Gheorghe Popescu has reflected on his time playing in Spain, his admiration for Johan Cruyff and how Barcelona’s youth policy compares then and now.
The Romanian defender signed for Barcelona in 1995 and spent two seasons at Camp Nou, winning a Spanish Cup, Super Cup and UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in his spell.
The first season was the last Barca had with Dutchman Cruyff as Coach. Whilst they failed to win a trophy that year, it is a period to have had most effect on Popescu.
“I remember from my first year at Barca feeling very bad at not being able to have had more time with Cruyff as Coach. He is the Coach I had the most enjoyable time with in my career,” he told AS in a lengthy interview published today.
“That season not only did we not win anything, but we lost everything. We lost the Copa del Rey against Atletico in Zaragoza, then the League three days later at Camp Nou to the same team and then the UEFA Cup semi-final against Bayern, but I would not change anything from that period of my life.
“It was the beginning of the era [then developed under Pep Guardiola], but it was cut short because what happened, happened with Cruyff and then in came [Bobby] Robson. We won three trophies, but personally I would have liked more Cruyff.
“If he were a woman I would have asked him to marry me everyday. No-one made me play with as much confidence as he did.
“He made me captain when I did not believe in myself. I think he took it from Guillermo Amor, who was a legend at Barca, to give to me, who had just arrived. No-one understood, me neither, but I’ve never been so proud as when I was captain of the club.”
Cruyff was then replaced with Robson a year after Popescu arrived.
“Under Robson we went to play in another style. Robson was more pragmatic. With him we won, but people did not enjoy it.
“One day we won 7-0 at Camp Nou and the people whistled. With Robson they didn’t understand. It was just that people wanted something else.”
Robson’s assistant at the time was current Real Madrid Coach Jose Mourinho.
“Everything he did was a strategy. Much of what he does now is because he has always been like that. It is because it is his way of working. You know that when you met him off the field. So you see, everything is calculated.”
Popescu was asked about Barcelona’s youth strategy, one that can trace its first steps back to the mid-1990s team and their focus on home-grown products.
“They were very good then. Celades, Roger, Oscar, De La Pena, Pep…there was a lot of quality in that team and it was with a philosophy that began to work, but needed time that it wasn’t given.
“If that was the golden generation, then this current one is the platinum generation.
“But I don’t think even Pep imagined that he could have been so successful as a Coach. But, you could tell he was a leader, a guy with a lot of character, coming from the cantera, who was born and raised at the club.
“His inexperience could have raised doubts, but he knew the philosophy.
“It is a philosophy that is different because it has been applied over a great period of time, the upside now is that it is maintained and continues to be believed in. and the results, if you do things right and stay on course, must come.
“It is an example for the entire football world that sooner or later things work out. Although it is true that so much is based on the philosophy and the club, without the quality it doesn’t work and currently at Barca there is now some impressive quality.”