In March 2018, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to sit down with former Spain and Barcelona player, Jose Maria Bakero. Not only did Jose play alongside Pep Guardiola, Romario, and Ronald Koeman, but he also captained the ‘Dream Team’ managed by the great Johan Cruyff. Bakero made 260 appearances for Barcelona and played 30 times for the Spanish national team including two World Cup appearances (1990 and 1994) and the 1988 Euros. He is still heavily involved with the Catalan giants and heads up the Barcelona youth academy.
At the Chicago Red Stars (NWSL), we train at the same facility as Chicago Fire (MLS). Jose Maria’s son Jon played college soccer at Wake Forest University and was chosen by Chicago Fire in the MLS Draft. When I approached Jon about the possibility of meeting his father, he was more than willing to set up a meeting during his next visit. A couple of weeks later, Jon was true to his word and, not only did he set up the meeting, but he also helped translate throughout, which I cannot thank him enough for. With Barcelona’s dramatic impact on the modern game, I was keen to talk to Jose Maria about how he views the game today and what lessons from Cruyff’s time at the Nou Camp are still applicable today, off the pitch as well as on it. Enjoy!
When you moved from Real Sociedad to Barcelona, what was the toughest adjustment: lifestyle, pressure or level of football?
There were a few things. Yes, the football was a change but there was also moving from a small city to a big city, and a fourteen thousand stadium to a one-hundred and twenty-thousand seater stadium. It was also a change going from the best player on a team to becoming just a regular player.
How difficult did you find that transition?
It wasn’t that hard but obviously there was a little bit of a transition. I was lucky that I was twenty-five years old, had a lot of international experience and had won some trophies. It was a big opportunity for me but I felt it was at a good stage in my life where I felt I was ready to make it. In the 1982 World Cup there were eight players who played for Real Sociedad so there were a lot of experienced players alongside me there.
How much did Johan Cruyff impact you as a person, as well as a player?
First of all, he was someone who I could never have imagined meeting, so when you play for someone like that, you want to please him. He changed the way that we saw football and the way we played it too. He had huge charisma and personality that he showed in every moment. I had a father-son relationship with him. I was team captain and we had some complicated moments when we didn’t agree about certain things, but I grew as a person and as a player.
Was he demanding and intense?
Absolutely! He was a winner and he expected the most out of everyone. He would take a player mentally to the edge. He made the players feel that the pressure he was putting on them was bigger than anything else, so when they were criticized by media or fans, it was small in comparison to his demands. It was a process and when you were able to overcome it, then you could go somewhere. There were a lot of players who could not handle the pressure and how much he asked of them, and they would fall behind. The first year we won the Spanish Cup and gradually won more and more every year, so this showed how the process worked. At the beginning it was very hard mentally, but after that third year everything was history.
Why were Spain not as dominant as Barcelona were during that period in the 1990’s?
Football in Spain did not have a lot of coaching that could change that. So, it was all work, work, from coaches but it didn’t have any productivity, and Cruyff changed that philosophy. He created a style of understanding. Spain was the fury and it was all about passion. Cruyff came in, changed that and said “I want the ball. I want players that can think.” And that made a big change.
What was training like every day with the Barcelona ‘Dream Team’?
It was very short, very intense, and it was very simple: rondo 5v2, possession game, positional game, and competition. Every day was the same thing. No automated exercises, everything was practical.
Not very complicated?
No. Life is simple. Football is simple. In pre-season at 7am in the morning, we did a 35 minute and then fitness. At 10.30am we played a positional game with a little bit of strength work. Then, in the afternoon, after a nap, it was either a game or just competition: 3v3,5v5, and 7v7.
In today’s game, every center forward seems to be asked to do defensive work. Did Romario ever frustrate you in this area?
No. Messi doesn’t do any defensive work either. You have to compliment your strengths. Some players are intelligent, some players are physical, and then you have to find a balance. But the most important thing is that the best players have to play, even if they don’t have that defensive capacity. As a coach, you have to decide what you want: Do I want intelligence? Do I want physical? Do I want to win things in football? And from there you have to select the players that match. Mourinho for example, wants Pepe as a center back and Barca wants Pique. Is it better or worse? It’s the coach’s decision. It’s football and you have to respect it and decide what style you want. Romario didn’t enjoy the physical work. Some players train more, others train less, but the important thing is to know your players. One has to do a minimum amount of work and from there each one has their own qualities. The coach must understand that not everyone has to do the same thing and train the same way.
Do you think coaches get that wrong today?
A lot of people are confused about that. Coaches want perfection and humans are not perfect. Therefore, football can’t be perfect. So, you have to find a way for it to be organized and that takes two things. Firstly, the team must know what they have to do tactically. Secondly, you have to let the players express themselves with their own qualities. Sometimes talent misses more passes than the players who do not have talent, so you have to take care of the talent. For example, you have to take care of Iniesta, and Rakatic has to do all the work. Everyone will have their own function in the team, which is equally important, but everyone must have their own space.
Everyone is trying to copy Barcelona today and everyone wants to play like them, what can NOT be replicated?
