JOHAN CRUYFF AND THE BIRTH OF TIKI-TAKA
Words by Greg Richardson | Tw. @RAKIS14
The butterfly effect can be described as the idea that a small event can have far reaching consequences. Buddhism refers to this idea as dependent arising – the notion that all is connected. Things come in and out of existence as a result of other things.
There have been many a transformative transfer throughout the history of football. Maradona to Napoli, Cantona to United and Henry to Arsenal are all examples of signings that helped elevate clubs to new levels. The success that these clubs consequently enjoyed was deemed dependent on their talisman arriving. Their impact is measurable in the games and titles won. The legacy of these signings is often canonization, an induction into legend status.
And whilst these signings are deserving of such recognition for the ripple effect of their contributions, their impact is no more than a pebble in the pond of football’s great waters.
By comparison the signing of Johan Cruyff to Barcelona in 1973 is a tsunami, the waves of which football is still riding 45 years on.
It could have all been so different. Ajax had actually agreed to sell Cruyff to Real Madrid, but the Dutchman was never one to be dictated. His political sensibilities wouldn’t allow him to sign for a team that was supported by – and according to some propped up by – the regime of dictator Francisco Franco. He also resented Ajax and Madrid striking a deal without involving him. To spite them, and to ‘protest’ Franco’s regime, he chose Barcelona. Football would never be the same.
Cruyff was a three-time European Cup winner with Ajax. He won the Ballon D'or in 1971 and was largely acknowledged as the best player in the world. His signing represented a major coup for the Catalonians. The prestige alone helped elevate the mood around the Camp Nou and gave them a belief that they could emerge from the shadows of their great rivals.
In some ways, Cruyff was the incarnation of 1970s culture, the embodiment of freedom, change and artistry.
Joan Laporta once said that it felt like “The Thunderbirds, Elvis Presley and George Best had come to save them… the proud, but cowed, Catalan nation found that the world’s best player not only knew who they were but wanted to lead the revolution.”
And what a revolution it would be.
Quick of mind and feet, he was mesmeric, doing things no player had done before. It was said he had four feet because of his consistent brilliance when using the outside of his boots. A high definition player in a time of grainy pictures, he could always see things – a pass, a space to dance into or an angle for a shot – that his opponents simply couldn’t. Eric Cantona once said that any position Cruyff wanted to play in, he would have been the best.
And with him at their heart, Barcelona won their first title in 14 years. That Barça side played football that captivated audiences, a fluid 4-3-3, set up to attack and harness Cruyff's genius. They didn’t lose a game between his debut and the game they secured the title, which included a 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid (where Cruyff had his wife give birth by cesarean to ensure he could play).
It was a transformative season for the club, and whilst they only won another singular Copa del Rey during Cruyff’s five-year stint, they had, in one swoop, overcome their inferiority complex and found an identity that would serve them well for decades to come. Cruyff helped give them pride and the hope of self-determination. They loved him for it. For being the revolutionary footballer who helped an oppressed community believe change was possible.
And Cruyff loved them too. He named his hurried child Jordi after their patron saint, despite it being forbidden to do so in Franco’s Spain. He found an affinity with the club and its fanbase, their shared desire to not let the powerful and the wealthy have things all their own way bonded them.
It was this deep affection that meant he would return as manager in 1988. In his eight years as manager, he built on the foundations he had laid as a player. The 'total football' they had played from 1973 developed into something even more formidable.
He assembled ‘The Dream Team’; Romario, Stoichkov and Koeman. With them, playing to the Cruyffian principles to attack and entertain, he conquered all, winning four back-to-back La Liga titles, two Copa Del Reys, a Cup Winners Cup and the crowning glory – the club’s first ever European Cup.
The latter especially became the crystallization of their capabilities to compete. It was confirmation that with Cruyff, and his philosophy, they couldn't lose. And whilst his legacy goes far beyond just trophies, it was a watershed moment for Barça. The seed was sown in 1974, but it bloomed in the early 1990s and has been bearing fruit ever since.
Under Cruyff’s stewardship the key component of Barça’s current dominance was set in place. La Masia was established, at the Dutchman's behest, to educate young players on the Cruyffian ideals. They would be coached to play the same way as the first team, 4-3-3, with that Latin infused version of total football that had always served him and Barça so well.
The youth academy (to massively oversimplify it) has since churned out some of the best players the game has ever seen. Cruyff ensured there was an emphasis on finding children with natural ability, awareness and mastery of the ball rather than finding athletic players and trying to develop their technique and understanding of the game as many clubs used to – and still – do. It is for this reason that Xavi, Iniesta and Messi were able to grow into the phenomenal players they have become, despite not growing much as boys.
In 2010, those three were the finalists for the Ballon D'or. The impact that they – and fellow graduates Fàbregas, Piqué, Busquets, Puyol, Pedro, Alba and Valdés – have had on the landscape of modern football is immeasurable. They have been the driving force, not only behind a dominant Barça side, but the Spanish national team too. Their success has influenced a change in mindset for youth development across Spain and greater Europe.
One of the first beneficiaries of Cruyff’s ‘size doesn’t matter’ policy was Pep Guardiola. A diminutive central midfield metronome, Pep was at risk of being released by Barça before the Dutchman intervened. He saw the usefulness of his abilities to his sides passing game and made him a key part of his ‘Dream Team’ that won Barça’s inaugural European Cup. They swept all before them and dominated Spanish football. They were the physical manifestation of Cruyff’s philosophy and he trusted that Pep had the wherewithal to be its brains.
The education he received under Cruyff has undoubtedly shaped the coaching style of the modern game’s most revered manager. Guardiola once said: “Barcelona is a chapel he [Cruyff] painted, we just restore it and improve it”, and whilst subsequent managers between them did a respectable job of keeping the Dutchman's vision alive, no one recaptured and refined it quite as well as Pep.
Both see the beauty in simplicity, both view positions and formations as fluid, both wish to attack and entertain but also to win, and both believe deeply that these principles are hills to die on, regardless of any discerning voices to the contrary. Pep’s Barça side between 2008 and 2012, largely acknowledged as the best side of the modern era, if not ever, act as a validation for their ideology. Just as Cruyff's ‘Dream Team’ did a decade or so before.
In the 74 years before Cruyff signed, Barcelona had won 25 trophies. In the 45 years since, they have won 61 trophies, playing the way his legacy and influences dictate. His protégé has won 23 honours in his 10 years as a manager, and plays the kind of football that has commentators salivating and children aspiring to. La Masia, and the subsequent ‘copycat’ academies around the world, stand as monuments to his vision. The players who come through those finishing schools grace the game with a technique and understanding that has ushered in a new era. The all-conquering Spanish and German sides owe their playing style to his footballing philosophy. Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest of all time, was schooled in the house that Cruyff built.
Dependent arising can be simplified to the notion of ‘because this exists, that exists’. So, if we imagine the huge expanse of modern football, and all the many elements that exist because of Johan Cruyff and his time in Barcelona, we should all be eternally grateful for his revolutionary nature and his decision to choose Catalonia over Real Madrid.