Barcelona 5 Atletico 4
Copa del Rey quarter-final second leg, Camp Nou, Barcelona, 12 March 1997
The situation Bobby Robson inherited when he took the Barcelona job was chaos. The golden era of Johan Cruyff, the former player who as coach had reinforced the Total Footballing principles of the club while winning four successive league titles and Barça’s first European Cup, had come to an end amid acrimony, his attempts to rejuvenate his squad collapsed amid a civil war with the president Josep Lluís Núñez.
Based on his 17-year playing career – consisting of 11 seasons across two spells with Fulham, with a six-year run at Vic Buckingham’s West Brom in between – and first two decades as a manager (1969-82 at Ipswich, 1982-90 with the England national team), Robson did not seem a candidate for continental adventure. However, the wanderlust that guided Buckingham soon had a hold of him as well.
On his departure from the England after the 1990 World Cup, Robson, like Buckingham three decades earlier, made his way to the Netherlands, taking over at PSV Eindhoven. Two seasons at the club yielded two league titles. However, citing a lack of European success, the club elected to move on from him following the 1991-92 season. That summer, 1992, Robson first made his way to Iberia, taking over at Sporting Lisbon.
Despite finding the club in "a terrible state", he oversaw a third-place finish in 1992-93 and had Sporting atop the table midway through the following season. This did not quell the chaos at the club, which stemmed from the president Sousa Cintra, whom Robson dubbed a “loose cannon”. Cintra lived up to the moniker, sacking Robson in December 1993, apparently due to an early Uefa Cup exit. A likelier explanation is a difference of opinion regarding the management of the club – namely, that Robson had opinions. Robson’s time in Lisbon wasn’t a total loss. On his arrival he’d required the services of a Portuguese interpreter. As luck would have it, he’d hired a young man possessing not only linguistic acumen, but something of a head for the game: José Mourinho.
Despite the short tenure, Robson’s work at Sporting had turned heads and he was immediately hired by Porto. Robson didn’t move up the Portuguese coast alone – he was accompanied by Mourinho, whom he’d promoted to assistant manager. That partial first season yielded a second-place league finish and a pair of cup runs: to the the semi-finals of the Champions League and victory in the Taça de Portugal, against the Sporting side that six months earlier had relieved him of his duties. His first full season began on a high, with a defeat of Benfica for the Supertaça Cândido de Oliveira, and subsequently didn’t miss a beat. Porto ran roughshod through the league, winning 29 of 34 games, losing just one, with a +58 goal difference and only 15 goals conceded. For the second straight year fate magnified Robson’s triumph, as Porto’s league-clinching victory came at Sporting’s Estádio José Alvalade.
Robson lost the start of the 1995–96 season to a malignant melanoma and underwent multiple major surgeries, for both the removal of tumours and facial reconstruction. He recovered and returned to the club’s title defence. As they had the previous year, Porto pummelled the competition, winning 26 of 34 league games, losing twice, conceding 0.59 goals per game and posting a goal difference of +60 in retaining their crown.
That summer, a conversation with Gaspart, whom Robson had got to know when Barça were looking to acquire Luís Figo from Sporting, turned into an offer to become Barcelona manager. Robson resigned from Porto, having delivered the first two of what would become five consecutive league titles and, Mourinho by his side, took over at the Camp Nou.
Despite the scuffles at the end of his tenure, Cruyff remained an icon in Barcelona. He’d delivered the club’s greatest run of success while establishing its defining tenets. Cruyff had helped Barça catch Real Madrid, and on their own terms. He’d arrived at Barcelona, giant of Spanish football, and transformed it into Barcelona, the global powerhouse it is today. He had, as Pep Guardiola would later say, " built the cathedral”. These were monumental shoes to fill.
Prior to his departure, with Michael Laudrup, Ronald Koeman, Romário and Hristo Stoichkov all leaving, Cruyff had begun restocking a squad that already boasted Pep Guardiola in his prime, a young Ivan de la Peña, Gheorghe Popescu, Abelardo, Giovanni and Figo, who was 26 years of age and ascending to the peak of his powers. As a parting gift, he’d convinced the France defender Laurent Blanc to join the club from Auxerre, as well as the versatile and hard-nosed Luis Enrique, who was out of contract after five seasons with Real Madrid.
Also working in Robson’s favour was the promise of financial backing from the board. This enabled him to sign his goalkeeper from Porto, Vitor Baía, for €6.5 million – at the time the highest-ever fee for a keeper. Arriving from Parma, for €5.5 million, was the central defender Fernando Couto, a Portugal international who’d rack up 110 international caps in his career. Joining him on the trip was a familiar face: Hristo Stoichkov. A mainstay of the Dream Team, winner of the 1994 Ballon d’Or and scorer of more than 100 goals for Barcelona, Stoichkov had made a massive €11 million move to Parma a year earlier. After a difficult season in which he scored only seven goals in 30 appearances, he returned, for a fee of just €2.4 million.
The club had spent €19 million on reinforcements – a spree in those days – and added the striker Juan Antonio Pizzi for free from Tenerife. However, they’d yet to take their biggest swing. On the heels of two trophy-less seasons and a wave of massive departures, Núñez needed to reassure the fans and restore excitement at the club. He planned to do this with a world-class goal scorer. After speaking with contacts at PSV, Robson suggested a young Brazilian who’d been good for nearly a goal a game over two seasons in the Eredivisie: Ronaldo Nazario. The original Ronaldo.
The 19 year old not only had a full complement of strikerly attributes, they were all world-class. His acceleration and straight-line speed were jaw-dropping. His frame was lean, with quickness, agility and dexterity that flummoxed packs of would-be defenders. At the same time he was powerful, capable of absorbing and bursting through the sternest of challenges from multiple defenders at a time. With the ball at his feet he was a maestro, seemingly taking touches within touches, and always in control. So great was his command of the ball in close quarters that his signature move was depositing an opposing goalkeeper onto his backside before nonchalantly stroking the ball into an empty net. These qualities converged most incredibly in his ability to receive the ball, turn on a dime and accelerate, blindingly, from, again, several defenders at once. For good measure, he was a lethal finisher from all distances and angles and, because the world is a cruel and unjust place, also possessed a poacher’s nose for goal. He was everything that draws eyeballs to the game. Cerebral, visceral and physical – he was the platonic ideal.
