Remembering The Greats: Johan Cruyff – Football’s prophet

The idea that FC Barcelona can call themselves ‘More Than A Club’ is seen as little more than a pompous sense of entitlement to some, but their philosophy has defined football in three separate generations, which has rewritten the entire identity of the club. Johan Cruyff was, is and will always be the main founder of an ideology which has gone much further than the 98,000 seats inside the Camp Nou.

Upon the tragic news of his death this week, aged just 68, there were calls for Barcelona to rename their stadium after the Dutch master. Football and religion are linked together far too often these days, it is a tiresome analogy which doesn’t truly reflect the meanings of either sport or faith. In the case of Cruyff and Barça, though, it fits perfectly. Upon arrival in Catalunya, some 43 years ago, having signed as a star player from Ajax, he was greeted as a saviour, some light at the end of a dark tunnel for a region of Spain so harshly treated by the iron-fisted regime of dictator General Franco. Cruyff represented more than just a footballer.

Symbolism is another overused cliche, yet Cruyff represented everything for Barcelona, as a football club and city. He was an innovator who worked on instinct, but studied the game so profusely, allowing to set the traditions in motion. He was lightyears ahead of his time, like no-one seen before or since, the archetypal ‘modern’ player in a prehistoric game. His most famous moment, a genius piece of skill in a match for Holland against Sweden at the 1974 World Cup which has been named after him, is taught as one of the basics of the game to those so eager to learn and join the revolution which he started.

Cruyff was like a prophet, hence the acceptable use of the religion metaphor. Whenever he spoke, it was worth listening to. His personal career, both as a player for Ajax, Barça and Holland, all under coach Rinus Michels, also incredibly central to the theories of ‘total football’, and a manager of the Catalan ‘Dream Team’ in the 1990s, gave him the credence he needed. Everything sounds incredibly scientific, but what came out of his magnificent brain could barely have been simpler.

“Quality without results is pointless, results without quality is boring”, he said. Winning is and always will be the main point of football, and sport in general, but Cruyff taught better than anyone about the importance of entertainment. The trophies he won prove he was right, and that continues as Barcelona continue to dominate by following his principles.

Cruyff’s impact on a young Joan Laporta, Barça fan and future president, was vital in their latest dynasty. Exactly 30 years after the Dutchman arrived, the former starry-eyed little boy began his tenure at the top of his beloved club. Laporta, who professed to having his hair cut in the style of Cruyff such was his obsession, set about recreating his hero’s work, with his help.

Dutch flare was key, something another former Ajax prodigy, Frank Rijkaard, brought with him when he took over as manager upon Laporta’s election. It was another of Cruyff’s ‘disciples’, Pep Guardiola, who renovated and polished the style to the best effect when he stepped into the hotseat in 2008. Guardiola is the most wanted man in football right now, lauded for his ideas and constantly fresh approach to the tactical side of the game. Without Cruyff, though, Guardiola would not be the man he is, something he openly admits.

Football is losing that purity which Cruyff fought so vehemently to preserve. Money is everything, meaning that results take precedence over the beauty of the game. The need to win is matched only by the need to sell a brand, something Barça battled intensely for many years, donning no sponsor on their shirts until very recently. Even in his adopted home, though, his values have somewhat been diminished, particularly since Laporta’s exit in 2010.

It was unsurprisingly Cruyff who took the opposite stance, though, claiming he’s “never seen a bag of money score a goal” when discussing whether money guarantees success. Even when not on the frontline, be it as a player or coach, he was constantly teaching the world how to improve the game.

Johan Cruyff may have departed, but his legacy will live on. His impact on football is permanent, but he gave so much more to life than that. Whether he is the greatest footballer of all time is, at the very least, up for debate. As a player, manager, philosopher and even politician of sorts, he proved himself to be the most important figure the game has ever seen.

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Remembering The Greats: Thierry Henry – A cog in many machines

Thierry Henry is undoubtedly Arsene Wenger’s greatest ever masterpiece. Arsenal have lost their way of late, and Wenger isn’t moving with the times as perhaps he should, but once upon a time he had a team packed with everything desirable for success, and a player who epitomised that better than anyone.

