Abelardo: Barcelona’s little known superstar
It is rightly said that success and fame are two different things. And one needs a fair share of luck to have the best of both worlds. Even the mightiest of players have been engulfed in the darkness of desolation. While some were outshone, others were simply forgotten. Anurag Shukla narrates one such tale of Barcelona’s forgotten hero.
The dream was broken.
In the battle of the footballing giants, a stage was set for Barcelona on May 18th 1994 to conquer the world. Up against a tattered AC Milan side, they were the ones with perfect balance in the team. Milan couldn’t have been in any worse shape before the final: suspended players, long term injuries to key figures, and UEFA’s quota for foreign players in a team all added up to give Fabio Capello a major headache. For a lot of critics and people alike, this was an event which was a mere formality, Barca was there only to collect the trophy.
But boy, did they get it all wrong?
“It was not that we played badly,” Cruyff said afterwards, “it was that we did not play at all.”
Barcelona had their chance to give the “dream team” a dream finish, but that night in Athens changed it all. Despite being forced to field a weakened team due to injuries, suspension and UEFA’s restriction on foreign-players, AC Milan ran out 4-0 winners, crowned as European Champions and above all, they made Barcelona eat their words.
Johan Cruyff whom the world hailed a genius in 1992, was labeled a fool, two years later.
Mad as a hatter, drunk as a sailor, Johan started wrecking his own machinery which took so long to build. Michael Laudrup left for Madrid, Andoni Zubizarreta was surprisingly told that his contract wouldn’t be renewed either; two vital members of the dream team, gone within the same window.
Amidst of all the tension surrounding the dressing room, the Dutch legend understood the team needed a change. While Gheorghe Hagi’s arrival added all the glitter to an already star-studded squad, it was Abelardo Fernandez who made the most impact.
Signed from Sporting Gijon after a solid campaign which saw Rojiblancos barely managing to survive in the top division, it looked like a solid purchase. And, why not? Abelardo had a beaming reputation as one of the best emerging center backs in the league. Already representing the Spanish national team, young “Pitu”, as he was affectionately called, scored in the 2-0 victory over Ghana in 1992 Olympics. He played a memorable part in the final match against Poland as he netted the equalizer in front of 95, 000 spectators in Camp Nou. Spain finally won 3-2 to bag the gold.
And two seasons later, he signed for Barcelona.
This Asturian was an old school defender: a no-nonsense bully who was more comfortable in clearing the danger rather keeping the ball and building the play. Despite being an antithesis of what Cruyff expected from his defenders, the Barcelona manager decided to take a gamble on this young man to add ruthlessness into a team that rode on sheer technical brilliance.
As difficult as it was for the 24-year-old to adapt to the new surroundings and challenge the elites, his task wasn’t made easier by all the venom inside the dressing room. Relationship between Romario and Cruyff snapped, and bitterness between the Brazilian and his strike partner Hristo Stoichkov was already making headlines, too. Talking about headlines, Hristo’s “It is Cruyff or me”1 statement for a radio station got people talking. Cruyff’s promotion of his son Jordy to the first team wasn’t being taken well either.2
With Carlos Busquets conceding soft goals regularly between the sticks, Barcelona were not even looking like a shadow of their former self, and the results were evident. Blaugrana finished fourth in the league in 94-95. The Spanish Super Cup was the only silverware they managed to win.
Once flying high, this team was crashing down to the ground rapidly. They did not finish on top of the league for even a single game-week that season, something which is unthinkable these days. Ronald Koeman and Txiki Begiristain also left the team next summer. But it was the bald-headed defender who made Los Cules believe that it was necessary to have someone with “character” to lead the team, once Koeman left.
