The incredible adventures of Romario and Stoichkov in Barcelona
For once there were no excuses, even though there was an excuse. There was no ranting about the ref, no bemoaning bad luck, no recriminations over the foreigner rule that forcibly left Peter Schmeichel on the bench. November 2, 1994, and Manchester United had been sliced apart by Barcelona in a performance of such brutal beauty, such wonder, that there was no point complaining. There was just acceptance. The best team had won, and won brilliantly. “We have been well and truly slaughtered,” admitted Alex Ferguson. “In the end, it was a humbling experience for us.”
We have been well and truly slaughtered
So humbling, in fact, that Paul Parker still refuses to set foot inside the Camp Nou. He continues to have nightmares about the 4-0 hammering his side suffered. Parker’s United team-mate Gary Pallister remembers it as “the one time in my career when I came off the pitch and just had to accept that I hadn’t been able to get anywhere near my opponent. I was completely shell-shocked afterwards.”
Barcelona’s performance had been awe-inspiring, La Vanguardia describing it as a “recital.” “Barcelona humiliate United,” added The Times.
At the heart of that world were the most dashingly impressive strikers on the planet, the outstanding performers from that summer’s World Cup – Romario and Hristo Stoichkov. Romario was Brazil’s best player, Stoichkov USA 94’s top scorer as Bulgaria incredibly reached the semi-final.
A month after the United game, Stoichkov was named European Footballer of the Year. Together, they were arguably the best partnership the Camp Nou had ever seen. They were certainly the most excitable, as swift with their tongues - and sometimes even their fists - as they were with their feet.
That night, the Brazilian scored one and the Bulgarian two – the second, his 100th for the club. “We just couldn’t handle the speed of Stoichkov and Romario,” Ferguson recognised. “The suddenness with which they attacked was a new experience.”
“United had no answer to the skill, speed and imagination of Stoichkov and Romario, at times moving through their defence with an ease as impudent as it was embarrassing,” wrote David Lacey. “Pallister and Bruce were both auditioning for the role of Juliet: Romario, Romario, wherefore art thou Romario? And nobody had a clue about Stoichkov’s whereabouts.”
“When Barcelona are on their game, their superiority is insulting; they leave the opposition looking utterly ridiculous,” said the former Barcelona player Lobo Carrasco. “Tonight, Barcelona took revenge for what happened to them in Athens.”
What had happened in Athens six months earlier was that Barcelona had unexpectedly lost the European Cup final to Milan. Not just lost it, been defeated 4-0. Now, they had learned. Now, the four-time Spanish league champions and European Cup runners-up, the greatest side in the club’s history, were ready to go one better, led by this incomparably brilliant pairing. Humbling United was a warning; a glimpse of a future in which Stoichkov and Romario, Romario and Stoichkov, would rule the world.
Pallister and Bruce were both auditioning for the role of Juliet: Romario, Romario, wherefore art thou Romario? And nobody had a clue about Stoichkov’s whereabouts
Only, it wasn’t. Instead, it was the last waltz; a brilliant final performance from a once great side. Two months later, Romario had gone. Six months after that, so had Stoichkov. And Andoni Zubizarreta. And Michael Laudrup. Soon, coach Johan Cruyff would go. The trophies went too – it was three years before Barcelona won anything again. Athens would prove a watershed, not a lesson. The dream partnership had presided over the death of the Dream Team.
It had all been so desperately short lived. Romario partnered Stoichkov for the 1993/94 season, plus the opening months of 1994/95, demolition of United included, and that was it. They had barely been together for a year.
But what a year. A kidnapping. Punch-ups. Fallings-out. Tears and tantrums. A proud father. An even prouder Godfather. A Scandal. A mistress. Or five. Paparazzi. Betrayal. Red cards. A league title, won in the final minute of the final day. A historic thrashing of the eternal enemy. A European Cup final. And goals. Loads; more than 50 between them, Romario finishing the 93/94 league season with 30 in 33 games, having scored a stunning five hat-tricks (one on the opening day, another, against Atletico Madrid, despite having two goals disallowed), and finishing his Barcelona career with 53 in 82 games.
Ask fans to name the best 10 Blaugranas in history, and virtually all of them will include Stoichkov and Romario. So important was their impact, so intense the reverence with which they are remembered, that the inescapable fact they only played together for a year seems somehow perverse. Surely, it must have been longer. And yet it wasn’t. They’d packed a hell of a lot in a year and then fallen out, each going their own way, never to speak again. Together, Romario and Stoichkov did it all. They became legends.