The man with the world at his feet

Instead of disappearing into the lower divisions or on to television when he stepped down as England manager, Bobby Robson has carved out a hugely successful career in Europe. He talked to Glenn Moore about life in Barcelona
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Bobby Robson can be forgiven a moment of wistfulness when news of Glenn Hoddle's latest England squad filtered through to Spain this week. Poland, next week's Wembley opponents, evoke a memory or two for Robson.

England's 3-0 win over the Poles in the 1986 Mexico World Cup probably saved his job as England manager. A hard-earned draw in Katowice three years later won England a place in Italia '90 and the subsequent painful glory of a semi-final exit on penalties.

Robson still regards his time as England manager as the highlight of a life in football, but although the memories would have come flooding back, he would not have dwelt on them long. The 63-year-old is no sun- seeking Brit in retirement on the Spanish Costas. Barely a year after surgery for cancer, he is the manager of the biggest club in the world.

Barcelona may have only won one European Cup, but they are bigger than Manchester United or Juventus, bigger even than their hated rivals, Real Madrid. They have their own bank, the Pope is a member of the fan club, and the demand to watch them exceeds even the 115,000 capacity of the cavernous Nou Camp - a veritable amphitheatre of dreams. They are not so much a team as a expression of Catalan nationalism.

"It is a colossal job," Robson said earlier this week. "It is a great challenge, a great opportunity, I'm really enjoying it. It is a pressure- cooker, but I am used to that. I can handle that. If I get results, it will be more than pleasurable. If I don't, well it isn't pleasurable anywhere if you don't. That's the same the world over."

Maybe, but the extra element in Barcelona is the club's role in the community. Catalonia has long regarded itself as an separate country yet, for more than 30 years under Franco's dictatorship, football was the only way they could express their independence. Even now the club - almost alone in football - refuses to sully its famous magenta and blue shirts with a sponsors' name.

"The job had to go to an experienced coach," Robson said. "I do not think a young coach could handle it here. It doesn't frighten me, that's the thing. If it had, I would not have taken it. I am experienced, I've been around the world. I've had my own successes."

He has indeed. Robson is probably English football's most successful export. Since leaving England after Italia 90 he has won four championships, two Dutch and two Portuguese. He moved across the Iberian peninsular from Porto this summer to replace Johan Cruyff. So far he has taken the team to the top of the Liga, to the second round of the European Cup-Winners' Cup and defeated last year's Double winners, Atletico Madrid, in the SuperCopa (Spain's Charity Shield). All this while integrating eight new players and a changed playing style.

Yet expectations are so high there are still a few complaints. As a Geordie, Robson knows all about passionate supporters, as a former England manager he knows all about a critical press. But even he has been taken aback by the intensity of both. When we spoke, he had just come out of a press conference and said: "Some of the questions are quite remarkable considering we are top of the league."

At least they are football questions. For much of his reign as England manager, Robson was crudely vilified in the tabloid press and his last year in the job was marred by lurid exposure of his personal life.

"The media here is only football-orientated. It sticks to the industry," he said. It is the only time in our conversation that he speaks with real vehemence. Most of the time his baritone voice crackles with the enthusiasm which has hallmarked his career.

Other distinguishing features are decency and occasional scattiness. The tale is often told of his meeting Bryan Robson during an England trip. "Hello Bobby," said Bobby. "No," Bryan said. "You're Bobby, I'm Bryan."

He remains unaffected by the trappings of fame, even choosing a small residence set back from the sea rather than a grand house on the front because he did not want people to think he was showing off.

"Local reaction has been very good," Robson said. "I am following Johan [Cruyff], who had been here a long time and had a lot of success. But for the last two years they won nothing, so that makes it a little easier, although I suppose if he had won the championship for the last two years he would still be here.

"Johan preferred a sweeper and two markers. I have dislodged that, I'm playing with a flat back four, two players wide - I like width - and two box-to-box midfielders. I've bought Ronaldo to play up front and I play with one behind him. Johan never played that way."

