Posted on May 2015.
This is a guest post by Isaiah. You can follow him on Twitter as @rockofthune.
It is never really possible to nail down the most important or influential moments of a team, but with Xavi departing and Carles Puyol already gone, it seems like it’s time for one of those listicles we all love so much. Here are the ground rules for my Top 10 Most Influential Barça players countdown:
First, this is not a recitation of trophies won or goals scored. Lionel Messi doesn’t get top billing (spoiler) simply because he’s the greatest player in the world and maybe the greatest player the world has ever known. This is about importance to the club and to its future (relative to a particular player’s career); this list could change in 20 years when Xavi calls me on the phone from on top of his pile of trophies and says “So now that we’ve won 8 tripletes in a row thanks to my bionic legs, can I move up a spot or two?” and I’ll answer something along the lines of “How did you get this number would you like to get a drink sometime can I marry you,” before I pass out from lack of oxygen. But when I wake up, I’ll edit this post.
Second, there is more to influence than the 11 men on the field, but this is focused on players, not on coaches or on boardroom shenanigans. Another spoiler: Núñez and Laporta aren’t on the list because they weren’t players despite their outsized importance and influence on the development of the club (for positive or negative).
Thirdly, Players can have and have had political affiliations and off-the-field activities that have dramatically changed the course of Barça history. All of that was taken into account, though it made surprisingly little difference in the end.
Finally, this is not a scientific list. There is no real quantitative analysis that went into this, merely a lot of lists of players and quick culling. The method behind the madness is simple: Quick! Choose 1 of Jeffren, Maradona, Zubizaretta, Samuel Eto’o, and Guillermo Amor! Now do that again 8,000 times for different pairings and eventually just try to work Bojan into the list (and fail—spoiler). I do feel like I might be missing one or two players from the Dream Team, but guys like Koeman, Laudrup, and Txiki never stood out to me as era-defining or even team-defining players. There were others that stood in those shoes. Or maybe you simply disagree. That is okay too.
Oleguer Presas i Renom – I desperately wanted to start this list off with Oleguer, but it was not to be. There are simply too many players out there whose roles within the team overshadowed his, despite his influence on my personal development as a fan and (occasional) commentator. His politics were a big deal in Catalunya and while his stature was never that of a demigod of football whose thoughts were scavenged by the masses, he was never short of an opinion and always in touch with the left wing political consciousness. He was never going to go out and win a trophy single-handedly, but he was always able to make strong, analytical points about modernity, football, and Spain. He wore the estelada when he celebrated and kept the Catalan in Mes que un club. It’s also hard to say that he wasn’t a defining member of the 2003-2008 squad. I bemoaned him as terrible, but I loved him as a squad player, read his articles, and learned about what it means to be a Catalan and cule. I think a lot of others did too, even if they don’t recognize that or value his contributions. I was genuinely sad to see him go, even as I welcomed it from a sporting perspective.
Diego Maradona – It is impossible to overstate the influence Maradona had and continues to have on a large swaths of the game. His gifts as a player, however, were not on full display at Barcelona. He made just 58 appearances over 2 seasons for the team, with only 36 of those coming in the league. Yes, he moved from Boca Juniors for a then-world-record transfer fee, yes he won the Copa del Rey, and yes he was applauded at the Bernabeu by Madrid fans, but he was sidelined for long stretches by hepatitis and during his recovery from Andoni Goikoetxea’s vicious tackle. The team never won the league with Maradona.
Andoni Zubizaretta – Though he would one day become the fall guy for the board, there was a time when Zubi was the only player that the board trusted. Of all the first team players, only Zubi survived the 1988 Hesperia Mutiny against the Núñez board and became part of the Dream Team that won the 1992 European Cup. But he doesn’t make the cut simply because you won’t get the answer “Zubi” when you ask who was the most influential Barça player of the early 1990s. He’s currently 9th on the all-time list, but not quite there.
Ronaldo – Yes, he was blisteringly fast, incredibly good, and scored 47 goals in 49 appearances, but The Real Ronaldo was too fleeting an existence in blaugrana to have been so influential. His true influence on the club was his time spent in Italy and in that white jersey in the capital, but that isn’t nearly enough to get him on the list. Had he stayed, he may have become a club legend, but as it is, he is only another “what if” from the Núñez era.
The Actual List:
10. Carles Puyol – Capi. A warrior king whose demonic screams rendered all before him weak and shaking. The man who brought the best out of Gerard Pique and created what, from the outside, seemed an unholy alliance of old and new, but was really a fantastic partnership. It is possible that one day Pique himself will supplant his mentor and friend from this list, but there are few out there in cule land that would think such a thing were ever possible. It’s not just the ludicrous hair or the hard running that defined Puyol, it was his sense of duty and his adherence to his own doctrine of constant vigilance. He yelled at Thiago for dancing, he snapped at Pique for celebrating, he demanded perfection and accepted nothing short of it in himself either. There were times when you could facepalm at his physical blunderings, when you could point out that he was all heart and no talent, but then he would piroutte in midfield and bullet a header in from a thousand miles out. He raised 3 Champions League trophies as captain and was crowned La Liga champion 6 times. But of course, that’s not entirely true because Puyol, asked Eric Abidal to raise the Champions League trophy in his stead as an act of kindness and honor toward a friend who had recently returned from liver cancer. Puyol was a light in the darkness even when there is no darkness; he kissed the badge and captain’s armband and everyone believed him and wanted to be him. I still do.