It’s laughable in hindsight, but a world-record €15million fee was seen as a colossal risk for a player whose ability, while prodigious, was untested at the game’s highest level.
Ronaldo’s first meaningful action in a Barcelona shirt came on 25 August 1996, in the first leg of the Supercopa de España in Montjuic against Atlético Madrid.
Atlético were coming off perhaps the best season in the history of the club. Having previously won the league and the Copa del Rey eight times apiece, 1995–1996 was the first season in which they’d captured both. Despite a late charge from Valencia and a solid showing from Barcelona, Atleti, under the former Real Madrid manager Radomir Antić, maintained a grip on La Liga for the entirety of the campaign. They sat atop the table after 39 of 42 match days, including each of the season’s final 29. In an early nod to cholismo, they dominated defensively, conceding 32 goals in 42 outings. Led by the Bulgarian Lubo Penev, who scored 22 times in 44 games in all competitions, and El Cholo himself, Diego Simeone, who scored 12, they’d finished on 87 points, four ahead of second-place Valencia, and seven better than Barcelona, to capture their first league crown in 19 years.
Their run to the Copa del Rey final was similarly competitive without ever facing grave danger. After easily dispatching Almería and Mérida in the opening rounds, they faced their greatest challenge – an away leg in Sevilla against Real Betis, after having been held to a 1-1 draw at home. They edged out a 2-1 victory to advance and subsequently overcame the potential stumbling block of a goalless draw in Tenerife with a 3-0 victory at home. The semi-final had pitted Atleti against eventual league runners-up Valencia. 11 goals were scored across an eventful two legs, but the tie was all but killed off midway through, as Atleti returned home with a two-goal leadand five away goals.
The final, at Zaragoza’s Estadio La Romareda against Barcelona, was a contest that could generously be deemed testy. The game’s initial 90 minutes saw 10 yellow cards, but no goals. 12 minutes into extra time, Milinko Pantić struck for the game’s only goal. 18 minutes, another four yellow cards and two sendings-off later, Atleti had held on for their historic double.
Unlike Barça, Atlético retained the vast majority of their squad. However, their departures were significant. After a single excellent season, Penev left for Compostela. Also gone was Tomás, the legendary right back who’d been a fixture since 1984. After a dozen years and nearly 500 appearances for the club, the 36 year old was off to Marbella. In their places had come Juan Esnáider, an Argentinian striker coming off two disappointing seasons with Real Madrid, Veljko Paunović, a Serbian attacking midfield acquired from Marbella, and Radek Bejbl, a Czech defensive midfielder who’d moved from Slavia Prague.
Once the game kicked off, Ronaldo wasted no time in making an impact, finding the net with a powerful strike from outside the box less than five minutes in. He bookended a brilliant debut in the 89th, capping off a 5-2 victory with a casual finish into an empty net from an excellent setup by Giovanni. The sides met for the second leg three days later, with Barça riding that advantage to a 6-5 aggregate victory.
After failing to score in a pair of Barcelona wins to kick off the league campaign, Ronaldo quickly found his stride. In four days he netted a pair against the Cypriot side AEK Larnaca in the Cup Winners’ Cup first round, and opened his league account in a 1-1 draw away to Racing Santander. A week later he struck for the first time at the Camp Nou, scoring in the first and 88th minutes in a 3-2 win over Real Sociedad. With that, he was away.
Four league games between 29 September and 20 October yielded three more braces. The second of these outings was a 5-1 away win against Compostela in which he scored twice, the first of which is that goal. In the 36th minute, Ronaldo picks up the ball in his own half after a Popescu challenge. A pair of defenders run into one another attempting to close him down, but Ronaldo slips away. He then meets the midfielder Saïd Chiba, whose clear aim is to quell the danger by any means necessary. However, a shirt-pull and three kicks to the back of the legs neither slow the run nor draw a whistle. Once again, he’s off. Accelerating as only he could, Ronaldo is suddenly in the open in the attacking half, outrunning six retreating Compostela players. Once in the box, two lunging defenders, one of whom has already been faked out of position, effectively tackle one another, as Ronaldo finds space to plant and fire a right-footed shot into the bottom left corner. It’s been said that life’s most significant and impactful moments do not identify themselves as such in real time. This is not one of those moments. The camera cuts to the sideline, where substitutes and staff are vacating the Barcelona bench in celebration, and Robson, hands on his head, is in shocked disbelief.
Five days later, back in Barcelona, he had Valencia in his sights. That he struck a hat-trick is almost anticlimactic, so phenomenal and singularly dominant was his showing, in concert with that of Figo. On November 18, he scored the second in a 6-1 thrashing of Valladolid. Barcelona were off to their best league start in more than three decades: undefeated, scoring more than three goals per game, a goal difference of nearly +2 per game, and sitting top of the table for a seventh consecutive week. Ronaldo, meanwhile, had played eleven of thirteen league games and scored 13 goals, all of which had come in the previous nine games. In all, he’d taken part in fourteen, and scored an incredible seventeen goals. Inexplicably, and yet all too predictably, fans and the local press grumbled about the quality of football on display. On the pitch, however, life could not have been better for the Blaugrana.
Unfortunately for Atlético, 1996-97 was not much of an encore. The defending champions crashed and burned straight away, taking eleven points from their first nine games, putting an end to any hope of a title repeat. Although their form picked up as the season wore on, Los Colchoneros never threatened the top four. Despite bettering their goal output from the previous season, scoring 76 in 42 league games, they collapsed defensively, conceding 64 goals – twice their tally from the 1995-96 season, and by far the worst mark for a top-ten side.