Around the turn of the century, the Gunners were an unstoppable force. They won two Premier League titles after the year 2000, the second of which, in 2004, without losing a league game; combining steely determination and dogged fighting spirit with a beautiful style of play which drew similarities with the finest art to be found in the Louvre. Henry fits in with that metaphor, as a Parisian, and he was the living embodiment of Wenger’s ideas, carrying them to the top with such grace, and at times, ease.

Past generations of football players, before both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi hit top gear, have a rough deal. The records both continue to break on an annual basis look like putting the achievements of the likes of Henry to shame, but not many, if any at all, have come close to the Frenchman in the Premier League. Great players are not at a shortage in this country, but no one made playing at the top level look quite as effortless as he did at his Gunners best, almost walking through defences to score goal after goal, lighting up Highbury week after week.

What made that team, and Henry, so good was watching them develop. It was peak Wenger, whose ideas were so innovative and refreshing, that created such a prolific footballing monster. He didn’t just score goals, netting 175, the most of any foreign player in English top-flight, between 1999 and 2007, but he created too. Mesut Ôzil, Arsenal’s main protagonist these days, looks likely to go on and overtake him this season, but Henry’s assists haul of 20 in 2002/03 remains the record for the most in a single campaign.

The move to North London was the catalyst for his astronomical rise to the top and, especially without the domination of the Ronaldo/Messi axis to contend with, it is a crime he was never given one of world football’s most coveted individual awards.

It is something of a myth, though, that Wenger unearthed a hidden gem when he bought Henry from Juventus in ’99. By then, he had played in the Champions League for both Monaco. where he proved to be one of Ligue 1’s best youngsters after negotiating the fabled Clairefontaine youth academy. Most crucially, a year prior he became a World Champion, and added the European crown two years after that, all before he really began to command the upmost respect in England.

At Juve, alongside his World Cup winning team-mates Zinedine Zidane and Didier Deschamps, and in a country where many others in that successful France side thrived, a young Henry floundered. Although he burst onto the scene with key goals at that tournament, and had done pretty well at Monaco, his goalscoring was never strong enough and he was mainly utilised as a winger in Serie A. It was then that Wenger, who worked with him at the Stade Louis II, sensed the opportunity to revive, rather than create, him.

Few players can profess to having such big impacts on the most successful eras of three different teams. To add to his joys with Les Bleus and Arsenal, where he became a considerable presence both on and off the pitch, captaining them after Patrick Vieira’s 2005 exit, he played his part for arguably the greatest club team ever at FC Barcelona.

When he moved to Camp Nou, just two years after Vieira’s departure and 12 months on from Barça’s Champions League final victory over Arsenal in the Stade de France, he was no longer king. Henry had to learn to blend in, not that it wasn’t part of the job alongside Zidane, Youri Djorkaeff and Dennis Bergkamp before, but as he even admitted, playing for the Blaugrana is like learning a new sport. Finishing as top scorer in his first season didn’t tell the whole story. In truth, he struggled, with injuries and the negativity around the club in Frank Rijkaard’s final, chaotic season in charge.

Playing through the middle was no longer an option, but he fared better out wide when Pep Guardiola solved the striking equation in his debut, treble winning campaign. Henry thrived alongside Messi and Samuel Eto’o, particularly in the 2-6 Clasico victory at the Santiago Bernabeu against Real Madrid, when Guardiola’s now trademark philosophy was executed with the most damning expertise.

Henry had grown from a talented Frenchman, to not only one of the best footballers on the planet, but one of the most famous faces too. His impact on MLS when at New York Red Bulls helped the league and American game in general develop. The biggest compliment that can be paid to him is the struggle to pinpoint a highlight in a long and spectacular career.

Remembering The Greats: Ronaldinho – Entertainment Personified

It took Stamford Bridge a good few minutes to catch its breath. Chelsea were stunned into silence, Jose Mourinho could only watch on. A small pocket of Barcelona fans could be heard roaring with joy at the outrageous act that had just occurred. The 2004/05 Champions League quarter final wasn’t over yet, Ronaldinho had reminded the watching world he was the best player on the planet.

