Barcelona’s early 1990s ‘Dream Team’ could be said to have been ahead of their time.
In one sense, this is borne out by the fact that some of the philosophies and practices of Johan Cruyff’s side are being repeated nowadays and are still being treated as other-worldly novelties.
In a more literal sense, though, they suffered from the fact that the Bosman ruling was still a couple of years away, meaning that Barça’s four high-profile foreigners – Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov, Michael Laudrup and Romário could never – appear together at the same time. While the club won a fourth straight league title, they lost the Champions League final to an all-white-clad Milan.
The growth of squad rotation has roughly correlated with the prevalence of squad numbers but Cruyff’s Barcelona were ahead of the curve there – through necessity due to the rules on foreign players and also as he took a ‘horses for courses’ approach in terms of formation and personnel.
Consider these eight games from that season, both in changes of system and players’ versatility:
Under 1-11, constant shuffling means that any unusual number placements have to have an equal and opposite reaction. That is why Simon Treanor’s series on Liverpool’s numbering from 1985-92 is so interesting and there were similarities between the Reds and Barcelona in that certain players had dibs on a particular number when they were playing.
Before we look at the ownership of each number, let’s rewind back to Cruyff’s arrival at Barcelona in 1988.
He sought initially to establish something similar to the Ajax way of playing and the Barça side that beat Sampdoria in the 1989 European Cup Winners’ Cup final was numbered according to the classic Ajax method.
Never one to stand still, Cruyff sought to refine things even further in the pursuit of building the perfect football – and footballing – team.
The changes he brought about laid the foundations from which some of the idiosyncratic numbering above began to develop.
Rather than going numerically, we shall take a temporal approach, looking at the central pillars of the 1993-94 squad.
Having left Ajax for PSV in 1986, Koeman linked up again with Cruyff on his arrival at Barcelona in 1988.
In the Ajax/Dutch system, Koeman was a clear ‘4’ – the centre-back stepping into midfield – but, emblematic of Cruyff’s approach, he was to be the ‘3’ in Spain.
Nevertheless, he maintained his preference for having 4 on his back.
José María Bakero
Like Koeman, the midfielder was one of Cruyff’s first signings, arriving from Real Sociedad for 1988-89.
His last game for La Real was the 1988 Copa del Rey final defeat to Barça, where he wore number 8, but he slotted in as the ‘6’ in Cruyff’s system.
Later, he was deployed in a more advanced role, his hard pressing ensuring turnovers high up the field.
Manchester City’s current director of football made the same move as Bakero, at the same time.
A left-sided attacker, he used to wear 11 in San Sebastián and it was natural he would do the same in Barcelona.
While he had ceased to be an absolute first-choice by 1993-94 – he started 20 league games, the first time the figure was below 33 – he still had 11 when he did.
The Dane was signed from Juventus in 1989 and his arrival heralded a noticeable change of tack from Cruyff.
Laudrup was of course at his best pulling the strings as an attacking midfielder and the number 9 was of the false kind.
Unfortunately for Laudrup, he missed out most often in 1993-94 as four foreigners into three would not go.
Jon Andoni Goikoetxea
Not to be confused with his near-namesake, the Butcher of Bilbao, ‘Goiko’ was signed from Osasuna in 1988 but didn’t feature heavily for Barcelona until after a loan spell with Sociedad in 1988-89.
Most comfortable as a right winger, his flexbility meant he could also play as a wide defender.
The Bulgarian attacker was also part of the 1990 intake, having caught Cruyff’s eye playing for CSKA Sofia against Barcelona in the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1989.
For Sofia, he wore 8 and he was able to claim it at the Camp Nou, too – when Julio Salinas played, he would take 7, 8 or 9 depending on which of Goikoetxea, Stoichkov or Laudrup was absent.
While he was always a right-back, Ferrer wore 3 in his first two seasons in the Barcelona first team, with the number 2 shirt the property of Nando.
From 1992-93 onwards, though, Ferrer’s number matched his position and he would retain it until his departure for Chelsea in 1998.
The centre-forward had often worn 11 early in his career at home in Brazil – and would of course have it for the 1994 World Cup win – while he most often donned 9 for previous club PSV.
With 8, 9 and 11 spoken for on his arrival at Barcelona in 1993, he took 10 – while a swap with Laudrup might have worked better, Romário fared alright, scoring 30 goals in 33 league games.
The octet shown above wore those numbers every time they started a game for Barcelona in 1993-94.
While the number 3 had a quasi-owner in Josep Guardiola – who was clearly taking a lot of notes in Cruyff’s ability to adapt systems and players – his preference was 4, which he had worn coming through the ranks as it corresponded with his position (Gerard Piqué developed a similar affiliation with 3 a decade later).
The presence of Koeman restricted Guardiola to wearing 3 most often since the beginning of 1992-93, when Ferrer switched to 2, but there were occasions when the Dutchman was absent and the Catalunya native could wear 4. By the time squad numbers were introduced in Spain in 1995, Koeman had returned home and Guardiola could lay claim to his favoured digit.
With number 1 obviously the preserve of goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta, the only number in the 1-11 that was up for grabs to some extent was 5 – by the end of the season, with Barcelona using four at the back, central defender Miguel Ángel Nadal was wearing it most often, but early in the campaign there were instances of him in numbers 3 and 11, with left-back Sergi wearing 5 on those occasions.
Sergi also appeared in 2, 6 and 11 as well as 7 in the Champions League final loss to Milan, the apogee of the Dream Team and unfortunately also the most disappointing result as they went down 4-0.
With Laudrup absent that night, the Barcelona number 9 was Guillermo Amor. The midfielder played 37 league games for Barça that season, 53 in all competitions but, like Ray Houghton for Liverpool in 1987-88, he was a clear first-teamer with no set number – during 1993-94 he wore 4, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10. Another squad member, Eusebio, started games wearing 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9 and 11 while Iván Iglesias wore 4, 5, 6, 7, 9 and 11.
Come 1995-96 and squad numbers, with Stoichkov gone to Parma, Amor would get the number 8 but he moved to 18 a year later so that the Bulgarian could be reunited with his favourite number on his return from Italy.
As mentioned, Laudrup was again the odd man out for the Champions League final, hastening his departure to Real Madrid, where he would appropriately wear the number 10, including in a 5-0 rout of Barcelona at the Bernabéu in 1994-95.
However, while Uefa’s rules limited the number of non-native players in the matchday squad to three, the rule for the Spanish league was slightly different in that teams could not have more than three foreigners on the pitch at the same time.
That meant that one of Koeman, Stoichkov or Romário could be named as a substitute and come on for one of the other three. The unlucky one of the quartet would at least get a consolation prize of sorts, though it was obviously worth more than that in Cruyff’s eyes – the fabled number 14.