MAKE OR BREAK F. .OR MISTER ROBSON

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The Independent Culture
There are football matches and there are football matches ... and then there is Barcelona against Real Madrid. The greatest club fixture in the world; the best players on earth; the culmination of 500 years of rivalry. And at the centre of it all is an Englishman whose job is on the line. John Carlin joins Barcelona manager Bobby Robson for what was always going to be a difficult week

WEDNESDAY 7 MAY

Barcelona don't play Real Madrid till Saturday night but the four morning sports dailies are carrying between them 64 pages on the big match. There's nothing to say that hasn't been said before. But they are saying it anyway. One paper has an exclusive interview with Barcelona's Ronaldo, the Brazilian who, at 20, is the top goal-scorer in Europe. "Q: Do you want to take on Real Madrid? A: Yes. I really want to beat them." This translates on the front page into, "RONALDO: 'I WANT TO TAKE ON REAL MADRID'." Another paper has an interview with Suker, the Real striker, who says he really wants to beat Barcelona. We learn, fascinatingly, that the Croatian used to wear a Nottingham Forest shirt when he was a boy.

Every banality is golden, greedily consumed by the public. Barcelona and Real Madrid may have played three times this season already (a draw and a win each) but this weekend's encounter is "El Partido del Siglo", "The Match of the Century". Or at least it will be until the two teams, the biggest and richest in the world, meet again. There's no rivalry like it in sport. Manchester United v Liverpool, Milan v Juventus, Boca Juniors v River Plate in Argentina. They don't come close. Celtic v Rangers maybe does, because of the religious dimension, but even that fixture has lost some of its heat since Rangers started admitting Papists and Englishmen into the ranks.

So what's the comparison? The World Cup final? That's showbiz. For serious fans, club excites deeper passions than country. A general election? For the supporters of each side the outcome of Saturday's match matters far, far more. An old friend I met for a drink, a Madrileno who works in Barcelona, put it best. "It's like France versus England," he said. "At the time of Wellington."

BOBBY ROBSON, a coal miner's son from County Durham, is Barcelona's Wellington. He left school at 15 and went down the pits for a year and a half before Fulham Football Club came to the rescue. He played for England; he managed Ipswich Town, converting the unglamorous little club into one of the two or three best in England during a period when English teams were winning the European Cup with amazing regularity; he was the coach of England for eight years and 95 games, missing out on a World Cup final place on penalties in 1990; he went abroad, won championships in Holland and Portugal - and then, last summer, he came to Barcelona, where all season they have been saying he knows nothing about football.

That was what Stoitchkov, his Bulgarian international, told the press a day after Barcelona had come back from 3-0 down at half time to beat Atletico Madrid, last year's champions, 5-4. And it's what the commentators have been saying ever since the Englishman joined the club. For the prevailing view has been that Robson, at 64, is a dinosaur and, let's face it, "los ingleses", when it comes to football, are a primitive, unsophisticated lot. Never mind that "los Ingleses" gave the world the game, that in Spain they address all team coaches as "Mister" (or "Meester") because it was the Mr Smiths and Mr Joneses from England who first taught them how to play. Never mind that Barcelona, by the standards of any other club anywhere else in the world, have had a good season. The prejudice has been so deeply rooted that no amount of evidence to the contrary will shake it free. After Barcelona won a league match 6-0 a headline read: "Barcelona doesn't play football". After they beat Real Madrid 3-2 in the Spanish cup a reporter asked Robson at the post-match press conference whether he agreed that Madrid had played a better game. After the 5-4 defeat of Atletico - a game, as they say in Spain, to revive the dead - the idea caught hold that the critical tactical changes Barcelona made to turn the game around had been not Robson's, but the players', idea.

