“Receive, pass, offer, receive, pass, offer.” Imagine you’re 11 years old and good enough to be invited to train at the Barcelona academy. These are the words that you will hear time and time again (in Spanish though, obviously).
When reduced to three simple imperatives, football is incredibly straight-forward. These mantras do not just appear overnight though, they are distilled and subsequently absorbed by generations of talent both on and off the field.
Many point to the mercurial Johan Cruyff and his world-beating Dutch team of the 1970s for the first true manifestation of the beautiful game in the modern era. Through The Netherlands and his club side, Barcelona, a new ethos seemed to have been born, taking the free-flowing flare of Pele’s Brazil teams and anchoring it in practical, hard-working physicality. That Cruyff would appear back at Barça in a managerial role was never in doubt, but perhaps the style with which he had his team playing was a surprise to even him. In 1992 Cruyff’s dream team included the likes of Michael Laudrup, Romario, Georghe Hagi and Hristo Stoichkov, but it was more than a sum of these prodigal parts; Cruyff and his Barça team proved that attacking intent, invention and ambition could secure football’s greatest club prize.
21 years on and the Catalan giants still live in the spirit of their former talisman. When asked the week before the 2010 Champions League final how to inspire his team, then-manager Pep Guardiola told the press: “I want the players to realise they are playing in front of the whole world. I want them to feel good, be daring and play beautiful football. I want them to show that we deserve to be European champions.” It should come as no surprise to learn that Guardiola was part of Cruyff’s 1992 European Cup winning side, and that Cruyff himself currently resides in an official ‘advisory’ role at the Nou Camp.
The fact that Barça look after their heroes has to play a part in the continuing dynasty of the Catalans. They attract and mould players in a very particular way, because in essence, their scouts are looking for their own replacements. For example, before he left Barça as a player in 2001, Guardiola had already spotted the potential of the team’s current heartbeat, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. During Iniesta’s first training session with the first-team, he reportedly pulled Xavi to one side and told him: “You’re going to retire me – but this kid’s going to retire us all.”
When you hear stories like this it makes you wonder, where are our heroes these days? Are Ian Rush and Wrighty and Eric Cantona helping to pull the creative strings at their former Premier League clubs? Are the FA and English national team set-ups saturated by successful ex-players? It shouldn’t be dependent on abstract coaching qualifications, but just focused on keeping unique individuals, with a proper insight of the game at the highest level, involved in football.
The problem is that clubs in Britain rarely have any sense of heritage. Most owners these days have been in their position less than a decade, have little interest in football, and essentially just want big money returns as quickly as possible. Barcelona and Real Madrid on the other hand are guided by hands that take tremendous pride from their history (of both club and country), and that’s why the likes of Cruyff still have a role to play at the very best club in the world.
To put it in stark contrast, does anyone really think for one second that the sheikhs at Manchester City care about the club’s history and want the likes of Dennis Law, Mike Summerbee and Franny Lee buzzing around Eastlands telling them how to be successful?
It is unfortunately this inherent arrogance in the British game that is becoming endemic, and perhaps one of the main reasons why we consistently have clubs in the Champions League semi-finals, yet fail miserably at international level.