Abelardo was excellent in his first season at Camp Nou, fitting easily in Cruyff’s plans and making his mark. He played an impressive 42 games, scoring 5 goals3 in 1994-95 and playing a key role in a lot of important games, both offensively and defensively. His much-discussed aerial ability was on display against Deportivo La Coruna, as he rose the highest to thump the ball in the back of the net to earn Barcelona a draw.5 Marking lethal Dwight Yorke out of the game, Barcelona crushed Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United at home 4-0 in the group stage, showing the world this team can still make opponents look like amateurs at their will.
But his best moment was yet to come.
Trailing against a really tough, battle hardened Real Betis at home, it was a game where chances were few and performance was hardly encouraging for the home side. And as the match was evidently slipping out of their hands, Barcelona fans knew they had a long season ahead. But Abelardo stepped up to score an 88th minute equalizer to send Camp Nou in raptures.
Abelardo truly arrived in the Catalan capital.
But as Cruyff woke up from his dream, he knew major changes were needed in order for the next season to restore the voyage that conquered “almost” every harbour in Europe. Luis Figo was brought to reignite the creative spark, Gheorghe Popescu signed from Tottenham Hotspurs to add defensive strength and young Ivan de la Pena was promoted from Barcelona B.
Abelardo, meanwhile, continued to go from strength to strength; but with the arrival of Gheroghe Popescu, Cruyff got a silky, technically sound defensive midfielder capable of playing centre back. As Barcelona kept chasing a brilliant Atletico Madrid side, Abelardo had two other center backs in Sergi Esclusa and Popescu to fight for the starting spot. Though the Romanian international mostly played in midfield, Abelardo was often compromised in favor of the former due to his superior technical ability.
But that didn’t last long.
Having made massive improvement when it came to picking up the right pass, the manager realized Abelardo’s efforts and started giving him regular starts in the lineup, and soon, he became a key player for the team again. So much so, he ended up beating his previous best of 41 appearance for Catalans he set in 1994-95.3 Abelardo was abandoning his former self who used brawn over brain and emerging as someone who is cunning enough to get the job done without much damage. Fans were already loving him for his metamorphosis — both mental and physical.
Sadly, his emergence was severely overshadowed by his boss’ downfall.
After having a great start in the league as well as in UEFA cup, it finally looked like the team was getting back into rhythm and it seemed like the nightmare season was history. But like a sand castle standing against high tide, Cruyff helplessly saw his team taking second spot to Valencia after a frustrating draw against Sevilla at home. Eleven days later, Bayern Munich overturned Los Cules’ two away goal cushion to advance to the final of UEFA Cup.
Despite a solid display throughout the campaign, the whole team received a lot of criticism for their collapse, and their weak performances in key fixtures at home.
Johan Cruyff knew it was time to go.
His tough luck continued as England eliminated Spain in a penalty shootout of Euro 96.Success in international stages was something that eluded Cruyff throughout his career.
While a new English coach in Sir Bobby Robson waited for him in the Camp Nou dugout, his initial influence in Robson’s starting eleven was fairly limited ; playing just 17 minutes in eight games. Despite being out of the team for a considerable time at the start of the season, Abelardo picked up brilliantly as he and his childhood friend Luis Enrique played a major role in completing cup treble in 95-96 as they went on to win Kings’ Cup, Cup Winners Cup and Supercup that season.
Abelardo added his first league winner’s medal in the next season under a certain hot shot named Louis van Gaal, who came to Spain after making headlines in Netherlands. And he didn’t disappoint either: club completed another treble in 96-97, winning League, UEFA Super Cup and Kings’ Cup. Another league victory followed in the next season, with Abelardo at its centre.
By this time, Pitu was already one of the best defenders in the league. He had been a key player in a very competitive Barcelona and Spanish national team over the years. Just like any ambitious player in his prime and part of any ambitious team in the world, he was rearing to make the next season even better.
Beginning of an end
Despite all the success that came with van Gaal in the first season, controversy always surrounded the mercurial Dutch. Just like Johan Cruyff, van Gaal too was suffering from a backroom fall out with the players. While a lot of players thrived under him, Brazilians in particular, were suffering. His treatment of Sonny Anderson and Giovanni was well documented. And media4, just like Rivaldo was going berserk on Louis’ persistence about letting him play on the left flank when the World Player of the Year was a nightmare up front.
