Hugo Benitez/El Flaco wrote an excellent piece on the Swedish football site SvenskaFans describing the story of how our Club came to play in its characteristic way. From the very start, the style was thanks to a man named Laureano Ruiz. With the author’s permission, totalBarça has translated his great piece, which can be found below. The original article, in Swedish, can be found here.
Laureano Ruiz – the man behind Barça’s playing philosophy
With all due respect to Johan Cruyff and Oriol Tort, the man who laid the foundation for the philosophy and the ideas about football that symbolize the Club today was Laureano Ruiz, a man from Cantabria who believed the players’ technique was more important than their physical attributes.
A Juvenil game revolutionized the club
The 15th of April 1972. Barcelona’s Juvenil A were playing the final of the Copa Catalunya against CF Damm, a team that had gotten their name from a beer brand. In the stands 15,000 spectators sat down and in the honor stand you could find the Catalan football federation president, the Spanish Juvenil national team coach, and several directors from FC Barcelona, among them president Agusti Montal and first team coach Rinus Michels.
The Juvenil team was coached by Josep Maria Minguella, who would later become a powerful agent and who, through his contacts, came to hear about a certain Lionel Messi. The expectations were high as Barça’s Juvenil A team hadn’t won a title for years. But they were defeated by Damm 3-2 and the loss was seen as a huge disaster. Right after the final whistle Montal left his seat and went down the stairs, running into a journalist to whom he said, “Something has to be done. This is unacceptable. I can accept a loss against a football team, but not to a beer company!”
Soon thereafter, during the summer of 1972, the club contacted Laureano Ruiz, who at the time was working as youth team coach at Racing Santander. He was given the job as coach for the Juvenil A team and coordinator for the other three Juvenil teams. During the next five years, the team would be crowned both Catalan and Spanish champions every year. Before that spell, they had only won the Spanish trophy twice in their history, in 1951 and 1959. Ruiz had a clear vision when he took over and from day one he would imprint his training methods and his playing style on the youth teams. Under his leadership, his footballers started to play with a 3-4-3 formation and one year after he had gotten the job, he convinced the Club that every youth team should play in the same way.
In 1974 he was named the main coordinator for the whole academy. Thereafter, he quickly became aware of the huge responsibility he now had for all of the youngsters he was in charge of. When he asked his players what they did when they didn’t have practice, they all answered the same way: “Míster, I play football”. Ruiz became horrified knowing that most of them wouldn’t become professionals and he choose to talk to the board about it. Together they made the decision to force all the players to choose between two alternatives: to work or study. Ruiz understood that at their young age it was just as important, or even more so, to develop and raise them as people.
The founder and visionary
To understand the importance and the impact Laureano Ruiz had, you first have to understand the situation the Club was in at that time. Barça supporters weren’t used to success at that time, unlike today. When they won the League title in 1974, it was the first time they had been Spanish champions since 1960. The mentality that prevailed at the Club was very different from today. They were much more interested in big, strong players and devalued short players, no matter how good they were with the ball. At the Club’s main office there were a sign on the wall that said “turn around if you are here to offer a Juvenil player that is shorter than 1.80m”. One of the first things Ruiz did when he got hired was to take that sign down. The ‘Rondo’, the now legendary exercise that you can see the first team players do at training sessions every day, was first practiced thanks to Ruiz, a man who was convinced that touch, technique, and playing intelligence were a player’s most important skills.
