Many nights later, Barcelona's assistant coach admitted that it was impossible for them to win; the night before, Barcelona's actual coach insisted that it was impossible for them to lose. Which may be why they did exactly that. 18 May 1994 was supposed to be the night that the Dream Team became immortal. Instead, it was the night the dream died. Johan Cruyff promised to end Milan's hegemony; Milan ended theirs. Four league titles and a European Cup, over. Just like that.
The following November Barcelona destroyed Manchester United so completely that one United player refused to set foot back in the Camp Nou, but that was an ultimately meaningless last waltz, a one night stand for old times' sake. After Athens, Barcelona did not win another trophy under Cruyff, sacked in the midst of a blazing row with the vice-president Joan Gaspart one morning in early summer 1996, sparking a civil war whose effects are still felt today.
No one doubted Barcelona would win in Athens, least of all Barcelona. The Dream Team was a revolution, so was Cruyff. His approach was counter-cultural, changing the parameters of the sport, turning convention on its head. It was successful too: Barça had just clinched an unprecedented fourth successive league. Before the 1994 European Cup final, Cruyff had already been pictured holding the trophy.
"Barcelona are favourites," Cruyff said. "We're more complete, competitive and experienced than [in the 1992 final] at Wembley. Milan are nothing out of this world. They base their game on defence, we base ours on attack." To illustrate the point, Cruyff noted that while he had signed Romário, the Brazilian who had scored 30 in 33 games, Milan had spent the same on Marcel Desailly. "That," he said, "is telling." "Cruyff's words were inappropriate and really struck the team," Billy Costacurta recalled. "Had they not been, things might have been different."
On the morning of the match, the Catalan newspaper El Mundo Deportivo claimed that Barcelona were at their "sweetest moment", against "the poorest Milan of the Berlusconi era: Cruyff is a winner. [Fabio] Capello, by contrast, has not been up to the task internationally." Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard had gone. Milan were without two of their back four: Costacurta and Franco Baresi. "We weren't favourites," Paolo Maldini recalled. Barcelona knew that only too well.
The comedy show Crakovia does a satirical sketch of that final. In it, Cruyff's tactics board has no tactics, just a message: "Barcelona, champions." It's not a million miles from the truth. "We went there to collect the cup, not to compete for it," recalls one member of the backroom staff. Charly Rexach, the assistant coach, is explicit: "We didn't prepare; we lacked concentration. Athens was the beginning of the end." A current Barcelona director insists: "As a coach, Pep Guardiola has Cruyff's principles but with a rigour, seriousness and level of study that Cruyff simply never had."
Cruyff's team talk at Wembley had been: "Go out and enjoy yourselves". His team-talk in Athens was: "You're better than them, you're going to win." In 1992, he was hailed as a genius. In 1994, he was derided as a fool.
Milan smothered the Barcelona midfield. Desailly dominated, Demetrio Albertini created. Guardiola couldn't settle, Barcelona couldn't bring the ball out. Romário never saw it, nor did Hristo Stoichkov. "It was not that we played badly," Cruyff said afterwards, "it was that we did not play at all."
In every game, Cruyff had to chose one of his four foreigners – Romário, Ronald Koeman, Stoichkov, Michael Laudrup – to leave out. In Athens, he chose Laudrup, as he had done too often, especially since rumours had started over the Dane's future. Working with Cruyff was hard and it became clear that Laudrup probably would not sign a new deal. "When I saw Laudrup wasn't playing, I relaxed," Capello recalled. "He was the one that worried me." When Laudrup saw that, his mind was made up.
Milan scored twice in the first half, Daniele Massaro getting both. Two minutes into the second half Dejan Savicevic scored a glorious lob. "When the third went in, we knew it was over," the Barcelona goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta recalls. "That was the worst night of my career." It finished 4-0, the biggest margin in a Champions League final. So much for boring, defensive Milan. Massaro collected his medal in Stoichkov's shirt – the Bulgarian was his hero. It was Milan's fifth European Cup; Barcelona had one.
The Barcelona dressing room was silent: "Dead," recalls one of the backroom staff, "dead, dead, dead. Just then, when the team needed support, they didn't get it." Cruyff paced, mute, then left the room. Eventually, Zubizarreta reminded them that they had won the league and could fight for it again the following season. He did not even get the chance and they didn't do so. The cracks had already started to appear, now they became chasms.
Barcelona had been astonishingly fortunate to win the league on the final day – for the third season in a row – and because Deportivo La Coruña's Miroslav Djukic had missed a last-minute penalty. By the time they got to Athens, Rexach says they were running on empty. Laudrup believes that the forthcoming World Cup was a factor too: a dozen Barcelona players were going to the US, "and that always creates a dip in form afterwards".
Stoichkov and Romário were the US World Cup's outstanding players; their club suffered for their countries' success. Romário was late back, snapping: "Cruyff didn't win the World Cup, I did." Stoichkov, his best friend, felt like he was held responsible for the Brazilian. The friendship became strained, not helped by the fact that, called to a reception with the Bulgarian president, Stoichkov did not join Romário's family in Rio as promised.
"Romário never returned from the World Cup. His body was there but his mind was still in Rio," the Bulgarian says. Accusations flew, suspicion grew. It wasn't long before Stoichkov was telling a radio station: "It's Cruyff or me."
Other problems had already been brewing before that, tensions building before the final were brought to the surface, exacerbated by defeat. "We rested on our laurels," Rexach remembers. "We didn't plan properly for the future carefully." Hurt by the 4-0, Cruyff reacted badly and tore the team apart immediately. Zubizarreta had been promised a contract renewal but it had not been signed. The day after the final he was told he would be leaving as the bus crossed the runway towards Barcelona's plane home, a decision that had Guardiola in tears. As for Laudrup, the man left out of that final, a few days later he announced that he too was going. To Real Madrid.