Barcelona have enjoyed triumphs throughout their history thanks to many legendary figures, both on and off the pitch. As players, the likes of Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho and Johan Cruyff are just some of the spectacular footballers who have created magic at the Camp Nou. Goalkeepers are not always discussed immediately on the subject of the Blaugrana’s best, but Andoni Zubizarreta certainly gave supporters something to shout about throughout his career.
Born in the Basque Country, Zubi made his way through Alavés’ youth system before signing with Athletic Club in 1981. It was with Los Leones where his talents truly shined, and he grabbed the full attention of Spain throughout his productive time at the San Mamés. With incredible vision and excellent positioning, Zubizarreta always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
It was those very qualities that helped him to have such a long career, one that would span across three decades. The talented shot-stopper eventually stepped away from the professional game in his late 30s, having made more than 600 La Liga appearances.
After an impressive stint with Athletic, Zubizarreta moved on to Catalonia with Barcelona, and his arrival was at the start of a special period for the club. Cruyff’s return as a manager brought a new philosophy and a different tactical approach to the game, with Zubi being an ideal keeper at the back for his squad.
“The Dream Team”, as they came to be known, would revolutionise Spanish football, as their formations and style can still be seen with Barcelona today. With Pep Guardiola controlling the middle of the pitch and the tempo of the game, the likes of Michael Laudrup, Romário and Hristo Stoichkov could flourish in the final third. In order to do so, a reliable and intelligent goalkeeper would be required, and that is where Cruyff could count on Zubizarreta.
The ‘keeper was a key part of a Barcelona squad that absolutely dominated their domestic league, capturing four consecutive top-flight titles between 1990 and 1994. While there were some moving pieces throughout the line-up during those years, one constant was Zubizarreta. One of his finest moments was seen on the biggest stage, as the Blaugrana would lift their first European Cup trophy in 1992.
Facing Sampdoria and captain Roberto Mancini in the final, Cruyff and his players understood that their opponent would be difficult to both break down and contain in their attack. Serie A sides are famous for their tactical acumen and preparation in terms of their opposition, and the 1990s saw those qualities at some of their best levels. They also had to stop Sampdoria’s talented forwards, as both Mancini and Gianluca Vialli were dangerous in the final third if given space.
Cruyff recognised the danger in this fixture, and made adjustments at the back. With Ronald Koeman in a sweeper role in front of Zubizarreta, the main priority was limiting Sampdoria’s scoring opportunities and keeping their goalkeeper in the best possible positions to make critical saves. Amidst a raucous crowd at Wembley Stadium, the plan was working. Vialli would eventually see several good chances at goal though, with one saved brilliantly by Zubizarreta. The only issue was that Barcelona’s attack was not finding any joy at the other end, and the match stayed at 0-0 throughout the 90 minutes and into extra-time to decide Europe’s champion.
These two foes were quite familiar with each other, having met in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup final just three years earlier. On that night in Switzerland, Zubizarreta and Barcelona were able to get the best of Sampdoria’s dynamic duo up front. Mancini and Vialli were denied a goal, as the Catalans ran out to a 2-0 victory. That familiarity perhaps could have produced an over-confidence in Cruyff’s team, but they understood the potential negatives of that mindset.
So Zubizarreta helped to guide his team-mates into the unknown, the nervous energy that extra-time brings in any European Cup final. The goalkeeper once again kept Sampdoria from scoring, and this time it was Koeman’s marvellous free-kick that ultimately delivered a 1-0 win for Barcelona. Champions of Europe, and yet another clean sheet for Zubi.
His legacy would change in the coming years, as some of his weaknesses became too much for Cruyff to deal with. The Dutch legend’s finest pupil, Guardiola, would go on to re-write the history books as Barcelona’s manager, carrying many of the same principles that he learned during his time as a player. One aspect that Cruyff demanded from his defenders and goalkeepers was to be able to play the ball effectively, both in possession and in their passing.
Even now at Manchester City, one can see those attributes evidenced in the styles of John Stones and Ederson Moraes. Zubi was a fantastic shot-stopper, with great instincts and a wonderful understanding of what the opponent was aiming to do on the pitch. He communicated well with his back-line, showcasing strong leadership during his time with the club. However, his skill on the ball was not a strength, and that ultimately led to his departure in 1994.
He would finish his career with Valencia, all that along with his immense contributions to the Spanish national team. Zubi was a part of four FIFA World Cups with La Furia Roja (1986, 1990, 1994, 1998) and two European Championships (1988, 1996). Earning 126 caps with Spain, he was a calming and talented presence at the back for a number of years.
The interesting topic becomes why he is not always talked about amongst Barcelona’s best over the past few decades, and some of that is due to his recent time as a director. In 2015, he was dismissed from his position following perceived failures in the transfer market and tensions with others within the club. While things may not have worked out perfectly in that regard, Zubi was a gifted goalkeeper that helped to capture Barcelona’s most important title.
The limitless successes of Pep Guardiola may have helped some to forget his work at Barcelona, and Iker Casillas’ legendary career for Spain may have erased some of his accomplishments from the collective mind of Spanish fans. But Andoni Zubizarreta was truly one of a kind, and represents a role model in regards to longevity for any young keeper today.
By Roy Emanuel
Part of our Number Ones series