Netherlands great Johan Cruyff probably never expected the style of play he made synonymous with attacking soccer would pay off for Spain.
Or that the Spaniards would use it against his country in the World Cup final Sunday.
Two of the world’s best offensive teams are looking to win the championship for the first time. While Cruyff led the Dutch to their first final in 1974, it seems he’s also played a big part in taking Spain to its first title match.
Cruyff, who played for and later coached Barcelona, is credited with creating the Catalan club’s possession-based game of quick touches and slick passing that also has become Spain’s trademark. Key players Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique all came up through Barcelona’s youth academy.
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“Spain’s style is the style of Barcelona,” Cruyff wrote in his El Periodico column on Thursday. “Now, Spain is favorite to win the World Cup.”
While Barcelona’s first taste of total soccer came during Cruyff’s playing days, he implemented it for good as Barcelona coach in the early ’90s. Cruyff’s “Dream Team,” a mix of Dutch players and midfield stars – including current Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola – won four straight league titles and a first Champions League trophy.
Of Spain’s current 23-man squad, nine came up through Barcelona’s system, with six being starters.
“Spanish team or Barca team?” La Vanguardia newspaper asked its readers.
As with Barcelona, the Spanish team “is based on the quality of its midfield, which is well organized,” coach Vicente Del Bosque said. “And when you have order, talent presents itself better.”
Former Spain coach Inaki Saez was the first to recognize a technically gifted generation of players was coming up. Luis Aragones continued the work after Euro 2004, when Spain failed to get out of the group stage.
Four years later, it was European champion.
Del Bosque has stayed true to the style and fielded seven of Barcelona’s players against Germany, even swapping striker Fernando Torres for newcomer Pedro.
“One consistent thing in Spanish football is that Madrid and Barcelona are the most powerful teams,” Del Bosque said. “But we are represented by other teams. There are seven from Barcelona, three from Madrid and one from Villareal (who start). I don’t believe we need to limit things to Madrid and Barcelona, and should think of Spanish football as a whole.”
That whole, though, is based largely on how Barcelona plays. Clearly, it works.
“Last night, that same Germany team that dazzled us against Argentina played football as it knows best, a football that without a doubt would have been enough to beat any other team. But not Spain,” Cruyff said. “If Spain goes for you, it kills you.”
And which team will Cruyff be rooting for?
“I am Dutch, but I will always defend the football Spain play,” he said. “If you play attacking football, like Spain do, you have more chances of winning. And if you try to play on the counter against a team that really wants the ball, you deserve to suffer. … Holland now know they face the best team in the world.”