Spectres of Cruijff: The Legacy of La Masia, Totaalvoetbal, and the 3-4-3 – Part 2 of 3

No revolution, save those of a less forcible nature, ever was bloodless. Abundant are the footballing annals with lost ideals – sweepers; Catenaccio; the 2-3-5; Zona Mista – jettisoned from erstwhile impregnable positions of power: an ever-evolving sport whose arbiters constantly respond to a prevailing zeitgeist, attempting to unpick opposing teams’ tactical orthodoxies in the spirit of progress.

'Mutiny in the Camp Nou'

Johan Cruijff’s La Masia project, however, was born of a distinctly unorthodox necessity. Prior to the Dutchman’s reign, the Barcelona squad, led by captain José Ramón Alexanco, staged a protest, recognised colloquially as the ‘Hesperia Mutiny’ in honour of the hotel at which it took place, against President Núñez’s parsimonious leaning: “Núñez doesn’t feel the colours of the club, nor does he love the fans”, came an impassioned declaration from midfielder Victor Muñoz. “He only loves himself”.

And money. Players had already been denied increased wages; now they were ostensibly under strict instruction from Blaugrana officials to cover additional tax payments demanded by the Spanish treasury. With internecine war afoot, and having finished sixth in La Liga, the club’s worst domestic campaign since 1941/42, Barcelona were steadily disintegrating into an international laughing stock: something had to give for this once palatial ship now sinking in tumultuous waters. Six days later, by the time Cruijff eventually assumed control, only Alexanco and goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta had survived the ignominious curtailment of duty suffered by their fellow mutineers. Núñez had won, again.

That El Flaco’s own playing career had first been forged within the venerated system of De Toekomst – Ajax’s youth academy – therefore proved somewhat fortuitous. Diminished funds had ineluctably denied him a certain laxity in transfer dealings, so the outsourcing of Basque professionals José Maria Bakero, Txiki Begiristain, Julio Salinas and Andoni Goikoetxea notwithstanding, Cruijff’s reconstructed squad still lacked sufficient depth. La Masia therefore became an imperative, if welcome, point of recourse; the infrastructure Cruijff had heretofore so bravely espoused, a belief doubtless grounded a posteriori in his formative experiences at Ajax, finally had to yield fruit, and fast.

Cruijff in the Barça dugout

It did. Owing much to the typically misprized wisdom of Oriol Tort, Barça’s chief scout, through to the senior squad steadily trickled a rivulet of endogenously farmed players well versed in the intricate precepts of Totaalvoetbal: first Guillermo Amor and eventual renegade Luis Milla, followed thereafter by Sergi Barjuán and Albert Ferrer. Their assimilation, however, signified more than a concerted effort to simply ‘make up the numbers’: the dexterity with which Cruijff had masterfully weaved his systemic web, his transfiguration of lifeless matter into an autarkic, self-sufficient organism, would quickly turn out to present unto opposing managers an irresolvable Gordian knot. During the Dutchman’s inaugural season, La Blaugrana toppled Sampdoria 2-0 to win the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup; by June 1995, the club had obtained ten more trophies, a collection including four consecutive La Liga titles and, remarkably – in light of their recent dominance in the competition – an unprecedented European Cup.

An Abridged List of La Masia Graduates During Johan Cruijff’s Tenure

Player Name  Year of Birth  Position Career Appearances* Goals Scored
Guillermo Amor 1967 Central Midfield 451 58
Sergi Barjuán 1971 Left Back 394 10
Albert Ferrer 1970 Right Back 344 3
Pep Guardiola 1971 Central Midfield 378 17
Antonio Pinilla 1971 Centre Forward 569 115
Lluís Carreras 1972 Left Back 333 34
Luis Cembranos 1972 Right Midfield 246 45
Óscar García 1973 Attacking Midfield 274 57
Jordi Cruyff 1974 Attacking Midfield 299 55
Albert Celades 1975 Defensive Midfield 281 15
Iván de la Peña 1976 Central Midfield 331 25
Roger García 1976 Left Midfield 284 35
Toni Velamazán 1977 Attacking Midfield 419 48

*excluding international appearances

Perhaps, then, life’s true measure of greatness lies not just in that which has already been, but in that which is to be, to become known. If so, Cruijff sits deservedly atop the celestial hierarchy of footballing gods, sceptre and orb in hand. Most befitting a man persistently one step ahead of his contemporaries is the fact that his managerial vision has since proven similarly fatidic: Barça, replete with academy graduates Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, have continued to enjoy copious domestic and European success, accompanying a certain Josep Guardiola – once the Dutchman’s protégé and first-choice ‘Regista‘ – to fourteen trophies in just four years. So the Cruijffian spectre continues to haunt; a numinous cloud, waltzing through the Kronoic flotsam washed up on our cosmic dance-floor. Indeed, as Guardiola himself so eloquently proposed, “Johan Cruijff painted the chapel; Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it”.

Of course, Cruijff’s development of La Masia was, perhaps, less a Michelangelian invocation of the divine, more an empirical attempt to resolve pressing issues. Nevertheless, similarities between two of life’s fabled artists abound: while Cruijff’s chapel remains topographically rooted within the Catalonian border, it has nevertheless received, and engendered awe in, many foreign eyes. Sir Alex Ferguson’s ‘Class of ’92’ collectively rose to prominence soon after suffering a 4-0 away defeat at the hands of Cruijff’s ‘Dream Team’ in the 1994/95 Champions League; Mauricio Pochettino’s youth-orientated approach at Tottenham Hotspur, too, harbours spectral echoes of Cruijff, a connection further buttressed by the Argentine’s personal gesture of respect – changing his WhatsApp photo to a picture of them together – in the wake of El Flaco’s passing.

Still the chapel stands, steadfastly resisting demolition. Still its influence continues to course through the ever-protuberant vessels of this beautiful game.

Cruijff and Guardiola



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