WORDS: TOM VICTOR
La Liga may have been dominated by Barcelona and Real Madrid in recent years, but as recently as the Nineties, there were several other sides in the running for the Spanish championship. One brave soul has stuck his neck out and chosen his non-Clasico Nineties Dream Team. We think you’ll like it…
For those getting into Spanish football in the last few years, the thought of a period without the dominance of the Real Madrid-Barcelona duopoly might sound far-fetched.
Since the 2004-05 season, the pair have shared the La Liga title between them with just one other team – the now Segunda División Villarreal – preventing the pair from a clean sweep of the top two positions over that eight-year period. And that was only for a single season, in 2007-08, after Barça were hamstrung by 10 draws from their 38 matches.
However it was not always like that. The 1990s saw four different league champions and six sides end the campaign in the top two, while the 12 different outfits to secure top four berths further demonstrates the strength in depth which saw La Liga widely regarded as the top national league in Europe by the turn of the millennium.
While some might be hard-pressed to devise a La Liga dream team nowadays which included a player not involved in El Clásico, the task of picking out the best players of the 90s is a tough ask, even when those representing Real and Barça are excluded.
I have had to exclude a number of players who enjoyed fruitful spells before, during and after their time in La Liga, with the midfield slots proving the most competitive. Those who enjoyed their best days in the 2000s, such as Juan Carlos Valeron and Rubén Baraja, were left out, while it was painful to leave names such as Julen Guerrero and Jose Luis Caminero off the team sheet.
Similarly wide players Haim Revivo and Finidi George were close to giving some representation to Celta Vigo and Real Betis respectively, while others such as Pedro Munitis and Juan Antonio Pizzi were omitted for their spells – however brief – with Real Madrid and Barcelona.
I am bound to have upset some of you with my selections, however I attempted to pick a team which was both balanced in its formation and in its representation of the quality on show in Spain’s top-flight over the course of the decade. Hopefully at the very least I’ve allowed you to get nostalgic about one or two less well-remembered individuals and demonstrate that the 1990s were by no means all about El Clásico.
GOALKEEPER: ABEL (Atlético Madrid 1986-1995; Rayo Vallecano 1995-1996)
When your recovery from an operation to remove a herniated testicle is covered on television you can’t be accused of not giving your all. After beginning his career as a teenager with local side Toledo, it was at Estadio Vicente Calderón where Abel Resino Gómez made his name. Holding a Europe-wide clean sheet record of 1,275 minutes which stood for close to two decades before being surpassed by the achievements of Manchester United’s Edwin van der Sar, Abel was a fixture in the Atléti line-up for the best part of a decade. Making just 21 further appearances after leaving the club for neighbours Rayo Vallecano, he was at least a one-city man if not quite a one-club man. The only regrets are that he was unable to upstage the ubiquitous Andoni Zubizarreta at international level, representing La Rojajust twice over the course of his career, and that he failed to replicate the stardom if his playing days in an ill-fated managerial spell with the club.
CENTRE-BACK: MIROSLAV DJUKIC (Deportivo La Coruña 1990-1997; Valencia 1997-2003)
One of a number of Serbs to make their mark on Spanish domestic football during the 1990s, alongside Real Sociedad goal-getter Darko Kovačević andmanagerial maverick Radomir Antić, Ðukić clocked up close to 400 appearances with Depor and then Valencia. Some may remember him best for the penalty – saved by Valencia’s José Luis González – which cost Arsenio Iglesias’ side an unlikely league title in 1994, however that would be doing a disservice to a loyal servant and sweeper. He would have to wait another eight years for another chance to win the league but this time the outcome was more positive as Valencia secured the title with a 17-match unbeaten run, while in the intervening period he played in back-to-back Champions League finals as Los Che succumbed to first Real Madrid and then Bayern Munich. Ðukić has remained in Spain since his retirement and last season managed Real Valladolid to promotion from the Segunda División.
