“Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring.” – Johan Cruyff
When I was thirteen years old I lived in Madrid Spain for one magical year. I learned a lot about Spanish culture, language, and sport. I went to an elite private school known as Colegio Estudio which was an hour away from our house and where the kids would loudly chant Franco, Franco, Franco in the bathrooms and gym dressing rooms in rabid support of the dictator. I went to a lot of museums and traveled extensively around the country with my parents who were obsessed with seeing as much of Spain as possible during the nine months we were there. I learned how to speak proper Castellano (which is what the Spanish call the language since it originates from this province), and how to order tapas and the occasional glass of vino tinto at a bar.
I also fell in love with the sport of futbol by watching Johann Cruyff play what may have been the finest seasons of his illustrious career. For me Cruyff was my first soccer love, and to this date I revere him as one of the best players the world has ever seen.
We ended up in Spain because my parents had obtained a scholarship to do research work on Middle Ages poetry in Spain for the 1973-1974 academic year. We settled into an apartment in the outskirts of Madrid in a complex of 4 20 story buildings right next to the Madrid Amusement Park. From the balcony of our tenth floor apartment, off to the right, I could see a soccer stadium located about 2 kilometers away. When there were games at night, I would see the stadium light up and I longed to go to one of the games, mostly because I didn’t know much about soccer (or futbol as it is known in spanish speaking countries). As a young kid I was already fascinated with other sports, mostly baseball, basketball, and American football.
One day a Spanish man named Martin and a woman involved with the research project came over to have dinner. The conversation drifted between various topics of Spanish culture. Martin was very knowledgeable about all things Spanish and he talked about a lot of different things. I mostly remember his rambling about bullfighting (a truly Spanish sport) and futbol. He cited that the two most important teams in Spanish soccer were Real Madrid and Barcelona. They were the two biggest clubs, hailing from the two largest cities in Spain, they had the two largest and most energetic fan bases, and they had dominated the league for what appeared to be decades. Real Madrid had dominated the 1950’s with legendary players such as DiStefano, Puskas, Gento, and Kopa were led by the president Santiago Bernabeu and had won 5 European Champions League Cups in the decade.
I asked Martin if Real Madrid played in the stadium that was visible from our apartment and he informed me that this was not the Bernabeu (Real Madrid’s home) but the Vicente Calderon, which was the home of Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid’s arch-enemy from the capitol city, but not their most important rival. He went on to tell me that although the Madrid Darby was important, it paled in comparison to the Real-Barcelona rivalry, which was not only the most important in Spanish Futbol, but one of the largest in the entire world of soccer.
In the summer of 1973, Barcelona had signed a very good footballer from the Netherlands named Johan Cruyff. Barcelona was going through a down period and had not won the Spanish Championship since 1960. Cruyff, with his genius, changed all that. He made other pretty good players around him so much better (Rexach the tall elegant midfielder and Hugo Sotil, the diminutive Bolivian forward are the ones I liked the most). Barcelona played with a style that I really liked even though I didn’t know anything about soccer tactics back then. Their game flowed back and forth between offense and defense. I think Cruyff and Rinus Michel, the Barca coach who was also from the Netherlands were implementing the Dutch idea of total football. Even though I had no idea what it was, it was a beautiful thing to watch.
I watched the first Clasico that year as Cruyff Barca team thrashed the Merengues 5-0 at the Bernabeu. Martin, who was a Real Madrid fan, called the following day, quite despondent. He told me that I had witnessed the worst possible defeat a team could absorb, especially from against their bitter rivals. From then on, the scoreline 5-nil has become magical to me and whenever I see one team beat another by that scoreline, I immediately identify it with that past Barcelona result.
Cruyff’s other magical moment that I remember vividly came during a game played at the Vicente Calderon. On a cool evening in November, 1973, Cruyff scored what is now known as the phantom goal. He leaped high into the air to knock a cross that had already gone past the far post with his heel past the stunned Atletico keeper. I was watching the game on TV but I would occasionally step onto the balcony where you could hear the noise of the stadium when fans celebrated a good play. After Cruyff scored his legendary goal I quickly went to the balcony. Although I didn’t hear anything coming from the nearby stadium, I felt as if a magic wave emanated from his foot all the way to the apartment balcony. The goal is still amazing even by viewed through today’s hyper athletic prism. It was an act of pure genius and it is one of the goals that is forever etched into my collective soccer memory. It is the kind of goal that you try to emulate, and if you can’t actually do it, you imagine yourself doing it, you dream about doing it.
Although Cruyff was a brilliant and transcendent player, many are now proclaiming Cruyff’s greatest legacy to be the practices he instituted at the Barcelona club, both while he was there as a player and then when he was head coach starting in 1988. Cruyff was responsible for starting Barcelona’s youth academy at La Masia and introducing the tiki-taka style of ball movement and possession. More importantly, he was responsible for establishing the way that the club teaches promising players that style of football for generations to come. It is without a doubt that Barcelona has been the best club in the world for the past 20 years, with all of their Champions Leagues (4), Interncontinental Cups (3), La Liga titles (10), and Copa del Reys (5) to boot.
What I know for sure is that Cruyff was absolutely a pleasure to watch. I fell madly in love with the sport watching him play for Barcelona those years. I returned to Spain in 1998 and went to the Camp Nou and saw and relived the moments from that season.
I may have lived in Madrid, but thanks to Cruyff, my favorite player of all time, I became a Barcelona fan for life.