In Barcelona, as the season wore on and the plaudits rolled in, Ronaldo's ego took on a life of its own. Whether it was his increased engagement in Barcelona’s night life, a refusal to participate in a photo shoot with the supermodel Cindy Crawford, as “they should've asked her to pose with me”, or the frequent trips back to Brazil, he’d clearly embraced the idea of superstardom, with his behaviour increasingly suggesting that the team’s priorities didn’t always mirror his own. However, Núñez and club’s senior management, delighted with the impact of their new superstar, indulged his whims, reportedly sanctioning ninetrips to Brazil in December and January alone. One visit included the purchase of an island, while another, during Carnaval, resulted in photos of Ronaldo, on a float, wearing a gold suit and a crown of blue feathers… and bristles from Robson, the fans, the press and teammates. His countryman Giovanni said pointedly after the incident: "I love Carnaval too, but as a professional my duty is to be here.” Despite his clear love and admiration for Robson today, there was friction between the two, with Ronaldo publicly questioning Robson’s tactics.
Meanwhile, his agents, Reinaldo Pitta and Alexandre Martins, a profit-minded duo who’d long been in charge of the player’s career, had set about capitalising on his spectacular start. Before the season had reached its halfway point, the pair were angling for an improved contract, using the spectre of Ronaldo leaving Barcelona after just one season as leverage.
The intrigue, unfortunately, was not confined to the palace. Following that victory against Valladolid, as they were flying highest, Barcelona became its own worst enemy. Their next time out, November 23 in Bilbao, was a troubling portend of things to come, as Barça took the lead after 25 minutes, only to concede twice in the final half hour to lose 2-1. Despite winning five of seven after the loss, they continued to drop points at vital moments. First, a 2-0 defeat away to Real Madrid in early December. A month later, perhaps their worst defeat of the season, a 3-2 home loss to Hércules in which they’d led 2-0 after fifteen minutes.
In the meantime, the sides’ Copa del Rey campaigns kicked off. As the finalists from the previous season, both joined the competition in the round of 16. While Atlético had minimal difficulty is disposing of Compostela, Barcelona faced a two-legged match-up against Real Madrid.
The first leg took place on January 30 at the Camp Nou. A vicious display of pace and power from Ronaldo put Barça ahead after 13 minutes. However, Davor Šuker almost immediately equalised from just inside the box and, on 67 minutes, Fernando Hierro blasted in a rolled setup from a free kick. This time it was Barcelona who equalised immediately as, on 70 minutes, an attempt by Miguel Ángel Nadal took a deflection and found the net. Eight minutes later, a corner from Pep Guardiola was met by Giovanni, who headed into the bottom right corner to secure a 3-2 victory.
The second leg took place a week later in Madrid. The intervening days had seen Real Madrid pick up three points against Deportivo La Coruña, while Barcelona had squandered a two-goal second half lead at home against Real Oviedo, conceding twice in the final 15 minutes. The sides entered the second leg with Madrid holding a five-point lead in the league, each having played 22 of 42 games. The recent implosions had also turned up the volume on the season’s worst-kept secret – that, despite having signed Robson to a two-year contract, Núñez had only ever intended to have him in charge for one season, as he awaited Ajax’s Louis van Gaal.
Madrid were the better team In the first half, as Barcelona took a conservative approach to protecting their narrow advantage. Led in attack by Šuker, Raúl and Peđa Mijatović, Madrid mounted an all-out assault on the Barcelona box late in the first half. This, however, ultimately came to nothing, as the Barça defence, Couto in particular, successfully extinguished the threat. Madrid were further frustrated when a Hierro goal was (rightfully) disallowed for handball.
The second half had a distinctly different look, as Barcelona emerged from the dressing room a more ambitious side, looking to exert at least some control over the game. Ronaldo and Pizzi, isolated the first half, were brought into the game, a move which nearly paid immediate dividends, as Ronaldo smashed a shot off of the post after just six minutes. Ronaldo continued to threaten – once he was thwarted by a diving Bodo Illgner, before hitting the woodwork again. In the 69th minute, in an attempt to keep a cross from reaching his prolific countryman, Roberto Carlos directed the ball past Illgner for an own goal. Barcelona led 1-0 with just over 20 minutes to play. Madrid drew level after 10 of those minutes, through a 79th-minute penalty, coolly converted by Šuker. Given their advantage on away goals, Madrid needed to strike once more without conceding. Given Barcelona’s late-game exploits in recent weeks, they’d have been forgiven for fancying their chances. However, Barça uncharacteristically maintained control, with Madrid never really posing a threat. Thanks largely to their defence and the calmness of Pep Guardiola, Barcelona had vanquished their arch-rivals and earned themselves, and their manager, a brief respite.
That respite was shockingly brief, however, as the next three weeks brought losses to Espanyol, Real Sociedad and Tenerife, in which Barcelona failed to score a single goal. The last of these was a 4-0 shellacking on March 1, in which Nadal and Abelardo were sent off in the first hour. While that first loss of the season in Bilbao had knocked Barcelona from first place, they’d remained on Real Madrid’s heels for a spell. By the end of February, however, their league ambitions looked irretrievably damaged. The six games culminating the first weekend in March had yielded just seven of a possible 18 points, leaving Barcelona nine points back, with 14 games remaining. Unsurprisingly, Ronaldo’s form also dipped over this period, largely as a result of an October injury which he’d aggravated against Crvena Zvezda in the Cup Winners' Cup. Though he technically remained productive, scoring eight times in 14 league games, none of his goals were game-changers, and his performances overall were largely forgettable.
On 26 February, Barcelona returned to Madrid, this time to the Vicente Calderón, to kick off their Copa del Rey quarter-final tie against Atlético. The contest was competitive, though far better disciplined than the final between the sides the previous spring. José Luis Caminero put the home side ahead after 18 minutes and they held the lead until the 42nd minute, when Pizzi equalised. The sides went into the break level. 19 minutes into the second half Pizzi struck again, putting Barça ahead and notching an all-important second away goal. Atleti equalised eight minutes later, through Kiko and that 2-2 score-line held, setting up a potentially explosive second leg at Camp Nou in two weeks’ time.
All the while, the sides had European campaigns to consider. Atlético, having secured progress from the Champions League group stage, traveled to Amsterdam between Copa del Rey legs for a quarter-final first leg against Louis van Gaal’s Ajax. An early goal from Esnáider was matched just after halftime by Patrick Kluivert. It finished 1-1.
