Midsummer is a philosophical time for a football fan. Reflections on the past seasons’ performance give way to thoughts of new acquisitions, and an anticipation of what August will bring; this nostalgia mixes with the hope and anxiety that accompanies the start of each new season. The success of the past few seasons means that many newer Culés haven’t yet built up a reservoir of historical memory that fuels the emotion that pours forth from the terraces of the Camp Nou on important nights. It is in this vein that I’d like to begin a reintroduction, of sorts, to some of the past players that have helped to shape the identity of our club today.
Like so many of the players that lit up the Camp Nou during the tumultuous 1970’s, Johan Neeskens was a Dutchman. The magnificent Barcelona team of that era had its roots in an exodus of players and staff from Dutch giants Ajax earlier in the decade, with coach Rinus Michels arriving to implement his much-touted system of total football in Catalunya. Neeskens arrived during the summer of 1974 at the behest of his compatriot Johan Cruyff, who had made the journey South from Amsterdam the previous year. Both had been part of the Ajax team that dominated the Dutch league with the total football of Michels, and Neeskens’ arrival saw a reinvention of the Catalans’ style of play that had begun with the sensational arrival of Cruyff.
Neeskens was the archetype Barcelona midfielder: dictating play from midfield, the Dutchman provided a release for Cruyff’s mazy runs into the opposition’s half, playing effortless balls up the field for his compatriot. Replays from that era show a mop of blond hair dashing through the midfield, feeding passes out to the wings for Carles Rexach, another Barça hero who together formed part of a midfield that included the likes of team captain Juan Manuel Asensi.
Neeskens’ defining moment for the Catalans came at the 1979 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, the now-defunct tournament that matched the winners of the various European leagues. 30,000 Culés travelled to Basle hoping to salvage something from a season that saw a disastrous domestic campaign, with the Catalans knocked out of the Copa del Rey in the first round and finishing a poor fifth in the league, nine points behind Real Madrid. In an epic game against Fortuna Düsseldorf that saw three goals in extra time, Neeskens proved a sensation, providing an incisive pass into the box for Rexach who promptly fired into the net in the first period of extra time. Barcelona went on to win the match 4-3, bringing home the first of four trophies from the tournament.
Neeskens’ departure at the end of the season for the New York Cosmos was not the end of his relationship with the club. The start of the 2006 season saw his return to Barcelona in a coaching role as the assistant and confidant to fellow Dutchman Frank Rijkaard, fresh from his triumphant 2-1 victory over Arsenal in the Champions League Final the previous season. Videos from his two seasons back at the club show the same mop of blond hair pacing the touchline, offering advice to the midfielders, a weathered version of the player that had spent so many seasons delighting the Camp Nou with his flowing passes and tiki-taka dribbling. In a club now famous for the creative passing of its midfield players, Johan Neeskens remains one of the original stars from an era that helped define the spirit of the club as it exists today.