Forty years ago I came into the world and while I may not have made an impact on the game of soccer, it has surely made an impact on me. Playing the game from a very early age, I didn’t start following the game until my early 20’s. Starting with Manchester United, I eventually started reading everything I could get my hands on and watching whatever game was on, learning about the rich and complex history of the game. My MatchDay Memory posts over the next few weeks will focus on events in world soccer during the year of my birth, 1974. It is in no way a comprehensive summation but rather an examination of teams and incidents that I was drawn to in my research.
Starting my journey in Europe, the 1970’s saw the emergence of Total Football. A post at Football Bible traces the path of footballing principles from England to Holland, focusing on Jimmy Hogan in the early 1900’s to Jack Reynolds at Ajax. Former player turned manager Rinus Michaels laid the foundations at the Dutch club for unprecedented levels of success, and this style of play changed the game in terms of pressure, possession and spacing and continues to impact the game today.
David Winner spends a chapter diving into Total Football in his wonderful book Brilliant Orange. Based on his interviews with many members of the Ajax and Dutch teams of the era, the system developed as a way to have a team instinctively know how and where to move to create space and press the ball in order to dominate matches. The chapter makes the case that it was a collaborative effort between coaches and players and the more everyone engaged the system, the better it got.
The post at Football Bible also identified an intelligent midfielder as key to making the system work. For Ajax and the Netherlands, that player was Johan Cruyff. After three consecutive European Cups (1971-73) with Ajax, Cruyff was transferred to Barcelona in August of 1973. In reading Chris Clement’s recap of the season for Estadios de Futbol en Espana, I was stunned to read the following passage:
Faced with a veritable can of worms, the Federation relented and allowed clubs to sign two overseas players from the start of the 1973-74 season. Anticipating the change, Real Madrid reached an agreement with Ajax for Johan Cruyff, but the world’s best player would have nothing to do with the deal that had been agreed behind his back. Sensing an opportunity, Barcelona moved in and on 13 August 1973, Cruyff signed for the Catalan giants. As news of the agreement of Real Madrid and Ajax’s deal surfaced, the RFEF refused to sanction the deal and memories of the controversial Di Stéfano transfer resurfaced. However, Barcelona and Cruyff stood firm and eventually, eight weeks into the season, Barça got their man.
To think how close Cruyff was to wearing white instead of the blaugrana. Reading Barca: A People’s Passion by Jimmy Burns, I was struck by how Cruyff’s signing was not only a sporting coup, but was, maybe even more importantly, a political statement. The transfer had been in the works for a couple of years and the amendment by the Spanish Football Federation finally allowed the move to take place. In October 1973, the Dutchman appeared in the blaugrana colors for an official match, and FCB President Montal had his signature signing, and the fans could now cheer for one of the best players in the world at Camp Nou.
After a successful period during the 1950’s, Barca had suffered during the 1960’s, winning only one league title during the decade. After a slow start to the 73/74 campaign, FCB climbed up the table, winning 20 of their last 28 matches, including a 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, to claim the championship. A post from Alex Mott for Football Espana recaps an amazing period in which Cruyff won a European Cup with Ajax, led FC Barcelona to the title and appeared in the World Cup Final with a series of dazzling displays.
However, after delivering La Liga in 1974, further success did not follow. A combination of a poor coaching relationship, a fractured locker room and the absence of players able to perform Total Football saw Barca return to trophyless seasons and Cruyff left in 1978. Burns ends his chapter entitled the Flying Dutchman with these quotes from Cruyff:
It is a challenge but you know when people cheer you on a Sunday when you do well and you win, it means more to them than simply the pleasure of winning. It’s not just a game, football; it’s not just about the people on the terraces. But you know what struck me most when we won the championship? They didn’t say, “Congratulations.” They said, “Thank you” That made a very deep impression.
Cruyff playing at Barca still impacts the club. He later coached the team in the early 90’s, overseeing the Dream Team that won four straight La Liga titles in the early 90’s and the European Cup at Wembley in 1992. A key player on that team was Pep Guardiola, who as manager would deliver another amazing cycle of success in the 2000’s. The Dutchman continues to wield power at the club, influencing decisions and offering his opinions. A polarizing figure, it’s hard to argue his contribution to the Spanish giants.
I chose 1974 simply because it was the year I was born, yet in reviewing the events of those 12 months it was interesting to see how many precursors and foundations and glimpses into the future were present. The eternal battle between disciplined defenses against attack minded opponents; players and clubs searching for the next dollar/euro/monetary unit; shock results; the constant emergence of new and dynamic talent from all around the world. In 1974 I imagine that there were unknown pockets of activity around the world, complete with rich storylines and regional influence, and stories these days are now part of the worldwide narrative thanks to the internet and globalization. Teams, players, coaches and cultures are more familiar and are part of a global fabric, with the game belonging to the world and being shared with the world. Part of the sharing is this project, which was hard work, but informative and enlightening, and I hope you have enjoyed this look back into footballing history.