A rebel, a revolutionary, an innovator – all words that are aptly used to describe Barcelona legend, Johan Cruyff. There may be nothing else which exemplifies Cruyff’s lasting mark on the football world and his legacy, both as a footballer and as a man, more than his impact on Barcelona. His ‘Dream Team’ of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s may have left a greater mark than even he could have anticipated at the time of building the team. To understand how the Dream Team was shaped, however, we first have to know what shaped the man and the mind behind it.
It may be safe to say that Cruyff did more than enough during his time at Camp Nou as a player to warrant his own chapter in any history book of the Catalan football club. In 1973, following a disagreement and some disenchantment with the club and city that he had grown up in and that in many ways shaped him, Cruyff departed from Amsterdam-based club Ajax to reunite with his former manager and his footballing mentor Rinus Michels at Camp Nou.
Hailed as the father of the ‘Total Football’ philosophy, Michels worked with a young and promising Cruyff from 1965 until his departure from Ajax as a European champion in 1971, at which point he joined Barcelona.
Upon Michels’ arrival at Camp Nou, the Catalan side had been enduring a period of stagnation, having gone just over a decade without claiming a single La Liga title. However, success and innovation followed Michels to Camp Nou and so did Cruyff, who joined him there in 1973 and together, the pair restored some success to the Catalan giants, as they helped Barcelona to secure the La Liga title in the 1973/74 campaign.
It’s evident that Cruyff, a man who won the Ballon D’Or in both 1973 and 1974, played a pivotal role in helping Barcelona to reclaim the title of Spanish champions, however, upon his arrival at Camp Nou, Cruyff brought more than just talent and on-the-pitch success to the club’s supporters, as he was someone who embodied a rebellious and revolutionary nature that Barca fans could resonate with and rally behind, both in footballing terms and with regard to Cruyff as a person.
Born in Amsterdam in 1947, Cruyff took his first breath in a city which had the shadow of the atrocities of World War Two eerily looming over it. In the not-so-distant past, Cruyff’s home city had been infiltrated and repressed by the Nazi regime which outlawed socialist and communist parties, suppressing the thoughts of those who didn’t share the same ideology as them while they attempted to mould the city in their ideal image.
The young Cruyff grew up in this city as it recovered, rebuilt, and re-established itself in the wake of those horrors and upon his coming of age, in the 1960s, Amsterdam began to move past the dark and dreary memories of what was still very recent history and mould itself into the vibrant and liberal hub of creativity that it has since established itself as, in defiance of those who had tried to repress it just two decades earlier.
As life, in general, was impacted by a revolutionary movement in 1960s Amsterdam, so too was life on the football pitch as Rinus Michels developed an Ajax side which, in many ways, suitably represented the city which encapsulated it as Total Football, in its infancy, became the ideology to which this club would subscribe and with a young Cruyff coming into the side, there may have been no better place for the Dutch legend to receive his football education.
Both on and off the pitch, the outspoken and charismatic Cruyff seemed to embody the rebellious, revolutionary culture that he had grown up being surrounded by. On the pitch, it may be fair to say that he was the poster-boy for Michels’ Total Football philosophy and the innovative style of play that this philosophy brought with it. Few players, if any, benefitted more in their playing career than Cruyff did from being placed and nurtured within that environment.
Furthermore, there are few better examples of historical moments of innovation in football history than when Cruyff made Jan Olsson famous in 1974 as he brought what would become known as the ‘Cruyff turn’ to the world. On the surface, it was just a simple, yet effective skill move which captured the minds of football fans around the world, however, what it represents is the free-thinking spirit, the superior technical quality and, indeed, that bit of arrogance all of which combined to make up the man we know as Johan Cruyff.
With this background information in mind, it’s difficult to conceive of a better match between a man and a club than the one which was made when Cruyff joined Barcelona.
The city of Barcelona and the entire region of Catalonia is one which had been severely repressed under the regime of Francisco Franco, the general and dictator who had ruled Spain as the head of an authoritarian regime which came to power in 1939, with the help of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Franco’s Spain was one which was afforded little freedom of expression or tolerance of diversity.
Similarly to how the Netherlands had been the victims of repression under Nazi occupation, Spain and in particular regions such as Catalonia and Basque Country suffered ideological, political, and cultural repression under Franco. This era of Spain provides us with countless examples of freedom being clamped down on, one being the fact that the teaching of the Catalan and Basque languages was banned in this time.
As we now know, the end of Franco’s regime was on its way by the time Cruyff arrived in Catalonia, however, the dictator remained in power until his death in 1975.
