The tempestuous summer of ‘96 at FC Barcelona
Since arriving as manager in 1988, Johan Cruyff had transformed the fortunes of FC Barcelona. Already a club great from his time as a player, he went on to oversee 4 La Liga titles, a European cup winners cup, a Copa del Rey, 4 Supercopas and even managed to bring home the elusive European Cup. The first in the club’s history as Barcelona were dubbed the dream team. However, two trophy-less seasons coupled with very public disagreements with club president, Josep Luís Núñez, the talk had remarkably turned to questions about the manager’s future. With speculation increasing, the president did the unthinkable. He sacked Johan Cruyff in May 1996. All hell broke loose in Catalonia and El Salvador himself was gone without any resurrection.
The man asked to step in and act as God was a 63 year old Englishman from the coalmine heartlands of Sacriston, County Durham. Bobby Robson was handed the unenviable task of replacing the greatest figure in Barcelona club history. Having passed up the opportunity twice before due to other contractual commitments, he was offered the job after an unrelated phone call about Barcelona star Luís Figo. The time was right for Robson. He’d been successful with the English national team and won titles with various club teams on the continent. He felt he now had the experience needed to handle the Spanish giants on the pitch, but also the political affairs off it. Robson would bring with him a young José Mourinho as Assistant, coach and translator having worked together at sporting Lisbon. The remit was simple; to propel Barcelona back to the la Liga summit.
In the boardroom, Núñez was up against it. It was an extremely risky move to dispose of Cruyff. There was the inevitable media frenzy and a very discontented supporter base. Death threats had arrived at his door and he required 24 hour protection. The president needed something to get the fans back on side and not only that, Barcelona had gone two years without a single trophy. It was practically unheard of.
Núñez, along with Vice President Juan Gaspart, summoned Robson to a meeting. It was outlined that they needed a big signing, a striker that would fire them back to trophy success and also put bums back on Camp Nou seats. They asked Robson if he knew any and, more importantly, if any that would be available. Robson identified a couple of centre forwards but explained to his new employers that it was going to cost. Barcelona at the time didn’t have the money but the club was at a real crossroad. Núñez was getting desperate. They’d have to find the cash, take Robson’s recommendations and back him.
The first striker identified was in England. Alan Shearer was top goal scorer at Euro 96 and the European golden boot winner. Indications were that he would be leaving Blackburn Rovers that summer. A few phone call enquiries later it was apparent he was looking to stay in the Premier League and didn’t want to relocate his young family to Spain. A polite thanks, but no thanks.
Not too downbeat, they headed to the Dutch city of Eindhoven.
RONALDO LUÍS NAZÁRIO DE LIMA
Ronaldo, El Fenomeno was exactly that. A bonified footballing phenomenon. Playing the previous season with PSV, Ronaldo had fired 54 goals in 57 games. He had electrifying pace, power and mesmerising skill, the likes of which, many had never seen before. At just 19 years of age, Ronaldo was the hottest property on the planet and ticked all the Barcelona boxes.
The Barcelona Vice President, Juan Gaspart, contacted PSV and the green light was finally given on a whopping $19.5 million transfer after a series of long stand-offs. With the world record fee set, Barcelona had 30 days to agree terms with ronaldo or PSV would pull the plug. It seemed like plenty of time to get the deal done but there was a problem. Ronaldo was half way round the world in Miami with the Brazilian national team and was proving impossible to contact. With time running out to sign him, panic had started to set in. Gaspart flew to the United States in hope he could speak with the player one to one.
‘The signing of Ronaldo was out of a film’ Gaspart told YouTube channel Idolos. “I arrived and wasn’t able to see Ronaldo very easily. There were some bouncers at his door in the hotel and they had orders not to let anyone through. I couldn’t beat the two-metre-tall bouncers up because they’d have sent my flying with a single punch, but something occurred to me. I managed to get a hotel waiter to lend me his bow tie and jacket and he gave me a tray with a Coca-Cola on it. I went up to the floor the team were on in the lift and there were two bouncers there. I told them I had a drink for Ronaldo and I went in. I introduced myself to Ronaldo and he called his agent and told them that he’d been caught. I told him that we’d complain if he didn’t sign and, in the end, an agreement was sped up. We hugged on the bed in his hotel room and finalised everything.’
Ronaldo was finally unveiled in July 1996 and a slice of the summer negativity at FC Barcelona was partially lifted. Becoming the most expensive player in the world has its pitfalls but Ronaldo would score within five minutes of his debut against Atlético Madrid and Bobby Robson got off to a flying start as boss. However the season of 96/97 would become one of fall outs, controversy and betrayal which threatened to derail the club’s ultimate quest for glory.
To be continued.