By December, following the catastrophe of losing 2-0 away in the league to Real, the question in the press was not whether Robson would last out the season but who would replace him. In February, after a crisis meeting that lasted six hours, Robson persuaded the all-powerful Barcelona president, Josep Lluis Nunez, to give him another chance. In March Nunez revealed he wanted Ajax Amsterdam's Louis Van Gaal to be the team coach next season. Since then nothing has been said officially, but the general assumption has been that Van Gaal is coming and that Robson, who has a year to run on his contract, will be kicked upstairs out of harm's way.

Robson agrees to meet me at 5pm in the bar of the Hotel Princesa Sofia, down the road from the Camp Nou (pronounced "Know") stadium. We'd last met in Mexico City in 1986, a few weeks before the World Cup quarter final which his England team would lose to Maradona's "Hand of God". But Robson was in no mood for pleasantries. He never is, as I would discover over the next four days. Football, football, football courses through his veins. If you looked at his haemoglobin under a microscope you'd see a riot of spherical shapes marked with hexagons in black and white.

"We've scored 123 goals this season, John, a hundred-and-twenty-three goals!" he begins. "Ninety-one in the league! That's 15 more than Real Madrid! By the end of the season we'll have scored the highest ever number in the Spanish league. But you know what? You know what? They say I play defensive football. Can you believe it? Can you? I said to this guy, to this journalist, 'Look, I'm fairly stupid. You'll have to explain to me how we score these goals and play defensive football.' Can you believe it? My God!"

He cries out, he gesticulates, his eyes dart wildly around the room, he taps me on the knee, he grabs my arm and fixes me with a manic stare, he lowers his voice in a conspiratorial stage whisper. He could be King Lear in the storm scene ("Monster ingratitude!").

"Last year," he continues, exasperated, monumentally indignant, "when I was still at Porto, Atletico won the championship and they murdered Barcelona. This year we've murdered them, 5-2, 5-4, 5-2. Three weeks ago when we won 5-2 the bloke from As [a sports newspaper] wrote, 'Bobby Robson is the worst coach in the world.' I don't know. I don't know. Maybe it's because I'm English."

But Robson, when he was England manager, was always at war with the press. "You Plonker!" was a not untypical Sun headline in those days. He winces at the recollection, drags his fingers through his boyish white mop. "Yes, yes. But the pressure here is far worse. Then it was a dozen games a year. Here it's every week. Often twice a week. It's relentless, relentless!"

And the game coming up against Real Madrid. What kind of pressure does he feel? Like nothing he's ever faced before in 40 years of football. Worse than the World Cup semi-final against Germany? "Worse than that, really, because here your job is at risk, that's why. Lose this one and you lose your job. We lost the semi-final against Germany and people said, 'Very well played. Bad luck.' "

There are two reasons why this weekend's game is so huge, why the outcome will determine whether his long and venerable career in football will be sullied forever by the shame of defeat and the humiliation of losing what he calls the best job in football. The less important reason is that the game is effectively the final of the Spanish championship. "Because it's make or break, whether we keep the league open or whether it's closed, to be honest." If Barcelona lose, Real's lead at the top will stretch to an unassailable 11 points with five games to go. If Barcelona win, the lead is cut to five points and glory could still be within Robson's grasp.

But the main reason why the Barcelona press calls this "the match of the century" is entirely independent of the league. "I've seen football all over the world, John. I've watched all the famous rivals play. Boca- River, Celtic-Rangers. But this is well above that. And you know why?" He leans over, drops his voice as if to confess a dread truth. "Because it's two countries, John. Two countries. It's not two clubs in one country. It's not just Real Madrid and Barcelona. It's Catalunya against Spain. Our team is the army of Catalunya. This is our army, our air force, our navy. And I'm the British general commanding the Catalan troops."

A Spanish journalist Robson put me in touch with explained it all later that evening. We're talking historical animosity here on a Northern Irish scale, he said. Except that it goes back further, to 1474 when the Kingdom of Castille swallowed the Kingdom of Catalunya to create the boundaries of what is now Spain. The Spanish Civil War of 1936 was, on one level, a war over Catalan autonomy. When Franco won he banned the Catalan language. His death opened the floodgates and today, in a fervour of over-compensation, every street sign in Barcelona is rendered in Catalan. But the historic inferiority complex, no matter that Catalunya is the economic engine of Spain, lingers, reinforced by Barcelona's failure on the football field to match the accomplishments of Real Madrid, which happens to be fixed indelibly in Catalan minds as the team of Franco, of the royal (for that is what "Real" means) and ancient oppressor.