Regardless of political beliefs, it’s clear based on what we’ve already discussed about Cruyff and the state of Spain and Catalonia under Franco’s rule, that the Dutchman represented everything that this regime was not.
He embodied the free-thinking rebelliousness of 1960s Amsterdam and the game-changing alternative philosophy of Total Football in his character. He joined Barcelona in 1973 and became more than just the poster-boy for Michels’ Total Football, he became the talisman for a region and a body of people who had been starved of self-expression but could now live vicariously through him and this Barca side as they figuratively went to battle on behalf of Catalonia and expressed themselves on the pitch in a manner which was different, but effective, as the 1973/74 season saw Barcelona lift their first La Liga title since 1960, thanks in no small part to Michels and Cruyff.
Off the pitch, if originally joining Barca after refusing to move to Real Madrid didn’t win the hearts of the Camp Nou faithful, Cruff’s decision to name his son ‘Jordi’ upon his birth in 1974 in Franco’s Spain will certainly have gone a long way in doing so. He did this despite the fact that naming children traditional Catalan names, such as this one, was also outlawed at the time.
Cruyff brought success back to Barcelona on the pitch, all the while representing a symbol of freedom and hope for Barca fans and Catalan people both on and off the pitch. The Dutchman remained at the Catalan club until 1978, at which point he departed Camp Nou with his legacy secure as, undoubtedly, a legend. He would return 10 years later to bring his football back to the club and set them onto the path that would cement them as one of world football’s biggest giants.
The match made in heaven that was Cruyff and Barcelona got back together for a sequel that may have been even better than the original. Now part of a democratic Spain, Catalonia was coming out of the shadows of the Franco regime, however, on the football pitch, they had managed to win just one league title in between their 1973/74 triumph and Cruyff’s return to the club in 1988.
The makings of Cruyff’s Dream Team, as it became fondly known, really did begin with the making of the man as he grew up and developed into the character he would become. Without his upbringing and development, as well as the incredible education he received from Michels, his footballing mind may never have flourished as it did.
However, when looking solely at his tenure as the club’s manager, the actual teambuilding aspect to this side began as soon as he arrived in 1988. Cruyff’s vision for the club immediately became clear and it strongly resembles the culture and traditions that the football world now associate with this famous club.
Cruyff, familiar with the pride of the Catalan people in their culture and heritage, immediately set out to inject his squad with Catalan talent and his use of the club’s now-famed academy ‘La Masia’ was pivotal in doing this. Straight away, Barca fans got to see the pathway from La Masia into their first-team get utilised to a greater extent than it had been under previous coaches, such as Cruyff’s predecessor Terry Venables. Players like Guillermo Amor and Luis Milla made their way into Barca’s first-team via this route during Cruyff’s first season in charge.
Additionally, Cruyff was extremely active in the transfer market upon joining Barca, however, he brought a host of Basque talent into his team, straying from trying to rely too heavily on foreign stars as his predecessor Venables had been criticised for doing. Instead, he selected some promising talent from another Spanish community that had been repressed in a similar manner to the Catalan people during the not-so-distant Franco regime. While building his squad, Cruyff didn’t just select talented footballers but it’s evident that he also selected the right personnel to fit the team that he was building to represent the Catalan people.
This element to the success of Cruyff’s Dream Team was important. While the work ethic and technical talent of each individual were both extremely important in making this team function, the psychological aspect of team building is another element to the creation of a team which Cruyff’s mentor Michels stressed the importance of and Cruyff was undoubtedly calculated with regard to the players that he brought into the club and how they fit into the team that he was creating which was intended to be one that the Catalan population could look at as being ‘theirs’, in every sense of the world and given the recent history of the region, that may have been exactly what the club needed to produce.
Seven of the 15 players who made the squad on the night that Cruyff’s side would go on to capture Barcelona’s first-ever European Cup in 1992 were either home-grown Catalan players or Basque players, the majority of whom were signed by Cruyff. The only non-Spanish nationals in the side were Michael Laudrup, Hristo Stoichkov, and Ronaldo Koeman indicating how Cruyff carefully sprinkled in some talent from around the world to complete the side that would become known as his Dream Team, however, the strong Spanish base which had a heavy Catalan and Basque influence provided the building blocks for the base of this side.
Cruyff became Barcelona’s most successful manager during his eight years at the club and he would remain the club’s most successful manager until one of his own players would follow in his footsteps and surpass him years later, that being Pep Guardiola.
If Michels provided the optimal environment for Cruyff the learn and develop, Cruyff’s Barca undoubtedly gave Guardiola an incredible opportunity to learn and develop as a young footballer both technically and mentally. As a coach, Cruyff’s fingerprints are clearly all over Guardiola’s sides, that is well-documented and no coach may have utilised Cruyff’s teachings in their own work better than Guardiola has and that is due to how much the Barca youth product excelled as Cruyff’s student.
