It is 18th May in the year 1960, as Alfredo Di Stefano slots a goal past Eintracht Frankfurt in the 71st minute as the score reads 7-3 in favour of Real Madrid. The gap between them and their rivals was more comprehensive than ever.
For Barcelona, this goal, scored by a player who was initially supposed to join them, was just the start of a downward spiral. As Madrid won their fifth European Cup in a row, Barcelona were in the process of falling apart. Following club legend, Lászlo Kubala’s retirement, the sale of their best player Luis Suarez and the debt they were in due to the construction of the new stadium, Barcelona felt things couldn’t get wickeder.
In the 14 years that followed, they did not win a single league title whereas Madrid continued their winning spree. There was discontent among the supporters, and the Culés had turned against their players. Once a super-power, Barcelona had fallen.
This divide between them and the best was both on the field and off-the-field. Whereas the rest of Europe was undergoing immense change and progress, Spain was still under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. This feeling of stagnation was felt throughout Catalonia.
Amidst these circumstances, a messiah in the form of Johann Cruyff arrived at Barcelona. Before leaving, though, he made them the strongest club in the continent.
Symbol of Hope
Johann Cruyff was born in Amsterdam, close to Ajax’s stadium. His father passed away when he was a child, which according to him instilled a sense that he would not be able to live past that age either – which was one of the reasons for his liberal and progressive attitude and how he very much lived on his own terms.
He grew up idolising Dutch winger Faas Wilkes whose influences on his style of play were apparent later on. Progressing through the Ajax youth ranks, he went on to win everything with the Dutch club in his senior career. This was epitomised by his performance against Juventus as he clinched the European Super Cup against Juventus.
For Barcelona, Cruyff was a superstar. The star player of Rinus Michels’ revolutionary Ajax side, he joined Barcelona in 1973, a year after Michels was appointed as manager. For Catalonia, all their hopes were resting on the then 26-year-old, yet nobody expected him to have the impact that he did. Under new management, Barcelona employed Michels’ cutting-edge ‘total football’ style. The total football philosophy is such that every player must be able to play anywhere on the pitch with attacking, possession-based football, with intense pressing the core of it.
Johann Cruyff (bottom; centre) lines up for the second leg vs Liverpool in UEFA Super Cup semi final, in 1976. (Photo by Don Morley/Allsport/Getty Images)
In his first season, Barcelona won the Spanish League and went unbeaten which was an immense change from the Barcelona of a few years ago. This team was inspired by total football. They were extremely fluid, attacking, and played entertaining football.
On a more individual scale, Cruyff scored 24 goals in 38 appearances, won the Ballon D’Or as he led the Netherlands to the World Cup final and captained a Barcelona side which has finally found its feet and become a team that Catalonia was proud of.
Style of Play: The Cruyff Turn and More
It’s hard to pin down Cruyff positionally because of the nature of total football. In terms of starting positions, the Dutchman would start either as a number 9 or as an advanced playmaker in the attacking midfield. However, he would often move towards the wing to receive the ball and dribble at defenders, or drop into midfield to link the play. He was seen everywhere across the pitch and could be an asset to the team in each position.
“It’s like everything in football – and life. You need to look, you need to think, you need to move, you need to find space, you need to help others. It’s very simple in the end.”Johann Cruyff
Wherever he played, the Cruyff’s dribbling, awareness, and method stood out. The kind of technique you could see in most Dutch players from the time — playing with your head up, always scanning the pitch beforehand, and looking to progress with the ball up the slope. His dribbling was perpetually well-thought-out, and he had an eye for goal which made it easy for him to play higher up the pitch as well.
It’s only natural for active dribblers and creative players to make mistakes and lose possession when taking on players during the start of the match and gain momentum later on. Cruyff was incredibly confident, and would never miss an opportunity to show off his agility. Why would he not? For the majority of his life, he played on the streets, which was quite visible in his movement and measured bursts of pace as well as comfort in tight spaces.
The Cruyff Turn was a perfect example of the liberal and individual expressionism philosophies that were preached by the Ballon d’Or winner.
In the 1974 World Cup against Sweden, as Jan Olesen was looking to press him, Cruyff feinted a pass, followed by dragging it behind him and accelerating. The simplicity, yet efficiency of this has made it one of the most famous moves ever.
