Cruyff the Godfather and What We’ve Lost

Image from L'Equipe
Image from L’Equipe (the father, the son and the holy spirit)

Johan Cruyff meant something to every single football fan, young or old, no matter their allegiance. This was made abundantly clear in the many and varied tributes paid in writing since his passing. Some treasured memories of his brilliance as a footballer; some emphasized his revolutionary work as a manager. Barcelona fans were fortunate enough to experience both. And for those of us who never lived through Cruyff the player or manager, we still had the benefit of Cruyff in a third guise: that of unofficial adviser, guru, godfather.

Many of the tribute pieces written in the past few weeks mention that Cruyff left Barça in 1996 in a hilariously acrimonious manner and never managed full-time again. Since his departure, many Cruyff disciples have held (and still hold) influential positions at Barça, and that’s part of what will ensure the continuation of his legacy. But Cruyff himself never really left either.

For younger or more recent fans, this is the Cruyff we know – the myth passing judgment from on high, nudging public opinion this way or that as he saw fit. Hugely influential, but in ways that might not seem immediately obvious to those not up to their necks in the minutiae of Barça politics.

Without Cruyff operating behind the scenes, there would be no Joan Laporta presidency, and Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola, two largely unproven managers, would never have been appointed. Either side of the Laporta presidency, Cruyff became the de facto leader of the opposition, and the most powerful thorn in the side of the reigning regime.

The Dividing Line

Cruyff’s brutal sacking by then president Josep Lluis Nunez divided the Barcelona fan base. The late Sir Bobby Robson described its beginnings thus:

“Senor Nunez was trying to cling to his presidency in the face of growing hostility and Barcelona was a divided city with half of them on the side of the current regime and half backing Cruyff.”

Which sounds familiar, doesn’t it. And that’s the point – there’s a good argument to be made that every single conflict among the fanbase and those within and surrounding Barça since has been a rerun of that one, with some of the same players.

Joan Laporta, the man who was Barça president from 2003 to 2010, the man who cried in front of Cruyff’s memorial at Camp Nou, was best known once upon a time as Cruyff’s lawyer. He had grown up idolizing Cruyff, and he was, like a good portion of the fan base, incensed at Cruyff’s sacking. So he decided to do something about it.

Laporta formed a protest group called Elefant Blau with Cruyff’s backing, and the group managed to gather enough signatures to initiate a motion of censure (vote of no confidence) against Nunez in 1998. The vote failed, but various pressures continued to build up and in 2000 Nunez resigned.

The two main players in the subsequent elections were Nunez’s vice president Joan Gaspart, and Cruyff-backed Lluis Bassat. And so on it went. Gaspart won, but he proved to be a disastrous president and was forced to step down in 2003.

Laporta, who had allied himself to Bassat in 2000, decided to present himself as a candidate this time, with Cruyff’s backing. His group of young, idealistic professionals, which included Ferran Soriano, Marc Ingla and Sandro Rosell, ran a brilliant campaign and won in a landslide.

Cruyff, who had held no position at Barça for 7 years, was effectively back.

The Unlikely Dutchman

“It was Johan who recommended Frank as coach.” – Joan Laporta

Laporta turned to Cruyff for advice on appointing the next manager. Cruyff provided him a shortlist. It featured Frank Rijkaard, who had once famously left a training session shouting “fuck off” at Cruyff, and had an undistinguished managerial record up to that point.

Not everyone was convinced by his appointment, and his work as Barça manager is underrated to this day, even though it was vitally important. In the words of Guardiola, Rijkaard restored the Sistine Chapel.

It’s easy to underestimate the work done by winning Barça managers, because they have such fine players at their disposal. It happened to Rijkaard, to Guardiola, Vilanova and now it’s happening to Luis Enrique. The myth persists despite the evidence provided by cash-flush clubs all over Europe that building an elite team is its own particular challenge.

Rijkaard aced this challenge, but it took him a while. In fact, in the first six months of his Barcelona tenure, his appointment looked like a car crash. In January 2004, Barça were 13th in the league, getting thrashed by mid-table teams, losing to Madrid at home. The calls for Rijkaard’s sacking in the press and the fan base grew louder and louder. Within the board itself, Sandro Rosell agitated for his removal and replacement with Scolari.

Not Cruyff, though. He somehow saw the bones of a good team in the rabble, and he told everyone that he was optimistic about the second half of the season. And he was right. Barça signed the defensive midfield reinforcement Rijkaard wanted, went on a long winning run and ended up finishing second, ahead of Madrid. Cruyff’s backing, both publicly and privately with Laporta, gave Rijkaard the time he needed.

In the years to come, in which Rijkaard’s Barca finally broke Barca’s title drought and added to the club’s lone European Cup triumph, Cruyff alternatively exasperated, entertained and encouraged with his public utterances and columns. He engaged in the kind of concern trolling that resulted in his quotes being put repeatedly to an exasperated Frank Rijkaard, and he praised the team’s play, its unity, the rise of the young Messi. In Barca’s darkest hours, when self-doubt ruled the day, he emerged as a defiantly optimistic voice, ever the contrarian.

