The in-depth history of Ajax and Barcelona’s unique relationship

The in-depth history of Ajax and Barcelona’s unique relationship

To a child falling in love with football right now, there’s a world of difference between FC Barcelona and Ajax Amsterdam. Barcelona play in a popular league with megastars in every position, whereas Ajax are largely out of view with a collection of raw youngsters struggling to cut their teeth. Barça have a global fan base that make it a commercial juggernaut. Ajax enjoy great respect, but the context of modern football makes genuine progress highly improbable.

Yet, as fans of a certain vintage understand, the red and blue silk of Barcelona was imbued with sacred meaning thanks in large part to the white and red velvet of Amsterdam. These giants of world football were cut from the same cloth, and in the persons of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, amongst others, a certain DNA was transplanted from one to the other.

The clubs are separate entities, with distinct cultures and identities, but they share an outlook and a modus operandi. Ajax blazed the trail and illuminated the path and Barcelona followed, refining the common philosophy to a form approaching perfection. “Barcelona is the son of Ajax,” said Barça president Josep Maria Bartomeu in 2014. “For years, we watched the youth teams of Ajax, and have great respect for their training methods and organisation. We have learned so much from Ajax, thanks to Johan. But in life, the son sometimes surpasses the father.”

Indeed, the technological age has been kind to Barcelona. Their recent success coincided with a boom in football’s worldwide economy and spurred the club to exponential growth. Yet although a great deal of originality was involved, the Barça we see today may not have been possible without the Ajax of yesteryear.

Ajax always played entertaining football, but it was often entertaining football in a vacuum, devoid of a philosophical underpinning. Jack Reynolds, an accomplished Englishman, coached the team in three separate spells – 1915 to 1925, 1928 to 1940 and 1945 to 1947 – and many believe he laid the groundwork for a sporting revolution that later took Ajax and Barcelona to glory.

Reynolds encouraged his men to express themselves on the field. He liked offensive football that required spontaneous imagination, and his vision was instilled in the club’s nascent youth system. Reynolds steered Ajax to its first national title in 1918, back when Dutch football was amateur in make-up. A further seven championships were won under his command as Reynolds planted the seed from which a mighty oak grew.

Ajax lost its edge once Reynolds retired but Austrian Karl Humenberger coached the club back to prominence as professionalism dawned. Ajax won the inaugural Eredivisie title in 1957 and a further crown came two years later. Still, the club lacked a distinct ethos – a guiding ideology. Success wasn’t dependable. An overhaul was needed, and it was slowly pieced together by a succession of coaches who each made their own tweaks to the foundation.

First there was Vic Buckingham, another Englishman. He was Ajax coach between 1959 and 1961 and again in 1964-65. Ajax won another league title under his tutelage, but Buckingham’s impact in reawakening Reynolds’ ambition and planting more seeds of intellect was far greater.

The Greenwich-born manager loathed the hurly-burly, long-ball football so prevalent in his native land. An experienced player with Tottenham, Buckingham endeavoured to create something more aesthetically pleasing as a coach. At Ajax, he took advantage of improving resources to produce a more cerebral brand of football. A certain Johan Cruyff rose through the youth ranks on Buckingham’s watch, and the bold coach later took charge of Barcelona, providing the first clear link between Amsterdam and Catalonia.

While it’s important to remember Buckingham’s efforts to modernise Ajax, his reign wasn’t without limitations. Ajax played attractive football under his guise, but the team still lined up in the rigid W-M formation, a popular system of the age. One bright Ajax player enjoyed working under Buckingham, but felt that Vic never went far enough with his iconoclasm. For Rinus Michels, a fine Dutch striker, there had to be another way; a more fluid approach to positioning. He saw Ajax progressing, but a vision for more formed in his mind.

When Buckingham left Ajax for a second time in 1965, Rinus Michels was ready to replace him. After scoring more than 120 career goals and winning two Dutch titles with Ajax, Rinus transitioned to the dugout, where he hoped to make a real difference. He managed JOS and DWS, two comparatively smaller clubs in Amsterdam, before earning his dream job at Ajax.

