Barcelona’s Camp Nou is as awesome as ever, its tiers rising endlessly, obliterating a clear, winter's sky. The place exudes prosperity and arrogance, seemingly challenging the world to match its majesty. But linger here, mingle with the customers, listen to the players and watch the football. Then the senses communicate an entirely different story of this enormous club.
These are trying times for Barcelona and manager Cesar Menotti. A season which started with such promise is running off course, the Championship drifting beyond reach. Diego Maradona is back with a flurry of goals and ample evidence that he is on his way to total recovery. And yet the Argentinian’s brilliance has merely served to expose the inadequacies of the rest.
Maradona seems beyond the range and comprehension of some of his colleagues. They are devoid of ideas or cohesion, and team spirit is deflated. That, at least, was the impression I gained from their performance in the home League match against Mallorca, Gerry Armstrong’s team arrived bottom of the table and yet achieved a highly creditable 1-1 draw. For long periods the 80,000 crowd remained silent, stirring themselves only to whistle a careless pass, or a hopelessly off-target shot. West German Bernd Schuster, a shadow of the midfield force he was, took the brunt of the abuse. Maradona struck the bar with a wicked free-kick and his perfectly judged pass helped set up a second half equaliser for Marcos. The little man couldn't conjure a winner, however, and Mallorca celebrated a valuable point.
For Barcelona one point from two matches represented failure. Suddenly Menotti was under pressure from the club's directors, their supporters and the media. The evening after the Mallorca match the man who led Argentina to their 1978 World Cup triumph was summoned by the president to attend his first board meeting in almost a year at the club. He was hounded by Press, television and radio men but patiently and politely responded to their barrage of questions. Asked if his job was on the line the towering figure drew on his cigarette and said: "It is not for me to say. At Barcelona, just as at any other club, it is for the directors to say. They are the men who decide such things as this. I have no control. I am not very happy with the attitude of the public in Barcelona. We were heroes for winning the Cup and League Cup last season. Now, after two bad results, we are villains. If we win the next two games I suppose we will be heroes again. “
Financially, of course, Menotti need not be too concerned. This summer he completes his contract which, for a season and a bit, will have been worth £450,000. But if he wants success on the field, as well, so much will depend on his side’s meeting with Manchester United in the quarter-finals of the European Cup-Winners' Cup.
Menotti armed himself with videos of United’s three-game Milk Cup saga with Oxford, a contest which eventually went to the Third Division club. He also planned to watch United's First Division fixture at Wolverhampton on February 18. United boss Ron Atkinson saw Menotti’s men toil against Mallorca and was less than terrified. He recognised that this had to be the worst of Barcelona and that Maradona was an unrivalled weapon, but overall "we have got to be encouraged, and feel that we have a good chance of going through. “ He went on: ''I'm not going to be kidded by this performance, though. It was a bit like Wolves' result at Liverpool. We shall watch them two or three more times against tougher opposition.
“However the rest of them play they still have Maradona. If he's not the best player in the world he's got to be in the top three. He is cunning and crafty with great skill and strength. But he can also con referees like nobody into the bargain. He's got a brilliant habit in that if he doesn't win the ball, he certainly wins a free-kick. Put it this way. If Maradona were to be out of the tie against us then the percentage for us would certainly go up. There's no doubt this fellow could make all the difference to any team, any match. To Barcelona he is worth every penny of the fabulous money they've spent on him because they can afford it. He is the equivalent of Robson or Stapleton to us.
“At this stage it's difficult to say how we’ll set about coping with him in our games. So much obviously depends on our team strength on the two nights. But I'm reluctant to change the pattern of our play to deal with him. Rather than put one man on him all the time we may prefer to have him picked up quickly in any given situation.
The threat of Maradona to United was emphasised by Armstrong, the Northern Ireland international who made his name in Spain during the World Cup here and joined Mallorca for a fee of just under £200,000. "That little man is the quickest thing you’ve ever seen over 15 yards and he's not fully fit yet. He must be nine pounds heavier than when he scored two against us earlier in the season. The other thing is that he is so clever at winning free-kicks.
“But apart from Maradona, they are just not that good. They are a bunch of posers. If United can hold them for the first 15 to 20 minutes they should be OK. "
Armstrong had a further warning for United, however. The forward, who had a broken nose to show for his visit, added: "If you think this was dirty here, wait until the second leg at Old Trafford. If Barcelona go there one up they will kick lumps off United. “
Atkinson is wise, of course, to anticipate a rather different proposition when he brings his team here on March 7. A capacity 120,000 crowd, a charged Barcelona and a Maradona in optimum condition should ensure that.
Maradona is clearly displeased with his team’s current form. Much as he enjoys his wealth, I suspect he yearns for the football success his sublime skill deserves. He acknowledges Barcelona's current shortcomings but, in public at least, expresses his confidence that all will be well by March.
Accompanied, as ever, by his minders and his little brother, the short but rock-hard striker said: "At the moment we are playing to only about 40 per cent of our capacity. That is not good enough.
“This is not the real Barcelona, but I’m sure it will be when we play Manchester United. It has to be. We must be successful.
"I am building up my fitness and should be at my best again by March. We shall watch Manchester several times on video and be fully prepared for them.
“They are a world-famous team and we will respect them. Bryan Robson I know all about. He is very good, good header," he stressed, illustrating the point by stretching and nodding an imaginary ball.
At the time of writing Maradona was looking ahead - if not forward - to another meeting with Andoni Goicoechea, his Bilbao assailant, and again complained about the physical nature of the game here. "Playing in Spain can be very hard," he said. "Many of the games are violent and that I do not enjoy. It can be very difficult for those who want to be skilful.
“I would like to say, though, that a lot of the criticism of Barcelona is unfair. Barcelona took the blame against Aston Villa last season but we were not the only team responsible.”
This article originally appeared in the January 1985 edition of World Soccer Magazine. You can subscribe for a ridiculously low sum by clicking here.