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It’s exactly one week until el clásico and, like all fans, I am already counting down the days until the big date of December 18. A clásico is always a special match, and in the weeks before the game it shows in the atmosphere.
They are things that I have experienced as a footballer. And not only when I was at Barça or Madrid. Also in Italy, Holland and Denmark. They are matches which evoke very strong feelings and the supporters make you feel that way. That you have a great responsibility.
When I arrived at FC Barcelona in 1989, the Spanish league didn’t have the international recognition it has now. And, therefore, though Barça v Madrid was always a great game, it wasn’t watched around the world as it is now. Since the arrival of Johan Cruyff at Barça, and in the 90s, el clásico has evolved and has become a clásico for the whole world, not just in Spain.
So much so that when I went to train in Qatar, the first question they asked me at a press conference was: "What’s your team: Barça or Madrid?" That was the first question at the press conference for my presentation! So you can imagine the scale of this match.
For me, the first clásico I played in will always be special. It was exactly 30 years ago, in October 1989. We won 3-1. It was a very important win for Barça, since at that time Madrid were very strong and had won four consecutive league titles. Barça, with Cruyff as coach, had changed a lot of things to reverse the trend. For us it was important to win that game to stop Madrid getting too far ahead in the table. And we did it! Although they went on to win the clásico in Madrid, we were able to beat them 2-0 in the Copa del Rey final in Valencia.
Once that first season was over, the truth is that things went very well because we won four consecutive league titles. That was incredible, above all, because at that time Barça as a team were trailing behind Madrid and we wanted to overtake them and become the top team. And we did. We gathered a wonderful generation of spectacular football players, led by a brilliant coach in Johan Cruyff. What a coach...!
For me he was the best coach I had in my football career. When I arrived at Barça, I was already an important player after playing at Juventus, but his way of understanding football was genius.
Throughout my career I have had great coaches but he had one thing that many don’t have: he made players enjoy training. He prepared the sessions thinking about how he wanted to play the games. Cruyff was one of the greatest of all time. And besides, he had another great virtue. He could explain any tactical situation in 10-15 seconds, and that was a spectacular skill because it made things easy for the players. He always said that the hardest thing about football was to play simple. I’m not surprised that there are now great coaches who came from that team; Guardiola and Koeman, among others.
In addition to the style of play and the four consecutive leagues, there was another very special moment for me with Barça: the Wembley final in 1992. Winning the first European Cup in club history was very exciting. Remember Barça had never won the cup before and only won a league title every seven or eight years. Then we came and won all that. Imagine how all that was celebrated! The fans went crazy, it was wonderful.
From that final, everyone talks about Cruyff's famous saying in the dressing room: "Go out and enjoy yourselves." And it was like that, we had to enjoy it. You never knew when you’d get to play another final again. That's why we had to get over our nerves because playing a final is the most beautiful thing in football.
But going back to the clásicos, I can't forget the two 5-0 matches that I experienced either! The first was in 1994 with FC Barcelona, and the following year with Real Madrid. The Camp Nou 5-0 was amazing. No one expected it because clásicos are tight matches between two huge teams. And although in history there have been results like this, they are atypical. In fact, almost 30 years have passed and people are still talking about those games. That shows that it wasn’t normal. Luckily, I have always experienced those results on the winning side. Although for me the main thing was to win, beyond the final result.
That 5-0 at the Camp Nou was spectacular. I came on eight minutes into the second half, just after Koeman made it 2-0. I remember that everything just came off and Romario capped a spectacular display with a hat-trick. I gave him an assist. The fans at Camp Nou had a great time. And when you go 2-0 up, 3-0... it's very difficult to stop. Then, 5-0… and we still had chances to score a couple more goals at least!
Then, when I was with Madrid the following year, it was also atypical because nobody expected that either. I must say that in the Madrid dressing room the players who had endured that defeat at the Camp Nou were very keen on revenge and there was a particular atmosphere. The end of the year was approaching and by Christmas, people were talking about the fact that Barça had to win. At that time Barça weren’t playing very well, and when the game came, the same thing that happened 12 months earlier at the Camp Nou occurred in reverse.
