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.
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.