Once in a decade there comes a generation of players or coach who changes the fortunes of a club, wins multiples trophies and change the tactical framework of a team. Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol and Pique engineered by Pep transformed the way Barcelona has conquered the world in past decade. Prior to Rijkaard, Barcelona had a tumultuous time, then arrived Joan Laporta who changed the way things were conducted at the club. Laporta brought in Ronaldinho sending a wave of optimism through the club’s faithfuls, embarking on a journey which ultimately resulted in the current golden generation of La Masia graduates.
But there was one individual who started all these multiple facets of the beautiful game, the one man who laid the foundations for it all and managed to encompass it. He picked the club from a bottomless pit of mediocrity to the pinnacle of world football, first as a player and later as a coach, assembling the dream team that lifted the European Championship in 1992. He single handedly mentored the transformation from Rijkaard to Pep era.
Hendrik Johannes “Johan” Cruijff revolutionized Barcelona, deeply ingraining the club with a set of values that can never be paralleled. Indebting the club with a lifetime of virtues, significance of which is incalculable, he gave the club the most simple yet the most beautiful football which has become their DNA. It is impossible to put together in words what Cruyff means to FC Barcelona but one must try.
Johan Cruyff was a man of unsurpassed resolve and unwavering belief, the foundations of which were perhaps laid through a very harsh incident in his childhood. Johan Cruyff grew up near Ajax’s old home for football, the now demolished ‘De Meer Stadion’ in the eastern region of Amsterdam. His father, who worked as a supplier of fruits to the Ajax stadium, died of a heart disease when Johan was just 12 years old. Very few know about the fact that when Johan Cruyff joined Ajax he was a baseball aficionado. The immutable pursual of his boyhood coach, who had spotted the extraordinary talent of the young Johan, played a crucial part in his development. Johan began channeling the deep seated sadness and anger of the loss of his father on the pitch in the form of football. His second father, Henk Angel, worked as a groundsman at Ajax which further allowed Cruyff to form a dense relationship with the club, often helping his father on various chores like watering the pitch, marking the lines, little things which instilled humility in the youngster.
Cruyff was destined to be a leader on and off the pitch with the plethora of positive attributes his teammates and senior players saw in his disposition. Creativity is a wild mind with a disciplined eye and Johan Cruyff had a craving for analysing the game with a staunch eye that even players older than his generation didn’t possess. Johan began strengthening the roots of his footballing philosophy that was heavily based on observing the game and most important of all ‘keeping things simple’.
Because Cruyff was so good, they allowed him to train with senior players. Cruyff’s development was looked after by his seniors, motivating him whenever he had a bad game. Dutch football’s new prodigy was already making waves at Ajax. When handed first team debut at a nimble age of 17, Johan Cruyff scored to mark the occasion in history books. In January 1965, former striker Rinus Michels was appointed as the head-coach of Ajax. Rinus in his playing time was coached by the legendary British coach Vic Buckingham who is widely regarded as the man who started the philosophy of ‘Total Football’. A 17 year old Johan Cruyff drilled by Rinus Michels was beginning of an enticing partnership which would go on to perfect the Total Football philosophy, engraving the face of Ajax and later FC Barcelona in world football over the forthcoming decade.
With Michels and Cruyff, a transformation was initiated at the Dutch club. Michels put the players through intensive training regimes, explained to them the importance of discipline and most importantly, taught them how not the lose sight of the collective dynamics of the team. On occasions before big games, there were four training sessions arranged during a day, sometimes five. The bottom-line of his football philosophy was crystal clear: keep the ball, exploit spaces and outnumber the opponents to gain supremacy.
The pitch should be stretched as wide as possible with the wingers glued to the sideline while fullbacks provided the overlapping runs. Centre-backs were not just to nullify the opponent attacks but to start their own. Strikers would often drop into the spaces in the midfield creating the famous triangles and when possession is lost, the trademark intense pressing was applied to narrow down spaces for opponents and regain the ball which was the centre of all things. All of this was happening with players possessing immense technical ability like Johan Cruyff, Piet Kaizer, Frank Rijkaard, Ronald Koeman, Ruud Gullit and so on at the centre of the team’s tactical setup.
A teenage brain in the form of Johan Cruyff was witnessing a revolution in front of his eyes. Cruyff, being the genius observer, was slowly establishing his own sets of principles by soaking in every drop from the fountain of knowledge. Right from setting up the training drills, analysing opponents, setting up the team tactically and maximising strengths of individuals, he was completely involved while keeping in mind the spirit of the collective. Ajax reached the European Cup final in the season 1968-69 where they lost to AC Milan. But if one doesn’t fail, one wouldn’t learn. Ajax made a return to the final in 1970-71, this time leaving no stone unturned to defeat Panathinaikos.
