Johan Cruyff looms large as Barcelona prepare to face Ajax for the first time, writes Adam Bate.
"It's a fantastic thing for football that these clubs get drawn against other," Ajax representative Johan Cruyff told reporters after the Dutch side were named alongside Barcelona, AC Milan and Celtic in Group H of this season's UEFA Champions League. Indeed, it is the only group comprising four European Cup winning clubs.
"It's another group of champions," added Cruyff. "Football is like that and you've got to enjoy yourself and make the best out of it. We have to aim for the last 16. We have a young team and they play well together, so let's see what happens. Last year we showed that we were capable of knocking Manchester City out of Europe. Let's aim for the same again."
His immediate reaction in Switzerland was deliberately inclusive of all three of Ajax's opponents and chose to focus on the challenge ahead. But it was disingenuous. For while every other combination of these fixtures has been played in the Champions League era, incredibly, this will be the first ever competitive meeting between Barcelona and Ajax. An extraordinary quirk given that the two clubs are so intertwined. In fact, it is a relationship that has come to define Barcelona's identity.
Many great names from Ajax's past have ended up at Barca. Johan Neeskens, Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars, Edgar Davids and the De Boer brothers all won Europe's premier club competition in Amsterdam before heading for Catalonia. Vic Buckingham, Rinus Michels and Louis van Gaal each coached Ajax before making the same move.
But these facts only hint at the connection. They do not explain it. For that, you need Cruyff. After winning three consecutive European Cups with Ajax and being named European footballer of the year on each occasion, he promptly helped Barcelona win La Liga for the first time in eight seasons in his debut campaign in 1973-74. More than that, he helped change the way people viewed football. As Cruyff said himself: "There is no medal better than being acclaimed for your style."
Beginning in the late 1960s and perfected in that trio of European Cup wins in the early 1970s, Ajax devised what became known as totaalvoetbal
or Total Football. Michels was the coach initially, although the fact that two of the three triumphs came under his less heralded successor Stefan Kovacs reveals the truth - this was essentially Cruyff's masterpiece. Constant interchanging of positions and fluidity within an overall structure thanks to the intelligence and spatial awareness of the players.
"We discussed space all the time," said Barry Hulshoff, an Ajax player from 1966 to 1977. "Cruyff always talked about where people should run, where they should stand, where they should not be moving. It was all about making space and coming into space. It is a kind of architecture on the field. We always talked about speed of ball, space and time. Where is the most space? Where is the player who has the most time? That is where we have to play the ball. Every player had to understand the whole geometry of the whole pitch and the system as a whole."
These were the ideas that Michels and Cruyff took with them to Barcelona. Of course, Barca were a football superpower prior to their arrival. The club had won three European honours and were the eight time champions of Spain. Surely any attempt to dismiss those achievements would be absurd. And yet, consider how figures such as Juan Manuel Asensi, a player with over 300 appearances for Barca to his name, are happy to view the past. "The club started with Cruyff," says Asensi.
The ideas behind totaalvoetbal
that had been a feature of Ajax's success were introduced. In 1979, La Masia was founded by president Josep Lluis Nunez on Cruyff's recommendation and the star player returned less than a decade later to build on that vision. Always a leader on the pitch, the move to coaching was natural. First at Ajax and then at Barcelona, he refined the Dutch style using tactics that both clubs are associated with to this day - fluid movement, awareness of space, short passing and possession football.
The Dream Team was established during an eight year spell in charge with players such as Michael Laudrup and Hristo Stoichkov helping to fulfil Cruyff's vision with spectacular results. The long awaited European Cup win was delivered at Wembley in 1992 with the only goal of the game - naturally - being scored by former Ajax player Ronald Koeman.
Some might interpret a 4-0 defeat at the hands of Fabio Capello's Milan in the 1994 final as evidence that Cruyff's ideas were superseded by a new way of playing. If so, the Rossoneri's reverse in the subsequent year's final is a fitting riposte. All but two of the 13 players who featured for Ajax in their 1995 triumph were 25 or under - and those two had played under Cruyff in the 1980s. The rest were developing their game absorbed in a philosophy that wouldn't have existed without him.
Former La Masia technical director Pep Segura says: "It is about creating one philosophy, one mentality, from the bottom of the club to the top." It was another Pep - Guardiola - who would go on to build a joyous side around the products of that academy that became the most celebrated football team of the 21st century. Cruyff's on-field lieutenant from the Dream Team years has no doubt who is responsible for embarking on this remarkable journey.
"Cruyff is the one who started it all," he told El Tiempo
. "He has been the club's most influential figure. We all have the ability to do certain things, but I would not have been able to build something from scratch like Cruyff did. I learned a lot of things from him. I cannot imagine the current Barcelona without Cruyff's work."
Guardiola worked with Cruyff for six years so it is perhaps only natural that he should consider himself influenced so directly. But the attitude of Xavi Hernandez, who debuted under Van Gaal in 1998, indicates the zeal with which the flame is guarded. "Our model was imposed by Cruyff," says the current captain. "It's an Ajax model." In the best oral traditions of epic poetry, the culture is passed down through the generations.
It wasn't always that way. Cruyff echoes Guardiola's sentiments that it was a struggle to convince people at first. "Back in the day, it was difficult to change the mindset of many people," he wrote in his El Periodico
column in 2011. "But the virtue is in starting one thing that unites all those that came later. This is what marks a comprehensive cycle, from the beginning of the '90s up to today.
"Everything starts and finishes with the ball. The goal. How to attack well as a way to defend better. Always playing with the ball, and if possible, with as many home-grown players. This is the biggest success story of Barca, its philosophy. It knows how it wants to play, with whom it wants to do it and what it is like."
When managers Gerardo Martino and Frank de Boer shake hands ahead of Wednesday's historic meeting it is perhaps fitting given the cross-pollination that it is the man in the Ajax dugout, fresh from winning the Johan Cruyff Shield in July, who has more than 200 appearances for Barcelona to his name.
However, the focus will not to be on De Boer. Instead it will be on the 66-year-old figure looming over this fixture from on high. How could it not? For there will be two clubs in the Camp Nou self-consciously sculpted according to the beliefs of one man. Let's just hope it's a good game.
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