The late, great Johan Cruyff marked a ‘before and after’ in the history of FC Barcelona, with a legacy that still holds true today both at the Camp Nou and among millions of LaLiga fans across the world.
Cruyff’s unique achievements as both a player and coach at Barcelona made him one of the most influential figures in the history of LaLiga, thanks to his revolutionary ideas on the game and his strength of personality in driving through that change.
Incredible as it may seem today, Barça had not won a LaLiga title for 13 years when he first arrived at the Camp Nou as a player with the 1973/74 season having already started. The blaugrana had started the campaign in rotten form and found themselves in the relegation zone. But the former Ajax attacker quickly galvanised the side, and they romped to the LaLiga title by ten points.
After five seasons in Catalonia he moved to the North American Soccer League (NASL), first with the Los Angeles Aztecs and then with the Washington Diplomats, before returning to LaLiga with Levante. But the lure of the Camp Nou was always too much for Cruyff to resist, and he returned as coach in 1990. Barcelona once again found themselves on a downer, having won just one LaLiga title in the almost two decades since Cruyff’s debut season and with Real Madrid’s legendary Quinta del Buitre team – featuring the likes of Emilio Butragueño, Michel and Hugo Sanchez – having won five league titles in a row.
The Dutchman got to work and quickly rebuilt the team, mixing homegrown talent Pep Guardiola and Guillermo Amor with established Spain internationals Andoni Zubizarreta and Txiki Begiristain and international talents Ronaldo Koeman, Michael Laudrup and Hristo Stoichkov.
The new-look side went top of the table on week two, and remained there all year, finishing ten points ahead of second-placed Atletico de Madrid to claim the 1990/91 LaLiga trophy.
The following three campaigns were each more dramatic than the next, with the title race going down to the wire each time. Real Madrid led the standings going into the final day of 1991/92 and 1992/93, but amazingly slipped up both times against a Tenerife team coached by former Blancos centre-forward Jorge Valdano. Cruyff’s Barca held their nerve each year to move in front on finish the line and take the trophy.
But the 1993/94 season finale was perhaps the most dramatic of them all. RC Deportivo only needing to match Barça’s result vs Sevilla in their own home match against Valencia to seal their first-ever LaLiga title, having led the table for months. With Barcelona winning 5-2 against Sevilla as stoppage time approached, Depor were tied at 0-0, only for a penalty to be awarded a penalty in added-on time. Depor’s regular penalty taker that season, Bebeto, had missed a few leading up the game and had asked to be relieved from duties. With his replacement Donato off the pitch already, the responsibility fell to centre-back Miroslav Djukic… and he missed, handing Barcelona a fourth consecutive LaLiga title in the most dramatic fashion imaginable.
1992 also saw Cruyff’s Barça side really earn their ‘Dream Team’ nickname by winning the club’s long-awaited first European Cup title, with Koeman’s famous free-kick goal in extra-time beating Sampdoria in the final at Wembley and putting to rest the bad memories of their defeat to Steaua Bucharest in Seville six years before.
That four-in-a-row spell was the most successful in Barça history for trophies won, but also the most influential in terms of philosophy and style of play. Cruyff’s Ajax-influenced ideas were implanted in the Catalan capital, as he taught a special style of passing football to the team and instigated a true winning mentality around the club.
After retiring as coach in 1996, Cruyff remained around the Camp Nou, and often advised directors and coaches on big decisions. Each of the club’s other Champions League winning coaches – Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique – have a direct and meaningful link back to the Dutch master. “Cruyff built a cathedral here,” Guardiola said. “We just had to maintain it.”
World football went into mourning on March 24th 2016 when Cruyff passed away at the age of 68 after a battle with cancer. His name is still remembered with reverence at Barcelona and around LaLiga today.
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