The Model Student

“All we are trying to do is dignify the teachings of Cruyff with the way we play.” – Pep Guardiola

Pep Guardiola liked to say that if it weren’t for Cruyff he’d never have made it as a first division player. He was Cruyff’s best and brightest pupil as a player, and the two formed a lifelong connection that defines modern Barca as much as anything does.

In 2008, when it became clear to Laporta that barring a change of manager, his own position would be in jeopardy, he thought of appointing Cruyff as caretaker manager, with Guardiola, who was then finishing up a successful season as manager of Barcelona B, as his assistant.

Thankfully Cruyff shot down this insanely bad idea and instead told Laporta that Guardiola was ready to take the reins himself. His full-throated backing was crucial in the board’s choice to go for the untried 37-year-old over serial winner Jose Mourinho.

As with Rijkaard, Cruyff was not only instrumental in the choice of manager but also in providing support when necessary. He didn’t just write hosannas along with the rest the football world to an undeniably great team who were instantly anointed. That’s revisionist history. Cruyff spent his first columns of the season batting for Guardiola at a time when few others were doing the same.

Remember, Barca’s first two results of the 08/09 league season were a loss and a 1-1 draw. The stadium was half-full for that 1-1 draw, and some of the fans there booed. Guardiola was doing crazy shit like playing kids nobody had heard of instead of established stars Thierry Henry and Yaya Toure. You know, kids called Sergio Busquets and Pedro Rodriguez.

Here’s a quote from Cruyff’s column after that game, as translated by Graham Hunter in Barca: the Making of the Greatest Team in the World:

“I don’t know which game you saw, but I saw one of the best Barça performances for years. Okay it means two games, one goal, from a penalty, and both the chances from the opposition have gone in. But those are only numbers. Football-wise, Barça were of the best. Positionally excellent, moving the ball with speed and precision and pressing well. You draw your conclusions but, to me, this season looks very, and I mean very good.”

At the time, even as a Guardiola partisan, it was tempting to wonder what Cruyff was smoking. But he was right. As with Rijkaard, he’d seen something most people couldn’t, and at a time when the rest of the pundit class were freaking out, he used his bully pulpit to keep the peace.

Typically, when the tide finally turned in October of that year and Barca were suddenly being hailed as the best thing ever, he was the one counselling caution and warning against premature hype.

By the year 2010, Cruyff had not held a position at Barca for 14 years, and yet he was more influential than ever, with a team built according to his ideology triumphing on the pitch and a president who relied on him for advice.

In Opposition

The second half of that equation changed when Sandro Rosell was elected president in 2010. Once comrades-in-arms with Joan Laporta, the two had become bitter enemies in the years since Rosell’s departure from the board in 2005. One of the issues cited by Rosell for that acrimonious breakup was Cruyff’s out sized influence on the club’s decision-making.

Being president of Barcelona gave Rosell the power to do many controversial things, but it did not enable him to remove that out sized influence, especially not given the enormously popular man who remained in the dugout. But he could make symbolic gestures, and he did so by effectively removing the title of Honorary President from Cruyff, citing procedural irregularities. Laporta had bestowed Cruyff with the title months before departing the presidency, knowing full well that Rosell would be the next president. Rosell seemed to have taken it almost as a dare, going by the speed with which he proceeded to undo the appointment.

Cruyff took the gesture in the spirit it was intended and exiled himself from Camp Nou. He continued to use his platform in support of the team, especially at times of unrest, but it was now combined with condemnations of the actions of the new board, including the deal that moved UNICEF off the front of Barca’s shirts and replaced it with (at the time) Qatar Foundation.

Barca won a second treble in 2015 with Cruyff looking on from the outside, using a trident that he’d been loudly skeptical of, but with a team built upon the foundations he’d laid down. Even with all that’s different about this team, it’s still recognizably Barca. And by that we mean the Barca that Cruyff made.

Simon Kuper wrote in 2015, following Barca’s treble win, that “the truth is that Barca doesn’t need Cruyff’s advice anymore.” He couldn’t have been more wrong.

Hand on heart, which of us Barca fans hasn’t wanted to tell Cruyff to shut up at some point? He is – he was – always talking, and a lot of the time it wasn’t anything we wanted to hear. But no matter how nonsensical it seemed, his opinions were always interesting, and always worth considering. We always listened, even if it was so we could then loudly disagree. No one else has that kind of authority.

Barca is constantly in flux, faced with questions about its past actions and dilemmas over where it’s going. Cruyff’s voice was important – no, vital – in these debates, as it has been for the past 20 years.

His passing has left a hole in our lives.

Categorized as Analysis

By Linda

20-something Chinese Kiwi Barrister. Enjoys short walks on the beach, Argentinian players and Pep Guardiola. @blackwhitengrey for hot takes on all three.