The Catalans travelled to West London for the second leg with a 2-1 lead thanks to goals from Maxi Lopez and Samuel Eto’o at Camp Nou. But an incredibly fast start, typical of that Blues side, saw them take an early 3-0 lead. It was the season that Chelsea really announced themselves on the European stage, with a particularly strong defence. Petr Cech broke the English record for the longest amount of time without conceding a goal that season, but not even he could do anything about the piece of vintage Brazilian magic that was to come.

A bad tempered first game had set the tone for the return. Mourinho, whose bad blood with Barça is well documented nowadays and goes back many years, accused referee Anders Frisk and Frank Rijkaard of conspiring together at half time after a Didier Drogba red card 10 minutes after the break. Death threats resulted in the Swedish official quitting the game for good. Rijkaard, understandably, didn’t take too well to it either.

Barça were desperately looking for a way back into the tie. Despite their nightmare start that evening, they still felt they could go through. Ronaldinho, reigning World Player of the Year, picked the ball up on the edge of the area. What probably struck the most fear into the hosts’ hearts was his lack of motion, but with one swift flick of the outside of his right boot, he curled the ball, with no back lift, past a blindsided Cech. The bewitched look on Ricardo Carvalho’s face on the slow motion replays tells its own story.

Ronaldinho then netted a penalty and looked like leading them through, only for a John Terry header to knock them out late on. That goal, though, a moment that brings shock, awe and joy in equal measure with every viewing, sums him up. The animosity, unfortunate circumstances, and even Barcelona’s defeat, are just secondary story lines, compared to arguably the greatest show of individual brilliance of his career. He has quite a show reel, so take your pick.

You’ll have to go far to find a more naturally talented person to have ever donned a pair of boots. He combined an ability to do things that few could do if they dedicated their lives to trying without a second thought, with the most intoxicating enjoyment for just playing the game he loved. Particularly at the height of his powers, when he inspired Barcelona to back to back La Liga titles and the Champions League in 2006, there was no one more entertaining player to watch than him.

Unfortunately, the lack of longevity and consistency in his performances throughout his career have tainted his reputation. Now 35, and after failing to settle after spells in his native Brazil, despite winning the Copa Libertadores with Atletico Mineiro in 2013, and Mexico, he is a free agent. The rather anticlimactic end to life in Spain in 2008, after his lack of work rate failed to impress the winning obsessed Pep Guardiola, has set the tone for his later years. He moved to AC Milan in the hope of recapturing his best form but couldn’t, not doing so since.

There are more defining moments in Ronaldinho’s reign at the top than most, but his impact at Barça is what he should be most remembered for. His sour finale and rise of successor Lionel Messi mean he has, to some degree, drifted from the very height of Barça folklore. But when he walked through the door, signing from Paris St Germain in 2003, he found a world renowned institution on its knees, proving the catalyst for the most remarkable resurge. FC Barcelona would not be such a fo in the modern era if it wasn’t for him.

Even the achievements of his replacement as talisman may not have happened without him. Messi came into the first team at Barça as a 16-year-old in 2004, looking to learn from the star attraction. Ronaldinho saw the greatness before the majority, but instead of taking a selfish route filled with petty jealousy, he put his arm around and befriended a young, slight, timid youngster, giving him the confidence and belief to grow. Fittingly, he set up the Argentine’s first goal, against Albacete, with a delicate through ball.

That goal against Chelsea is just one example of the unique ability of Ronaldinho. He could do anything with a football, see a move before anyone, play a pass that would even bamboozle his team-mates. He hit world fame with that stunning, some say fluke, goal against England in the 2002 World Cup before winning the trophy and being named Midfielder of the Tournament. If that doesn’t define him, then receiving a standing ovation from the Santiago Bernabeu for an audacious brace in El Clasico against Real Madrid definitely should.