CENTRE-BACK: DONATO (Atlético Madrid 1988-1993; Deportivo La Coruña 1993-2003)
Ironically the man who would have taken that ill-fated Ðukić penalty had he not been substituted as Depor chased victory, Donato is nothing short of an enigma. Already 26 years old when he moved to Madrid, few could have predicted that the Brazilian-born Spanish international would keep playing for a further 15 years, ultimately becoming the oldest ever La Liga goalscorer in January 2003 at the age of 40 (though some claim he was even older than that). In a remarkable career at the top the Rio-born player alternated between central defence and midfield, with his agile footballing brain making up for a self-professed lack of pace. A 38-year-old when the team from A Coruña secured its first ever title in 2000, he was still a valuable part of the triumphant side with 29 league appearances and three goals to his name, despite the bulk of his career strikes coming from free-kicks or penalties.
CENTRE-BACK: SANTI (Albacete 1992-1995; Atlético Madrid 1995-2004)
A common feature of this team is players whose international careers suffered at the hands of bigger names from Real Madrid and Barcelona despite impressive domestic careers, and Santi is no exception. Spending nine enjoyable years with Atléti after joining from his hometown club, the defensive mainstay managed just one competitive game for Spain – the 1996 Olympic Games aside. The tone for his time at the Calderon was set in his first season of the club: after becoming one of Antić’s first signings upon taking the helm, the then-22-year-old helped the club rebound from a 14th-place finish in 1995 to win the double in the following year. Despite coming crashing down to earth at the Olympics, watching on as Spain suffered a 4-0 quarter-final defeat against an Argentinean side containing Ariel Ortega, Javier Zanetti, Hernan Crespo and Claudio López, Santi went on to make a further century of appearances for the side from the capital before seeing out his career at Albacete’s Estadio Carlos Belmonte.
HOLDING MIDFIELDER: MAURO SILVA (Deportivo La Coruña 1992-2005)
After emerging as one of the unsung heroes of Brazil’s 1994 World Cup triumph, Mauro Silva did not let up in a 13-year career in Spain. Showing remarkable longevity with 30+ league appearances in eight of those seasons and 20+ in all but one, it is telling that the Sao Paulo native’s retirement in 2005 signalled the start of Deportivo’s eventual descent into the second tier – following five successive top-four finishes from 2000-2004 the club is yet to return to the Champions League places. He formed part of not one but two formidable midfields at the Riazor, first with the likes of Fran and Javier Manjarín and later with Juan Carlos Valeron and Djalminha. Almost as much of a Galician institution as Polbo á Feira, it seems fitting that little has been heard recently about a player who remained relatively unheralded among star names yet was consistently instrumental to their success.
RIGHT-MIDFIELD: JOSEBA ETXEBERRIA (Real Sociedad 1995, Athletic Bilbao 1995-2010)
Unless your name is Oguchi Onyewu, it takes true loyalty to turn out for your club unpaid. But then again, would you expect any less from someone who had already by that stage made more than 400 appearances at the same club. To many, Joseba Etxeberria is Athletic Club, although at one stage he was not even the only Etxeberria at San Mames as goalkeeper Imanol held onto the number one jersey for a short period. A tricky winger in the Karel Poborský mould, the right-sided mainstay chipped in with a fair few goals as well, hitting double figures for the season on three separate occasions. Finally, after hanging up his boots at the age of 33 (and with plenty more to give, according to many), he offered a final tribute to the club and city which had served him so well by playing his testimonial against 200 local children, and winning 5-3 despite the opposition having several goalkeepers on the field.