Guardiola is one of the players who Cruyff brought into his side via La Masia and upon entering that Barca dressing room, Guardiola became obsessed with learning this style of football. The Total Football philosophy which had been a staple of the teams Cruyff had been a part of during his career was utilised and built upon by Cruyff himself and the nucleus of the cell that was this Barca Dream Team was this young student named Guardiola.
If this team were a solar system, Guardiola would be the sun. All of the movement and action in this team revolved around the current Manchester City manager who retained a position in the centre of the park constantly dictating play, getting on the ball, creating the passing angles and facilitating the quick passing plays that are synonymous with this style of football and this legendary team.
Total Football is an idea which sees nobody perform just one basic role or play in just one position, it represents the idea that all players should be involved and capable of performing effectively in all facets of any given game. This team provided an advertisement for that philosophy as great as any throughout history.
Within the ‘3-diamond-3’ shape that this team famously used, every player performed different roles to just the one that they would typically be ‘assigned’ on paper. From the goalkeeper, Andoni Zubizarreta, who had to perform the role of a sweeper in case a ball was played over the top of Cruyff’s high defensive line as they pressed with aggression high up the pitch in search of the ball, all the way up to the front three who would often rotate amongst one another, all players in this team had to be capable of performing in alternative roles for different situations should they present themselves in a match.
The key to performing in this manner at a high level was training and repetition. While he personally brought almost all of the players that would eventually make up his Dream Team to the Camp Nou in the first place, filling the team with some incredibly high-level technical players who could outmatch the vast majority if not all opposition teams if compared solely in that regard, the day-to-day coaching of this side was still pivotal and getting all players singing from the same hymn sheet and familiar with this particular style of play was the key to making this team work.
In his autobiography, ‘My Turn’, Cruyff states that it took more than 10,000 hours of practice to reach the level that the Dream Team ultimately would go on to reach and that is with a side of highly technical and intelligent footballers. The work that each and every one of them, including the coach and his backroom staff, had to put in to make this team the legendary outfit that it would become can’t be understated.
However, this unrelenting work ethic is a product of Cruyff’s perfectionism and his search for the ideal football team. He didn’t set out to coach a team to go out onto the pitch and win football matches, nor did he intend to coach a team solely to create art with no results. Cruyff sought to attain both of these goals with his side and that may be what he achieved.
In addition to going down in the annals as a team that would set the template and standards of style for all teams that would come after it for years to come, Cruyff’s Barca also claimed a trophy haul of four consecutive La Liga titles from the 1990/91 campaign until the 1993/94 campaign, in addition to one Copa del Rey, one Supercopa de España, a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, a UEFA Super Cup and, of course, one European Cup.
They not only created a standard to which all Barcelona teams who followed would be held in relation to style but also due to their success. That combination of style and results is what defined Barcelona in the 1990s and established them as a real force among football giants moving into the new millennium.
As far as this team’s legacy goes, the use of Total Football concepts are now common-place in football coaching and the popularisation of the ‘Rondo’ training drill as a means of keeping training a team in small groups to improve technical ability, quick decision making and a variety of different aspects to a player’s game all in the one effective drill is a product of Cruyff and his Barca Dream Team.
Cruyff’s influence on the defensive side of the game, defending aggressively from the front and high up the pitch is clear to see in the modern game and the rise to prominence of the ‘Sweeper Keeper’ role is another product of Cruyff’s Total Football. Zubizarreta performed this role within Cruyff’s Barca side and both on and off the ball we see that Cruyff’s vision for the role of the goalkeeper has become the reality at the top level over the past decade where it has seemed as though a batch of René Higuita re-generations have taken the game by storm.
With regard to La Masia, in addition to giving it an increasingly important role during his time as Barca manager, he placed less importance on physicality in the club’s recruitment policy and placed greater importance on technical ability and the development of that. Had Cruyff not made that change and proved that it could not just produce results, but be a superior recruitment strategy for his style of play than other recruitment methods, who knows whether or not a player like Lionel Messi would ever have come through the club’s ranks when he did just over a decade later?
The list goes on and on, however, what is clear is that Cruyff’s Dream Team encapsulated the spirit of the man which all boils back down to an element of freedom of expression. Cruyff’s Dream Team was a chance for him to display his vision for football, influenced by his mentor Rinus Michels. It was a vision which challenged the established way of doing things in a variety of different ways, it was innovative, rebellious, and revolutionary, just like the man and the ideals which he stood for throughout the course of his life.