Although professional in name, the organisation of Dutch football was still rather rudimentary as Michels assumed control. Only the top players were paid significantly, and many worked extra jobs to make ends meet. In a similar regard, Amsterdam was a far cry from the sophisticated hub of cosmopolitanism we know today. However, an outburst of anti-authoritarianism created a fresh wave of social liberation across the Netherlands, and Ajax played a major role in its growth.

At a most basic level, Michels was a great moderniser. He instilled discipline at Ajax, codifying the club’s approach in a succinct manner. The threat of relegation was genuine early in his reign, but Michels turned things around with a tight defence and finer emphasis on team spirit. Once Ajax regained a solid footing, the manager then sought quality reinforcements capable of delivering his style of play.

Under Michels, Ajax became synonymous with masterful training sessions focused around ball possession. Off the pitch, he also implemented stricter diets for his players, while pre-match preparation became far more detailed. Yet for all the planning and dreaming, wondering and scheming, the most important element of all was one Hendrik Johannes Cruijff, the foremost avatar of Dutch bohemianism.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact genesis of Total Football, a system in which Ajax players changed positions with stunning fluidity. Some point to influences of Dutch architecture, which encourages flamboyance within a disciplined, unified concept. Owing to a lack of landmass, Dutch buildings often take on extraordinary shapes and sizes. Each one is ever mindful of its surroundings. Indeed, it is a manifestation of that context. The same is true of Total Football.

However, others suggest that we’re guilty of over-intellectualising the philosophy of Dutch football by considering it some genius scheme boiled up in a laboratory at De Meer. To a certain extent, that vision is correct because Michels and his coaches certainly worked to hone this idea.

When Ajax faced packed defences domestically, Rinus encouraged his defenders and midfielders to break lines and join attacks. As a result, Ajax dominated play, anaesthetised games and smothered opponents to death with slick passing and a wealth of options. Not only did this tweak make them more dynamic and potent going forward, it also robbed the opposition of its offensive weaponry because so many rival attackers were forced to track back and defend.

The players themselves also made Total Football work so flawlessly. It’s easy to write grandiose prose about footballing theology, but in real time, Total Football was quite an improvisational system. It simply extrapolated common sense into something that resembled beautiful art, perhaps inadvertently. See an open space, fill it temporarily. Any player on the field could fulfil any position at any time, in attacking and defensive situations. That sense grew naturally from years of playing together, training together, and enjoying one another’s company. It also came from Cruyff.

Early in his time at Ajax, Cruyff began dropping deep, searching for the area of most room to receive the ball and create subtle devastation. It was an economical, logical use of energy, space and time. Eventually, other Ajax players joined in: if it works for Johan, they thought, why can’t it work for me?

From there, natural spontaneity took over. Enjoyment and excitement flowed from Ajax. So did goals and victories and medals. Perhaps Michels’ greatest influence was in allowing these players to express themselves, yet also maintaining order through an outwardly stern demeanour. The results were phenomenal.

Ajax came of age with a historic thumping of Liverpool in December 1966. With 55,722 peering through fog at Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium, Michels’ men electrified the continent with a fine performance in the European Cup second round. Cees de Wolf opened the scoring after three minutes before a 19-year old Cruyff doubled the lead. A brace from Klass Nuninga widened the gap, only for Liverpool to steal a consolation through Chris Lawler. Ajax still weren’t finished, however, and Henk Groot made the score 5-1 at the death. “This tie is by no means over,” said Liverpool manager Bill Shankly. “We will win easily. We will smash in at least seven goals. This was ridiculous. Ajax played defensive football on their own ground, and we never play well against defensive teams.”

In reality, Ajax outclassed Liverpool, which was once an unthinkable notion. Yet with Michels pushing for unfettered professionalism and a golden generation falling into place, the Amsterdam side was a force to be reckoned with. The second leg finished 2-2 at Anfield, carrying Ajax through by an emphatic 7-3 scoreline. It was proof that Michels’ vision could work.