Ruiz may have won titles with Juvenil A, but the real battle was to come internally inside the Club. There was an idea from many years back that you had to go for the tall and strong players. So when Ruiz started to sign short but talented players, he had to fight to have his will and vision accepted. In an interview with journalist Martí Perarnau in the beginning of his time at the club, Ruiz said: “The first thing I did was to organise games so that I could see them play, and I got a file with their strengths and which players the Club was counting on and which ones they weren’t. Some of them I directly saw weren’t good enough to make it, but when I looked in the file it said they were good and were going to continue at the Club. And it was the reverse with the ones I liked. Among them were Fortes and Corominas, but they were short. During the coming three weeks I fought a personal war with myself because I liked the two players, but they had been in the Club since they were 8 years old and I said to myself: ‘Laureano, they have known them since they were kids and maybe they are right’. But the more I saw them play, the more I liked them and in two years they were both in the first team. None of the other players that were a lot more physically strong, but whom I didn’t believe in, made it to a professional level. Those were the ideas at the Club then.”
There were many who had been at the Club for years who were skeptical of Ruiz’s ideas. One day a group of youth coaches came to him and said: “Your players never run, what are they doing? They have to run to get resilient and strong!” Ruiz answered: “When are we then going to teach them to play football if we use all the time teaching them to run?”. During the 70s coaches were convinced that you first should build up the player’s physiques and then, when they were about 17 years old, you would teach them to play football. Ruiz turned everything upside-down with his idea that it was more important to teach the youngsters how to treat the ball.
In a conversation with Albert Puiga, an ex-youth coach at Barcelona and today Guillermo Amor’s right hand as manager of La Masia, Ruiz explained his football philosophy: “Let us say that you and I coach two teams with kids that are 10, 11, and 12 years old and all are about equally good. You try to teach them to play good football, a passing game and with tactical basics while I tell mine to only play long balls and try to shoot. I can assure you that [at first] I will always win against you, by using your mistakes. Break a bad pass and goal. If we however continue with the same training methods during a three year period, you will most likely win every game against us. Your players will have learned how to play while mine haven’t. That’s how easy it is.”
In 1976 Barcelona fired its first team coach Hennes Weisweller and Ruiz took over. During his short time as manager of the first team, he promoted defender ‘Tente’ Sánchez, which wasn’t a popular decision in Can Barça considering that he had been sitting on the bench in the B team and to add to that he was short. Sánchez would years later take his place in the first team and even become captain. Other players Ruiz helped to develop were Lobo Carrasco, Calderé, Rojo, Padraza, Mortalla, and Estella. Every single one earning a place in the first team.
But it wasn’t only talent that was important for a player’s development according to Ruiz, it was also a lot of will and hard work. Some years later, as the coach for Catalan school Escolapios de Sarrí, he held trials together with some colleagues. After they were done Ruiz drew attention to a boy who stood by himself kicking a ball against the wall. He walked up to him and asked him what he was doing and the boy answered that he was waiting for his dad to come and pick him up. Ruiz turned to the other coaches and wanted to know more about the young kid and they told him that he wasn’t bad, but that he didn’t have any future as a professional. Ruiz told them that he thought they were wrong. He had seen a boy with so much hope and will that he knew he would eventually make it. The boy’s name was Albert Ferrer and he saw his dream come true when he earned a place in Cruyff’s dream team.
Laureano Ruiz left FC Barcelona in 1978. During his six years in the Catalan capital he had revolutionized the youth academy, making the Club go for small and technically skilled players, and planting the seed for what would come to be the Barça style on the pitch. But despite his influence, it would take many more years before the Club could reap the rewards from his hard and invaluable work. After he had left, the club fell into a long identity crisis in which the first team changed playing styles as often as they changed coaches. Tito Vilanova remembers this time clearly. According to the current assistant coach, there was a clear playing model when he and Pep arrived at La Masia as kids with coaches like Charly Rexach, Quique, Costas, Olmo, De la Cruz, and Artola. Under Rexach’s leadership, Vilanova and the others learned to play exactly in the same way as the first team does today. The problem was, according to Tito Vilanova, that this playing style was only used in the academy and not in the first team, where under the leadership of Englishman Terry Venables at that time, they used a more direct game, and it made it harder for the B team players to adapt when they were promoted.