It is sad to see what has become of Ronaldinho in many ways, and it may take a number of years to see just what he did for football during his remarkable career. He captivated creativity, recognised the world over for his ponytail and buck-toothed grin, which showed just how he thought when a ball was at his feet.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s post-derbi comments show why Lionel Messi is more popular

Individual rivalries are, naturally, a phenomenon reserved for single-player sports. In Tennis, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal are a great example, while Joe Frazier and Mohammed Ali defined Boxing in their era.

They are what makes those sports a great watch, keeping them alive as spectacles. Every great needs competition to push them. Football, though, has not tended to rely so heavily on players competing with one another, always looking at the bigger picture of how the teams fare. That was until Cristiano Ronaldo met Lionel Messi.

Ronaldo is arguably the most unique footballer on the planet, in that it can be argued he puts himself above the team more than any other. There are a lot of myths about the Portuguese international, who has never hidden his desire to be the greatest player to ever live. His talent is not only undeniable, but stunningly obvious, and his ego is there to match.

In a world where political correctness is monitored like never before, Ronaldo’s bullish attitude is to be welcomed, for the most part. His personality has driven him on to numerous individual and team awards, records, accolades and general adulation.

Like every other top player around, Ronaldo has been incredibly unlucky. For all of his hard work, intensity and effort with Manchester United, Real Madrid and Portugal, he has never quite been able to escape his nemesis Messi. Yet, as with the plethora of other top rivalries, the pair really keep each other going.

It is no surprise that the duel intensified when Ronaldo joined Real in 2009 because, with Messi ruling the roost at Barcelona, both then played on each side of perhaps the most unique divide in the game. It is a hatred that runs deep and has both football and political connotations.

They each represent their respective philosophies; Messi is the hard-working ‘boy next door’, who wins through fairness and modesty, Ronaldo the flashy king of kings who dwarfs all before him. Both players have been split by a hair over the past seven years or so, but Barcelona have dominated both Real and football in general. Most records are held by one or the other, and the coveted Ballon d’Or has been shared between them since 2007.

The sad truth of all this is each has a band of loyal followers, meaning many cannot appreciate both for what they are. Instead of admiring both in a way they deserve, taking in everything they do, each time one fails it becomes an opportunity for the other’s fans to partake in a round of unfortunate mudslinging.

The is no known issues between the pair, with mutual respect growing in recent years. The idea that Ronaldo is a cold-hearted, arrogant machine is unfair and fabricated to a degree, as is the thought of Messi strictly being a team player. He knows how good he is and wants to be the main man at Camp Nou, something Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa and even Luis Enrique found out the hard way.

It isn’t hard to see how the stereotype has developed, though, and Ronaldo certainly didn’t help himself after Real’s third straight La Liga defeat to neighbours Atletico at the weekend.

He has attempted to backtrack since, but his quotes claiming that if his team-mates were of his standard results like that wouldn’t happen, causing even close ally Sergio Ramos to come out firefighting, have shown him to be the bad loser his, sometimes unfair, media persona depicts.

The idea of him being jealous of Messi and his personal and professional relationship with both Neymar and Luis Suarez was intensified by comments made before a Champions League game at Roma, too. It mustn’t go unnoticed what an achievement it is to get that trio playing so perfectly together, given previous failed attempts with others.

Ronaldo has had a different idea of getting to the top to Messi, and has struggled to outdo the Argentine. Instead of making bad headlines with words, Barça’s number 10, who it must be stressed is not perfect, makes good ones on the pitch as often as his Madrid counterpart does. Seeing the result from the Calderon on Saturday, Messi picked Barça off the floor against Sevilla the next day, scoring a stunning free kick to inspire them to a victory from behind.

Football has been blessed by such an intense individual battle, the type it hasn’t seen before and probably won’t ever again. There are so many arguments on both sides as to who is better, but it should be remembered that, above all else, they are to be enjoyed, because neither will last forever.

Their personality differences have helped the narrative, but the frustrating thing for Ronaldo is he has not been able to shake off the stigma of being second best. Saturday evening’s events showed, in part, just why that is.