Still, Ajax lacked experience at the sharp end of European competition. They came unstuck against Dukla Prague in the quarter-finals and that infuriated Michels. It also inspired him to hone the team’s driving philosophy. Key players were acquired, notably Velibor Vasović, a bruising defender who could also pass the ball with great accuracy. Sjaak Swaart, a tricky winger, continued to improve, while Cruyff and Piet Kiezer grew into their roles.

Away from the technical and tactical manifestations of Total Football, it was also a metonymy for personal growth and development. Michels cared greatly about nurturing talent and eking improvement from people. His vision encompassed that, and soon Ajax morphed into a juggernaut. They were still slightly raw in 1969 when AC Milan dispensed a 4-1 reverse in the European Cup final, but glory lay ahead.

Somewhat remarkably, Feyenoord was the first Dutch club to win the European Cup, doing so in 1970, but Ajax had the foundation on which to build a far more sustainable empire. In 1971, inspired by a need to outdo their fierce rivals, Ajax finally fulfilled their destiny by beating Panathinaikos 2-0 at Wembley to lift the famous trophy. They defended the crown for two further seasons, defeating Internazionale in Rotterdam and Juventus in Belgrade, while also beating Independiente in the 1972 Intercontinental Cup.

By the time Ajax won their third successive European Cup, as Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and friends hit their inimitable peak, Rinus Michels had long since departed. After masterminding their first European title at Wembley, before 83,179, Michels felt his work was done. He had taken Ajax from the doldrums of Dutch football to the zenith of continental competition. A new challenge awaited, and it involved doing something similar with Barcelona.

Ștefan Kovács replaced Michels at Ajax. He was wise enough to make only minor alterations to the blueprint, as the Amsterdammers won two European Cups on his watch. But when Kovács left to coach the French national team in 1973, an era of Ajax dominance began to crumble. The club tried to sell Cruyff to Real Madrid, and even agreed a record price. However, Johan preferred the challenge of reuniting with Michels at Barca. A deal was swiftly arranged, and Cruyff became the world’s first million euro player.

It was time to replicate the Total Football revolution in Catalonia.

When Cruyff arrived in 1973, Barcelona had endured 14 years without a league title. In a similar regard, the Catalan people were oppressed by the Franco dictatorship. The regime had close ties to Real Madrid and, according to some, it used underhand tactics to support the capital club. A tense rivalry was imbued with political connotations, and Cruyff’s arrival coincided with a definitive period in the struggle.

In 1974, Cruyff carried Barça to its first title since 1960. The standout result was a 5-0 thrashing of Los Blancos in the Bernabéu, their largest win in Madrid to that point. It was a match that inspired future generations of players and fans. It encouraged them to dream again. One journalist noted that, by scoring and driving Barça forward, Cruyff did more in 90 minutes to boost Catalan morale than politicians had done in years.

The Dutchman won just one more trophy as a Barcelona player – the domestic cup in 1978. However, his impact in reawakening Catalan hope cannot be overstated. Those years as a Blaugrana player gave him a great sense of what the club meant and how it operated. Such knowledge would be crucial when he returned as manager.

Johan Neeskens joined Cruyff at the Nou Camp, but links between Ajax and Barcelona lacked consistency or purpose at that point. Michels flittered about, managing in Amsterdam and Catalonia again between spells with the Dutch national team. But he was never totally successful in implementing his ideology at Barca. Instead, that job would fall to Cruyff – his greatest on-field lieutenant – once Johan finished his own playing career.

That’s when the real bond between Ajax and Barcelona would take shape.

Before Cruyff could revolutionise Barcelona, he needed to cut his teeth as a manager. Having bold ideas and an insurrectionist spirit was one thing. Implementing those ideas and making them come to life was quite another. Despite a bitter end to his second stint there as a player, Cruyff returned to Ajax to begin his coaching journey. At the age of 38, he replaced Aad de Mos in 1985. You could argue that coaching would never be the same again.

Cruyff managed Ajax for three seasons. He was unable to secure an Eredivisie title in that spell but two Dutch Cups kept the trophy cabinet well stocked. Ajax also won the European Cup Winners’ Cup under his control, defeating Lokomotive Leipzig in a tense final. It was Ajax’s first European honour since the Super Cup of 1974. It also laid the groundwork for future success against lengthening odds.