You cannot imitate anyone. When I coach a team, my center backs can give two passes to each other, that’s okay, but I know they cannot do twenty five. In the midfield, I don’t have Busquets, Iniesta, Xavi, or Messi, therefore what you cannot do is copy. When I coach with Barcelona B, we need to work with the same concepts and something inside the player may connect with an aspect from the first team, but not copy.
You were a leader on that great Barcelona team. Did you see teammates like Ronald Koeman and Pep Guardiola becoming leaders and coaches?
The concept and training models were the same, but Pep and Ronald have very different personalities and ways of communicating. I worked with Koeman at Valencia and he is a very good coach, but it’s different training at Barcelona than it is at Valencia or Everton. Even training Netherlands now, he would be a different coach now than he would be twenty years ago with players like Rijkard and Van Basten. It’s possible that Koeman coached the same as Johan.
Did you see Pep becoming a top coach?
We never thought that would happen. It’s like saying today that Xavi is going to be a great coach. Why? It depends on the current moment of the team because, now more than ever, success of the coach is dependent on the good players. Today there are only two coaches, Mourinho and Pep, who are like Starbucks. Pep is a winner in Barcelona and can go with the same model to Bayern. It’s like a franchise. Mourinho is the same. Everywhere he goes, boom, boom, boom! But for rest of the world, it doesn’t work. So, you can win or lose, but you have to know if you want to do something different, or if you are allowed to. You need money and time. For example, in a college here in the US, there is no pressure. You can make a style of play or change a system. But not copy. The concept of the game, meaning of the game, and rhythm of the game, are more important than any tactics. That is something you can create over time by building.
What were the biggest differences between Cruyff and Louis van Gaal?
Cruyff was instinct and van Gaal was more organization. Van Gaal was like a college professor but Cruyff coached on feeling, “today we are going to do this.” Cruyff did whatever he could not motivate, push, punish. With van Gaal, you knew what was coming on the 25th of July in practice. I think it’s good but nothing is perfect.
Is there a lot of fitness training at Barcelona today?
No. Recovery, activation, and competition.
What about gym work?
No. At Barcelona you do everything on the field. The gym is only for individual work, but as a group they don’t do it.
Do you think we do too much of that in the US?
Yes. Everything has importance. If you are planning to cook a meal and you are going to grill, you don’t need water. But if you are going to boil something, you need water. So, you have to know what you want and what you need. A footballer needs strength, but they need fast strength. The center backs here in the US are big, but sometimes they lack mobility. All the core work is very important, but the most important thing are fast legs and the heart (as in the anaerobic capacity). So, one thing is strength and another is rhythm of play, and you can have both. Because if you looked only at the theory in the gym, Iniesta or Xavi could never play football. What do they have? Rhythm. (Clicks his fingers three times). And you don’t get that in the gym.
How important are standards of behavior and character in young players at Barcelona, both on and off the field?
What we look for is talent. Sometimes talent comes with the smaller players and talent is often connected with how intelligent you are, and the most important thing is their mind. The difference for someone who makes ten million and another who makes one million, is that this one scores and this one doesn’t get there. The margins are small and normally it’s up here (points to his head). Some things are natural but everyone can work on their mind, not just in football, but in life too. Football is like life, it is difficult. If you want to play at the Camp Nou you can get lost and think “am I supposed to be here?” and it’s the same thing here (referring to Chicago). You can think “I can’t live here, it’s too big. I want to live in a small city.” And that’s fine. But if you want to go to the maximum, you can improve a lot.
What’s the most common piece of advice that you give your son (Jon)?
Day by day. Every day is a new opportunity. There is nothing worse than saying “This is how I am.” Every day there are things that will make you think and with football it’s the same thing. You have to learn from what happens every day. You can get mad at the coach or your teammates, or your dad, but you have to learn what has happened and what you have done wrong. You can have a bad practice or bad game, but at the end of the day, you have to pass the ball.
What frustrates you about the game today?
Life is closely connected with football and the worst thing in life is money. And the worst thing about football is money. And it’s not because of football, it’s because of life. I don’t see football as a job. The end (result) is the job, but what you are doing is not a job. A lot of people want it to be a job and their objective is money, but they forget about what they have to do to make money. If you focus on day by day, you have more chances.
What advice would you have for coaches who want to work at the highest level of the game, like Barcelona or Pep Guardiola’s status?
Not everyone can coach a club like Barcelona because of how important football is there and the globalization in football. You need a lot of charisma. It’s when they’ve been at that level before. So it’s too much for someone who has not experienced that level. For them it’s normal. You go there and it’s a normal experience, not something exceptional. Guardiola and Ancelotti played at the top. Van Gaal and Mourinho did not, but there is not a lot of people like that. Now players need leaders, not only on the field, but also in the media and from sponsors respecting the players.
Who’s the best player you played with?
Romario was the best but the most important was Ronald Koeman. They are both different. The best is one thing, but the most important for the team is another. When Koeman played well, Barcelona played well. When Koeman played bad, we could also win, but when he played well, we played well. And Romario could score four goals and only touch the ball four times.