Based purely on ability alone, Cruyff was immaculate, boasting of the perfect first-touch, an inch-perfect pass, coupled with his excellent finishing made him a stand-out performer. To sum up Cruyff’s technique, we borrow the words of Dutch legend Marco van Basten.
“Johan is so technically perfect that even as a boy he stopped being interested in that aspect of the game. He could do everything when he was 20. That’s why he’s been very interested in tactics since he was very young. He sees football situations so clearly that he was always the one to decide how the game should be played.”Marco van Basten
Cruyff, the Fearless Enigma
Johann Cruyff was a player who led by example. His larger-than-life personality, his style of play, his abilities all added up to make him a player who was an inspiration for his teammates. On the pitch, Cruyff was the most vital part in making total football work. He was always instructing his teammates, making sure the team is level-headed throughout, ensuring successful position switches.
Football is a game you play with your mind.Johann Cruyff
Undoubtedly, he was worshipped by the people of Barcelona, and reciprocated that adoration in many forms, including naming his son Jordi after the patriot saint of the Catalonia.
In 1975 during a match against Malaga, Johann Cruyff was shown a red card which was perceived to be unfair by the majority of the stadium as well as the Dutchman himself. Being the kind of person he is, he expressed his discontent strongly to the referee.
The fans took to the field to attack the referee after he sent off Johann Cruyff. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
Franco’s police officers then came to escort him off the pitch. Reportedly, while leaving Cruyff took off his captain’s armband, the one emblazoned with the Catalan colours and kissed it while looking at the Camp Nou spectators. This story has been a symbol signifying the resistance of the Catalans against the woeful dictator to this day.
There is no greater medal than to be acclaimed for your style.Johann Cruyff
The Dutchman firmly believed that the physique and the mind work in unison for the body to perform at its peak. This was evident through his incredible intelligence on and off the pitch and the smart, fast football he played.
Cruyff was a sphinx in terms of his mindset and rather progressive for that day and age. So much so, that Rinus Michels hired two psychologists to understand him. His genius tactical understanding is quite apparent through his managerial career at Barcelona.
Cruyff’s legacy lives on forever. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
Maybe it was during the low point for the club at which he arrived, as a symbol and icon or maybe it was on 17th of February in 1974 during the 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid when he demonstrated the peak of his powers that Johann Cruyff became more than an icon and a huge personality; he became a leader, known not only for his style but as a representative of the club, of Catalonia, and of football.
Lionel Messi: The unconventional captain
“Here he is again. Here he is again. That’s astonishing! That’s absolutely world-class!” “Look at this, Kevin! It’s a brilliant run from Messi. Can he go all the way!” “But here’s Messi. Away from two…three…four. Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful!”
They say mere words cannot express beautiful stories. Yet these few lines are enough to send shivers down the spines of Barcelona fans all over the world. They bring back raw emotions of those glorious days of the past. Those fervent Champions League nights, Cup finals and El Clasicos. A point in time when all the ardent Barça supporters used to have their eyes glued to their TV screens to watch the magic unfold in front of them.
The all-conquering team donning the historic blue and red colours brought exuberant smiles on the faces of every Culér out there, and at the heart of it all, was one man — Lionel Messi. An outlier in a generation of extraordinary footballers.
Born in Rosario to working-class parents, Lionel Messi had relatively humble beginnings. But his passion and love for the beautiful game was apparent from the start. He was ready to give his all for the sport.
“He would never say no to anything. If I told him to run, he would run. If I told him to do an exercise, he would do it. All I had to do was to encourage and support him.”Enrique ‘Quique’ Dominguez | This is Football (Amazon Prime Documentary)
This quote from his coach Enrique Dominguez, during his Newell’s Young Boys days, goes to show that his dedication was not something he learnt. It was a virtue he already had from the beginning, etched on his heart from a very young age.
Life did not start at high speed for Lionel Messi. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
As with any artist, Messi had the sublime levels of talent and the desire to fight for his dreams. All he needed was a canvas to paint on. And when his father took him to Barcelona for trials, he caught his lucky break. Before he knew it, he had been picked up by Barcelona and thus began the journey that defined an era.
It was not plain sailing, though. A success story never is. Carles Rexach, Jospe Maria Minguella and Horacio Gaggioli, the three figures behind the signing, faced opposition from board members and coaches. To comply with FIFA regulations, they had to pay an amount unheard of for a player in the under 14s to keep him at Barcelona. Yet they took the risk, and Barcelona supporters all over are reaping the rewards today.
