Friday, March 25, 2016

Johan Cruyff: a key link in the evolution of football (and nothing more)

In a week where we are witnessing atrocities in the core of Europe (violation of refugees' human rights and terror attacks) it may seem a luxury to spend a few lines  remembering a sports star. I apologize for it. But Johan Cruyff represents for people of my generation in Barcelona the transition from black and white football (soccer in the USA) to colour football, the transition from Real Madrid humiliating us, to Real Madrid becoming the Washington Generals to the FC Barcelona Globe Trotters. We grew up watching football with the flying Dutch as a player and a manager. As a player, he came to Barcelona after his best years were over at Ajax, winning only one Spanish league -in his first year in 1974 (the first league of my life). With manager Rinus Michels (he coached Ajax, Barcelona and the Dutch national team), Cruyff and his team mates innovated with the introduction of Total Football, a style of play with roots in several places (explained in the book "Inverting the Pyramid"), that consisted of constantly switching positions and playing strategically with space, invading all the time the other team's part of the pitch. The highlights of the first game of The Netherlands in the 1974 World Cup, against Uruguay, are very illustrative of this: enjoy them here. He came back to Barcelona as a manager in 1988 and he stayed for six seasons in which the team won four leagues and a European Cup in 1992 (losing another final in 1994). As a manager he continued and radicalized Total Football's revolution, playing with only three defenders and even day dreaming with the possibility of replacing the goal-keeper with a field player to gain more offensive potential. He didn't do that, although he came close when he chose Carles Busquets (the father of current midfielder Sergio Busquets), a goalie that was better with the feet than with the hands, as a replacement of Zubizarreta. Van Gaal, Guardiola and Luis Enrique just added discipline and a few touches to the model that today is so influential in European football. As Simon Kuper from the Financial Times explains, Cruyff loved controversy, and I will not bother the reader with the many examples of this in Barcelona. If you can, read what the international press has to say about Cruyff, like this piece in The Economist, or this one by John Carlin in The Independent. Meanwhile, some sections of the Catalan media and political class embarrass us with an attempt to link Cruyff to the drive for the secession of Catalonia. The truth is that Cruyff unfortunately didn't even bother to add Catalan to the collection of languages that he didn't speak well. Let's focus on the sports' legacy: today FC Barcelona's goal keeper Ter Stegen is a prodigy both with his hands and his feet and number nine player in Barcelona (same number as Cruyff in 1974) is Luis Suárez from Uruguay, whose parents probably remember that game in the World Cup 42 years ago. Our ancestors claim that a player of Hungarian origin, Kubala, made it necessary in the late 1950s to build the current Nou Camp stadium in Barcelona. Johan Cruyff and his generation probably made possible the globalization of football: the stadium is now the Planet.

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