Rather like his time as a Barça player, Cruyff’s impact cannot be measured in silverware alone. As Ajax boss, he channelled Michels’ spirit to once again modernise the club. His favoured 3-4-3 formation was installed in every Ajax team, from the youngest kids to the established professionals. De Toekomst became a powerhouse of development, with Cruyff giving opportunities to young stars like Dennis Bergkamp and Frank and Ronald de Boer. Further homegrown heroes such as Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard also improved with Cruyff’s help.

This work to reinvigorate the club’s identity would pay huge dividends for years to come in Amsterdam. However, rather like Michels, Cruyff had moved on by then. In 1988, he succeeded Luis Aragonés as coach of Barcelona, the other club that tugged at his heart. It was here that Cruyff’s beautiful interpretation of football – largely influenced by Michels – would bloom to fruition, creating a lasting link between Ajax and Barça.

Cruyff arriving at coach Barça was a Big Bang moment for the club. Without it, and without him, decades of subsequent success wouldn’t have been possible, for he altered the landscape and massaged the culture that enabled persistent glory for years to come.

When he arrived, Barça had 10 domestic titles in its trophy case; Real Madrid had 23. Now, the gap is just 24-32. In terms of European Cups, Barcelona had zero when Cruyff took over. They now have five, each won by players produced from his system performing in his style.

Prior to Cruyff arriving as manager, Barça’s success had always seemed somehow transient. Not ephemeral, per se, but untethered to a real cornerstone. Glory was rather capricious in Catalonia. Undependable, in fact.

That essence was perhaps best embodied by Terry Venables, who achieved admirable things in his three seasons as Barça boss, but who did so in a rather chaotic manner without obedience to a strict, overarching vision. Michels did his best to change that, but the club regressed in subsequent years. By the time Cruyff occupied the dugout, the club had won just two titles in 28 years.

Cruyff resolved these issues and inculcated fundamental beliefs about attitude, training, recruitment and playing philosophy that still exist today. Cruyff authored a modern doctrine around the ancient ruin of FC Barcelona. It just so happens that many of his teachings came direct from Ajax Amsterdam. “No Cruyff, no Dream Team,” wrote Graham Hunter in Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World. “No Cruyff, no coordinated and prolific cantera trained to play thrilling 4-3-3 football. No Cruyff, no Joan Laporta (the club’s most successful president). No Cruyff, no Frank Rijkaard and the resuscitation of a club suffocating in its own stupidity. No Cruyff, no Guardiola.”

Alongside Carles Rexach, a Barça stalwart, Cruyff set about revolutionising the Blaugrana. They entered a club, and a footballing culture, that wasn’t particularly acceptive of their ideas. Despite Cruyff’s eminence as a star Barcelona player, infighting plagued multiple levels of the club. The fans didn’t help, either, as jeers were heard whenever a ball was played back to the goalkeeper. Thus, Cruyff’s task involved educating the fans about his possession-based strategy, teaching the current players how to master it, and scouring the market for new players who matched this ethos.

Veterans like Txiki Begiristain, Michael Laudrup and Hristo Stoichkov were drafted in, and Cruyff also signed former Ajax star Ronald Koeman. However, the manager knew from his time in Amsterdam that the most economical way of spreading a philosophy was to have an elite youth academy. By teaching players to play, act and live a certain way from young ages, a new culture forms. It then spreads organically, creating superstar footballers as if by osmosis. Of course, a tremendous amount of time, effort, money and expertise is involved, but the basic idea is a sound one.

La Masia, the old farmhouse around which Barça’s youth system orbited, was already in existence when Cruyff arrived. It was seven years old, in fact. But Cruyff brought it to life. He suffused it with a structured aim and purpose. He gave meaning and importance to the youth department, placing it at the very heart of FC Barcelona.

In a direct rip from the Michels Bible, Cruyff’s first ensured that all Barça youth teams used the same 3-4-3 formation and attempted to play sharp passes with minimal touches. Tiki-taka, if you will. Previously, the way a team setup and played was left to the whim of each individual coach. This fed the evanescent nature of first team success.