Mercifully, while Ulster Catholics have the IRA and the Basques have ETA, the Catalans discovered in FC Barcelona a football army to engage in war by other means.

Did Robson know about all this when he accepted the job? "I was slightly aware of it. Slightly. But until you come here, and live here, you don't know, you just don't know..." His voice trails off, prompting me to wonder why on earth he decided to remain here "on the electric chair", as he puts it, when he's been offered in recent months jobs at Everton and at Newcastle, his home-from-home, the team he followed as a child?

"Where do you go after Barcelona? It's the biggest club in the world. Where do you go? It's a good question. There's nothing bigger." So, would he not be returning to a British club? "Well, that's how I feel now."

In a recent BBC interview he said that football was his drug and he said the same again to me. "It doesn't matter how long I've been in football, you don't lose the edge, the excitement, the adrenaline and the little electric shocks. You don't lose that." I put it to him that I am not entirely convinced. That it isn't just football. That he is a junkie for high drama. That the reason he does not want to let go of possibly the most stressful job in the world, when he has all the money he needs, is that his mind and body crave the excitement of living on the edge. He'd have been the same if he'd ended up a coal miner or a bricklayer's mate.

He squints, cranes his neck and turns to stare out of the window, lost in thought. Ten, maybe 15, seconds later he's back, smiling accusingly, as if he's finally been found out. "Yeah, yeah. You're right. I think you're right. When I was in Porto life was so tranquil and I left that to take on a monster that rears its ugly head every time you don't play so well. I was under few illusions but I just saw it as a fantastic challenge. What a way to end your career if you can come here and bring success."

For Robson the thrill of it all is that the line at Barcelona is so frighteningly thin between success and ignominious failure.

THURSDAY 8 MAY

MORE THAN 48 hours still to go. The sports dailies carry 72 pages on the big match, adding nothing to what they have said the day before, though Sport's front page is dominated today by a picture of Robson and the Real Madrid coach Fabio Capello playing chess. The morning is unseasonably cold and windy. At 10.30 Robson is out on the training pitch with his players. Five hundred supporters look on from behind a high wire fence. Sixty journalists and six TV cameras are recording the event. They're playing 11 against 11 on a half-size pitch with quarter-size goals. The idea is to simulate the conditions of a crazily congested midfield and still play passing football. Robson, sporting the blue-and-burgundy team tracksuit, acts like a mad orchestra conductor. He is so completely consumed by football he is virtually autistic. He clenches and unclenches his fists; waves one team forward, then the next; points, bawls, holds his hands to his head. The suspense is non-existent. It is irrelevant which side wins. But his tension communicates itself to the players, who seem only marginally less determined than they would in a real game inside the Camp Nou before 115,000 fans.

I talk to some of the fans, some of the journalists. I talk to cab drivers, to a friend who is a Real Madrid supporter. Everybody but everybody, even his worst detractors, are agreed on one thing: "Robson es un senor." Robson is a gentleman. El Mister is a terrific guy. Why do they say that? Because he's endured "the worst imaginable working conditions", in the words of Barcelona's serious daily newspaper, La Vanguardia, but kept his cool, his grace, like a matador eyeball to eyeball with a bull. When Newcastle offered him the job in February, a time when his reputation and the team's standing was at its lowest ebb, he said no, because he had signed a two- year contract with Mr Nunez. Whereupon the tide began, ever so subtly, to turn. The journalist who wrote those words in La Vanguardia said that a number of fans, and a handful of football reporters, who had turned on Robson from the start were beginning to feel a bit ashamed. He also detected that people had become somewhat disconcerted in recent weeks as the results had started to improve, especially when Barcelona beat Fiorentina away to make it to the European Cup Winners' Cup final.

