August 13, 1973.
Almost exactly 43 years ago, Ajax Amsterdam and FC Barcelona agreed to terms and Johan Cruyff signed a record transfer fee to become a Barça player. Cruyff was insistent that he end up in the Catalan capital, going so far as to threaten a boycott of the 1974 World Cup to pressure the Dutch federation into cooperating with his exit from the Netherlands.
Barring some manner of omniscience, nobody involved in brokering that deal for Barça truly knew how important Cruyff was destined to become. If they had known, they may well have paid even more.
— Barça OTD (@barcaotd) August 13, 2016
Graham Hunter explains it as clearly as anyone in his 2012 book “Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World.” He writes, “Without him, there would be no Pep Guardiola, no Messi, no Xavi and no Andrés Iniesta… [He] created the conditions which allowed these incredible players to be recognized… Without Cruyff, this story simply wouldn’t exist.” Here, Hunter captures the true essence of what all culés owe to Cruyff: the identity of the club’s modern era. The footballing identity which gave the world La Masia and developed into a group that’s won over 20 trophies in the last eight years, is in large part due to Cruyff. However any viewer feels about him personally, there’s no way around Cruyff’s place in the narrative. From the fateful signature in 1973 until today, even after his passing, Cruyff’s presence echoes from the pitch, to the bench, to the boardroom.
Cruyff’s influence reverberates into a culture, beyond the immediacy of football. When I say that, I mean that the man did nothing by half, and we were seldom left wondering where he stood on an issue. That attitude is part of what helped bring him to Barcelona in the first place — Real Madrid had courted him, but he didn’t want to play for what he deemed a “fascist club.” His refusal to compromise his principles made him a great man, just as his vision and tactics made him a superlative athlete and coach.
Similarly, consider the circumstances of Jordi Cruyff’s birth. It’s a story that’s stuck with me since the earliest days of my interest in football. Jordi was born during Spain’s Francoist period, when the Catalan language was illegal. Cruyff, firm in his politics and shrewd in the understanding of his unique position, decided to name his Dutch-born son for the patron saint of Catalonia. Spanish officials told him Jordi would need to be registered under the Spanish name “Jorge.” Instead, as Jordi explained to ESPN after Johan’s passing, he told them, “My son has a Dutch passport, I can call him what I like and his name is Jordi… I’m not going to make a scandal, but tell your bosses it will become a scandal.” This, just as much as his contributions in the 5-0 victory over Real Madrid that same week, sealed his place in culé’s hearts.
I touch on these moments not to appeal to sentiment — or rather, not only to appeal to sentiment — but because FC Barcelona does not exist in a 90 minute, match-long vacuum. “Més que un club” is not just something branded on Nike gear, and Cruyff helped make it that way.
After Johan passed in March, I went to the memorial set up at the Camp Nou and saw firsthand how affected fans, staff, and the squad themselves were by the loss. I felt as if I was mourning a family member, a raw and visceral grief that took me by surprise. In the moments that I spent laying down a rose and trying to halt an unexpected flood of tears, I began to understand. It’s as Hunter said: All of the success Barça has had belongs in part to Cruyff. Every trophy, every goal, and every pass took root in his mind and his own game, and without him, the club’s history might have gone incredibly differently. The enormity of that, coupled with the loss of it, is devastating.
Johan Cruyff: "To enjoy watching the games of Barcelona is much more important than just winning." pic.twitter.com/PQMWDiK08x
— Leo Messi (@messi10stats) August 14, 2016
So now Barça finds itself, inevitably, at the opening of another season. It’s 43 years after the fact, almost as long as Luis Enrique has been alive. Football, and Barça itself, are markedly different from how they were in the 1970s, and yet this squad could truly do nothing better than to play to Cruyff’s philosophy. To continue doing so will win them titles and it will win them respect.
In March, Pep Guardiola said that “[Cruyff] has made us love this sport so openly that there’s no way we can forget him.” Barça will most assuredly have ups and downs this season, from histronics to “Hlebuary.” But it’s simple enough for us to close the page on tax scandals, goalkeeper feuds, and contract extensions. Que será, será. The squad will play, and they’re likely to win a quite a lot. We’re all just along for the ride, and luckier for it that we’re witnessing a group who have benefited from Cruyff’s example and his guidance.