The False Nine
When talking about Lionel Messi, it is impossible not to talk about the false nine position under Pep Guardiola. It is not easy to become the very definition of a particular position, but the six-time Ballon d’Or winner managed to achieve the feat nonetheless.
Everyone knew Leo was going to be a world-beater when he began making headlines at the age of nineteen. But the true potential of Barça’s crown jewel was on display when Guardiola’s team destroyed Real Madrid 2-6 at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Lionel Messi left no scope for Real Madrid in this encounter back in 2009. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
A false nine is a centre forward who drops back between the lines of opposition players creating spaces and opportunities to score. ‘La Pulga’ excelled in the position because it took full advantage of his repertoire of sublime traits. Unlike most players, Messi possessed a lethal combination of skillsets that brought out the need for the use of such an unorthodox role.
Beleaguering defences at all times and causing havoc on the pitch was Messi’s job. However, he achieved it with unforeseen levels of elegance. Be it his mazy and intricate runs or his telepathic connection with midfielders like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, or with fullbacks like Dani Alves, Jordi Alba, the #10 never fails to surprise.
Messi’s understanding of the game allowed him to form sensational on-the-pitch connections. (Photo by Joern Pollex/Bongarts)
While he was a bodacious dribbler and a natural goal scorer, his supernatural passing and astounding vision made him a priceless asset. He was also a phenomenal reader of the game. But nothing was more important than his adept decision making. Not only was he almost always right in his choices, but he also made them at the blink of an eye.
“Its about understanding the game. When in every situation, he takes the right decision at the right moment. And every time, his decision is correct.”Pep Guardiola | This is Football (Amazon Prime Documentary)
A different kind of skipper
Leo Messi is, for the most part, a silent leader. His performances speak for themselves. Especially in recent times, when he has an off day, the team heavily suffers. His mere presence on the pitch is enough to lift the team spirit. He has a magical aura around him that can strike fear in even the toughest of players and one that can turn an average team into levels above.
The number of times the 800-capped La Masia graduate come to Barça’s rescue is ineffable.
But one thing that many people forget to speak about is his personality. Whenever a new player comes to the team, it is understandable that it is tough to adjust to the new environment. Especially at a club like FC Barcelona, a player may have varying levels of maturity.
Lionel Messi’s performances speak a lot more than he does. (Photo by GERARD JULIEN)
Be it an established player like Antoine Griezmann or a fledgeling talent like Pedri, Leo is one of the first to help them feel comfortable. He uses what he has learned throughout the years to help others elevate their game. Leo’s influence on his teammates is an equally important and much-overlooked aspect of being a captain.
“From day one, Messi has been good to me. He gives me a lot of advice on the pitch. He is an incredible person.”Pedri | Dynamo Kyiv Pre-game Presser
The imperfect captain
Whilst the little magician is a master of playing the beautiful game, he is not exactly an ideal leader, on the pitch anyway. When Andres Iniesta finally decided to leave his beloved club in 2018, it was natural that the mantle would fall to fellow La Masia graduate and teammate.
He had been brought up in the Barcelona academy, and the team’s principles were deeply instilled in him. Having already proven himself as a player, it was a new challenge for the Argentine. However, it was a provocation that brought with it some problems.
Despite being the centrepiece of the team, it was clear that Messi’s reign as captain was not going to be insouciant. Unlike the days of the past, Barcelona were in need of a complete overhaul. The old guard’s time was nearly up, and it was the dawn of a new era for the Azulgranas. The following years were bound to be long and gruelling. Now more than ever, the team was in desperate of a skipper who could guide the team on and off the pitch.
Barcelona were no longer the club Lionel Messi once joined, and it was time to say goodbye. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
It was evident that gone were the days where Barcelona could steamroll past opponents on their way to glory. Year after year, heartbreak followed the team as performances reached an all-time low. Roma, Liverpool and then finally the drubbing against Bayern left fans desolated and drained.
It was the number ten who came under immense scrutiny for the failures and his desire to leave the club at such a delicate time was the final nail in the coffin. Media erupted with claims of Messi’s disloyalty. He became a scapegoat for the press.
There was a hint of truth in the claim that Messi was not a deserving bearer of the armband. Much like cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar, Leo did indeed let the pressure affect his performances. However, his love for the badge shone through the darkness.