But the club's directors still won't commit themselves. Or rather they will, up to a point. We're travelling in a taxi through the city, rushing an hour late for a 4pm Internet appointment. Fans are going to log onto the chat-room of El Mundo Deportivo, one of the local sports dailies, to ask him questions. "They keep telling me that whatever happens that I have a contract. That I'm the coach. That everybody will play second to me. `You're in a couple of finals. Keep going.' But I know that contracts don't mean a thing. Results do."

What the directors will not clarify is what Louis Van Gaal is going to be doing if he, Robson, stays on as coach. Because it's inconceivable that Van Gaal, one of Europe's most respected coaches, is going to play second fiddle to him for a year. As inconceivable as the notion that Robson will play second fiddle to Van Gaal. "That would mean advising the team, following European teams, coming back and reporting. It's a fantastic job, very well paid for drinking lots of coffee. But I'm not interested in drinking coffee." Hence the interest of Everton in signing him. Yet Robson won't let go until the end of the season, for he has convinced himself that if he cranks up enough good results, if he beats Real on Saturday, then goes on to win the Cup Winners' Cup on Wednesday, then the Spanish Cup at the end of June and maybe even steals the championship from under Real's nose - or comes second and qualifies for the European Champions' League - that he will put President Nunez and his crew in a position where it would simply be too embarrassing to let him go.

Such is the thinking of an eternal optimist. Whereupon a journalist from El Mundo Deportivo travelling with us in the taxi asks him a question that hits like a sucker punch. "Have you heard that Barcelona have just signed Reiziger from Milan?" No, he has not. Reiziger is a Dutchman, probably admired by Van Gaal. The news on the radio quoted a senior official at AC Milan saying Barcelona had bought him. That, in other words, the directors had made the purchase behind Robson's back. Robson did not speak again until we arrived for his appointment in cyberspace.

Internet "chat-rooms" are anything but. Communication is staccato, anarchic, mono-syllabic. In this case it is worse than usual because the man doing the typing for Robson has to translate the questions on the screen into English for him, and then translate his answers back into Spanish. By the time each answer goes back five new questions have appeared on screen, plus the occasional nasty little comment like, "Everton is a good team and nearer your home." Robson alternates between impatience and fascination, like a child with a new electronic toy that he can't quite get to work. Learning Spanish is one challenge that, for lack of time, he has not been able to overcome. Yet he battles to understand, exclaims happily when he does. He likes to pepper his answers with some of the few Spanish words he has managed to master. "How do you like being Barcelona coach?" "It's easy cuando ganar [when you win], difficult cuando perder [when you lose]." "Mister, after all you've been through, are your spirits still up?" "Yes. Football is my life. Futbol es mi vida."

An hour later we're outside the newspaper's offices waiting for a taxi. We're on a small medieval square. A crowd gathers. Boys and girls beg for autographs, tourists for pictures. Two short waiters rush out of a bar. One is holding a mug of beer, the other a ham sandwich on a small plate. "Meester, meester. Eat, drink. Ees very good." "Yes, very good. Very good ham." They're like a couple of Shakespearian clowns, bowing, scraping, imploring, in a continuous lunatic chatter. The taxi's arrived. The crowd is growing. People are now gathering on the balconies overhead. Robson shakes his head, succumbs to the inevitable. He stands there in the middle of the road drinking his beer, chomping on the sandwich. The traffic's backing up. Robson's grinning. The waiters are performing little jigs. The cars behind the taxi are blowing their horns. The people on the balcony are applauding. It's like a scene from a TV commercial.

Robson invites me to spend the night at his house. We pick up his car back at the stadium and he drives his Chrysler (his players drive Porsches) at a hundred miles an hour, literally, south along the coastal road to Sitges. The Reizeger news still smarted. "I don't know for sure that it's true," he says. Neither does he know for sure that it isn't. He's silent for a while, then says: "The truth is I didn't know what I was letting myself in for. But I'll tell you what, John. I have no regrets. None at all. No."

