From being regarded as one of the greatest with the ball at his feet, to a man who transformed Barcelona into arguably the most iconic and symbolic team in the world. Here’s a brief recollection of how Johan Cruyff changed Barça forever.
It was May 1988; the La Liga season had just ended with Barça’s club Rivals Real Madrid winning their 3rd successive La Liga title, making it twenty-three and Barcelona with another disappointing Season finishing 6th. The club was in a deep crisis. Barca’s then-president Josep Lluís Núñez turned to Johan Cruyff, who was in charge of Ajax Amsterdam. FC Barcelona rather football altogether has never been the same ever since.
“Cruyff established an evident philosophy at Barcelona; he gave birth to that philosophy; he created Barça’s DNA.”
Cruyff, as a player, first arrived in Barcelona in the year 1973 for a world record transfer fee of €2m. The usual high Catalan expectations skyrocketed as he had already led Ajax to three consecutive European Cups and was already a two-time Ballon d’Or winner.
Cryuff was instrumental to Dutch National Team’s success at the 1974 world cup in Germany, where he executed the infamous “Cryuff Turn” and led his team to the World Cup final stepping out of Pele’s shadow in the early 1970s to assume Greatness.
He stood up to all those expectations as he was one of the top scorers in his first season at the club scoring 16 goals. He was named European player of the year and won his third Ballon d’Or at the end of that season, and most importantly, he helped Barcelona put an end to a 14-year long wait for a La Liga Title after the infamous 5-0 win at Bernabeu.
After thousands of Catalans poured onto the streets to celebrate the historic Madrid game, a New York Times journalist famously quoted in his post-match article that Johan Cruyff has done more for the spirit of the Catalan people in 90 minutes than the politicians in years of struggle.
Cryuff gave rise to a sense of belief in the Barcelona dressing room. As stated by Jimmy Burns, a football historian, the players almost felt that they couldn’t lose with Johan Cryuff playing alongside them. He gave them the speed of thought, flexibility in the attacking third, and confidence in themselves.
Juan Manuel Asensi, Cryuff’s teammate, said, “Cruyff was a sensational player. He was also a winner. The change in mentality was brutal. It was like we had been drowning, and now we were pulled out of the water.”
He scored 86 goals in 231 appearances during his five-season stay at the club before he decided to retire in 1978. A retirement which he later reversed due to his severe financial conditions. He then in the year 1984 retired at Feyenoord after helping them to win a league title after a decade.
When Cryuff returned to Barcelona as a manager in 1988, the club was in an ongoing crisis and debts. He took over a team that had its players openly revolting against the club’s management, especially the President Josep Nuñez, following a tax scandal.
Johan Cryuff wished to bring the “Total football” approach to the Catalan side. A philosophy which he acquired from his mentor Rinus Michels who was also the manager of the iconic Dutch National Team of the early 70s.
As part of the rebuilding process, he sold a sum of fifteen players, including some senior first-team players like Victor Munoz and Berd Schuster. He then replaced them with 12 new signings, including Defender Ronald Koeman, Winger Txiki Begiristain, center-forward Julio Salinas, and attacking midfielder Jose Mari Bakero and promoted players like Pep Guardiola to the First Team. All of these players were Central Figures in Cryuff’s iconic “Dream team.”
Although Cryuff didn’t win any major trophies in his initial couple of managerial seasons at Barça except for the Copa del Rey in 1990, his return witnessed a considerable amount of recovery in the Team’s overall performance and especially the new entertaining style of play which helped the club retrieve the decreasing attendance numbers.
Cryuff then went on to establish a style of Football that was not just entertaining but also successful. Barça won the 1990-91 La Liga season with a 10 point lead ahead of the second-placed Atletico Madrid and ended Real Madrid’s five-year run as champions.
As later explained by Cryuff when asked about his highly famous and initially criticized 3- 4-3 formation, “If you have four men defending two strikers, you only have six against eight in the middle of the field: there’s no way you can win that battle. We had to put a further defender forward.”
Cryuff’s “Dream team” went on to win four consecutive La Liga titles and ultimately, in 1992 the European Dream became a reality when Barça defeated Sampdoria 1-0 in the European cup final at Wembley, thanks to the iconic Ronald Koeman freekick which helped Barça win their first-ever European cup, something the culés had been dreaming for decades.
Charles Rexach, Cryuff’s assistant on the night, says, “Winning the trophy was a liberation; we defeated their historical fatalism. There were lots of people waiting for us to screw it up again, and there was a feeling of the beginning of a new life. We were released.”
Under Cryuff, the blaugranas won a sum of 11 titles, which include four league titles, three Super Cups, a European Cup, and a Copa del Rey title. But Cryuff’s legacy at Barça goes much far beyond trophies, to philosophy and identity.
Cryuff, with his philosophy and his style of play, gave Barcelona an identity. An identity that lasted long after he left. In his eight-season spell at Barcelona, he reinvented the way Football is played in Spain, as stated by Miguel Àngel Nadal.
“Today, Barcelona and Spain are the ultimate modern testimonies to his spell as coach.”
-Miguel Àngel Nadal
As part of the implementation process of his beloved tactical theory of “Total football,” he ended the height-based policy at both the first-team level and La Masia. Long Before the Dutch legend arrived at the club in 1988, the height and the physicality of the players was a massive factor while hiring players for La Masia.
The minimum height in the pre-Cryuff La Masia was 1.8 meters (5 feet, 9 inches). Cryuff ended that practice, and he prioritized youngsters who could hold the ball, keep the ball moving, pass it around with pin-point accuracy and not just boot it forward. He kept infusing on a possession football Mindset.
Pep Guardiola, one of the most successful managers in the world and a homegrown player who was part of the Cryuff’s legendary Dream team, explained, “When I was there you see seven-year-old kids doing the same training session, with the same patterns, as the First Team. He created something from nothing, and you have to have a lot of charisma and personality.”
Barça held on to these values and techniques even after Cryuff left the club, which later produced legendary players like Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, and the extraterrestrial Leo Messi. If it weren’t for Cryuff, most of those players would never have met La Masia’s height requirements.
Cryuff revived the club from absolute ruins not once but twice; he revolutionized the way Barcelona played during his time at the club; the efforts that he put into this club did a significant part of today’s Barça DNA, i.e., four years after his passing.
The “Flying Dutchman” will remain immortal forever in the hearts of the Blaugrana supporters, and the legacy he left behind at the Camp Nou will live on for many decades to come.
“Football is a game of mistakes. Whoever makes the fewest mistakes wins.”