Almost two decades have passed since Andoni Zubizarreta jumped for joy on Wembley’s hallowed turf as Barcelona lifted the European Cup for the first time in their history. On Saturday, he will return to the home of English football for the UEFA Champions League final between the Catalan giants and Manchester United, hoping to experience the same euphoria he felt in 1992.
This time around, however, any leaping about will be done in a suit and tie rather than a goalkeeping jersey and shorts, as befits his current position of sporting director for Barça. Speaking exclusively to FIFA.com, Zubizarreta was candid about the weekend’s much-anticipated clash.
“I’ve got mixed feelings about it," he said. "On the one hand, there’s a certain peace of mind, because the team is playing well, we’ve won the league, and that gives you a real sense of satisfaction. On the other, there’s a real excitement about taking part in another final, and facing a team of the calibre of Manchester United in an arena as mythical as Wembley.
“Although we could never claim Wembley as our own, it’s still a stadium that is closely linked to the history of our club. But given the stage, the venue doesn’t matter all that much when it comes down to it. Being in a Champions League final should provide enough motivation in itself.”
And Zubizarreta will never forget keeping Sampdoria, who were spearheaded by a formidable Roberto Mancini-Gianluca Vialli tandem, at bay in the 1992 decider, before Ronald Koeman’s powerful free-kick in extra time finally settled the fixture in Barcelona's favour: “I remember one save in particular – from a good Attilio Lombardo shot in the first half – that, in a match with so few chances, had the potential to be decisive. But you know, the 1-0 win will do me fine, thanks."
The memorable goal that sealed that victory is not one that he had a particularly great view of, however. “A keeper playing in extra time doesn’t really see much at the other end,” said Zubizarreta, laughing, referring to the stress and pressure he felt at the time.
“We were well equipped when it came to set-pieces, as I remember – I didn’t see the ball go in, but I saw the shot and then the noise from the players and fans filled me with joy. And because back then keepers tended to celebrate alone, practically hugging themselves, I had to wait until the end of the match to celebrate with my team-mates.”
When Zubizarreta climbed the 39 steps at Wembley behind captain Jose Ramon Alexanko, he was closely followed by a very young Josep Guardiola, who on Saturday will fulfil a very different function for the Catalan outfit.
“At the time Guardiola was a kid whose career in top-level football was just beginning," explained the former Athletic Bilbao No1. "He was like one of those young players you see nowadays who are brought into the first team straight away. He played an active role in our historic achievement. From that point on he developed, learned and passed on his knowledge of the game.
“Now he is restoring some glory to the club that’s always been closest to his heart. He demands a lot of his players, and produces the most attractive football you’re likely to see. He’s very committed to the cause, and has been wherever he’s gone. And no, I would never have guessed that he would go on to become a coach."
The Barcelona coach is not the only common thread linking the 1992 and 2011 finals. The back-up goalkeeper on that famous day 19 years ago was Carles Busquets. This year his son Sergio will take his place in the team’s midfield.
“It just proves how continuity is key to Barcelona’s approach," said Zubizarreta. "It’s a club with a real tradition of home-grown talent that doesn’t look too far outside of its local area for players. It’s what makes us different.
“For many years now, going back to Ladislao Kubala and the five trophies of 1952, the club has maintained the same style of play, one that revolves around keeping possession of the ball and neat interplay, with players who have come through the ranks, and who have been immersed in that style since they were little. This creates a sense of belonging.
“Those that bring their talents to the club from outside of Barcelona are just as important, though, because they follow this unified approach and adhere to the club’s philosophy. What joins everyone together is a love of good football.”
A desire to play in an entertaining fashion is a policy shared by both teams set to do battle for the European crown. “We’re up against an incredibly competitive side with a great history, which should make for an excellent match,” said the Spaniard, chuckling when asked about key factors likely to decide the game. “That’s the million-dollar question before any big final. You have to be able to play your own game, but you’ll always be influenced by your opposition.
“We won’t control the match for 90 minutes, but that’s the beauty of football - the uncertainty, the surprises, the little details. It’s a sport that creates a situation where Messi can pop up out of nowhere with a headed goal,” he remarked with a smile, recalling the diminutive Argentinian’s prodigious leap that clinched Barcelona’s 2-0 win over the Red Devils in the 2009 Champions League final in Rome.
“A final of this magnitude is always a special and unique event. There’s no clear favourite, and in any case that particular label doesn’t offer any advantages or guarantee any goals.
“But we’ve been pretty solid in a very intense season that has put enormous pressure on the team, given the large number of our players that were involved in the World Cup. Luckily those extra efforts haven’t taken their toll, and we’ve continued to put in top-level displays, reaching all the finals we’ve been involved in. That speaks volumes for the competitive nature of this side."