I understand better why he doesn't when I see where he lives. A large house with a swimming pool and a garden with palm trees a hundred yards in from a mile-wide beach. The golf course is 10 minutes' walk away and so is the town. We drive into town for dinner at the local Sports Bar (where else?) but as we stroll through the narrow, white-walled alleys I discover, to my amazement, that he's not quite as single-minded as I thought. "Look at the flowers up on that balcony, John. Lovely, isn't it?" "Look at the sea. Magnificent!" "Look at that promenade! Those wonderful outdoor restaurants, fantastic seafood!" "Look at that olive tree. A thousand years old. From before the time of Christ!" "Come over here," he says, leading me to the window of a shop that turns out to be a local artist's studio. He tries the door but it's locked so we peer through the glass. "Look at those landscapes, look at those women in black! Beautiful!"

It's like suddenly I'm talking to John Keats. "It's the most gorgeous place I've ever lived in. And just half an hour away, 25 minutes by train, you've got Barcelona. Barcelona! The Gothic cathedral, Gaudi, and that magnificent church of his, the Sagrada Familia." I also discover, upon further probing, that he reads novels and adores going to the theatre when he is in London.

Reassuringly, over steak and chips, we return to the business at hand. Being the Barcelona coach is, in one important respect, like being the England coach in that the pool of players to choose from is so rich (the Barcelona 22 is worth around pounds 62.5m) that whichever team he selects sectors of the public and the press are going to come down on him hard. And they will always be provided with an instant argument to blame him in case of defeat. Robson's immediate problem as coach is not to please the public, however, but not to upset the great players he leaves out in such a manner as to undermine team morale. Take his team for Saturday. "A draw's no good because then the league's closed. We have to pick a team to win, we have to score goals. Which means I must leave out a quality player like Popescu, who's so desperate to play. It's the worst thing you have to do as a manager, but often the most important - to drop players who've given you loyal service, who are friends." Popescu, the Romanian club captain, is a defensive midfielder who played for him in Holland, at PSV Eindhoven. He's one of the few players in the team who have publicly defended Robson when he's been under attack. Another's been Luis Enrique, a Spanish international who can play in attack or defence, always plays his heart out. "I love Luis Enrique," says Robson, with feeling. "I love him." He will play against Real. He'll always play if he's fit.

A friend of Robson's, the owner of the restaurant, tells us there's a gathering of Barcelona fans, a so-called "cultural evening", going on in a bar round the corner right now. They're having a discussion about the team and Saturday's game. It would be great if he made a surprise visit. It's near midnight. We stroll over. Robson could be out of a job in 48 hours' time but he's smiling now, pointing out the mosaics on the walls, the charming little side-street bars.

We enter the Cafe Bar Roy and a crowd of maybe 40 people, mostly in their fifties and above, let out a collective gasp, then rise to their feet, clapping and grinning with delight. Robson agrees to do a short question and answer session. I'm appointed the official interpreter.

A small man with a white beard is the first to speak up. He says he is 80 years old. "There are many opinions as to who is a good coach and why," he says solemnly. "But the one thing that is for sure is that of all the coaches Barcelona has had you are the best man." The whole room bursts into applause. Robson's eyes fill with tears.

Then another man reverently, politely asks a question so idiotic I am almost embarrassed to translate. On Monday night Barcelona (worth pounds 62.5m) had played Extremadura, a team worth two or three million. Barcelona had won 3-1, away, but they had not played all that well. Why hadn't they outplayed Extremadura in a manner commensurate with the teams' respective values? Idiotic it might have been but actually it was the question that went to the heart of all the criticism Robson had endured. In Ronaldo, purchased from Eindhoven for pounds 13.5m, he had the man FIFA voted last year the best in the world. In Luis Enrique, in Luis Figo, bought from Portugal, in the young Spanish midfielder Ivan de la Pena, he had players that would make it into any team in the world. So why didn't they thrash everybody, why had they lost, calamitously, to some of the smaller teams this season?

