World football has been split in two by a rather strange schism, one which is should fall apart at the seams but has developed into an argument with two very definite sides. It appears that those who watch the game must decide whether they want to see success, or be entertained, with both apparently inconceivable.
Money has tainted the beautiful game’s image in many ways, most potently the demand for results, but it will never be completely compatible with business. By the same token, there would be something very wrong if football mirrored theatre. The growth of this division has been so great that a myth has etched its way to the very core of the sport. It is widely accepted that chasing victory means leaving entertainment behind and playing very directly, starving creative players of the limelight, while a pleasing style of football, full of pace, technique and ability, usually results in an empty trophy cabinet.
Johan Cruyff, Holland, Ajax and arguably Barcelona’s most memorable representative, was both an advocate and proof that neither extreme was true. The Dutchman, who tragically died earlier this year, became something of a public voice for the art of ‘total football’, a style based around ball possession devised in his playing days which he honed and utilised in his managerial career with both his hometown club, Ajax Amsterdam, and the Blaugrana.
That philosophy became ingrained in the clubs, forming an identity for both, and their countries of origin, too. Few teams have produced success to rival either at different times in their respective histories, showing just what can be achieved when football is played in the ‘correct’ manner.
His ideas became bigger and have lasted ever since. Cruyff’s coaching career took him from Ajax to Barcelona in 1988 and he stayed at the Camp Nou until 1996. His impact on the Catalan giants is still making waves today, in both levels of success and style of play, while Ajax have also stayed true, but failed to maintain their European superclub status. In truth, they haven’t hit the heights since lifting the Champions League a year before Cruyff departed Barcelona and cut ties with the game he did so much for.
Back in 1995, Louis van Gaal was in charge at the Amsterdam Arena and, while he and Cruyff didn’t particularly see eye to eye, they shared similar ideas on how football should be played. Ajax’s youth academy, much like that at Barcelona, has become famous for the number of quality players produced over the years, something the consistent teachings of Cruyff had a huge impact on. That team, which included the likes of Edwin Van Der Sar, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert, has gone down in history, partly because of its own greatness, but also because they have come nowhere near repeating their success since.
It was a goal by the 18-year-old Kluivert, a substitute on the night, that won the final, beating AC Milan in Vienna. It should have been the beginning of something great, a dynasty the type of which they enjoyed years before, but football was changing and the financial aspect was beginning to take hold. Clubs from more illustrious countries threatened to pick apart the team like vultures over the ensuing seasons. Nothing could be done to stop it.
Italian football was at it’s peak back then, so it was no surprise to see the spine of Van Gaal’s young squad make the switch to Serie A. Kluivert was snapped up by Milan, as was Davids, while Van Der Sar joined Juventus and Seedorf signed for Sampdoria.
Kluivert and Davids never found their feet at the San Siro, they would do so elsewhere, the striker in Catalonia and the distinctive midfielder at Juve, while Seedorf would later spend over a decade with the Rossoneri, becoming the only player to win the Champions League with three different clubs after triumphs in 2003 and 2007 and Real Madrid in 1998.
Looking through the history books, it would be hard to call Barcelona a bigger club than Ajax, despite their differing fortunes of late. But one club has been able to build on the philosophy laid in place by Cruyff better than the other as time has moved on. Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Carles Puyol, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique and Victor Valdes, who lifted the Champions League trophy with Barça in 2009 and 2011, under another Cruyff disciple Pep Guardiola, all enjoyed the best years of their careers together.
Whether Ajax would have achieved more had they kept the likes of Kluivert and Seedorf for longer will forever remain a question unanswered, but what can be said is they had the makings of a special team, the like of which unlikely to be seen again for a long time in Amsterdam. Total football merged with a winning mentality, proving it isn’t always a choice of either or.
About the author – Harry De Cosemo
Harry is a European football writer specialising in English, Spanish ad Italian football. He has worked for a number of top publications including MARCA in English, uMAXit football, FourFourTwo and The Press Association.