The teams lacked continuity and to top it off, the players themselves started to believe that without strong physiques, it would be impossible to have a future as a football player. There is an anecdote about Josep Guardiola when he was 15 years old. The doctors were going to do tests on him to estimate how tall he would be when he got older. Pep was told that he would be taller than 1.80m and he had an outburst of joy, convinced that that was all it took to become a professional football player. Today Guardiola has shown that he no longer attaches any significance at all to such a test.
Talking about Pep, during his time at La Masia he got to go up against Ruiz. It was in 1984 and Ruiz was coaching Escolapios. To celebrate a special occasion at the school, FC Barcelona was invited to play a game. The Infantil team went there and defeated the home side. Afterwards, Laureano Ruiz went to talk to the Barça Infantil coach Roca. They had earlier worked together at Barcelona and during the conversation Ruiz mentioned that Roca’s team had scored two goals on corner kicks with a corner variant that Ruiz had taught. Roca answered that his kids had only trained together for four days and that it was impossible that they had learned that variation in such a short time. Ruiz didn’t believe him and turned to the Barça players. He asked who had taken the corners and two boys raised their hands. Ruiz asked where they had learned it, and they answered that they had seen the older kids do the same exercises. One of the young boys was Josep Guardiola.
It would take until 1988 and the arrival of Johan Cruyff as first team coach before all the teams in the academy started to play in the same way, with the same model and philosophy. The circle was closed and even if Cruyff’s role was fundamental, one should not forget the importance of Laureano Ruiz, who was the person who first started to believe in a 3-4-3 formation with talented small players and the importance of playing beautiful football.
The problem was that Ruiz didn’t have the Dutch charisma and personality to be able to convince people inside the Club from the start, something that Ruiz himself acknowledges. In 1991 when Ruiz was coaching Racing de Santander’s youth teams, he received a visit from Oriol Tort, one of the most symbolic people in Barça’s history (the new La Masia even carries his name). Tort had come to take a look on De la Peña and when Ruiz asked him what he thought about the youngster, Tort answered that he looked very promising. Ruiz also asked what he thought about Munitis and Ivan Helguera and Tort answered that they all were very good, but that they weren’t the Club’s priorities at the moment. “So sad that they are short, right?” said Ruiz with a smile. Tort jumped and replied: “Laureano, talent is the only thing that matters!”. Ruiz then started to laugh. “Don’t you remember that that was what I said during all my years at Barcelona and you all just discouraged me?”. “Yes, yes I remember, but el Flaco (Cruyff) has changed the way we see football.”
The eternal wisdom
Laureano Ruiz was the grandfather who planted the seed, Cruyff was the father who nurtured the idea and helped it grow, and Guardiola is the heir who is reaping the rewards. That was what Martí Perarnau wrote in his book about the origins of Barcelona’s playing style and how the Club is working to continue delivering future cracks from La Masia. And everything started with that loss against CF Damm in the Copa Catalunya that made the Club hire Ruiz as coach for Juvenil A. He laid the foundation for what we are seeing and experiencing today. A football romantic who believed that it isn’t about choosing between winning or playing beautifully, but that by playing well the chances of winning increase.
Laureano Ruiz is today working as the director for a communal football school in Santander. Every year he becomes responsible for 700 kids. To make them understand what is expected of them, Ruiz will repeat this phrase: “The better you play, the more you will enjoy it. If you succeed in playing well or score a great goal you will achieve happiness. That should be your main goal, not to win the game!”
Some years ago the school played a game against Racing, the region’s biggest team and a superior opponent. They kept their positions, showed a great attitude, but lost in the final minutes. Ruiz had as a habit never entered the dressing room, but he did it this time to congratulate his players. He found them in tears and with sunken heads and he said: “You haven’t lost. When you play with such a will and give your all, then you never lose.”
La fuerza de un sueño – los caminos del exito (2010) – Albert Puig
Senda de campeones – de La Masia al Camp Nou (2011) – Martí Perarnau
Written by Hugo Benitez/El Flaco (SvenskaFans);