Michels during his six years of tenure at Ajax won the Dutch League four times, the KNVB three times and first (1970-71) of the Amsterdam based side’s three consecutive European titles, a feat which was only achieved by world conquering Real Madrid of Alfredo Di Stefano and Benfica before Ajax. Cruyff’s team added the remaining two titles after Rinus Michels’ departure, beating Internazionale and Juventus. Cruyff scored 190 goals for the Dutch club over 240 appearances. After the third title, Cruyff had fallout with the hierarchy of the club which was not yet institutionalized. Being unhappy with the way things were being run after Michel’s departure, the club wanted him sold and eventually in 1973 he decided to make his move to Spain.
When Johan Cruyff decided to move to Spain, he found himself at crossroads with Ajax. The club had decided to sell Cruyff to Real Madrid while the player preferred to join FC Barcelona. Cruyff rebelled and threatened with retirement from football had he not been allowed to join the Catalans. In the end, the player won and Cruyff completed his move to FC Barcelona for a world record transfer fee of US$ 2 million reuniting with his former Ajax coach Rinus Michels. Michels had joined Barcelona two seasons prior and his work at implementing his renowned total football strategy at the Catalan club was ‘work under progress’ with little success. Barcelona had not been crowned champions since 1960, an agonizing period of 14 years.
The high point the season came when Barcelona destroyed Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu where Cruyff bagged a goal against a club he despised owing to their ties with Dictator General Franco. Thousands of Barcelona fans took to the streets that night in jubilation, knowing that their bleak past was behind and that this was just the beginning of a magical era. By refusing to join Real Madrid amid all the political backdrop of dispute between Catalonia and Spain, Cruyff had already became a fan favorite among the Cules and exactly one week before the Clasico, his son was born whom he named ‘Jordi’ after the Catalan Saint. Cruyff was hailed as ‘El Salvador’, The Savior by the Catalan public.
Cruyff for FC Barcelona embodied more than just a footballer. During this season, Camp Nou was buzzing with energy in a league tie against Malaga. In the first half, Malaga scored a goal which was clearly offside and the match official overlooked it. Cruyff protested which was not allowed in those times and was immediately shown a red card. Things went out of hand and the police had to intervene to escort Cruyff out of the pitch. Cruyff removed his Blaugrana coloured armband and kissed it in front of the Camp Nou crowd. This was a gesture to show that people of Catalonia are no longer afraid. They knew that in Cruyff they had found someone who understood their sentiments, he was no longer a footballer, he became their leader.
Barcelona ended up winning the league on the back of a 17 game unbeaten streak that season, a title they had been waiting for since eternity. Cruyff was crowned European Footballer of the year that summer. These were pioneering days for Barcelona who were introduced to a new philosophy that would reap benefits in the coming decades and the two Dutch guys were once again at the helm. In Catalonia, a kid named Joan Laporta was silently watching these extraordinary scenes, the same guy who two decades later would go on to become the President of FC Barcelona, beginning a successful era in modern football, guided by his mentor Johan Cruyff.
It was during this season that Cruyff scored his famous ‘Phantom Goal’ against Atletico Madrid. In a league game versus Atletico Madrid, Cruyff found himself near the post with the ball way above his knee height and racing away from him. Cruyff improvised and netted the ball home from the outside of his boot. This goal has gone on to be called as “Cruyff’s Impossible Goal”.
Rinus Michels left Barcelona after his successful season to coach the Dutch National Team for the 1974 World Cup. This was when Cruyff truly unveiled ‘Total Football’ on the biggest stage of world football breezing past opponents only to be disappointed at the hands of Germany in the final.
Later the players admitted that they were playing with such fluidity that everything leading to the final was too easy and perhaps in that slight moment of superiority they became complacent and lost the final after taking early lead in the first half. Nevertheless, their football left an eternal impression on everyone’s mind.
Post departure of Michels, Cruyff played with Barcelona for four seasons but they could never win the league again. Barcelona however did win the 1977-78 Copa Del Rey title. Cruyff, during his five seasons at the club, scored 48 goals in 143 appearances. Cruyff’s contribution to FC Barcelona went beyond football. He embraced the Catalan culture and injected the club with his passion, professionalism and thirst for winning through mind boggling yet simple football. The club and people of Catalan region were guilty of playing second fiddle to their Spanish counterparts, the clouds of subserviency were hovering around the club for too long. Cruyff with his flamboyant football on the pitch and strong-willed aura off the pitch brought the club back to life.
Cruyff left Barcelona in 1978 and decided to not feature in the 1978 World Cup when his family was threatened with kidnapping attempts. Cruyff had laid the foundations of his philosophy as a player. He would then, in his second coming, return to the Catalan club a decade later as a manager. This time he would complete the revolution he started, building the chapel on the cornerstones of possession, patience, space and passing. Johan Cruyff would go down on one of the most successful managerial stints ever in world football.
(to be continued…)