed the divide in Thirties), no player achieved quite such heights at each team as Laudrup. Looking back, it seems hard to fathom that Laudrup was not a resounding success in Italy after signing for Juventus in 1985, despite the considerable interest shown by Liverpool.
Arriving at the Camp Nou, the Dane quickly settled into a side built around him by his idol Cruyff, demonstrating the majestic passing range and delicacy of touch that had been such a feature of his international displays. The five seasons spent in Catalonia saw almost unending success for Laudrup, but the arrival of Romario at Barca at a time when only three foreigners could be fielded meant that no player was assured of a place in the starting line up. Omitted from the 1994 Champions League final, Laudrup decamped to the Bernabeu where he instantly rediscovered his winning touch, capturing Real’s first league title in five years in his debut season in the capital. Almost no player has won universal acclaim from both sets of supporters. Laudrup is the exception to that rule.
Honourable mention: Michel
When Rivaldo joined Barcelona in the summer of 1997, the odds were stacked against him. Not only was he replacing Ronaldo, who had just completed one of the best individual seasons in club football history, but he was joining for a vast fee of £13million after his first year in the European game. The widespread belief at the time was that it would be impossible to top his first campaign with Deportivo and that even a place in Brazil’s squad for the 1998 World Cup might be beyond him.
Looking back, the doubts appear laughable – Rivaldo completed a league and cup double in his first year in Catalonia, establishing himself as the finest foreigner in the league. By the end of the following season they were proved doubly spurious, as the Brazilian was crowned European and World Player of the Year. His languid style of play, bow-legged and long-limbed, was a joy to behold but he was not just a gift to the aesthete. Capable of delivering when his side really needed it, Rivaldo at his peak was a force of nature.
Honourable mention: Luis Enrique
The Bulgarian arrived in Spain with a reputation as a tremendous talent blighted by a questionable attitude. The enfant terrible reinforced both those perceptions during his time at Barcelona, but nobody would question that the difficulties Stoichkov threw up were more than offset by his brilliance on the pitch.
Capable of playing across the forward line, Stoichkov was the complete attacker, delivering an abundance of assists to go with his impressive goalscoring reputation and mesmeric control of the ball. Named European Player of the Year in 1994, as much in recognition of his performances in La Liga as for his six goals at the World Cup, the Bulgarian’s partnership with Romario was unrivalled in world football at the time.
A year later, Stoichkov moved to free-spending Parma, who were keen to bolster their hopes of a title tilt, but he failed to replicate his best form and was quickly back at the Camp Nou. Although he failed to rediscover the performances he had delivered in his initial spell, few cules hold in him in anything but the highest regard.
Honourable mention: Luis Figo
Has any player been more closely associated with the Bernabeu club over the last 30 years than Raul? Emblematic of their European dominance around the turn of the century, even in the Galactico era that emerged under Florentino Perez one star burned brighter for the Merengues than any other. Famously a product of the Atletico Madrid youth academy disbanded by Jesus Gil, the youngster captured a Primera Liga title in his first full season with the senior team and never looked back.
Expertly blurring the lines between a fully fledged centre-forward and a creative support striker, Raul was famed for the timing of his runs, the adroitness of his touch and the clinical nature of his finishing. Forming attacking partnerships with the likes of Ivan Zamorano, Predrag Mijatovic, Davor Suker and Fernando Morientes, his ability to dovetail with almost any style of forward displayed the versatile nature of his talents. By the time the Nineties ended, the Real Madrid star was already being spoken of as potentially the greatest Spanish footballer of all time and a worthy contender as the game’s finest player.
Honourable mention: Ronaldo