Johan Cruyff arrived in Barcelona from the Netherlands in 1973. He spent five seasons with F.C. Barcelona, scoring goals at a rate slightly better than one every third game (86 in 231 appearances). He contributed to a league title in 1973-74 and a Copa del Rey win in 1977-78. These are all truths. Also true is that nowhere is a relationship between player and club less suited to numerical summation.
It’s by coldly laying out Cruyff’s on-pitch CV with Barcelona that the sheer magnitude of his impact on the club becomes clearer. Granted, it is a bit disingenuous to omit the fact that Cruyff arrived in Catalunya as the reigning Ballon d’Or winner from 1973, and would go on to capture the award again in 1974. Similarly, it’s worth noting that the 1973-74 title he inspired was the club’s first in 14 years, and that, despite playing just 26 of 34 league games, his 16 goals were good enough to place fourth in the race for the Pichichi. And yes, there is the never-to-be-forgotten 5-0 thrashing of Real Madrid at the Bernabéu that took place along the way.
And, on December 22, 1973, in 2-1 victory in La Liga against Atlético Madrid, he conjured the signature highlight of his time in the Blaugrana. The “Phantom Goal”, as it’s come to be known, features Cruyff leaping to get onto the end of a cross that’s a fair bit in front of him, and looks to be flying past the far post, at a fairly awkward height. Ever the problem-solver, Cruyff leaps forward, twists his body while in flight in such a manner that he winds up wide of that far post and facing away from the goal, and flicks the ball into the Atléti goal with his right heel. Basically, imagine the guy from the Bundesliga logo scoring a goal with a no-look karate kick. You can check it out here.
However, Cruyff’s greatest achievements in Barcelona do not fit neatly into any box. No on-pitch miracle, nor any single victory, trophy or award could ever define the man’s seismic impact on F.C. Barcelona. Both as a player and on his subsequent return as manager, he preached an approach toward the game – a philosophy rather than any specific tactic – which endures to this day, and will outlive us all. So completely did Cruyff understand the city, the fans and the ethos of the club that he inspired and instilled, as institutional philosophy, the notion that the objective of the game is not merely to win, but to win well. In his own words:
“Winning is an important thing, but to have your own style, to have people copy you, to admire you, that is the greatest gift.”
László Kubala is credited, rightfully, as being the spark from which Barcelona’s dedication to beautiful, successful football emanated. It can be argued, however, that this phenomenon in Kubala was too instinctual to be replicable. Cruyff, though every bit the innate genius, was also a tireless student of the game. Both as player and coach, so fully did he comprehend this, his own idealized version of the game, that he not only reimagined how his teams ought to approach and play games, he reconstructed the very way they, we, would think about the game. And, more than anyplace in the world, Barcelona was the perfect backdrop for the crowning work of a defiant, intellectual aestheticist.
Cruyff not only espoused a philosophy and laid a foundation for it to thrive, he built the infrastructure so that the game, as he saw it, could live on. La Masia, the youth academy that produced not only the core of the greatest club side in history, but also one of the best coaches in the history of the game, as well as the game’s best-ever player, was his brainchild.
Here, now, three years since his untimely passing, we are left to wax poetic about his contributions to the game of football, and to F.C. Barcelona. Try as we might, we remain unable to produce a true distillation of Cruyff’s understanding of, and influence on the game.
I’m certainly not capable to summing it up. For my money, however, it’s that Andrés Iniesta’s favorite player, Michael Laudrup, the genius at the heart of the Dream Team, grew up idolizing Johan Cruyff.
Or, we could simply cede the floor to Xavi, who said, at the time of Cruyff’s passing in 2016:
“Cruyff established a very clear philosophy at Barcelona, he gave birth to that philosophy, he created Barça’s DNA.”