"The game's not only about talent," Robson patiently explained. "It's about fighting spirit, it's about commitment, it's about your mental state on that day. It's about luck, about referees... It's about goalkeepers, defenders not losing concentration for one second."

Football, in short, is like life. Unfair, unpredictable, desperately disappointing. That's why the game captivates half the globe in a way it would not if the fans of the big clubs had their way and the outcome of a game could be as predictable as a scientific equation. X + Y pounds = Victory. At Barcelona, when the equation fails the players aren't to blame. The scapegoat, always, is the coach. "That goes with the job, unfortunately. The team can play well and we can make one mistake and lose and then I'm a joke."

We get back to his home at 12.45. The sport on Sky News is not on till twenty past the hour. So we stay up. He has to watch the English football results.

FRIDAY 9 MAY

HE SLEEPS for nine hours. Over breakfast his wife, Elsie, tells me about his cancer operation. In July 1995, when he was still coaching Porto, doctors diagnosed a malignant tumour in the middle of his head - behind his nose, above the palate. The head and neck specialist at the Royal Marsden Hospital took him through the surgical procedure he would have to undergo, step by gruesome step. As the doctor spoke he made notes on a piece of paper. He would have to cut above the top lip and around the nose so as to pull back a flap of skin from his left cheek. Then he would go inside his mouth and open a hole through his palate in order to extract a lump of rotten tissue the size of a golf ball. As the doctor was explaining and writing, Robson piped up, "When can I go back to work?" The doctor said nothing. He did not even look up. He just stopped writing in mid- sentence, pen poised in the air. Never in the course of spelling out the details of an operation so harrowing had a patient asked him a question like that. Rarely, for that matter, did a patient recover sufficiently from the trauma of having a large hole opened up inside his mouth to resume life as before. But within a month of the operation Robson was on the phone talking team selection. By November he was back at work full-time. By the following summer Porto were champions of Portugal.

We go for a cup of coffee by the sea. A beautiful young Brazilian man comes to our table and, dripping with earnestness, tells Robson how grateful he is that his country's most valued national treasure, Ronaldo, is under his watch and care. How good is Ronaldo? Is he better than Alan Shearer? "He's the best young player in the world and arguably the best player of all. But he will be the best, without a shadow of a doubt. When he's 23, 24, 25, 26 - Wow! Wow! Shearer is a fantastic player but Ronaldo is six years younger and he can score goals that Shearer can't. He has fantastic ability running at pace with the ball. He can pick the ball up on the halfway line, take on three defenders and plough his way through to goal. Shearer can't do that."

And English football compared to Spanish football? "Both leagues are very competitive. Quality teams like Man United, Liverpool, Newcastle, Arsenal would shine." But are they as good as Barcelona and Real Madrid? He hesitates. He's a patriot. "English football plays this end-to-end stuff with a lot of pace and power and huge commitment. Here the big teams play a slower game, they don't throw the ball away, they will stick the extra pass in. In my opinion they're still slightly ahead of the English game."

As we drive back to the Camp Nou for the last training session before tomorrow night's match, he rhapsodises once more about the sea to our right, the mountains to our left. I ask him, in a fit of whimsy, whether he ever pauses to consider the notion that football is only a game? "Never," he replies. "Never. It isn't a game. It's my life. I sleep, eat and drink football. My hobby is going to a football match and seeing a team that doesn't belong to me. Like Man United-Arsenal. It doesn't matter to me who wins, so I enjoy it. It's like going to the theatre, like going to a play."