Cruyff also insisted that the best young players test themselves against older competition, and that anybody deemed good enough be given a chance in the first team before the club pursued expensive transfers. He also encouraged the club to sign players at seven and eight years of age, something that Ajax had done for years. In retrospect, it all sounds so simple and familiar. That we know and respect this philosophy so well is a testament to Cruyff’s uncanny ability to make extraordinary ideas the norm.

Cruyff hoped to create a solid nucleus of homegrown players to be supplemented by external stars who matched the new Barça credo. In this regard, a certain Josep Guardiola was arguably the first great footballer to roll off the La Masia conveyor belt having been totally shaped by the Cruyff cookie-cutter.

After graduating to the senior team in 1990, Guardiola sat as a pivote, knowing when to retract and expand, retreat and explore. It was almost like Cruyff put a listening device in his ear, a la NFL quarterbacks and their coaches.

After a few teething problems, Cruyff’s Barcelona came alive. From rigid shapes, these players created sumptuous football. They moved about, swapped positions and expressed themselves, but all within a disciplined framework. In possession, their style was one of rapid thought and even quicker movement. Out of possession, they pressed with intensity, eager to win back the ball and stamp their own feeling on a game.

By encouraging malleable expression within a rigid philosophical mould, the true genius of Johan Cruyff was distilled to a single point of clarity. Fans began to applaud; matches began to be won; trophies began to accumulate. Rinus Michels would have been proud.

In his eight years as manager, Cruyff’s Barcelona won four La Liga titles, one Copa del Rey, one European Cup, one European Cup Winners’ Cup and one UEFA Super Cup. His so-called Dream Team set a new standard of excellence at the Camp Nou, to which all subsequent incarnations have aspired.

Yet Cruyff was eventually sacked amid disagreements with club president Josep Lluís Núñez, who came to resent the Dutchman’s influence. Cruyff had more autonomy than is usually afforded a coach in Spain, and Núñez wanted to alter that paradigm. But even as Cruyff’s legacy was under-appreciated and often denigrated by contemporary fans and executives, his DNA ran through the club, almost subconsciously. It was consumed into its very fabric, imbued into its psyche. It became FC Barcelona, just as it had been Ajax Amsterdam.

In the early-1990s, Ajax enjoyed a renaissance under Louis van Gaal, who blended his own concept of rigorous physical effort with the finest products of Cruyff’s philosophy. A slew of Dutch titles followed before Ajax roared back to life on the continental stage.

The UEFA Cup was won in 1992. A fourth European Cup came in 1995, as young players like Edwin van der Sar, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids and Marc Overmars coalesced with established veterans such as Danny Blind and Rijkaard to create magic. Ajax even won the UEFA Super Cup and were crowned world champions a year later. Their style and constitution was decidedly Cruyffian, even if Johan and Louis didn’t enjoy the most harmonious of relationships.

Indeed, van Gaal was the next manager to jump from Ajax to Barcelona, further strengthening the bond. He did so in 1997 and proceeded to win two league titles in a reign that was sandwiched between two years as Netherlands manager. During his tenure, many former Ajax players blossomed at Barcelona. Star striker Patrick Kluivert made the move, as did Overmars, Jari Litmanen, Michael Reizeger and Frank and Ronald de Boer, among others.

Nevertheless, Barça slowly lost its way again, as egos grew, debts mounted and plans changed. Cruyff was thankfully there to place the club back on course, even if it was by proxy. In 2003, Joan Laporta, a loyal Cruyff disciple, decided to run for the Barcelona presidency. Laporta hated the way Cruyff was sacked in such a classless manner, and he wanted to resuscitate Barça once again using Johan’s template.

Laporta won the presidency and sought Cruyff’s counsel on how to implement change. Barça tried to hire Guus Hiddink and Ronald Koeman as coach, but they proved too expensive. The club then settled for Rijkaard as a revolutionary figurehead, upon Cruyff’s recommendation.

