All was not as it appeared in the summer of 1973 when Ajax of Amsterdam, winners of the last three European Cups, were in pre-season training. The new coach, George Knobel, asked the players to select the team captain for the new season. The great Johan Cruyff, last year’s captain, got seven votes – but Piet Keizer received twelve.
“Cruyff was furious” said teammate Jan Mulder. “To have his authority undermined like that was a deep insult. I saw it in his eyes. As soon as the question was put, he wanted to leave Ajax…”
Cruyff pretended he was OK with what had happened, but he wasted no time in calling his agent, saying; “You have to call Barcelona immediately. I’m leaving here”.
Cruyff’s move to Barcelona brought an end to Ajax’s golden age (they’d have to wait 22 years to win the European Cup again) but the arrival of Cruyff was the moment Barca entered the arena of modern football.
For two decades Real Madrid had dominated Spanish football, with the genius of Di Stefano as a catalyst. In that time Real Madrid had won 13 league titles to Barca’s 2, the last of which came in 1960. 13 years was too long to go without a league title and they desperately needed to build a team capable of challenging Real Madrid.
Barcelona paid Ajax $1million (£922,000), setting a new world record transfer fee at that time. Bureaucratic problems meant Cruyff didn’t take to the field of play for two months. When he finally lined-up, Barcelona were bottom of the league, but his influence was immediate. He scored twice on his debut in a 4-0 rout of Granada.
Barcelona wouldn’t lose another league match that season, the undisputed highlight of which was a historical 0-5 victory against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium.
That victory was (and still is) hugely celebrated. It meant much more than just a victory against a title challenger. Catalonians had suffered under Franco’s dictatorship, their language and culture was forbidden and they’d always felt that Real Madrid was favoured by the regime. And now they had thrashed their biggest rivals in their house of worship.
Cruyff scored an incredible goal against Atlético Madrid when he jumped high to hit with his right foot a ball that was going out. The so called “phantom goal” earned them a 2-1 victory that would gave Barcelona the lead in La Liga, a lead they would hold onto until the end of the season, winning the league title eight points ahead of Atlético Madrid.
In the 5 years that Cruyff stayed in Barcelona the club emerged from the shadows achieving international recognition as one of the world’s biggest clubs.
But the significance of Cruyff was greater than that. Cruyff stole the hearts of the Catalonian people in what were dark times. Cruyff was seen as an icon of the country, a feeling that grew when he named his son Jordi, after the patron saint of Catalonia and a name that was forbidden at that time in Spain. Cruyff changed FC Barcelona as a player – and he’d do it again years later as a manager.
by Karl Hofer