The 1999-2000 transfer window alone was enough to undo whatever van Gaal built. Anderson, Giovanni, Nadal, Carlos Busquets all departed. This led to an infuriated media and ironically, Johan Cruyff had the loudest voice4.
But the team picked up where they left off from last season. Despite a shocking Super Cup loss to Valencia, they were excellent in the league, cruising through to the semifinals of the Champions League. Abelardo, too, was his excellent self in this campaign, continuing to be indispensable to the squad.
However, like so many times in his career as a player, his progress was overshadowed by something else.
Valencia were playing football like never before. Coached by Hector Cuper, Los Che became a team Barcelona just couldn’t beat. They played with an unmatched swagger with stars like Gaizka Mendieta , Miroslav Djukic, and Claudio Lopez in their side, Valencia always delivered a punch that managed to hurt Barcelona in more than just one way.
These two teams crossed each other’s paths several times over in the course of the season. And it was Hector Cuper’s side that came out on top almost every time. They stunned Blaugrana in the Super Cup, defeated them in the league which helped Deportivo to climb up to the top and managed to hold it till the end. But their victory in Mestalla was overshadowed by talks of why Abelardo sat out the match on the bench to witness his team getting thrashed 4-1. Even after that, despite winning 2-1 at home, Barcelona were eliminated from the Champions League. This was an irreparable loss and Louis Van Gaal wasn’t given a second chance to make amends.
Maybe it was a sign of things to come. This was one of the last few big games Abelardo played for Barcelona.
It would be horribly wrong to assume that it was the humiliation against Valencia that kickstarted his downfall. But that match was the first public display that too much football was taking a toll on Abelardo’s body. His positioning was poor, and he was being constantly outrun by far more athletic Valencia players in the second leg at home.
After a solid start of the season in 00-01, he suffered a serious knee injury in a friendly match against England, Abelardo missed 13 consecutive league games for the first time in his career. After being out for almost a year, he got injured again and couldn’t participate in a league game till gameweeek 28 in the 2001-02. And that, more or less, marked the end of his season.
Despite regaining his fitness and starting regularly for the remaining fixtures, Abelardo was aware that his playing days were numbered.
In the summer of 2002, Abelardo Fernandez left for Alaves after eight illustrious years in the Barcelona jersey.
Abelardo hung his boots after playing just one season with Alaves. He is certainly remembered as one of the best during his time in Barcelona, but his contributions have often gone unnoticed in the footballing community. For someone who has won and played so much at the highest level, he is criminally underrated. While circumstances have played their part, very often his abilities were challenged by new managers – enough to hurt the self-esteem of any modern day player of his stature. People questioned whether his rough, out-dated style would suit Barcelona’s philosophy. He gave them all the answers on the pitch.
Regardless of doubts people harboured about him, Abelardo not only stepped up and made his critics his biggest admirers, but always remained humble throughout his highs, and determined during his lows.
Abelardo earned just three red cards in the league throughout his time as a Barcelona player.3 This is quite an achievement for a defender who was often tagged as “technically deficient”!
Truth is, Abelardo was not technically poor, he just blended his bullish style of play with a lot of tidy, smart work. He was a great ball player, and one of the best in the league when it came to marking the striker out of the game. It was just that his style of play was perhaps not as eye candy as that of his peers. Even though his defensive contribution often went unnoticed, he wouldn’t mind. His first priority was to clear the danger and then start creating something. Carlos Puyol too picked some of his traits during their time together under Van Gaal, and went on to become one of the modern day greats.
While the team’s inconsistency, managerial instability, and injury denied him the height of fame and recognition that Abelardo deserved, he will always be remembered for his contribution to Los Cules.