9. Luis Figo – Barcelona’s He Who Shall Not Be Named was at the top of his game when he made his controversial move from Catalunya to the capital. Whatever they say about scorned women, it is far more true of football fans. The fury is still raging from that massive move, but it might not have been so bad had the record transfer fee been spent on players who were transcendent or at least were not Marc Overmars. Whatever the Dutchman’s abilities, which were considerable, he was never going to live up to Figo’s reputation and the sense of loss; the morbo that flowed freely from that point on and it continues to flow in rivers. Figo’s return to the Camp Nou was described by The Telegraph as “he had offended not only a club but a culture”. A pig’s head and all the coins in the world were thrown at Figo and little has happened since to make me think it wouldn’t happen again if Figo showed up suddenly on the field during a clasico. He was a player that all the other players looked up to and trusted, he was the lynchpin of a dynamic offense, and he won the Ballon d’Or on the back of his performances for Barcelona. It’s just that he accepted it in a white shirt.
8. Joan Gamper – He not only founded the club, he also led its front line for 4 years, scoring over a hundred goals in the process. In a way, ranking him 8th is an insult and a compliment. His playing days are basically lost in the founding history and certainly his largest influence was as a president that saved the club from folding, but he was a major force in creating an institution that survived beyond its infancy and creating a Catalan club at that. He changed his name from Hans Kamper, after all.
7. Ronaldinho – The bucktoothed wonder didn’t make winners out of Barcelona, he transformed a team from runners up into indefatigable champions. He did (and does) outrageous things with a football (and many without one, I’m sure). With a smile and a flim-flam, he won all of our hearts and used that camaraderie to push a new and incredible style on the team. What had been a team incapable of putting that finishing touch on European campaigns became an all-consuming juggernaut. And all it took was adding Ronaldinho to the mix and, eventually, taking him out of it. He may have ended up a negative influence in the locker room (Hi, Giovani dos Santos!), but he was also a mentor to some decent chaps (Hola, Lionel Messi!) and he made the continued success of the team possible, even after he had departed. He also took the team to new heights in terms of branding, something that we now understand as ubiquitous and necessary, but what was then something of a new fangled deal and certainly something Barcelona was behind the times on.
6. Xavi – Given that this is being written at the time of his impending departure, it would be easy to wax too poetic and shove Xavi to the top spot of the list. I’m sure I could make the case for it. He has appeared for Barça more than any other player (he has 170 more appearances than second place Puyol—170!) and should end his career with 766 total appearances, 504 of them in the league. More than just his ironman status, he has been the principle engine of the team for a dozen years. He was an unused substitute in the 2006 Champions League final (a match that Oleguer started), but since then he has lit on up the night on a regular basis for club and country. He has won enough that the eulogies of his career cannot possibly be long enough, emotional enough, or well-written enough to truly do him justice. Yet there is also a significant question as to his legacy: he was the best, but is the position he occupied essentially gone from football? The team’s humbling by Bayern Munich in 2013 was not just a two match losing streak, it was also an eye-opening pair of slaps to the face: tiki-taka was no longer the dominant force in world football and Xavi was no longer the player he was in 2008. Still, Xavi remains hugely influential as a home-grown player and a reference for any midfielder who wishes to excel at the game. His influence not only on those players attempting to play his position—Thiago, Iniesta, Rafinha, Cazorla, Silva, Mata, etc—but on those who played near him—Busquets, Messi, Yaya, Eto’o, Villa, Dani Alves, Torres, etc—was massive while he also led them to trophies, a rare double quality that sets Xavi apart from so many others.
5. Ladislao Kubala – The guy who did it all on the field—4 leagues titles from 1951 to 1959 as well as 5 Copa del Generalisimo (the precursor of the Copa del Rey) over that same period—also created a side story of talent and power in a Spain dominated by Real Madrid. He was the ranking member of a mega squad that included (the original) Luis Suarez, Evaristo, Czibor, and Kocsis. Kubala is credited with recruiting the final two in that list because they were fellow Hungarians. Failure to include Kubala ended up costing the great Helenio Herrera his job, which is influence enough to get someone at least on the list, but Kubala’s legacy includes knocking Real Madrid out of the European Cup in 1961, a first for anyone and a huge step for FC Barcelona. He was also an insane freekick taker at a time when balls weren’t necessarily quite as brilliantly round and full of specially designed bladders and it is part of his romantic legacy that Kubala could do what modern players can do with far inferior equipment.
