"In a way I'm probably immortal." - Johan Cruijff

It is May 3rd, 1953. Barça de les Cinc Copes (Barça of five cups), inspired by Pole-Slovak-Magyar, had won their 2nd liga in a row defeating Athletic 3-2. It was their 6th liga title in history. They had to build a new stadium to accommodate the fans who had come to watch Kubala. Their scouts had identified a 25 year old playing in Colombia to take the Catalans to the next level. The future was brighter than a thousand suns..........

Except the transfer hit a snag. Their arch-rivals from the capital city had also tried to buy the Blonde Arrow. After months of delays, the RFEF (Spanish FA) decided that Alfredo Di Stefano would split his time alternately in Madrid & Barcelona with Madrid getting first dibs. The Catalans had an election and the incumbent lost. The successor decided that Kubala was enough and let Madrid have AdS permanently. This was the inflexion point in the Barça-Madrid rivalry.

Until that point in time, Barcelona had won La Liga 6 times, the Copa Del Rey 12 times and the Latin Cup, precursor to the European Cup, twice. Madrid's last league title had come 20 years ago and they had won just 4 Copas in those dry years. Di Stefano changed Real Madrid to El Madrid, as they won 14 trophies, including the first 5 European Cups. Di Stefano's inspiration remained even after he retired as Madrid won 23 out of the next 37 La Liga titulos. It included two 5-in-a-rows and two 3-in-a-rows.

Barcelona, meanwhile, went into heavy debt thanks to their stadium and could win just 2 league titles between 1960 & 1990. They first broke the bank to buy Johan Cruijff, artist, engine, heart & soul of Total Voetbal, who won them their 1st Liga in 14 years but spent 4 relatively unsuccessful years at the Camp Nou. They signed another superstar in the 80s, Diego Maradona, whose spell was accentuated by regular injuries and the Copa final melee, sent him packing to Napoli whom he would inspire to their highest highs.

Serial Winners Everywhere Else Even Cruijff/Maradona couldn't inspire the Catalans
Terry "El Tel" Venables led Barcelona to their first league title in 11 years and in the following year to their first European Cup final in 25 years. Played in Spain, at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan in sunny Andalusia, Barça were beaten on penalties by Romanians Steaua București. He was fired after Barça began to stagnate. Almost exactly 35 years after Barça de les Cinc Copes won the last of their 5 cups, Johan Cruijff was hired as Entrenador of Barça. With the benefit of hindsight, this was the second inflexion point the Barça-Madrid rivalry.

La Masia, established in the late 70s, was beginning to bear fruit with players like Luis Milla, Albert Ferrer and most prized possession of them all, Josep 'Pep' Guardiola. Cruijff went about streamlining the conveyor belt for the senior team by making all age groups play the famed Ajax 4-3-3. This ensured that a promoted junior would not have to make much adjustments when joining the first team. He also signed players from both Spain (Begiristain, Zubizaretta) and abroad (Elder Laudrup, Stoichkov, Koeman) to break the dominance of La Quinta Del Buitre, who were in midst of 5 straight league titles.

In just 3 seasons the dominance of the Vulture Squad was ended by Barcelona as they won their 11th Liga title by 10 points in the 2 points per win era. The next season, Los Cules participated in their first European Cup in six years. Ronald Koeman's powerful freekick in Wembley gave Barcelona their first ever Ol' Cup with the Big Ears ending decades of hurt. Couple of weeks later Barcelona defended their league title in the most dramatic fashion. Leading by a point, Madrid went to Tenerife and Barcelona played Athletic at Camp Nou. Madrid let a 2-0 lead slip and Stoichkov's brace gave Barça the title in a season where they did not lead the league until the last day. In line with the 1992 Olympics to be held in Barcelona, they started calling their side the "Dream Team" after the USA basketball team.

More than anything Johan Cruijff gave Barcelona endless confidence. For nearly 3 decades, Barcelona suffered from Madriditis. They had seen Madrid win liga after liga and despite having some of the best players in the world could never hope to match them. This had produced a massive inferiority complex. What Cruijff could not do as a player, he did it as trainer. This unflappable confidence was evident in the finale of the 1993-94 season. Deportivo La Coruña lead by 1 point but Barcelona had won their head to head. A Galician victory would see them crowned champions for the first time ever.

The Master Oversees
Barcelona kept their end of the bargain and were crushing Sevilla 5-2 and the Depor-Valencia match was scoreless. In added time, Deportivo were given a penalty. Score it and the glory would be theirs. Miroslav Djukic was ready to take it. Charley Rexach, assistant to Cruijff, was fretting on the sidelines listening in on the transistor. Cruijff calmly told, "Don't worry, he'll miss it." and an atrocious penalty was saved by the Valencian keeper. Barcelona were crowned champions for the 4th time in a row.
The above tweet is the microcosm of Cruijff's occasionally extremely lateral thinking that solved problems. A lesser man would have been petrified to leave a good striker alone but Cruijff correctly identified that Garate's relationship with his man-marker was symbiotic and he would lose his radar if he was left alone. On another occasion, Zubizaretta asked how to defend a corner, Cruijff's curt response was, "How should I know? You decide. You’re more interested in how to defend a corner than me." That is not to say he didn't believe in convention. He always believed in getting the basics right and only then could improvements be possible.

A few years after Cruijff's departure, Barcelona completely lost their bearings. They were in heavy debt and would see a six year trophy-less drought. How would they turn things around? Pivoting around their messiah, Jesus Christ Johan Cruijff. Joan Laporta, with Cruijff as advisor, hired Frank Rijkaard as manager. It was another Cruijff inspired pick from the left field. Rijkaard had failed to win EURO 2000 with a star-studded Dutch side at home and led Sparta Rotterdam to their first ever relegation from Eredivisie.

After a slow start to the season, Barcelona went on to finish 2nd, their best finish in 4 years and went from strength to strength. They became the best team on the planet by winning their 2nd League/Champions League double in 2006. After stagnating under Rijkaard, Barcelona brought back their favourite son, Pep Guardiola who would create possibly the greatest club side of all time from 2008-2012 by building on Cruijff's principles. Barcelona's back to basics era since 2003 has seen them win umpteen honours in one of the most competitive eras of football.
Right now, I have the feeling that I am 2-0 up in the first half of a match that has not finished yet. But I am sure that I will end up winning.
In the Before Cruijff Era, Barcelona won 10 league titles and no European cups in 59 years, a period that saw a 14 year & 11 year drought for the league title. In the 29 years of Cruijff Era, Los Cules have won 14 league titles and 5 European cups/Champions league. He weakened the Madriditis that Barcelona suffered from and his protege Guardiola cured it. Throughout football history, there may have been better managers and (few) better players than Cruijff but as a combination of player, manager, thinker, influencer, Johan Cruijff is peerless. He put Ajax on the map. He put Netherlands on the map. He did what many thought was impossible: putting Barcelona on the map. Unfortunately, he lost his battle against cancer from 2-0 up. It was not the first time he lost a big match but just like the first time, in defeat he was the winner again.

Gracies Johan.


Popular Posts