Barcelona and Ajax, the Twin Children of Johan Cruyff

Friday, October 10, 2014

The two teams, models of an offensive style of football, will play against each other on October 21st at Camp Nou.

FC Barcelona was founded by the Swiss businessman and sportsman Hans Gamper in the Catalonian capital, in 1899. A few months later, in the year 1900, AFC Ajax was born in Amsterdam, without any connection between the two clubs. How can we explain, then, that over a century later, the Champions League match in which these two teams will face each other on October 21st at the Camp Nou is considered a duel between brothers? The answer lies in parallel successful stories that coincide in one football idea and, most importantly, one name: the football legend Johan Cruyff.
Hendrik Johannes Cruyff was born in Amsterdam on April 25th 1947, and he grew up only 500 meters away from the Ajax Stadium, in the old De Meer. Soon, he was noticed for his skills for managing the ball with his feet, and by the age of 10 he became part of the club’s farm team. He made his debut in the first team when he was 17 years old, and soon he became the leader of a legendary team, that between 1966 and 1973 won 6 Eredivisie, 4 KNVB Cups, 3 UEFA Champions League Cups (1971, 1972 and 1973), one UEFA Supercup and one Intercontinental Cup.
Barcelona vs. Ajax Champions League
An exquisite technique, a destructive change in rhythm, an electric dribble, game vision, an unprecedented boldness in the field, and a strong personality. These were the factors that made young Cruyff a leader, and the captain of the best team in Ajax history, of the best Dutch national team in history (World-Cup runner-up in Germany ’74), Golden Ball winner in 1971, 1972 and 1973, and the top exponent of “Total football”. A style of playing that has impressed the world, which consists of attacking without mercy, keeping the ball moving at all times between the players, and involving every field player both in the attack and defense, by switching positions and moving constantly. Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff’s coach at Ajax and in the Dutch national team, was the great promoter of this style, in which Cruyff would also base his coaching philosophy later on.
But before (long before) becoming a coach, Cruyff had signed on with FC Barcelona – which had been chasing him for a while and which paid a record amount at the time for the Dutch genius– in the fall of 1973, and led the Catalonian club to win the League after a 14-year dry spell. His era in Barcelona as a player (1973-1978) was not as successful as his previous years in Ajax: he only won one League and one Spanish Cup. But the impact of his first winning season, in which in addition to winning the championship, Barcelona hammered Real Madrid at the Bernabéu Stadium with a historical 0-5, was enough for him to become a Barcelona legend.
In the following season, Johan Neeskens arrived at FC Barcelona, another Dutch player trained with Ajax, which strengthened Barça’s bet on the Dutch school and generally on football. Curiously enough, both of them would return to work for Barça a few years later as part of the managing staff –Cruyff as the coach of the mythical “dream team”, and Neeskens as the assistant of another Ajax player, Frank Rijkaard.

“Dream team”, Van Gaal and Rijkaard

If the mark left by Johan Cruyff as a player –at Ajax, Barça and in the entire football world– is unforgettable, his career as a coach has strengthened the legend, following the same path: first in Amsterdam, then in Barcelona. In 1984, he took over as sporting manager of Ajax, betting on a 3-4-3 system, and an offensive and combined game, based on Michels’ principles of “total football” from the 70s. A year later, he took over as manager of the first team, and raised two KNVB Cups and one UEFA Supercup from the coaching bench. In the summer of 1988, he arrived once again at a troubled and tumultuous Barcelona living in the shadow of Real Madrid, and turned it into an almost perfect machine that won 4 Leagues, 1 Spanish Cup, 1 UEFA Supercup and the much-desired Champions League (the first one in Barça’s history) with an offensive style of football that captivated the world.

