Laurent Blanc was looking forward to his dinner date. He had arrived in Barcelona in late May 1996 to check out his future home and get to know his new boss, Johan Cruyff. The Dutchman had space in his diary, too. Barca’s coach had pushed for the signing of the elegant French centre-half.
Blanc waited in his hotel room until it was time to make his way to the restaurant. He turned on the television. The news could scarcely have been more deflating. Cruyff, he saw, had just been sacked, with two fixtures left in the 1995/96 season. Blanc’s phone rang. It was Cruyff, apologising that their dinner date was off, and wishing Blanc the best of luck under whomever took over.
So began an intriguing year in the long, varied career of the current coach of Paris Saint-Germain.
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The Frenchman would not win the most illustrious of his career trophies, nor have the most consistent of seasons, suffering injuries that would keep him out of the two victorious finals: the European Cup Winners’ Cup and Spain’s Copa del Rey. But what he did do there was meet some very influential friends, and learn a great deal about leadership, management and the importance of strong characters.
He will shake hands with one of them at the Parc des Princes tonight as Barcelona meet Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of a Uefa Champions League quarter-final tie. Luis Enrique, now Barcelona’s touchline strategist, moved as a player to Barcelona in the same year as Blanc, also expecting Cruyff to be giving him instructions but ending up with the amiable Englishman Robby Robson as his coach.
Blanc, 49, and Luis Enrique, 44, are just two of four coaches who played in that team and might end up winning the European Cup this June. It is guaranteed that two men from that mid-1990s Barca dressing room will at least reach the semi-finals. The other pair are Bayern Munich’s Pep Guardiola, 44, and Porto’s Julen Lopetegui, 48, whose teams take on one another at the same time as PSG versus Barcelona.
There is more than coincidence here. Barcelona, especially in the Cruyff era, was a hothouse for cerebral footballers, and Camp Nou has always been a theatre that requires a strength of character in its performers. Those circumstances breed would-be managers. Blanc, known as “Le President” when he played in his native France, had a mix of sophistication and steel in his defending; Luis Enrique had an obvious, contagious competitive zeal and a tactical intelligence that meant he could operate at centre-forward, on the wing, across midfield and even as an auxiliary full-back.
As for Guardiola, his contemporaries say he was effectively player-manager from his teens. Victor Baia, the first-choice goalkeeper at Barcelona in 1996/97, and later a player and executive at Porto, recalled: “Guardiola would put his ideas forward, get very involved in how we prepared for games.”
Lopetegui spent more time on the Barcelona bench as a back-up keeper to Victor Baia than he would have liked, but his analyses from that seat were appreciated.
As Blanc told this reporter, the players at that Barcelona spoke their minds on matters of tactics and style. Not so much the young striker whose 34 goals that season announced him as a star, the brilliant Brazilian, Ronaldo, but the thinkers in the team.
“Bobby Robson arrived with quite a British way of seeing things,” Blanc said. “After a while, the Spanish players said to him: ‘We’re used to doing things differently’, and Bobby was clever. He answered them with the attitude, ‘It’s my job to see how I can adapt, as well’. We began to play a more appropriate style for the league we were in.”
At Robson’s side was a young assistant he had got to know working in Portugal, Jose Mourinho, just 33. As Mourinho, who scouted opponents and enjoyed talking tactics with Blanc and Guardiola, recalled later, it was a high-powered workplace: “You could only learn in that environment, working with players of that standard, players who would not just accept the principle ‘the coach must be right’.”
Mourinho stayed on beyond Robson’s one year in charge, working with Louis van Gaal, and then zoomed up the career ladder, establishing himself as the highest-profile coach of his generation. Blanc left Spain to build his reputation in France, Italy and in the twilight of his playing days, at Manchester United. Lopetegui moved on to find first-team football, while Guardiola and Luis Enrique traced very similar paths: Luis Enrique succeeded Guardiola as Barcelona captain, then as coach of Barcelona B.
To varying degrees, they are all coaches who favour a pass-and-move style of football, the sort anybody exposed to Barcelona in the past 25 years has been guided to respect and admire. When Blanc was coach of France, from 2010 to 2012, he cited the Barcelona team then coached with huge success by Guardiola as a model to aspire to. Luis Enrique has to live every day with comparisons between his own Barca and Guardiola’s double European Cup winners of the period 2008 to 2012; the current team are a little more direct, perhaps, but still rely on the players who thrived under Guardiola: Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.
Lopetegui has borrowed directly from modern Barcelona, too, in guiding a young Porto to within two ties of a first Champions League final since Mourinho took the Portuguese club to the title in 2004. The winger Cristian Tello is on loan from Barcelona, doubtless recommended by Guardiola, who gave Tello his senior debut. Guardiola and Lopetegui remain close. That was clear when they sat together to watch Atletico Madrid against Bayer Leverkusen in the previous round of the Champions League, chatting, smiling, little knowing that their own teams would be drawn to meet in the next phase.
Lopetegui’s Porto are clear underdogs in that battle of the Barca buddies. Blanc versus Luis Enrique looks harder to call. PSG beat Barcelona 3-2 in the group phase of this season’s competition; Barca won the return game 3-1. Blanc and PSG then ousted the Chelsea of Mourinho, his old dressing-room confidant, in the last-16 stage, a momentous win, full of the sort of character the late Bobby Robson would have admired, and plenty of the sort of poise and authority of which Cruyff would have approved.
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