Good players, of course, can adapt and Robson has more good players than most. He inherited Gheorghe Popescu, Luis Figo and a clutch of Spanish internationals. This summer Barcelona signed Ronaldo for pounds 13m from PSV, another Brazilian, Giovanni, returning hero Hristo Stoichkov, Laurent Blanc - the man keeping Chelsea's Franck Leboeuf out of the French team - Vitor Baia, Portugal's goalkeeper, and Fernando Couto. They also bought Luis Enrique and Juan Antonio Pizzi on the domestic market. Total cost: pounds 28m.

There is no way Robson can play all his 19 internationals at once. "It is not easy. I have a squad of 25 and they are all good. But they are used to this situation, they grew up with it. They don't moan, they don't ask for a transfer. They are happy to wait their turn. I don't have the problems I would have in England."

Barcelona's investment was part of a total of pounds 130m pre-season spending by Liga teams, pounds 55m more than the Premiership. "The world is the club's oyster," Robson said. "The Bosman ruling helps, but it does mean you have to commit to players - Ronaldo and Baia have signed for eight years.

"I leave all that [negotiations concerning transfers and contracts] to the directors and I don't miss it. My job is working with players every day, coming in and being on the training field."

This is the same division of responsibility that Arsenal are attempting, and Robson said of Arsene Wenger, the new manager at Highbury: "He is a good fellow, I know him quite well. He is very intelligent. I think he will do all right if he does not have to get involved in all those things like buying toilet rolls and so on."

What does he miss? "My family, I have three grandchildren and one on the way. I never thought I'd stay abroad - I went to Holland for two years and thought I would come back. I like it. I like the life, I like the job, just working with the team. I keep in touch with England, but I don't have time to miss things."

He is, though, eager to hear the latest results and gossip, asking first about Newcastle. Intrigued, too, at the thought of Ipswich and Fulham, the two English clubs he managed, meeting in the Coca-Cola Cup. Robson is the second ex-Fulham manager to coach Barcelona. Vic Buckingham was the first. Robson struggled when he succeeded him at Craven Cottage in 1968 and was sacked after 10 months. But for Ipswich, one of England's best managerial careers may have been stymied at birth.

Robson may be over for England's match next Wednesday. Of Glenn Hoddle, he said: "He is very studious, he has a football brain. If he can handle it, he will do well. I will never forget my England experience. You can't go any higher than that. It was marvellous."

Well, most of it. Ask him how he felt watching the penalty shoot-out with Germany this summer and his voice drops to a whisper. "Poignant? Absolutely. I could not believe how history repeated itself, an absolute replica. Just what happened to me in 1990. I felt for Terry [Venables]. I felt it was inevitable that it would go to penalties, but I did not think we would lose - but they never miss them."

Robson's voice is now so quiet I can hardly hear him. It feels like intruding on a private grief. But he keeps it in perspective, and did so even before last year's brush with death when he needed an operation for a cancerous growth on his left cheekbone.

It might have pushed some men into retirement, but Robson concluded: "My gut reaction is to keep going. I thrive on it. My health is fine. The prognosis is excellent. I am very much in love with it - I am immersed in football."

The Bobby Robson file

Born: 18 Feb 1933, Co Durham. Played: Fulham and West Bromich Albion. England caps: 20 (played in 1958 and 1962 World Cups).

Management career: Fulham (1968), Ipswich (1969-1982), England (1982- 90), PSV Eindhoven (1990-92), Sporting Lisbon (1992-93), Porto (1994-96), Barcelona (1996-). Honours: World Cup semi-finals (1990), quarter-finals (1986). Uefa Cup (1981), FA Cup (1978), Dutch title (1990/91, 1991/92), Portuguese title (1994/95, 1995/96), Portuguese cup (1994).

Barcelona's international players

Spain: Abelardo, Amor, Cuellar, Sergi, Guardiola, De la Pena, Ferrer, Nadal, Pizzi, Luis Enrique, Bakero.

Portugal: Vitor Baia, Fernando Couto, Figo.

Brazil: Ronaldo, Giovanni.

Romania: Popescu.

France: Blanc.

Bulgaria: Stoichkov.