With me heading to the Nou Camp next week, I thought I’d open the site’s ‘Why I love Spanish football’ series with how a younger me me fell in love with the club dubbed ‘Més que un club’ through the gateway of Championship Manager 97/98.
The Barcelona of 1997/98 were an all-conquering tour de force, ruling La Liga, Europe and then the world. Every trophy on offer was claimed. Sonny Anderson was putting in 40 goals, his strike partner Oscar was Spain’s first choice striker, Rivaldo was the best in the world and youngster Roger was making his first steps to becoming the future best player in the world. It was the start of a golden era in Barcelona’s history. It was a start of a love affair that I’ve always had with FC Barcelona – my first and possibly only real love outside of British shores during my youth.
The thing is…the team I’ve just described – the one I fell in love with – isn’t exactly real. A lot of the above is fake news. Well, sort of…
So what was true? The real Barcelona circa 97/98 would be the kings of Spain having won La Liga and the Copa del Rey, but their rule would only extend to domestic matters, as their European campaign came to an end in the Champions League group stage (a group featuring that iconic Tino Asprilla hatrick against Barca for Newcastle). Also, Rivaldo was indeed probably the best player in the world too, as he netted 28 times for Barca and was just generally magnificent.
This was the Barcelona team of Louis van Gaal and the third Dutch revolution in Barca’s history following Michels’ arrival in the 70s and Cruyff’s complete Barca reboot between 1988-1996. However, the Barcelona team that existed in an alternate, virtual reality and which was managed by rookie manager Matthew Harrison (me), who had come into replace the far more experienced Bobby Robson, was far superior to Van Gaal’s. The all-conquering team described in the opening was one which lived in the magical world of Championship Manager 97/98 and the team that a young me led to many, many glories. These were probably my first experiences of Spanish football in any shape or form, alongside late Monday night viewings of Welsh football show Sgorio.
Compared to Van Gaal, 9-year-old me had the more basic and more manageable tools of 90s Championship Manager to deal with and not the man management and more fine-tuned tactical detail which Van Gaal would have to juggle with to achieve success. Nonetheless, what I think I had over the steely Van Gaal was a dear love for the team. Like countless others, I was weirdly transfixed by Champ Man’s screens and screens of data. The more I think about it, my love of football was probably embedded there and then with Championship Manager.
Experimenting with other teams was of course par for the course and like many others I globe-trotted (well Europe-trotted in those early editions) across the virtual world sampling saves with many clubs, but ultimately I’d always go back to firing up a game with Barcelona. I suppose, as a 9-year-old playing video games, challenge is secondary and essentially you just want to win and Barcelona were a pretty surefire way of succeeding on Champ Man 97/98. Plus, I think I liked the Barca colours too (and still do). There have been plenty of other reasons to love Barcelona in the 20 years since, but it was with these names on a PC screen where I began my Barca fascination.
Despite me believing that Pep Guardiola is the best thing ever to happen to football management, 9-year-old me was really not a fan of him for some bizarre reason and always insisted on selling him immediately. Ivan de la Pena was always an early childhood favourite and so Pep didn’t stand a chance. The switch seemed to work anyway. Further bizarre transfer policies came about with my repeated insistence on selling 90s footballing legend and all around maverick, Hristo Stoichkov. Who knows, maybe the younger me could spot how Stoichkov’s fiery persona could maybe bring disharmony to the dressing room. Or more likely, I got a thrill out of spending big on a new replacement striker because of course this was the season after the almighty Ronaldo had departed for Inter following his ridiculous one and only season in Barcelona. Dugarry and Giovanni would usually be sold under the Harrison regime, too whereas Juan Antonio Pizzi was always kept on as a loyal backup striker.
Regardless of a new striker coming in, I’d usually end up playing Oscar up front – a player I formed a strong bond with (I liked to be pretend I did at least) and who only in recent years have discovered is in fact Oscar Garcia – most recently found managing Olympiakos, but held the managerial reins at Brighton and briefly Watford, amongst others. before that. I was like a proud dad the day I witnessed Oscar play up front for Spain and help them win the 1998 World Cup.
The young Harrison’s absolute insistence on using a 4-2-2-2 led to one major selection struggle: the attacking midfield roles. Figo has to go down as one the of the best players on CM97/98 and was automatic in the right-sided role; the left-sided role was slightly more tricky. Rivaldo was the man at the time, although back in 1997 real world Louis van Gaal was being Louis van Gaal and beginning a feud with the mercurial Brazilian, as he put him out on the left and demanded in that true Van Gaalian way that Rivaldo work for the system; consequently, this supposedly hindered the Brazilian’s individual genius, but only to a certain extent, as he still finished the season as top goalscorer and with the most assists. Plus, at least Van Gaal was playing him though, unlike Harrison at times…
Alongside Oscar, Barca had his brother, Roger. In the real world, Roger would go on to have a fairly successful career as a winger for Espanyol, Villarreal and Ajax, but injuries hindered his career and he’d be forced to retire at 30. In my Championship Manager timeline, Roger would become my favourite player; so much so, he’d keep Rivaldo out of my team a lot of the times, in an act that made me feel disgusting and repulsive. I believe this atrocious act spawned from the fact that Rivaldo was injured at the start of the season and it was hard to drop Roger once he had got the ball rolling so magnificently at the start of the season.
There was a cast of other joyous characters too: it went without saying that Vitor Baia claimed the no.1 shirt, despite Van Gall preferring compatriot Ruud Hesp in reality; Sergi at left-back with Fernando Couto alongside Nadal in the two centre back spots were shoe-ins; whereas Reiziger and Ferrer’s first team places were less guaranteed and they were left to battle it out for the right-back spot; and of course there was one of CM97/98’s true gems – Luis Enrique. Iconic. Luis Enrique was given the magical gift of D/M/F/RLC – the magical ability to play anywhere on the pitch aside from in goals (true CM97/98 aficionados will know that the only other player blessed with this gift was Niclas Alexandersson). Luis Enrique was used in a fairly orthodox centre midfield role under my regime (he never really struck me as a left-back).
And finally, and probably saving the best until last, we come to the cherry at the top of the Barca 97/98 cake. Ronaldo – the second most gifted player of my lifetime – may have departed for Inter, but who cared when you had the bullish Sonny Anderson up top banging in the goals for fun. The man was a machine. A player so elusive, i’m not sure I ever saw him leave Barca on the game and a player who was practically impossible to purchase in his Championship Manager prime. The only player I can recall being as prolific as him was his compatriot Jardel for Sporting (and I could certainly write a good few hundred words about that wonderful genius too). CM 97/98 Sonny was imperious, even though it never truly took off for him at Barca in the real 97/98 season and he was never quite revered for the simple fact that he wasn’t Ronaldo.
A cast of characters I utterly loved managing as a child and a group of players (well, screen of numbers under the names of those famous names) who led to me having a huge soft spot for Barcelona for the rest of my life so far. Ultimately, they are probably the Barcelona team who were not only one of my main gateways to my fascination with Spanish football, but even football itself.
If you want to write for the ‘Why I love Spanish football’ series then drop me a line at either @MattLostBoyo on Twitter or email me at email@example.com. It can literally be anything linked to Spanish football whether that be teams, players, stadiums or just anything with a tenuous link to Spanish football.