FC Barcelona vs. Ajax Champions League 2014
The end of that legendary team (like many others in the football world) was stormy, but it didn’t take Barça a lot of time to notice Ajax again, where a wonderful generation of young football players (Van der Saar, Blind, Frank and Ronald De Boer, Babandiga, Overmars, Kluivert, Kanu, Litmanen, and many more) stunned Europe by winning 3 Eredivisie, a KNVB Cup, a UEFA Cup, a Champions League Cup, a UEFA Supercup, and an Intercontinental Cup. On the bench of that cheerful and impressive team sat Louis Van Gaal, who in 1997 would also land at the Camp Nou. Along with him came up to seven Ajax members, and together they won two Leagues and one Spanish Cup. Van Gaal and his team did not take home Barça’s second Champions League; however, a few years later, this would be achieved by another Dutchman trained with Ajax: Frank Rijkaard, who made his debut as a player under Cruyff, retired as European champion under Van Gaal, and made it to the Camp Nou as manager signed on by the president at the time, Joan Laporta, Cruyff’s friend and fan. Rijkaard, with Neeskens as assistant, won the Champions League in 2005/2006, closing (for now) the Ajax-Barça winning cycle.
Barcelona has not signed on another Dutch coach since Rijkaard, but the “Cruyff seal” continued in Barcelona by the hand of Pep Guardiola, who made his debut as player led by the “Flying Dutchman”, and later on developed his teacher’s style in order to create what is considered by many experts to be the best team in football history. 3 Leagues, 2 Spanish Cups, 3 Spanish Supercups, 2 Champions League Cups, 2 FIFA Club World Cups, and 2 UEFA Supercups fed the legend of a team with a game which seems from out of this world, definitely inspired by Cruyff.

Going in the opposite direction

The Bosman ruling, and the geographic, demographic and, especially, economic limitations of Dutch football have reduced the Dutch clubs’ potential in the world scene; therefore, Ajax, as well as PSV Eindhoven or Feyenoord, which were never continental football powers, right now can’t aim at winning the Champions League, nor competing against the great English, German, Spanish or Italian clubs. Talented players, who keep coming in bulk out of the Dutch football schools, leave while they are very young, and Ajax has become a seller club with no high aspirations outside their border. For many years, Barcelona has strengthened its team with the inclusion of the best Ajax players (Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Richard Witschge, Michael Reiziger, Winston Bogarde, Frank De Boer, Ronald De Boer, Patrick Kluivert, Jari Litmanen, Marc Overmars, Edgar Davis, Maxwell Scherrer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Luis Suárez played for Ajax before ending up at the Camp Nou); however, over the last few years, six football players have made their way on the opposite direction, by being first in Barcelona and then in Amsterdam: Michael Laudrup, Roger Garcia, Gabri Garcia, Oleguer Preses, Bojan Krkic and Isaac Cuenca. All these players tried to give back to Ajax a bit of what the Catalonian club took from the most honored club in Dutch football. Although they may not have been as successful in doing so as they had hoped…
And the ties still exist today: the coach of the Amsterdam team is Frank De Boer, former player of both clubs, and he coincided with the Barcelona manager, Luis Enrique Martínez, during his time with Barça.
Barcelona vs. Ajax Champions League 2014

For a spot in the quarter-finals

The group stage draw of the Champions League 2014/2015 made AFC Ajax and FC Barcelona share Group F, together with Paris Saint-Germain and Apoel Nicosia. The Dutch team and the Catalonian team have already faced each other in the league last season, with Barça winning at the Camp Nou and Ajax winning at the Amsterdam Arena, so the score is even. With two dates played, the French PSG is leading the group with 4 points, followed by Barcelona with 3, Ajax with 2, and finally Apoel with one point. The three points for which the teams will compete on October 21st in the famous Barcelona stadium are highly important, because only the first two qualified teams will have a spot in the quarter-finals of the most important football club competition in the world.
Ticket Bureau is the official ticket agent for FC Barcelona, and offers the best seats at the majestic Camp Nou to enjoy a match packed with history, offensive football and strong ties between two teams that know each other like brothers. One great question remains, even beyond the match result: for which of these two teams will Johan Cruyff root?