The season that started it all: FC Barcelona 2003-04 – Part I: Background

They say you learn more in defeat than in victory. Just before their tour of Australia in late 1975, Clive Lloyd’s young West Indies were flying high. They had just beaten India in India, won the first ever limited overs world cup in flamboyant style. Confidence could not have been higher when they had arrived in Australia. To say it all came crashing down is an understatement. They were pummeled by the relentless pace of Lillee, Thommo, Walker and Gilmour. They returned to the Caribbean as India toured for the first time in 5 years. It started well for the Calypso kings as India were thrashed by an innings inside 3 days. Project confidence restoration was going well. Then a second collapse. India dominated the rain affected 2nd test before producing one of their greatest wins of all time in the subsequent test.

West Indies bossed the first 4 days of the test and set India at target of 403 runs to win in almost 5 sessions and …. lost comfortably. India batted nearly 150 overs and lost only 4 wickets, 2 of them runouts, in overhauling the target. Clive Lloyd summoned the spinners and apparently went all Jules Winnfield on them. Fresh from the scars of the 5-1 mauling down under, Lloyd had his eureka moment and decided it was going to be pace, pace and more pace. This match was conveniently omitted from the entertaining but awfully one-sided Fire in Babylon. With a four-pronged pace attack in the next test the West Indies went medieval on the proverbial Indian arse. Thus, began the ascent of the great West Indies sides that would dominate the cricket world for the better part of 20 years.

In a way you could say that the success of that era’s West Indies began in defeat. This is exactly what happened to FC Barcelona. The Catalan side’s most successful era began in the 2003-04 season. After 2003, the Cules have won 6 league titles out of 11 and have virtually sealed their 7th in 12 this season. To go with national domination, Barcelona have been crowned European champions 3 times, the most times any team has been crowned in this period. In fact Barcelona were trophyless in 2003-04 so in reality it should be 7 & 3 in 11 and not 12 but I’d still like to think the seeds of this domination were sown in 2003 and not 2004.

Josep Lluis Nuñez & Joan Gaspart Era

Josep Lluís Núñez became president of Barcelona in 1978. He would continue to be president till 2000. His tenure, though successful, was full of controversies. He repeatedly alienated players and managers. The number of legends to have left during his tenure include Diego Maradona, Bernd Schuster, Stoichkov, Cruyff, Figo. He signed the best player in the history of football since Pele and ran him out of the town. He unceremoniously sacked the most successful and visionary manager in the history of the club because he was trophyless for 2 years. This after bringing the cup that Barcelona craved for eons: the European cup just 4 years earlier.

Nunez sacked Cruyff’s successor Sir Bobby Robson even though they had won both the Copa del Rey and the European Cup Winners cup and finished 2nd in the league by just 2 points. Having survived a player mutiny in the 80s, Nunez survived a no confidence motion in 1998 by a group called Elefant Blau. 1998-99 was also the season when Barcelona began their centenary celebrations. The final of the UEFA champions league was to be held at the Camp Nou. Barcelona won the league but disappointed in Europe crashing out in the group stages from a group that included Bayern Munich and Manchester United.

The biggest blow to Nunez came when he let club captain and fan favourite Luis Figo go to hated rivals Real Madrid. Real Madrid presidential candidate Florentino Perez’s campaign promise of bringing Figo to the Bernabeu was successful. Perez simply paid Figo’s buyout clause and agreed to the Portuguese’s personal terms. Already under pressure for not winning any trophies in 1999-2000, the Figo switch was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He finally resigned after 22 years as president. His vice-president Joan Gaspart won the subsequent elections held in 2000.

Gaspart, though a very respected vice-president, was both awful and unlucky as president. He bought Marc Overmars and world cup winning Emmanuel Petit, in panic, with most of the money earned from the Figo sale. He bought Gerard Lopez from Valencia for more than $20 million after he had had a breakout season for Los Che. For various reasons, all of them flopped. In danger of missing out on the lucrative champions league, Barcelona had their bacon saved by that extraordinary Rivaldo performance on the last day of the season. You can see Gaspart go wild with joy in this video:

Javier Saviola, one of the many purported next Maradonas, arrived the following season for more than $30 million. Another very inconsistent season both in the league and Europe followed and ended with no trophies again. Louis Van Gaal, after a very disappointing stint with a star-studded Oranje, returned for his 2nd innings. The new world champion Rivaldo left for Milan on a Bosman and in came the lazy and enigmatic Juan Roman Riquelme from Boca Juniors. Disappointment continued in the league. At one point of time Barcelona were just 2 points above the relegation zone. Things were pretty well off in Europe with the Cules winning a record 11 matches in a row.

Van Gaal could not improve the league form and left by mutual consent in January. Radomir Antic, a double winner with Atletico Madrid, was appointed as caretaker manager. The European journey came to an abrupt end at the first hurdle with a depressing end against the eventual runners-up Juventus. One of the proud Barcelona records was that they were involved in some European competition (UEFA cup, Cup winners’ cup, European Cup/Champions league) every year since the continental tournaments began. In danger of missing out on Europe for the first time in their history, Barcelona showed some fight to finish 6th and qualify for the UEFA cup by just 1 point.

Barcelona missed the UEFA champions league for the first time since 1996-97 and finished outside the top 4 for the first time since 1988. Then came the landmark summer of 2003. A summer that would see 2 men, one in management and one on the pitch, join the club and start the journey towards a period of sustained success that Barcelona had never experienced in their history.


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