What I liked most about playing clásicos is that you knew that Camp Nou would be bursting that day. The atmosphere was different from that of a normal game. From the warm-ups to the end. There was a lot of respect between both teams and, normally, the team who played at home was the one who dominated the games, because they were very strong. At the Camp Nou Barça always won, but in the Bernabéu, Madrid always triumphed, except for the odd draw. And that’s normal in football.
That’s why I think what Barça has done at the Bernabéu during the last decade isn’t normal. They’re up to eight wins in the last 11 league games, and not only narrow victories. Results like 2-6, 0-4, 0-3... amazing! It’s to be admired. It isn’t easy and you have to attribute a lot of value to those wins. Barça have Messi and with him they’ve won a lot, but it’s not only about how well he has been performing, but also the whole team.
By the way, I still remember the clásico in January 1991 when we won 2-1. That day Hristo and Koeman weren’t playing and so the game was difficult for us at first. I played centre-forward and scored a volley from Goikoetxea’s assist to make it 1-0. The next day, everyone was talking more about Spasic's own goal that had given Barça the win than about my great goal. I got angry and I didn't understand why there was no talk about my goal.
Then, with the passage of time, I ended up understanding that Spasic’s was a very atypical goal. Obviously, beyond that one-time anger, I was happy to get the win, and we had luck on our side in that game.
That generation played very good football... but we were also lucky. Because in football, luck is also very important. We won four league titles but three of them weren’t secured until the last day, and two were dependant on Madrid’s results. I remember the first one, when we had to beat Sevilla. Madrid were playing against Tenerife and at the break were 2-0 up. That Madrid side had never let a two goal lead slip that season, and yet they lost 3-2. You can imagine how we celebrated!
When I was at Madrid later, the players who had experienced that episode told me that they couldn't get it out of their heads. They had it engraved on their minds! The following year the story was repeated. But it was more normal because Madrid were returning to the scene of the crime and the mental factor also played a part.
For me, the most explosive league title of all was in 1994 when we won 5-2 against Sevilla and Deportivo drew 0-0 and had a penalty in the 90th minute to win the league. At that precise moment, Camp Nou fell silent. The world stopped. It was a very powerful moment to experience on the pitch, and of course, when we heard that Djukic had missed, it was an outpouring of joy. From then, everything changed and we lost the final in Athens.
That season was difficult because we had four foreign players in the squad, but only three could play. And of course, when you have Romario, Koeman, Stoichkov and me in the same squad, it's not easy for the coach. In the league we rotated, because three could start and the fourth was waiting on the bench. But not in Europe. Only three could be called up so I didn’t play the final against AC Milan.
Obviously, I wasn’t happy and it hurt a lot not to play, but ultimately it was all because of the rules. But it still hurt. After the defeat I already knew that Barça could go on to suffer the following season, and I sensed that the team that had given me so much joy was coming to an end. I could have gone to another country, I had offers from other teams, but I was already 30 years old and everyone knew me in Spain. At that moment I felt that Real Madrid’s proposal was the best one for me. And that's why I accepted.
Time proved me right because that year Barça did suffer and Madrid, who hadn’t been as good as Barça for a while, managed to win the league.
If I had any doubt about what a clásico meant, I ended up understanding it when I went back to Camp Nou with Madrid. They whistled a lot. The more people love you, the more they whistle. But I understood. I had been important at Barça and in the end, football evokes very strong feelings. I had a hard time because playing against my former teammates and in the stadium hurt. It had been my home for five years but I had to respect the people's reaction. It's not nice, but I understood it.
In the end, I’m lucky to have been able to play these types of games, which are what we like as players. Now, I still enjoy them, and I experience them with passion, but from off the pitch.
I'm going to predict the result. Although I see the game being very close, I always say that the home team is the favourite. So I’m going for a… 2-1 win for Barça!
I hope you all enjoy the game.
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