Four months had separated the Round of 16 and quarter-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup. In the opening rounds Barcelona had knocked out AEK Larnaca and Crvena Zvezda, in each instance taking a two-goal advantage at home and managing an away draw. They were on their way to replicating the feat yet again, having defeated the Swedish side AIK 3-1 at Camp Nou six days earlier and would be contesting the away leg in eight days.
Barç and Madrid reconvened on the night of Wednesday March 12 in Barcelona. At stake was the semi-finals, and the right to play Las Palmas, who’d secured a spot in the competition’s final four just minutes away, in Barcelona’s Sarrià neighbourhood, against Espanyol.
By this point, Robson was hardly guaranteed still to be in charge at the weekend, let alone season’s end. The team, meanwhile, having squandered an historically great start to the season, were fighting to salvage any glory and return to the good graces of an exasperated fan base.
As the teams line up for kick-off, we are treated to a shot of Louis van Gaal in the stand. It’s possible that Van Gaal has simply shown up to scout Atlético ahead of their Champions League second leg match the following week. Perhaps. Perhaps it’s confirmation bias, but his mere presence has a more unnerving air about it.
The game’s first eight minutes reflect the tension of the moment. Neither side is exerting control, though it’s not a cagy affair. Both sides are playing decently, feeling one another out, actively seeking opportunities to attack. Figo, Enrique and De la Peña are posing the greatest threat for Barcelona, while Aguilera and Kiko are most active for Atleti. At nine minutes, out of very little, Carlos Aguilera unleashes a shot from about twenty yards. The shot is right at Baía, who makes the initial save before inexplicably spilling the ball into the six-yard box, where Milinko Pantić is waiting, unmarked, to poke in the rebound. 1-0 to Atleti.
Barcelona dominate possession in the aftermath of the goal. They have yet to threaten, but Figo and Luis Enrique cause problems down the wings. It’s not until the 14-minute mark that we first see anything of Ronaldo, as he attacks the left side of the box off from a De la Peña pass, attempting to round the keeper, as he’d done more than half a dozen times that season. However, he’s undone by a combination of a heavy first touch and good goalkeeping by Molina, and the ball runs out for a goal-kick.
At about 17 minutes we’re introduced to another of the evening’s themes, as Juan Manuel López and Figo meet in the air, with López’s forearm not unintentionally asserting dominance over Figo’s nose, which immediately begins bleeding and requires attention. A true sign of the times is the referee Celino Gracia Redondo’s attitude toward the incident. By contemporary standards, a player would be fortunate to escape with only a booking after so aggressively whipping his arm at an opponent’s face. López is not only not penalised, he’s annoyed that the bleeding Figo will not simply get on with the game. Shortly after comes first booking, as Popescu, moments after assertively stopping Aguilera, takes out Caminero near the centre circle. No more than a minute later, Figo is chopped down just outside the box, attempting to cut in from the left. Once again, no foul.
Having informed Figo of their presence, Atlético’s defenders start in on Ronaldo, with a pair of stern fouls in rapid succession. A quick restart following the second leads to cross from the left finding Luis Enrique in the box. His initial wayward shot ricochets off a defender and rebounds back to him. His second attempt is struck firmly and on target, but straight into the keeper’s arms.
Moments later, while awaiting a Barcelona throw, Figo once again hits the deck. Once again, no foul. The initial replay suggests little has happened and that Figo, out of a combination of frustration and desire to draw attention to the treatment he’s receiving, has simply flopped. Another angle reveals that he was slyly tapped in the midsection by the defender, and is maximising the opportunity to draw attention to the incident.
As the game settles, it’s apparent that Atleti have shown virtually no attacking impetus in the twenty minutes since scoring. Just prior to the half-hour mark, Guardiola puts a free kick into the box from the right, just inside the attacking half. The ensuing clearance momentarily presents Atleti with an opening, but Barça recover and put the ball back into Atlético’s half. It’s recovered along the right touchline by López, who plays a long diagonal ball just past the centre circle, which is missed in the air by both Blanc and Kiko. The ball flies past them, into the path of Pantić, who breaks into the Barcelona half, down the left. Couto arrives as Pantić pulls up just outside the box, from where he rifles a right-footed 20-yarder that beats Baía at his near post. The power and placement of the strike are spectacular, although Couto’s lunging, one-legged challenge is less-than-stellar. Regardless, it’s 2-0 to Atleti. Barcelona are looking down the barrel of a disaster.
Roughly two minutes later, Barcelona once again win a free kick in the attacking half, to the left. The kick is blocked and possession falls to Bejbl, who races down the opposite wing, well into the Barça half. An attempted cross is cleared, resulting in an Atleti throw from the left, level with the top of the box. The throw is put into the box, where Kiko is up against Blanc. He chests the ball and, as he attempts to spin away, is mugged, as, at various points, Blanc: has his arms around Kiko’s neck, pulls his shirt and nudges him in the back, sending the attacker to the ground. A penalty rightly awarded, Pantić sends Baía left and buries a powerful low strike to the keeper’s right, completing his hat-trick and extending Atleti’s lead to 3-0. For a moment, 90,000 once-raucous fans manage only a shocked, funereal silence, before erupting into a cascade of enraged boos and whistles, amid a sea of white handkerchiefs, Spanish football’s symbol of discontent.
A draw will no longer suffice for Barcelona, as Atlético now hold an away goals advantage. Barcelona must outscore Atleti by four goals in a hour if they’re to advance. Frankly, at this point, reclaiming a modicum of dignity in front of their shell-shocked fans seems a tall enough order. It’s scant consolation, but, setting aside the goals, Barcelona have looked the better side. They’ve controlled possession and looked more dangerous, though, admittedly, without really threatening the opposing goal. In the moments immediately following the third goal, they look stunned, with Sergi and Couto increasingly losing their cool. The side is teetering on the edge of an historic debacle.
In the 34th minute, Figo is unsurprisingly chopped down while cutting in from the right. It’s Atlético’s twelfth foul of the game, for which Santi is shown his side’s first yellow card. A minute later, a spectacular combination of control, first touch and first step put Ronaldo in space in the middle of the field. As he races toward the box he is tripped by Daniel Prodan. It’s the fifth foul of the game against Ronaldo, and Prodan receives Atleti’s second yellow card.
