In the past several years, tactical, defensive football gained an upper hand over beautiful football. But when everyone else gave up hope, there is one team that refused to understand that you cannot win titles with beautiful football anymore. In the end however, their long patience and belief in beautiful football made them the world’s best and most loved club.
There are different ways of playing football. Some are beautiful and fun to watch, while others can be dull, but are said to be a masterstroke tactically. Over the last 20 years the fun and beautiful way of playing football had started to disappear and was deemed as just a dream. Team after team seems to have taken the decision that playing aesthetically wouldn’t work to win titles. Teams that played tactically were getting better and better. Even the Brazilian national team, who pretty much owned the copyright to the beautiful game, gave up during the 90′s. The country was traumatized over the hard and repeated losses that the Zico and Socrates team had suffered.
Barcelona however, stood up to the pressure and did not change the way they played. They didn’t want to hear about the tactics of managers like Herreira and Fabio Capello, who ruled the world with their tactical but boring football: holding tight back and going for fast counterattacks. In Barcelona they stuck to the beautiful style that they call “el toqué”–the word means touch. With touch after touch the players, with short passing, spin a web. Sometimes it can take time. The team needs to be patient before a gap opens in the opponents’ defense. Finally the fly will get trapped in the woven web. All the time the team searches for offensive alternatives and presses the opponents deep in their own half.
Barcelona have year after year held on to this way of playing, the offensive, fun and beautiful style. It all started with Rinus Michels, who took over as coach for the club in 1971. The Dutchman was the first to bring the style which the club stands for today–Total Football. In total football, no player is fixed in his nominal role; each player is an attacker, a midfielder or a defender as the situation dictates. This rendered Catenaccio useless as mere man-marking was not enough to contain total football. Michels left the club in 1974 and everything went back to normal again. The club changed coaches and playing styles nearly every season, until another Dutchman took over as coach in 1988: the great Johan Cruyff. As a player, Cruyff won 1 Spanish League title and 1 Copa del Rey for FC Barcelona, and was already a legend in the club. He was seen as the one who breathed new life into the club and also the country of Catalonia. The 5-0 win over Real Madrid on a February night in 1974 was a victory that still today is considered as a political statement for Catalonia’s independence.
So when the club’s “Dutch Revenge Angel” appeared as Coach, everyone in Barcelona bought every word he said. “Cruyff is always right!” was something that everyone already knew, especially Cruyff himself.
He only accepted one playing style. The style his successful Ajax had played during the 70s. Johan copied many commandments from Ajax and together with his Catalan accomplices, he refined the Ajax style and added some Barça ingredients. It wasn’t only the first team who Cruyff made to play in that way, but he also changed the whole youth academy at the club. One simple but efficient thing that he introduced was that all the teams in the club would do all exercises with the ball.
Still today, the first team and youth teams at Barça play in the way Cruyff introduced over 20 years ago. Some things have changed and been refined but the basics are the same. When everyone else has given up hope of the beautiful game, FC Barcelona have retained the hope and believe in it. For over 20 years players have been nurtured in the clubs academy with one playing style “el toqué.” There is a myth that says that you can’t win by playing beautifully, a myth Barça supporters often keep alive. “It always end with us losing after a tragic goal in the final minutes.” But the truth is that hardly any clubs have won more than Barça during the last 20 years. Barcelona has collected ten Spanish League titles, six Spanish Cups, three Champions League trophies, one European Super Cup, two European Cup Winners Cups, and even the Club World Cup.
There are different theories why Barcelona decided to play with this style when everyone else gave up. One is that Real Madrid had always won more titles, and because of that Barça have been looking for comfort in the fact that their games at least are fun to watch. Another theory is that this playing style has been an oppressed nation’s way of saying that Catalonia is different. The truth is that the team won its first ever European title in 1992 by passing and pressuring throughout the match.
For everyone in the club and the town a belief grew up that “this is how we play, this is our style.”
For the Euro 2008 the Spanish National team (which hadn’t won a major title in more than half a century) “borrowed“ the Barça style and some of the best Barça players. The result was a European gold. After that Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol went home and joined up with Messi, Dani Alvés and the others and took off. When the season was over the team had won everything possible to win, playing with the beautiful style, the condemned style, the style you couldn’t win any titles with anymore. In the next season the team once again delighted the world with the style that once had been condemned. In the end they only won the league title, but it was Barça people were talking about, not the European champions, Inter. Then it was time for the World Cup and Spain once again “borrowed” the Barça style, this time with three more Barça players (Pedro, Busquets, and Valdes). The team came home as World Champions for the first time ever.
When Barcelona won every title in one year, some people still saw the style as condemned. They said that it was a one time happening and that the tactical style would once again rule football. In one way they were right, as Inter with the tactics of José Mourinho won the Champions League the year after. But the beautiful style isn’t condemned anymore and FC Barcelona’s success is making people aware of that fact. This season they have been better than ever before and for many they are the best team the game has ever seen. One of this team’s most celebrated victories during this season is the 5-0 El Clasico and that says a bit. Goals have been going in and records have been falling like snowflakes in Scandinavia.
Today many big clubs still don’t have their own playing style. Most clubs do what Barcelona did 20 years ago, change coaches and playing styles as each new season starts or even more often. In Barcelona however, there is a security that wasn’t there before and that many teams don’t have: a playing Identity. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is. Barça always play in the same way, always with their playing style. They don’t have a Plan B and no defensive “park the bus in front of the goal” game. No. Here, the only thing that exists is the offensive, entertaining Barça game. This is one of the things that make Fútbol Club Barcelona special, one club that in over 20 years has refused to change their belief and that in the next 20 years won’t do it either, a club where beautiful football is the only thing that is acceptable.
Today we Barça supporters can be happy that our club decided to play in this way over 20 years ago and since then has never given it up. There have been many hard times, many bad results. But in the end, we now don’t only play beautiful football; we also win titles and it’s our team that plays the football that for some is the best there has ever been. We, as fans of FC Barcelona, must be thankful to everyone that has worked for our club during these years to make our team what it is today.