The build up to World Cup finals always serve as an appropriate time to take stock, reflect on football’s past and generally get excited about the prospect of the crowning of the new world champions. But there’s an inexorable link that provides the basis for this Sunday’s clash between Spain and the Netherlands.
Incredibly, the two squads offer up no fewer than 17 players who graduated from the academies of Ajax and Barcelona. What’s more, we can thank two men for playing their seminal roles in sowing the seeds for what is now before us: the incomparable Johan Cruyff and the late Rinus Michels. Cruyff, the Dutch master, didn’t just play the game beautifully but continued to extol the virtues taught to him by his former club and national manager, Michels. You and I know it as Total Football, the ability to not just play your defined role in the side but that of other positions too. Its apotheosis was reached in the 1970’s, though the Netherlands would fall just short of lifting the World Cup, losing two finals in a row to the host nation: West Germany in 1974 and Argentina, after extra-time, in 1978.
The pair worked together at Ajax and Barcelona, winning trophies for fun at the former, including having a hold on the European Cup between 1971-73. But Cruyff kicked on. He too would manage these great clubs, most notably winning the Cup Winners Cup while in charge of Ajax but really coming into his own at Barca. There, he put together a veritable “Dream Team,” winning four league titles in a row and getting the better of Sampdoria in the 1989 Cup Winners’ Cup and the 1992 European Cup. And just to ram the point home, that ’92 victory came courtesy of a free kick by his countryman Ronald Koeman. Cruyff also brought in the likes of Josep Guardiola, José Mari Bakero, Ion Andoni Goikoetxea, Michael Laudrup, Romário, Gheorghe Hagi and Hristo Stoichkov. They could probably still get the odd game today.
By now, you’ve surely spotted the key name in that list: Pep Guardiola. And the current main man at Barca is key to Spain’s recent successes as those who came through the famed academy include – deep breath – Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Pedro Rodriguez and Victor Valdes. And we shouldn’t forget that the Arsenal captain, and talisman, Cesc Fabregas, started off at his beloved Barcelona and will surely return from whence he came sooner rather than later.
And what of the Netherlands? Ajax has a youth program to be proud of and – here we go again – Ryan Babel, Nigel de Jong, Eljero Elia, John Heitinga, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Wesley Sneijder, Maarten Stekelenburg, Gregory van der Wiel and Rafael van der Vaart were all products of the system. Whether they can go one better than not just that 1970’s side but the recent crop (Edwin van der Sar, the de Boer brothers, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and Marc Overmars) who all played for Ajax (and some for Barca as well) is up for debate. But it’s sure going to be fun finding out this weekend.
So while we neutrals must now pick between arguably the two best nations to have never won the tournament, you feel that the only man who can’t lose come Sunday is Cruyff himself, who will surely be in attendance, smiling at what’s unfolding on the pitch, what went before and raising a toast to the masterful Michels, who got the ball rolling.