It bears repeating that Atlético’s performance neither suggests that this is a team capable of netting three times in 22 minutes, nor that they’ve actually just done so. It’s not that they’ve been lucky, but viciously opportunistic. In a game in which quality chances have been at a premium for both sides, they’ve seized upon every opportunity thrown their way by a generous and error-prone defense.
Barcelona are clearly going to have to try something new. About seven minutes before halftime, we get a glimpse of what’s in store as Pizzi and Hristo Stoichkov begin warming up on the sideline. At that very moment Barça dodge a bullet, as an optimistic strike by Veljko Paunović from 30 yards whizzes past Baía’s right-hand post.
Just after the 40-minute mark, Robson shakes things up, with not only a double substitution, but an all-in attacking gambit, replacing Popescu and Blanc with Pizzi and Stoichkov. For Blanc, the unceremonious exit has an air of finality to it. Although he would appear another nine times in Barcelona’s late-season attempt to chase down Real Madrid in the league, injury, suspension and international duty kept him from the club’s remaining Copa del Rey and Cup Winners’ Cup matches. Blanc had been targeted by several large clubs the previous summer, but had agreed to join Barcelona thanks to Cruyff’s recruitment. Sadly, he was afforded no honeymoon at the club, as the day on which he joined was the day on which Cruyff’s departure was announced, and he wound up losing much of his early season to injury. It’s a microcosm of bitter disappointment, apparent confirmation that Blanc’s first season in Barcelona will be his last.
The move pushes Luis Enrique, arguably Barça’s most dangerous player in the first half, to right-back, alongside Couto, Abelardo and Sergi. This leaves Guardiola and Ivan de la Peña, their next best performer in the first half, as dedicated midfielders, with Figo and Stoichkov in attack, just behind the two strikers, Ronaldo and Pizzi. The score is unchanged at the halfway mark and the knives are out as the sides make their way to the dressing rooms. The Barcelona players are probably thankful for a brief respite from the ire of their own fans. There’s little reason to believe the second half is anything but a formality, with Atlético merely needing to protect a three-and-a-half-goal lead for 45 minutes, and Barcelona playing out the remainder of their coach’s brief tenure.
The second half begins spiritedly, with Figo exacting a modicum of revenge for the punishment he’s endured thus far, delivering a boot to the side of Toni’s back in an aerial challenge. Moments later, Sergi plays a long diagonal from the left touchline in his own half. The ball is brought down near the centre circle by Guardiola, who plays it to the right, to Figo, who quickly plays a through-ball into the box. A racing Stoichkov gets on the ball, spins and tries a tight-angled shot from about 10 yards out. His shot is blocked, but the ball sails, slowly, toward the penalty spot, where a waiting Ronaldo calmly and authoritatively deposits a right-footed volley into the net. 3-1. A shred of dignity. Barcelona must still outscore Atleti by three goals. That they have more than 40 minutes to do so offers a glimmer of hope. This remains a herculean task, as their own defense is hardly certain to keep the ball out of the net.
Not two minutes later, as if seeking to affirm this very point, Baía comes out to challenge Caminero in the box. He’s not only misjudged the situation, but then misplays his attempted clearance and strands himself in no man’s land. The ball, now loose, is squared to the penalty spot, where Bejbl is waiting. He unleashes what looks like a nailed-on fourth goal at the keeper-less net. Miraculously for Barcelona, amid the chaos Couto has a taken up a spot just in front of the goal-line and saves the day.
The clearance leads to a Barcelona foray into the attacking half, which culminates in a beautiful bit of control by Ronaldo just outside the box. He absorbs some contact on his way in, but is the recipient of neither a free kick nor a penalty. Almost immediately after, Sergi sets sail down the left once again, surging into the attacking half. On the wing he finds Stoichkov, who darts into the box, splitting two defenders, one of whom musters an unrequited appeal for a handball. The Bulgarian makes for the goal-line, where he puts in a short cross that is headed away by Toni. The clearance fall directly to Sergi, who is lingering near the corner of the area. He volleys the ball back in, just beyond the head of a diving Pizzi, but straight to Ronaldo, who’s waiting just behind him at the far post to poke it into the net. 3-2. Dignity mostly intact, Barcelona are halfway to the unthinkable. They’ve pulled back two goals in six minutes, and have nearly 40 minutes to replicate the feat. They can begin to dream.
Celebration gives way to calamitous self-parody, as the replays cut directly to an Atlético attack, with Caminero playing Pantić into the box on the right, and the Serbian coolly chipping Baía for Atleti’s – and his – fourth goal of the game, and surely the knockout punch. The replay reveals the genesis of the opportunity as another miscue by Baía, who has this time languidly kicked the ball directly to Caminero, who needed a single touch to put Pantić through on goal.
It was a fun few seconds, but reality has reasserted its sobering grip on proceedings. Atleti now lead 4-2, and though Barcelona still have nearly 40 minutes to fashion a comeback, they now must bring their tally to at least five, provided they don’t concede again.
Barcelona are almost immediately nearly burned by yet another error, as a headed attempt by Sergi to bring the ball under control in his own half ends with Caminero and Paunović bearing down on the Barcelona box. It’s only thanks to an inch-perfect sliding tackle just outside the box by Abelardo that disaster is averted. It feels like nothing more than a temporary stay, as Barcelona seem determined to self-destruct.
Atletico make their first substitution of the game, with Roberto Solozábal replacing Toni in defense. Moments later, a wide-open Caminero is released down the left flank, into the Barcelona half. He plays a cross-field ball to Aguilera, who is surrounded by a group of confused Barcelona defenders, who both fail to win the ball and seemingly begin to usher him toward their own area. Looking to diffuse the situation, a backtracking Stoichkov fouls Aguilera a few yards outside the box. Already enjoying the game of his life, Milinko Pantić nearly scores his fifth goal in an hour, as a whipped free kick from about 25 yards is only kept out of the net by the fists of a diving Baía.