But he won't be enjoying tomorrow night's game. He'll be suffering. So will the fans. No true supporter enjoys a game in which his team is playing until it is 3-0 up with five minutes to go. As the vast amphitheatre of the Camp Nou looms into view, I ask if he's feeling any nerves. "No, no, no. I've been a long time in the game. I've become conditioned to pressure, I think. I'm fireproof. Of course, I'm aware of the excitement, the expectation. I'm aware of what the match means for the Catalunyan people, make no mistake. But in four days' time we have another huge commitment, the Cup Winners' Cup final against Paris St Germain, and I have to think about that even if nobody else is, because if defeat comes tomorrow we have to be able to rise to it and focus on the next match."

SATURDAY 10 MAY

THE HEADLINES in the papers read, "The Greatest Show on Earth" and "Es la Hora", shorthand for "Es la Hora de la Verdad" - "It's the Moment of Truth", time to kill the bull. I switch on the TV in my hotel room and there is Johan Cruyff, arguably the best player and certainly the most successful coach in Barcelona's history, the man Nunez sacked last year to make way for Robson. For at least half the fans and half the press Nunez's decision was unforgivable. And that was where Robson's problems began. Before he had turned up for his first day at the office they were baying for his blood.

Part of Robson's problem has been presentation. Cruyff is hip, slick, dresses like the players. In the TV interview he said nothing worth repeating save for a little dig about Robson's poor Spanish, expressed in impeccable Spanish. The interviewer and the studio audience treat him with fawning reverence, as if he were a millionaire pop star. That, in part, is the image the Barcelona public expects of its football general. The players, the soldiers, every one of them is a Michael Jackson, as Robson remarked after we passed through a mob of teenage girls at the main gate of the Camp Nou. Robson himself is a no-frills Englishman whose chief quality is grit. And he has no grasp of the rules of Spanish grammar which, as he recognised, has been his greatest limitation as a coach. "I can say things to the players that are tough but the impact is lost in the translation, because my assistant coach, who's my interpreter, will use the same words but not express the same emphasis." In his early days at Barcelona his brave but poor attempts at Spanish were the target of cheap lampoons on local TV.

And yet, for all that, his vitality has come across. In numerous conversations I had in Barcelona people remarked that Robson had upset their notions of the English as a cold, reserved people. Javier Clemente, the Spanish national coach, has described him as "an atypical Englishman, exuberant and amusing".

When I meet Robson on Saturday morning at the hotel where he and his players always spend the night before a home game ("so we can control their eating and sleeping"), he is in no mood for jokes. The game is nine hours away. "If we lose the knives'll be out for me, no doubt about that." But would that be a fair response? What should the manager be blamed for? "Nobody knows that. Because you don't play. You only select the players and you then trust the players. But you are responsible for the results.

It will always be like that. It will never change. If you lose a game 1-0 because the goalkeeper's let the ball go through his legs you take responsibility for the defeat. The press won't criticise the player, they'll criticise you. That's the life of the coach and if you can't stick it, get out - because it will eat you up."

Robson may have no choice but to get out after tonight's game. His fate then will be in the hands of Nunez, the man they call "el presidente" in Barcelona. He's a hugely powerful figure to whom Catalan politicians pursuing elected office know they must defer, whose public blessing they must obtain. But next year Nunez himself is seeking re-election. The club's 108,000 members will be the voters. Victory against the old enemy tonight will be sweet for Nunez, but it will also face him with an interesting predicament. What if Robson takes Barcelona to victory in the Cup Winners' Cup on Wednesday? What if they win the Spanish Cup final on 28 June? What if Real stumble and they win the league? How will Nunez then explain appointing Van Gaal to replace Robson? And then, what if Van Gaal is less successful? The fires of hell will rain on Nunez's head for letting Robson go and the angry club electorate may see next year that he pays the ultimate price.

For those British clubs interested in securing Robson's services, this is the way to understand which way the wind is blowing at FC Barcelona. It's like American politics. If you want to try and anticipate the decisions of a congressman or president think in terms of the next election.