4. Lionel Messi – The craziest thing about Lionel Messi is that despite where he sits on this list, his trajectory is up. At times he has felt more like a carefully crafted war machine than a living, breathing human, as if he was rolled out of a marketing department where they dialed back the personality setting on their new creation to 0. He sprang leaks (and mixed metaphors) in his armor for a few years, but has rebounded physically as well as emotionally, having opened up more on social media and through his celebrations on the field. He has tattoos and kids. He smiles and doesn’t have a mullet. He still seems somewhat distant, as if he is so good that he is alone atop a mountain, looking down on the rest of our earthly attempts at playing this game. His brilliance allows many of his teammates to shine indirectly, but his brilliance also causes discomfort when the question of his eventual physical deterioration comes up. His legacy is far from defined, but were he to leave at this instant, he would be missed in ways so huge they can’t really be enumerated; it would not just be an alteration of how the team played, but how the club itself was run, managed, and who the squad contained. Eventually we will cross this bridge, but for now Messi allows the team to play as it wishes to play: fast, slow, furious, calm, possession-obsessed, on the counter. His goal tallies are monumental and his trophy cabinet impossibly crowded, but it’s what he’s done off the field that is truly remarkable: he has managed to fulfill the expectations of over-expectant crowds, club presidents, and marketers without seeming to strain at all. Pressure is the water to his duck feathers. He has a shy smile that he flashes, but he is a sculpted brand and he is also sure to keep it that way. His influence on world football is undeniable and his influence on the club that nurtured him and brought him to fame and fortune is also immense. And it is ever growing.
3. Josep Samitier – the big man himself, Samitier was not only an outstanding player, he was a phenomenal force within the club despite defecting to Real Madrid when he had blowups with club management. As a player he was part of the team that moved from the Catalan league to La Liga, winning the very first title in the process. Admittedly, this is where this list gets a little fuzzy between the stated ideas of no coaches or presidents since the bulk of Samitier’s influence is from his coaching (when he won the team’s second Liga title) and scouting days (when he brought in some schlump named Ladislao Kubala). It’s hard to overstate his legacy, given that it all seemed to start with him and grow from there. Yet he is also one of the club’s most complicated figures, having been allegedly snuggly with members of the Franco regime, even appearing in pro-Franco propaganda films (alongside Kubala, it should be noted).
2. Pep Guardiola – The hometown kid that made it from ballboy to champion of everything ever and always, Pep has a special place in every cule’s heart. He was once the gangly question mark in the center of midfield, then the fulcrum of a dream team, and finally the player who sacrificed everything for his team. He set the bar at Impossible and then surpassed it. He took passing it out of the back from thing the Dutch do to thing every Catalan can’t get enough of. He made theater and football one and the same, combining politics and sport in an emotional and studied way, but he kept it all high brow, even when he took to cursing in press conferences. His competitiveness knows no bounds, nor does his obsession. He will be remembered more for his stewardship as a manager than as his leadership as a player, but it was Pep that cemented the Barça style as a player.
1a. Alfredo di Stefano may very well be as influential as any Barça player given what his lack of signing did to Barça, but he’s off the official list simply because he never made an appearance for the first team. That he went somewhere else (through shady backroom dealings or not) meant that Barcelona was deprived not just of a major talent, but of a once-in-a-generation genius who grew into the greatest player alive and took Real Madrid to the top of the European world. It took Barcelona nearly 60 years to fling off the second fiddle role it was forced to play after di Stefano’s move. That is some serious influence.
1. Johan Cruyff – There is a before and an after. There is pre-Cruyff and post-Cruyff. There is night and there is day. There is some degree of myth to this, of course, and some degree of “Hey, what about Rinus Michels?” but Cruyff stands amidst all of that and calmy, egotistically demands that he be counted first amongst all. He has been for years the “And there’s Cruyff” that comes after “Pele and Maradona”, but neither of those players were ever anywhere near as influential on the sport itself, even as they played. Pele was brilliant, Maradona was insane (and brilliant), and Cruyff was the chessmaster forever failing to win against Deep Blue because his king kept getting accidentally knocked over at the crucial moment. One way to sum up Cruyff’s influence at FCB is this: for as much as there’s talk of Cruyff’s playing days, he only played 5 seasons for Barça. 5 seasons and he was gone, off to the Los Angeles Aztecs (!) after scoring just 48 goals. That’s fewer than 10 per season; Pedro wouldn’t even take that goal return right now. But he arrived at Barcelona in a time of internal shift, as well as during an international shift. Catenaccio was giving way to totaalvoetbal and Spain was about to give way to democracy (Cruyff transferred in 1972 and Franco died in 1975). In his first season, Cruyff was part of the 5-0 at the Bernabeu. When his son was born, Cruyff named him Jordi, a Catalan name, something that is hard to overlook if you’re thinking about the father’s legacy. Everything else, everything that arrived later, is Cruyff in one way or another; Cruyff the manager is part of his legacy, but he was transformative as a player as well, shifting the focus of the team from La Liga to Europe, where he had already achieved major success, though he never won a continental trophy with Barça.
In the end, it was Cruyff who made the club “modern” in a way it had never been before. It always used to rain in Spain, according to every youtube clip ever, but once Cruyff arrived, scored his impossible goal, and disappeared into the crazy twilight of his crazy career, the skies cleared and there was no looking back. It became about style, it became about winning the right way. And the club has never returned to anything else.