Too much cannot be said of Ronaldo’s ability to kill a ball, control it, pivot and accelerate. The entire package is on full display seconds later, from another De la Peña pass, which he receives with a defender on his back. With another player coming from the right and a third closing in from behind, he pirouettes around the ball before putting the hammer down. Within about a second he’s left two men in his wake, while the two chasing him are defending in name only. Only an errant run by Pizzi into Ronaldo’s path allows the fifth and sixth defenders engaged on the play to dispossess him – and even then it takes a forearm to the back from López to get the job done. Pizzi is there to latch on to the loose ball and put a shot on target, but Molina makes the save and covers up a spilled rebound.
That misguided run notwithstanding, Pizzi has been a huge factor in the Barcelona attack since his introduction. He’s frequently in the right spaces, and aggressively seeking out opportunities. Beyond that, he’s been up to the task of physically challenging an aggressive, if not cynical Atleti defence. Just after the hour mark he wins an aerial battle in the box against two defenders, with the ball falling to Stoichkov, whose shot from a tight angle on the left takes a deflection toward goal, but is saved.
Barça are now pushing. Virtually all possession and attacking intent is theirs. However, they’re still searching for three unanswered goals, and now have less than half an hour in which to get them. That frustration is palpable moments later, as De la Peña picks up the ball in midfield and, with the referee playing advantage in Barcelona’s favour, uncorks a shot from no more than a couple of yards inside the Atleti half. The attempt is about eight yards wide and bounces over the goal-line without troubling the keeper. Though Molina was off his line and perhaps could have been beaten, that attempt at that moment suggests a certain desperation.
Based on his exploits from the opening hour, there’s a compelling argument to be made that Juan Manuel López should not still be taking part in this game. And yet he remains, unbooked and undeterred. His next contribution, near the goal-line on the left, an ersatz karate kick that takes out Stoichkov, results in what is effectively a corner for Barcelona. Guardiola’s cross is headed away, but only as far as the top of the box, and Figo. He waits, patiently, for the ball to fall to hip level, before lasering a picture-perfect 18-yard volley into the top left corner. A golazo of the highest order makes the score 4-3. The Camp Nou erupts with re-renewed hope. Barça have 23 minutes to outscore their stunned visitors by two goals.
In keeping with another of the evening’s overarching themes, almost immediately after the goal Figo is hammered yet again, this time by a not unintentional flying kick to the thigh. Pizzi wastes no time in exacting revenge, clattering Carlos Aguilera, who is shaken up after the challenge. This leads to Atleti’s second substitution of the night as he goes off for Juan Vizcaíno.
Barely a minute later, Stoichkov does very well to prevent a long cross from going out of play on the left. He boots the ball out to Sergi, who plays it short to Guardiola. Pep passes to De la Peña, who finds Ronaldo on the right side of the D. Ronaldo delays his first touch ever so slightly, before spinning left into the area with two defenders on his tail and, from 14 yards out on the right, power-scuffs the ball into the bottom left corner, completing his hat-trick and making it 4-4. Barça have 18 minutes to find a winner.
Atlético are living a nightmare. They’ve eschewed attacking for much of the second half in favour of protecting a seemingly insurmountable lead. However, they must now shift gears and exhibit at least a passing interest in scoring again. Keeping this Barça at bay for the rest of the game by simply bedding in is probably too tall an order. Two minutes after Ronaldo’s equaliser, Pizzi finds space at the edge of the box. His attempt is easily saved, but it’s simply another straw on the back of an exhausted and disoriented camel. Barcelona have found their stride and are charging hard, attacking at every turn, and exposing cracks in the Atleti defense.
The remainder of the game will be fuelled by desperation, some of which bubbles over in the 77th minute, as De la Peña, dubious of Daniel Prodan’s claim of cramp in his leg, attempts to force the Romanian to his feet. This raises the temperature. In a rare moment of intent from Atleti, Kiko carves out some space about 20 yards from goal and attempts a low, right-footed shot. Baía should have it covered but as he slides over to secure the ball, it gets through him once again. No harm is done and he is able to pick it up a yard in front of goal line up as no one was following the shot, but it’s an indication of the type of night he’s had.
The ensuing move culminates in a lofted, perfectly weighted outside-of-the-boot pass of at least 35 yards from De la Peña to Stoichkov at the edge of the box. Stoichkov attempts a volley that is technically on target, but bounces weakly to the keeper. It’s another sign of intent.
Barça are back at it 90 seconds later, as Figo collects the ball at the left edge of the area and drives into the box. He squares to Ronaldo near the penalty spot, who thumps a shot off of Molina’s legs. The rebound falls to Pizzi, whose shot is blocked and goes for a corner. The Camp Nou is poised to explode. Guardiola’s corner is cleared, De la Peña regains possession in midfield and plays it to Guardiola on the right. He whips in a beautiful cross, which is met by Abelardo. The centre-back puts a strong header on target, forcing an excellent reflex save by Molina. However, the effort leaves the keeper out of position. Pizzi is there to latch on to the rebound and, with Barcelona’s third volleyed goal of the game, completes the turnaround. 5-4, Barça. Mania.
Camp Nou erupts into a visceral delirium. The fans are rapturous, the players, childlike and unbridled… It’s pure, unrefined elation, meant neither to be untangled nor analysed. Perhaps the most resonant image comes about a minute later, with play back underway but the celebration ongoing, and Stoichkov pumping up the crowd. Pandemonium unfolding blurrily around him, he throws his arms in the air, screaming “¡Vamos!” to all corners of the stadium. He’s been here before. He knows these moments with these people. A headliner with the Dream Team, he left… and then he returned – for this. It’s a moment that sticks with you.
For Atlético, reverting to an attacking mentality is no longer optional. Unfortunately, they’re struggling to change gears. While they’ve done extremely well in capitalising on the chances with which they were presented, the extent to which their attack was reliant on a steady stream of Barcelona gaffes has become apparent. Barça, meanwhile, remain fully engaged. They are giving nothing away, still looking to create chances – and doing so with ease. Not three minutes after the goal, Luis Enrique gets on the end of a Figo pass on the right side of the box. He fires a shot that’s saved by Molina. Two minutes later, after an unfathomably smooth swipe of the ball by Guardiola derails a would-be Atleti attack, De la Peña spots a Ronaldo run, but his through-ball is struck just a touch too firmly.