Irrefutable loyalty through controversy
Loyalty is just another one of Leo’s characteristics that makes him so incredible. Be it off the pitch towards his family and friends, or on the pitch to his team, Messi’s fidelity never falters.
Most Culés know that the faults ran far beyond the Argentine, starting with the underwhelming board of directors. Years of controversies and deceit marred their five years at the helm. The Lionel Messi transfer saga looked to be the next in a line of outrageous mistakes and choices made by the board.
Leo, wanting to win the Champions League one more time before he hung up his boots, wanted to be at a club where the sporting project could enable him to fulfil his desire. Barcelona were miles away from taking the number ten close to his dream and thus he sought for a different club, such as Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Lionel Messi – Pep Guardiola reunion stories had already caught fire, and it tore apart Culés. (Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON)
The transfer looked to be on for a free because of a clause in Messi’s contract, but club president Josep Maria Bartomeu intervened with the smallest of irregularities in the same. His argument was extremely fragile and would easily have been overturned legally. Yet the Argentine could not bring himself to take the team he loved to court.
He instead decided to stay and fulfil the agreement. All those who ever had the slightest doubts as to where his allegiance lies were silenced once again. Even if the little magician does indeed end up leaving, he would have left behind one last parting gift: the resignation of the irresponsible leadership of the club.
He came out and spoke the truth as to what was going on behind the scenes. He lashed out against all the accusations and revealed the true situation behind the scenes. This even prompted other players like Gerard Pique to hint at just how poorly the club was being run. The Barcelona Socios had finally had enough, and thus began the referendum that sent the board running from their posts to avoid embarrassment.
Like a devoted leader, he saved his team from the hands of the bureaucrats who were about to lead the club to bankruptcy.
Lionel Messi stood by the club, like any captain would. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Not to mention, he also led the charge against the board when they claimed that Barcelona players were not agreeing to a pay-cut during the pandemic, with each player releasing a statement on their social media to challenge the same. Lionel Messi’s charge as captain has been dominated by off the pitch work rather than vocal shouts, or tactical improvement – important all the same.
Respected by all
Being the best player in a club’s history brings you love from Culés all around the world. But a sensational talent like Leo is not loved only by Barcelona fans, but by football fans everywhere. The respect he has earned through his incredible performances is unimaginable.
An example of the same was when the Blaugranas faced Real Betis at the Benito Villamarin on March 18, 2019. It was the 85th minute and Messi had just scored a sensational chip from outside the box to seal the victory for Barcelona and to complete his hat-trick in the process.
One would have expected the stadium to jeer and whistle after seeing a player demolish their team 4-1 almost single-handedly. But the sight that unfolded was one that makes a person fall in love with football all over again.
The entire stadium gave Lionel Messi a standing ovation befitting the beauty that they had just witnessed. The chants of ‘Messi! Messi!’ echoed the stadium as the fans from both teams took a moment to absorb and applaud the genius of the little man.
Garnering such levels of respect and love from opposition fans is one of the most difficult things in any sport. But what else can one do but admire an artist painting out his masterpiece?
Name etched in diamond and gold
Whether he decides to stay and finish his career at the Camp Nou is something that only time will tell. After all that Leo has given to this club and the fans, not respecting his wishes would almost be a crime. He is 33 right now, and once that day comes when he leaves the club – and it definitely will, it will feel like a sword to the chest.
As his illustrious time at the very top of the game draws to a close, supporters can do nothing but reminiscence in the memories that he has left for us. Even though he may be an out-of-sorts captain if there is anyone who deserves to wear that armband, it’s him.
The day Lionel Messi decides to retire will be a sombre one for the football community. It will be difficult to see starting XIs without his name, and even harder to imagine a Camp Nou that does not shout “Messi, Messi” in unison game after game after game. Just like so many things in life, that goodbye is fast approaching.
Lionel Messi does not have a long time left with the ball. And that in itself is horrifying thought. (Photo by David Ramos)
The Ansu Fatis and the Kylian Mbappes will come and go, but there might never be another Lionel Messi in the world of football. But long after he retires, his legacy will remain, just like it did with Pelé, Johann Cruyff, and the late Diego Maradona.
Many people will have his future on their minds as the summer 2021 transfer window approaches. Many will dread the prospect of him leaving the club. But all good things do come to an end, and so will the extraordinary relationship that is Lionel Messi and FC Barcelona. Whatever happens, fans need to remember that it is time to move on. And as the great Dr. Suess said, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”