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.