With about three minutes remaining, Robson makes his final substitution, bringing on Miguel Ángel Nadal to replace Luis Figo, who walks off to a standing ovation. The appreciation is hugely deserved given Figo’s toughness and persistence throughout the night. In light of subsequent events, however, the scene makes for a disorienting visual.
Immediately after, Barça thwart another attempt on their area. After the clearance, the ball winds up with Ronaldo on the right, roughly 30 yards short of the halfway line. On receiving the ball, his back to the attacking half, he turns and kicks it ahead, into an open space on the right, before throwing it into high gear and absolutely tearing past the hopeless defender. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the limitless possibility that accompanied his every touch. Ridiculous as it sounds given what’s just taken place, it’s one of the most purely thrilling moments of the night.
As the clock wins down, they’re at it gain, with Luis Enrique releasing Stoichkov on the left. In the blink of an eye, he’s off, with Ronaldo in the middle and Ivan de la Peña on the right, and only two defenders, both desperately trying to get back. Stoichkov puts in a low cross from the left that’s a half stride too far for Ronaldo but rolls perfectly to De la Peña, who skies an excellent chance well over the net. That it should now be six is irrelevant. In fact, after an evening – a season, really – of aggressive flirtation with disaster, it’s as though Barcelona are flaunting their newfound luxury for profligacy.
In the very final seconds, as Barça look to close out the game, Guardiola has the ball in midfield. After tidily evading a defender, he ignores an opportunity either to boot the ball away or pass to a less encumbered teammate, and is dispossessed. The final whistle now imminent, Atleti work the ball down the left, resulting in a clean opportunity to put in a cross with two attackers running in on goal. The move comes to nothing. Baía catches the ball and the final whistle sounds. The ground bursts into renewed euphoric celebration.
Delightfully for Barcelona, there was no final twist in the plot, and the evening remains, in the words of Pep Guardiola, “one of the best nights of our lives”.
That defeat marked the beginning of the end of meaningful football for Atlético that season. Firmly ensconced in fifth in the league and out of the domestic cup, the Champions League was their last competitive hope. A week later they were off to Amsterdam, where they lost 3-2 after extra-time.
Barcelona, meanwhile, still had plenty on their plate. Their stumbles in the season’s middle third – during which they lost six times and picked up just 22 of a possible 42 league points – had taken the wind out of their sails. However, in light of the comeback, with a couple of drinks and a hard squint, one could make a case that maybe, just maybe this embattled side had another miracle in it. Barcelona were nine points back with 14 games to play – one of them a home date against Real Madrid on May 10. In the eight games leading up to El Clásico they gathered 19 points, with Ronaldo scoring in every game – including another hat-trick against Atleti at the Calderón.
All the while the cup campaigns rolled on. A week after the remontada, Barcelona secured a spot in the Cup Winners’ Cup semis with a 1-1 away draw against AIK. The following week they traveled to Las Palmas, where a pair of strikes from Ronaldo and one apiece from Pizzi and De la Peña all but punched their ticket to the Copa del Rey final. They formalised their reservation a week later with a 3-0 home victory.
The Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final brought a match-up against Fiorentina. The Italian side snapped Barça’s home winning streak with a 1-1 draw, though Barça simply reversed their pattern, first-half goals from Couto and Guardiola giving them a 2-0 win in Florence. For all of the frustration and tumult that had swirled around them throughout the season, Barcelona were in the finals of two of the campaign’s three competitions and, given their recent momentum, were theoretically…
Unfortunately, this stretch also included an unwelcome return to mid-season form. On April 16 in Valladolid, Ronaldo struck early against the club he would purchase two decades later, putting Barça ahead after just five minutes. However, Barcelona proceeded to concede three, while failing to break through again in the ensuing 85 minutes. They fell 3-1, once again all but extinguishing their league hopes.
On May 10, Real Madrid arrived at the Camp Nou, holding an eight-point advantage with six games left. The game was a tight affair, with chances at a premium. Barcelona were awarded a vital penalty just before half-time. Ronaldo’s attempt from the spot was saved by Bodo Illgner, but the rebound fell to Figo, who squared the ball to Ronaldo for a tap-in and the game’s only goal. Five games left, five points back.
The Cup Winners’ Cup final, four days later in Rotterdam against PSG, was an anticlimax, decided by another first-half penalty, also taken by Ronaldo. On this occasion he converted the game’s first and only goal, securing Barcelona a record fourth Cup Winners’ Cup, and ensuring the 1996-97 side at least one major trophy.
A quirk in scheduling meant the Spanish domestic campaign didn’t finish until late June, leaving a whopping six weeks between the Cup Winners’ Cup and Copa del Rey finals, allowing Barcelona to focus on overhauling Madrid. They closed out May with six points, via an away win against Celta Vigo and a 1-0 home win over Deportivo La Coruña. Unsurprisingly, Ronaldo scored in each contest, taking his streak of consecutive games with a goal to ten with an 89th minute strike against Deportivo, vitally turning a scoreless draw into full points on the same day that Madrid had themselves stumbled in Bilbao. Barcelona, with three games left, had crept to within two points of another miracle.
It was known at the time that the Deportivo game would be Ronaldo’s last of the season, as he’d then be off to join Brazil at Le Tournoi, a four-team international tournament intended as a World Cup warm-up, beginning on June 3 in France, before heading to Bolivia for the Copa América, which started on 11 June. His departure at so vital a moment reinforced the belief among fans and the press that his heart lay elsewhere – despite the fact that it was Fifa who’d refused to release him from international duty. Regardless, Barça would be making their final push for the league without the game’s ultimate difference maker.
What wasn’t yet known was that this was the last time Ronaldo would ever appear in aBarcelona shirt. That his agents were angling for an improved contract was common knowledge. With their client’s club campaign now over, they made their move, leveraging interest from Inter, AC Milan and Manchester United. On May 26, two days after the Deportivo match, the sides agreed a deal which would keep Ronaldo at Barcelona until 2006 and pay him over €2million a year. So secure was the deal that after the meeting Núñez declared "He's ours for life," with a meeting arranged the next day to finalise the agreement. Upon reconvening, Núñez was stunned to learn that there was no longer a deal in place, prompting a staggering about-face, stating on May 27, "It's all over, Ronaldo is going." Ronaldo was on his way to Italy, with Inter having agreed to pay his buyout clause of more than €21 million, making him the world’s most expensive footballer for the second consecutive summer.
