The Dutch legend embodied 'Total Football' with Holland and inspired Spain at Barcelona, writes Ian Hawkey.
Two sides of Cruyff on display
JOHANNESBURG // You do not have to look far into the coincidences shared by tonight's World Cup final to see that this Spain squad and this Holland team are two boughs on the same family tree. Just check the CVs of the 22 likely starters. Sixteen have played chunks of their career in the Spanish league; twelve have won it, eight in the colours of Barcelona. Eleven have won the European Champions League; eight, including Dutchmen and Spaniards, won it with Barca.
No wonder, then, that in the capital of Catalonia, the state within the state of Spain, tonight's showdown is regarded with a sense of propriety. Not only is the most successful Spanish national team in history filled with native Catalans - Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Joan Capdevila, Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets, plus Spain's reserve goalkeeper Victor Valdes - but many of the rest of the participants have reached their professional peaks thanks to FC Barcelona, the embodiment of Catalan pride.
Holland's captain, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, spent four years as a Barcelona player, and won two league titles and a Champions League there. So did Mark van Bommel. Their encounter with the likes of Puyol, Xavi, and Andres Iniesta, the Barcelona midfielder, will feel like a school reunion. Now look behind the scenes. After Holland's victory over Uruguay, as the Dutch were fulfilling their obligations to the media, their coaching staff were in demand for their analyses, their reflections on the arrival of a Dutch team in a World Cup final for the first time in 32 years.
They were also in demand from South American and Spanish reporters, because they speak impeccable Spanish. There was Philip Cocu, 39, giving interviews left, right and centre, moving across different languages as he once moved comfortably between left-back and central midfield; ditto Frank de Boer, 40. De Boer and Cocu are assistants to Bert van Marwijk, the Holland coach. Both once played for Barcelona, alongside Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta.
They belong to an era when Barcelona looked, almost obsessively, to Holland for guidance and inspiration. In the late 1990s, with the appointment of the former Ajax and Holland manager Louis van Gaal as coach of Barcelona, a mass sporting migration took place between the Netherlands and Catalonia. Van Gaal brought so many Dutch footballers - Cocu, the De Boer twins, Frank and Ronald; the defenders Michael Reiziger and Winston Bogarde and the strikers Patrick Kluivert and Marc Overmars - to the club that it was nicknamed "BarcAjax" and some Catalans felt their association with their favourite football was being diluted. Some young local players, including the then up-and-coming Xavi, felt that their background was putting them at a disadvantage.
Van Gaal's distinctly orange Barcelona won successive leagues, and so far did Barcelona fall after his departure that they invited him back in 2002 to reinvigorate the club, with far less success. The Dutch-Catalan link goes back well beyond the past dozen years, a period in which another Dutchman, Frank Rijkaard coached Barcelona to two leagues and a Champions League. It goes back to the 1970s and to a man regarded as the godfather of modern football in Holland and in Barcelona: Johan Cruyff.
Cruyff as a player was the chief figure in the Holland team who rose from international obscurity to reach the 1974 World Cup final, where they, the more dazzling team, lost to West Germany. Cruyff then transferred, amid huge international interest, to Barcelona, where, with his long hair and flamboyant, daring style of play, he became an icon for a Catalonia where resentment over the iron and anti-independence rule of a fascist government in Madrid was fiercely felt.
A bond was formed between two cultures and it has remained since. The bond is built on certain dogmas. When Cruyff played for Holland, the phrase "Total Football" was born, a notion that prioritised passing and movement; when Cruyff became coach of Barcelona in the early 1990s, he preached possession football. He valued footballers such as Pep Guardiola, now the coach at Barcelona. Guardiola is a man who players like Xavi, Iniesta and Spain's Cesc Fabregas, a Catalan who grew up in Barcelona's junior sides, look to as their idol. Cruyff's opinions have an almost mystical weight and value among Barcelona fans and even the club's directors.
And he is never short of opinions. Cruyff concedes that he will feel a divided today as his country of birth take on his adopted state. Writing in El Periodico, he called this Spain team "essentially the Barcelona team" in that they play like Barcelona and count on a majority of Barca players and added: "I am Dutch, but I will always stand up for the way Spain play their football." That way carries a small Dutch trademark.