It's nearly 8.30pm and the stadium is filled to capacity. The Real Madrid players are the first to run onto the pitch. The jeers would drown out a jet engine. The Christians at the Colosseum never felt such raw, concentrated hatred. And while the arrival of the Barcelona heroes provokes jubilation, fireworks, a riot of Catalan and Barcelona flags, hatred is the night's prevailing emotion. Five hundred years of it is deposited on one figure, the Real Madrid left back, Roberto Carlos, who happens to be a Brazilian but who enters into the spirit of the event with the zeal of "El Cid", dispatching two Barcelona players off the field with two brutal tackles inside the first 20 minutes. If the police had not been there the crowd would have torn him to pieces.

For once, though, there is divine justice. The only goal of the game comes after Carlos brings down Figo in the penalty area. Ronaldo, though groggy having just suffered a crashing blow to the head, takes the penalty. The Real keeper parries it, diving to his left. Figo runs in for the rebound, cuts the ball inside to Ronaldo who taps it, to the inexpressible relief and joy of the multitudes, into the empty net.

It was never a pretty game. It was never a game. It was war. The referee handed out seven yellow cards when he might have handed out seven red ones. The press had to savage someone the next day and, Robson having not served the purpose, they alighted on the poor ref, which was cruelly unfair. One man could not control that game. What you needed was the United Nations.

At the post-battle press conference Robson looks oddly relaxed, answering questions in the most matter-of-fact way. "Yes, that's how I may look. But inside I'm elated."

SUNDAY 11 MAY

ROBSON TAKES a group of friends visiting from England on a tour of the Camp Nou. I tag, or rather run, along. He's not so much a tour guide as a physical-fitness instructor, such is the pace at which he tears around. We flash through the chapel where the players come and pray before games. A plaque says it was blessed by Pope John Paul II, a club member. We rush through the museum, where hang two pictures dedicated specially to FC Barcelona by two celebrated local admirers, Dali and Mir. A big sign in Catalan proclaims Barcelona's motto, "Mes que un Club", "More than a Club".

How, I ask Robson, does last night's victory measure up against all the others in his 40 years in the game? "Well, as big as any really. It's the old enemy here. It's a huge victory and is as important to us as anything."

We walk outside and a group of fans burst into applause. "Don't go, Bobby, stay here," cries out a young man in English. What if he'd lost? What if he still loses his job at the end of the season? Can he conceive of a life beyond football?

"Well, my wife tells me there is. I haven't found it yet, and I'm not likely to, I guess. Maybe one day my gut reaction will be that I should retire and see what that life is, play more golf, see more of my family, see more of the world."

But there's not much danger of that gut reaction kicking in any time soon. I ask him, as a parting question, what advice he would give any coach that might come after him at Barcelona? He thinks long and hard. "It's the biggest job in football. My advice to someone is that you have to want it really badly to come here because the responsibility is enormous, the pressure is gigantic - but you have to put up with it. He has to want it so, so badly that he has to really need it. If you don't need it, forget it."

It's that need, that despair to win, to keep on fighting against the odds, when the battle is all but lost, that characterises Robson. It's the quality, above all, that he transmits to his players, the added value that he brings as a coach to a team bursting with individual talent. Robson's Barcelona, like his heroic little Ipswich teams, has become the mirror of the man, forged by adversity, driven by the spirit of never-say-die.

On the Wednesday after the match of the century Barcelona defeated Paris St Germain 1-0 to win the European Cup Winners' Cup. In the euphoria as the players paraded the cup, the Barcelona fans did not forget their man. "Bobby! Bobby! Bobby!" they cried. As they did that night on the streets of Barcelona, and again on Thursday in the official victory ceremony outside city hall.

Let's leave the last word to a columnist from El Pais, a long-time critic of Robson who, writing nobly in Thursday morning's paper, acknowledged that the Englishman's pride had vanquished the public's prejudice. "While we celebrate the victory with the fanfare it deserves... let us admit that, with a certain delay and with a style of play that strains to the limit our capacity for suffering, Robson has done his duty. He said that they paid him to win and he has won. Thank you very much, mister." !

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