Precise details of the deal that wasn’t remain a mystery. In the eyes of the club, a pair of profiteering agents broke an agreement that had been reached in good faith. Ronaldo concurred that agreements had been broken. In his view, however, it was Núñez who’d not been true to his word. This wasn’t the first time such claims had been made against the president. However, it was Ronaldo who drew the ire of the fans, who voted Luis Enrique as the club’s player of the season, despite Ronaldo being named Fifa’s World Player of the Year.
Irrespective of the bumps in the road, Ronaldo had just treated Barcelona to a season for the ages. He’d taken the pitch 49 times and scored a staggering 47 goals – a club record that stood until Lionel Messi in 2010-11 – 34 of which came in 37 league outings. He produced four hat-tricks, seven braces and innumerable moments of unmitigated awe. This was the greatest striker in the game’s history at his devastating apex. However, having squandered whatever goodwill he’d built up through erratic behaviour and a perceived lack of commitment, Ronaldo was leaving town a traitor.
Barcelona returned to league play four days after the bombshell. Given the stakes, combined with the memory of a two-goal-lead-turned-defeat earlier in the season at Camp Nou, with or without Ronaldo, an easy Barcelona win seemed the only plausible outcome against relegation-bound Hércules. A third-minute Luis Enrique goal seemed to dictate the day’s events. But what came next is difficult to compute. Afforded an early advantage and 87 minutes, Barcelona were unable to break down the league’s second-leakiest defence. In fact, as the game became more combative – 14 yellow cards were shown, with no sendings-off – it was their defence that wobbled, shipping goals in the 37th and 51st minutes. Once again, Hércules came from behind, securing a 2-1 victory, and shattering Barcelona’s league ambitions, once and for all.
An easy Real Madrid victory that same day extended their lead back to five points and a 3-1 defeat of Atleti in the Madrid derby the following week clinched the title.
Barcelona scored a league-high 102 goals (17 more than Real Madrid) and posted a league-best +54 goal difference. A defence that, while not elite, conceded just 1.14 goals per game should not have been a fatal flaw. But perhaps the measure of a side, no matter how imperious at its best, is revealed in adversity. A late-game collapse in Bilbao handed Barcelona their first defeat of the season. From there the campaign, defined by fragility and squandered opportunity, was bookended perfectly by that late-season disaster against Hércules.
A week later Barça returned to Madrid for the Copa del Rey final. That it would be Robson’s farewell engagement was by now a given. Real Betis were the opponent on the pitch, but Barça were fighting on multiple fronts that evening. They were desperate to deaden the sting of the Ronaldo saga, which, beyond the obvious loss of talent, felt like a psychological reversion to a troubling pre-Cruyff era. Additionally, were they to succeed, celebrating at Real Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, having eliminated Los Blancos from the competition along the way would make the achievement all the sweeter.
Alfonso put Betis ahead after 11 minutes, when his shot, saved by Baía, deflected off his own face and trickled into the net. Barcelona equalised just before half-time through a thunderbolt of a strike from the edge of the box by Figo, cutting in from the left. The sides remained deadlocked for much of the second half, until, in the 82nd minute, Finidi George seemingly clinched the cup for Betis, finishing from the right after a beautiful set-up by Alfonso. Three minutes later, however, as he had in mid-March at the Camp Nou, Pizzi came to Barcelona’s rescue, heading in a perfect lofted pass from Pep to force extra time. In the 114th minute, penalties looming, once again it was Figo. A loose ball in the box had rolled to Pizzi, who’d found Emmanuel Amunike on the left. His attempt deflected off a Betis defender and prompted a point-blank save by Jaro, which fell to Figo at the back post for a tap in.
Barcelona saw out the final minutes to secure the cup. That it was their third trophy of the campaign was certainly cause for celebration. What came next added a sense of delirium to proceedings. For the first time ever, the club’s anthem, “Cant del Barça”, rang out through the speakers at the Bernabéu, amplified by thousands of traveling culés. Even today, the scene possesses a certain inebriating quality.
Núñez, who’d moved the club’s elections forward a year, to 1997, looking to capitalise on the team’s spectacular early form and the coup of having landed the world’s best player, succeeded in securing another term. As he’d intended, he replaced Robson, who was named Fifa’s Coach of the Year, with Van Gaal. Within months, however, Núñez was facing a vote of no-confidence instigated by "L'Elefant Blau", a pro-Cruyff group headed by future Barcelona president Joan Laporta. Though Núñez survived the vote, it was clear that his time in charge was coming to an end.
Despite winning league titles in each of his first two seasons and the Copa del Rey in 1998, Van Gaal’s tenure is notable for its shortcomings. His successes were overshadowed by frequent clashes with local media and his own players. His claim that “cultural differences” had hindered the side’s adoption of his philosophy did little to ingratiate him. In May 2000, following his third season in charge, this one trophy-less, Van Gaal resigned, telling the press “Yo me voy. Felicidades.” “I am leaving. Congratulations.”
Two months later the clock ran out on Núñez, who resigned in the days following the shocking departure of Luís Figo to Real Madrid. He’d presided over the unprecedented triumphs of Cruyff’s Dream Team and massive growth at the club – in his two decades in charge, global membership rose from 77,905 to over 100,000, and fan clubs, or penyes, from 96, all in Spain, to more than 1,300 worldwide. However, by 2000 Núñez was associated more with his missteps than his successes.
1996-97 should rank among Barcelona’s storied and celebrated seasons. A league showing that ought to have produced a title, three trophies, powered by a generational superstar at his mind-boggling best. Whether that goal against Compostela, the subsequent evisceration of Valencia, the fever dream against Atleti or a defeat of Real Madrid en route to celebrating a Copa del Rey victory in their house, it’s a season teeming with spectacular and defining moments.
And yet, in light of Ronaldo’s departure after the best one-act play in football history, followed by Figo’s unfathomable move, it’s a season that’s barely acknowledged, let alone enjoyed. A brush with glory authored by a pair of future Madridistas. The ultimate in bitter-sweetness in Barcelona.