In many respects, Rijkaard was an unusual choice. His coaching credentials were far from stellar, as Sparta Rotterdam, the Netherlands’ oldest professional club, was relegated for the first time under his tutelage. Still, Laporta – and perhaps more importantly, Cruyff – felt that Rijkaard attempted to play football in the traditional Ajax-Barça way. They decided he was young, hungry and vibrant enough to lead the resurgence.

Rijkaard played under Cruyff at Ajax, and though they occasionally butted heads, he was a pupil of the master. In the rush to anoint Guardiola a genius for later creating a Barça super team, Rijkaard’s important transitional role is often overlooked. He did the hard work to restore the famous Ajax-inspired traditions in Catalonia. He also left a strong baseline for Pep.

Rijkaard restored the Cruyff blueprint of fast-paced, attacking football, and the Camp Nou fell in love with it all over again. Similarly, Barcelona fell in love with winning trophies again, as two La Liga titles and a prized Champions League crown were secured under the Dutchman. Barça suffered some tough times under Rijkaard as young academy graduates like Lionel Messi were blooded, but Laporta stayed the course, often on Cruyff’s advice, and saw the project through to completion.

Meanwhile, in 2007, Barcelona and Ajax entered into a more formal partnership, initiated by Ajax technical director Martin van Geel. The clubs swapped ideas and shared information on football philosophy, with a specific focus on coaching and medical care. It’s difficult to ascertain just how deep this connection ran, but it was the first real attempt to actualise the bond that had long existed in spirit.

When things went awry late in Rijkaard’s reign as indiscipline crept in, Barça sought a new coach. And though Cruyff defended the work of Rijkaard, he said that Guardiola, his prized disciple, was ready to take control.

This was an important departure from previous eras at Barcelona. Before Cruyff, the club dealt with adversity by starting afresh with different coaches preaching different styles and signing a range of different players. With Cruyff still holding a certain amount of influence, despite not holding a formal post at the Camp Nou, a coaching change was made, but the underlining principles guiding the club were left largely intact.

As we all know, Guardiola enjoyed phenomenal success as Barcelona manager. The Blaugrana won three La Liga titles, two Champions Leagues and two Club World Cups, among many other honours, under his guidance. More importantly, Guardiola reverted back to a staunch brand of Cruyffian dogma, with youth graduates like Messi, Carlos Puyol, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi and Victor Valdés playing his brand of football and featuring prominently in what many have termed the greatest club side ever assembled.

In 2011, as Barcelona enjoyed the greatest glory his philosophy had ever wrought, Johan Cruyff finally returned to Ajax, hoping to revive the vision that had worked so well in Catalonia. Cruyff assembled a team of confidants, headed by Wim Jonk and Dennis Bergkamp, then set about wrestling control away from directors he loathed. After a brutal war, Cruyff inserted a new technical heart at the Amsterdam ArenA, with Edwin van der Sar serving as business manager, Marc Overmars overseeing recruitment, and Frank de Boer becoming coach.

A messy battle ensued when Louis van Gaal was appointed CEO without Cruyff’s consent, and he duly resigned in 2012. Still, his fresh-faced disciples steered Ajax back to their core identity, with a renewed commitment to youth and fresh attempts to play attractive football. Ajax won four consecutive Eredivisie titles, but continental success was not forthcoming. The lack of financial fair play in the modern game makes glory in that realm highly improbable.

Johan Cruyff died in March 2016, aged 68. It was a terrible loss for football and also cause for contemplation on where Ajax and Barcelona currently stand. The Amsterdam outfit is coached by Peter Bosz, an outsider who does seem to share the club’s defining ideology. Barcelona, meanwhile, is coached by Luis Enrique, a man with his own distinct philosophy. Ajax finds itself pressing up against a glass ceiling, without the resources to really take that next step back to continental prominence. Barcelona has so much money and so many stars that it may be in danger of losing touch with the core beliefs that made it so great.

Still, both clubs try to play football the right way, perhaps subconsciously at this point. Perhaps that’s the lasting legacy of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, in simple terms. There’s no telling what the future may hold for either club, but you can bet that, somewhere down the line, in a future hour of need, one will turn to the other for help. That’s the way it has worked for a very long time.

By Ryan Ferguson @RyanFergusonHQ

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