Barcelona's historic 1992 European Cup opened door for dominant era

Barcelona have been crowned the best team in Europe on five separate occasions, but it was as recently as 1992 that they won their first ever European Cup. A 1-0 victory over Sampdoria at Wembley after extra time ended a long, tortuous wait for the Catalan club and opened the door to an era of dominance.

On the 25th anniversary of that match, ESPN FC look back at the victory and its significance.

The build-up

Neither side had any problems easing through the first round of the competition. Barca comfortably progressed against German outfit Hansa Rostock, and Sampdoria thumped Rosenborg 7-1 over two legs. It wasn't so straight forward in the next round: Barca scraped past another German team, Kaiserslautern this time, on away goals, and Sampdoria came from behind to beat Budapest Honved.

The format of the modern day Champions League is a million miles away from the European Cup of the early 1990s, and after the first two knockout rounds, there was a group phase, consisting of two groups with the winners of each one progressing to the final. Barca topped theirs ahead of Sparta Prague, Benfica and Dynamo Kiev, while Sampdoria proved too good for Red Star Belgrade, Anderlecht and Panathinaikos.

Domestically, both sides were having very different seasons, though. Both began the campaign as reigning champions, but by the time the two sides met at Wembley, only one of them was in with a chance of retaining their title. Johan Cruyff's club were immersed in a typically gripping battle for top spot with Real Madrid, but Vujadin Boskov's men were nowhere to be seen in the upper echelons of Serie A. They would eventually finish sixth.

The teams

Sampdoria's headline players were attacking duo Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini, whose goals had fired them to their only ever Scudetto the year before. They were aided in attack by Attilio Lombardo, who had also been key in their run to the final. Like Mancini, he'd scored four goals in the earlier rounds, while Vialli had been the Italian club's top scorer with six. In goal, Gianluca Pagliuca was becoming one of Europe's most impressive stoppers.

Barca, on the other hand, were strong right through their spine, passing from Andoni Zubizarreta, Ronald Koeman and Pep Guardiola to Michael Laudrup and Hristo Stoichkov. The only surprise on the day was the inclusion of a third attacker in Julio Salinas, who has since revealed Cruyff dropped the bombshell he'd be on the team a few days before the final. "I thought it was a joke at first, but [Cruyff] said he was telling me so I didn't go out the night before," Salinas said.

Barcelona: Zubizarreta; Ferrer, Koeman, Nando; Eusebio, Guardiola, Juan Carlos; Bakero, Laudrup; Salinas, Stoichkov.

Sampdoria: Pagliuca; Mannini, Vierchowod, Lanna, Katanec; Lombardo, Pari, Cerezo, Bonetti; Vialli, Mancini.

The match

Barca began the game as favourites, but having never won the European Cup before they also went into it haunted -- not just by the success of their rivals Madrid on the continent -- but by their own failings in previous finals -- against Benfica in 1961 and then Steaua Bucharest in 1986.

"Even though we'd already beaten Sampdoria in the European Cup Winners' Cup [in 1989], we were really scared about losing," Diario Sport journalist Juan Manuel Diaz, who covered the game, tells ESPN FC. "You just have to look at what happened in those finals in 1961 and 1986 to understand."

And nerves were jangling in Catalonia and Liguria during a tense 90 minutes which yielded no goals. Vialli squandered three good chances -- one was saved by Zubizarreta; two were off target -- while Pagliuca pulled off a fine save to keep out Salinas before Stoichkov hit the inside of the post for Barca.

One goal was always likely to decide the game, and it came via the boot of Koeman, the Dutch defender hammering home a free kick from the edge of the box in extra time. Pandemonium followed.

"I remember the magic of Wembley," Diaz adds. "I remember Lombardo time and again breaking into the Barca area; then I remember Vialli covering his head with a towel on the bench when Koeman was about to shoot; then the madness as all the Barcelona press began to embrace each other and later [then vice-president] Joan Gaspart jumping in the Thames... It was like a dream."

The reaction

"Go out there and enjoy it," was what Cruyff famously told his players before the final. They certainly did that, but as much as the feeling of enjoyment was evident in the celebrations, which followed Barcelona's first European Cup, there was also another prevailing feeling.

"Liberation," was how Cruyff's and then-assistant coach Carles Rexach described it. "There were a lot of people waiting for us to screw it up again. And the feeling [after the win] was that another life starts. We were released."

Diario Sport journalist David Salinas uses the word relief when describing his memories of that game to ESPN FC: "Relief at having at last conquered a challenge which had been pending since 1961 -- at last a barrier which had been insurmountable had been jumped.

"Another defeat in a European Cup final would have been a disaster. So winning it was very special, and that's why that particular trophy is given so much value. Not many people slept that night in Barcelona, and the reception the team received the following day was extraordinary. I remember people on La Rambla crying tears of joy. It's a feeling which will never be repeated because it had been such a long wait for that particular prize."

Speaking this week, Vialli, on the losing side that night, has conceded that Barca were worthy winners and even claimed that he's happy that they won "for the good of football" and everything which it has subsequently opened the door to.

What happened next?

It's viewed in Catalonia as a before and after moment in Barcelona's history. Since then, including the title they won on the final day of the season two weeks later in 1992, they have finished top of La Liga 13 times in 25 years. They'd previously won just 11 league titles in 92 years. On top of that, they've also won another four European Cups, taking their total to five.

Without Cruyff's "Dream Team" and Koeman's goal, there are still some who doubt whether the success since and the era of Guardiola, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta would have been so prosperous.

But Barca's success was about more than just the football club. It was a big year for the city in a number of ways and is viewed as not just the start of an era of success on the football pitch but for tourism and growth off of it, as well. It's hard to imagine now, but the Ciudad Condal has not always been one of Europe's most sought-after locations.

"It was the same year the Olympics came to Barcelona," Salinas points out, remembering the event which prompted regeneration across the city. "It was a year in which the city was on the up and the football team helped in that regard with the European Cup."

Diaz adds: "The whole of 1992 was magic for Barcelona. The city hosted a wonderful Olympics and it became the cosmopolitan city you know today. And on top of that, Barca won the La Liga and European Cup double."

As for Sampdoria, there was no reaction to their loss, no upsurge in success. Instead, their league title the previous season and their run to the European Cup final is these days viewed as a gloriously improbable triumph built on unbreakable squad unity. They have since won one Coppa Italia and are back in Serie A having spent several seasons in Serie B, but the early 1990s are remembered as the best days of their lives.