  1. Thank you for a great article telling me many things I didn’t know regarding Cruyff and the club. I shudder to think where the team and club might be right now with Scolari/Mourinho instead of Rijkard/Guardiola (not saying those are not great coaches but it’s hard imagining them shaping the team the way the latter two did).

    It is true that today’s media pundits by and large just enlargen current developments instead of coming to their own opinions. If Barca loses two games, it’s in a crisis and the coach might not reach the team anymore. It really takes someone special to see a team as great even when it is not winning yet. I just wonder how much some of Cruyff’s statements reflected his own opinion and how much they were a product of his wish to go against popular opinion.

  2. ‘ I just wonder how much some of Cruyff’s statements reflected his own opinion and how much they were a product of his wish to go against popular opinion.’

    As someone who generally loves to go against the popular opinion, I can vouch that either way works. That is, even if he had said some unpopular things just for attention – or his own amusement at irritating the norm, those statements have a very good probability of being correct given that the majority is usually blind to reason!

    For example, what was the probability that Neymar would adjust for a second-fiddle role to Messi given the egos that brilliant players generally carry. So his statement that two captains ruin a ship was very likely to happen and he would have been like ‘I told you so’ (except that it turned out that Neymar turned out a man of reason, which is very unusual among very young super-stars and fortunate for us!)

  3. Wow. Gala XI

    Bravo, Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Jordi Alba, Sergio, Rakitic, Iniesta, Suárez, Messi y Neymar Jr

  4. Mandrill looks like just another Liga team. Too bad Suarez missed the sitter and the refs all blinked when Ramos hacked down Messi.

  5. Back in my normal seat for this match and it has been interesting. Rather than exciting so far. A lot of respect ( too much from us?) being shown by the teams. For me, Messi has gone deep too early and it’ll be hard for him to do much damage from there. We probably also need to move the ball quicker at times.

    Might not be a lot between them at the end and it may come down to which team ends up with a full complement. If so, my money’s on them. Ramos leads a charmed life whereas you can’t believe RM aren’t inside just now deciding how to get either Masche or Suarez sent off. If I was Zidane Id be telling Pepe ,without a card, to niggle Suarez and both Bale and Benzema to run at Masche at every opportunity. He has to learn to stay on his feet unless necessary.

    The other side show for me is how Zidane is going to keep his cool. He’s a bit of a loose cannon. Mind you, LE isn’t much better. Could be fireworks to come.m

  6. I am seriously worried about the team now. They must have been exhausted, since they stopped defending in the 2nd half. Embarrassing, at times, I have to say. Nobody showed up, really, except Piqué. Either the tactics did not pay off at all, or else the players were not up for the challenge. If this will continue, AM will be a nightmare. But I would love to be wrong. Really.

    And to let that crappy CR finish the game off – after a wrongly disallowed Bale goal… you must do better than that.

    1. Oh, and following up the goalie debate: Bravo did not strengthen his chances, did he…

  7. we played without any energy and desire at all, really poor from our team, hope they can recover now

  8. Take it as a positive — in the first half this could have been 2-3 to nil, but the focus wasn’t there. Then it went downhill, but it’s still a largely inconsequential game in the grand scheme of things, that could, however, serve as a wake-up call. It’s better to have that game now than in a second game of an undecided CL tie or in the CdR final.

    1. True, even if Benzema had a fantastic chance in 1st half, too. I was perhaps a bit harsh above, from frustration (I just hate ti give RM the pleasure). But still: I hope it was about jet-lag and lack of focus, not drop in form an real fatigue. This will no doubt give RM momentum in CL, and it makes the Liga unnecessarily exciting/demanding.

  9. It had to happen sooner or later. Im not sure though is this the perfect timing for a wake up defeat.
    Dont know why but we never went for a win, players were just waiting for a miracle to happen. Anyway, lets see how we show up for AM.

  10. And why play Messi at AM/False 9 when EE were clearly clogging the mid-field? at times Neymar and Suarez were so far out the wings that the center backs and MFs of Madrid were just there at the edge of their own 18yard box un-occupied. The last time I had to complain after a game was the Real Sociedad lose last year January and tonight’s game has led me to go back to my old ways. This team is beginning to look like Barca ’12-14 (all passing without penetration, reluctance to move the ball quickly) and Suarez suddenly deciding to go on a holiday. Teams are beginning to figure out how to stop our counter attacks and we are suddenly becoming clueless. I hope we step up our game on Tuesday else we might as well kiss UCL goodbye

  11. I thought we looked much the better team up until Pique’s goal. After that we relaxed. In the first half we were recovering the ball quickly when we lost it and Mandrills chances were against the run of play. Though it’s possible that it was Mandrills game plan to save energy until the end. Either way they reacted well to Pique’s goal and we were probably (a) fatigued from internationals and or (b) thinking about Tuesday. Not too worried. Will be interested to see post-match comments from LE and team.

  12. We lost the game.That stupid break came at the worst moment.I am mad but i believe in this team.We played against a Levante but with better players.We relaxed too much.Well shit happens.I hope the team in Tuesday be in top level all game and finish the job.Always proud of those players.

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