CENTRAL MIDFIELD: GAIZKA MENDIETA (Valencia 1993-2001)
Narrowly edging out Etxeberria’s Athletic Bilbao team-mate, Julen Guerrero, Mendieta is almost certainly the only member of this XI to currently reside in Yarm. For a sustained period towards the end of the Nineties, he could stake a claim to being the best in the world, forming part of an irrepressible midfield quartet at Valencia, alongside Gerard, Kily González and Miguel Ángel Angulo. A club-leading (and career high) 13 league goals in the 1999-2000 season doesn’t even begin to tell the story, with Mendieta’s influence as captain running through the whole team as Los Che saw off Lazio and Barcelona, among others, en route to the Champions League Final. Rafa Benitez’s side of the early 2000s may have the trophies to show for their performances, but Héctor Cúper’s upstarts were more exciting to watch and Mendieta was one of the main reasons for that.
CENTRAL MIDFIELD: DIEGO SIMEONE (Sevilla 1992-1994, Atlético Madrid 1994-1997)
It is a shame that English fans will forever associate Diego Simeone with his involvement in David Beckham’s red card at the 1998 World Cup, as to do so would be to ignore a career at the peak of which the Argentine could have walked into almost any club side in the world. Thirty-three league goals in his first five year stint in Spain showed Simeone to be more than a mere enforcer, and he added to the tally with four goals from five Champions League group games in his final year with the Rojiblancos. However his most influential year was surely 1995-96, where his 12-goal haul helped the club to the league and cup double, and he followed that campaign by winning silver at the Olympic Games in Atlanta. His popularity with Atlético’s fans is unquestioned, as demonstrated by the support for both his brief playing return in the mid-2000s and his arrival as manager in 2011. Of course winning the Europa League and Champions League within a year of taking the hotseat can’t have hurt.
LEFT-MIDFIELD: FRAN (Deportivo La Coruña 1988-2005)
If Mauro Silva is Polbo á Feira, then surely Fran is a double helping washed down with a bottle of Albariño. The pair were synonymous with Depor’s success throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, and it is fitting that they both played their final game for the club on the same day in 2005. After the heartbreak of 1994, the domestic triumph which followed six years later is unlikely to have meant more to anyone else than it did to Fran. A left-midfielder with great vision which barely faded even as he grew older, it is tempting to make comparisons with Ryan Giggs. However the Galicia-born club captain, who turned out for the club at least 20 times in 14 successive La Liga seasons following his league debut in 1991, was a far more subtle and classy player than Manchester United’s number eleven. Another to enjoy limited international recognition, he made up for it with more than 40 Champions League appearances, with the highlight being a goal in the 4-0 demolition of AC Milan en route to the 2004 semi-finals.
FORWARD: BEBETO (Deportivo La Coruña 1992-1996; Sevilla 1997)
A star on both sides of the Atlantic, the second World Cup winner to make this selection was rarely more prolific than during his time at the Riazor. Ending his four season stint with 99 goals in all competition, the only thing missing was a league title. With the benefit of hindsight the final day of the 1993-94 campaign could be simplified as the battle between Romário and Bebeto, the two strikers who would lead Brazil to glory in the United States two months later. Unfortunately, while the former struck his 30th goal of the season as Barcelona saw off Sevilla 5-2, the elder of the pair drew a blank in Depor’s goalless draw with Valencia and passed responsibility for the potential tital-winning penalty to team-mate Ðukić. Still, this should not detract from a quite phenomenal spell in which he netted five hat-tricks in four seasons including a stunning five-goal haul against Albacete in his final year.
FORWARD: KIKO (Cádiz 1991-93; Atlético Madrid 1993-2001)
Atlético Madrid winning the league and cup double in 1996 was a minor miracle after the club escaped relegation by a single point the previous year. Even with a new manager in Antić and new players like Santi and Luboslav Penev, the eventual outcome was beyond the fans’ wildest dreams. A player like Kiko, who until then had been more familiar with relegation scraps than title challenges, was never supposed to have the impact he did, but he starred in a title run which few could imagine being repeated today even by a more star-studded Atléti team. His 11 goals that year only tell part of the story, with his all-round contribution to the team capped by a late-season double against Salamanca which effectively sealed the title. His selection in this team is perhaps more sentimental than others, however his contribution reinforces how competitive La Liga was in the 1990s and how anyone was capable of success.