This feature is part of Virtuoso
It was November 2005, at the Santiago Bernabéu, when Ronaldinho took Real Madrid apart with such speed and flair that at least two nervous looking Madridistas gave the Brazilian World Cup winner a standing ovation. This was an iconic moment within an ever-increasingly laminated era of Spanish football.
The whole incident sparked comparisons with a similar occurrence, just a few short months away of 32 years previously. The same opponents, the same venue and an even more pronounced nervousness to the Madridistas who stood and applauded the way in which their adored team had been dismantled.
In February 1974, Barcelona made the trip to the Bernabéu and walked away with a 5-0 victory. Alongside Real Madrid’s infamous 11-1 Copa del Generalísimo win of 1943, it is a success which stands the test of time as the most legendary of El Clásico results. This was not a Clásico, but Johan Cruyff vs Günter Netzer; the most eagerly anticipated clash between the two great rivals since the contentious manner in which Alfredo Di Stéfano was deflected from his projected path to Barcelona to end up at the Bernabéu instead.
Cruyff’s transfer had been over three years in the making. Vic Buckingham, the man who had given him his Ajax debut, had lobbied long and hard for the ban on foreign players in Spanish football to be lifted, simultaneously facilitating his close links to the player to obtain Barcelona a first pitch for his signature, in the future event of Cruyff leaving Amsterdam.
By the time he became available, Buckingham had departed the Camp Nou, yet his successor had been another massive influence upon the player’s career: Rinus Michels. Unable to sabotage Cruyff’s projected move to Barcelona, as they had with Di Stéfano, Real Madrid’s repost to the increasingly inevitable arrival of Cruyff in Catalonia had been to sign another outrageously talented, strong-willed, yet temperamental attacking midfielder. Real purchased Netzer from Borussia Mönchengladbach.
When Barcelona and Real Madrid played out a nervy goalless draw at the Camp Nou in early October, both clubs were happy with the point. Going into the game Real Madrid were handily placed in sixth position, guilty only of drawing too many of their opening five league games, while Michels’ Barcelona were in turmoil, next to bottom of LaLiga, fresh from an early exit in the UEFA Cup and frustrated by the red tape which was delaying Cruyff’s arrival at the club.
With Cruyff still three weeks away from his Barcelona debut and Netzer missing for Real through injury, the first Clásico of the 1973/74 season had been an anti-climax. Four months later, the sands of the Spanish game had shifted dramatically. Barcelona was a team reborn as soon as Cruyff made his belated debut against Granada. By the time the two teams walked out at the Bernabéu for the second Clásico of the campaign, the Blaugrana were top the league, six points clear of Zaragoza, while a disorientated Los Blancos were cast adrift in seventh.
As he confidently strode onto the Bernabéu turf, Cruyff had yet to taste defeat in a Barcelona shirt, while Netzer had yet to score for Real Madrid. The crisis surrounding Los Blancos was so pronounced that their legendary coach – and prior to that, player – Miguel Muñoz, had been sacked a month earlier, in the wake of an embarrassing loss at Castellón.
While Barcelona were riding the crest of a wave going into the game, and Real Madrid were visibly vulnerable, this was still the era of General Franco, and since the 1950s’ rise of the club from the Spanish capital, Barcelona had won at the Bernabéu in the league just twice. The symbolism was humongous and it was with a strong sense of purpose and destiny that Cruyff and his teammates took to their hosts like a side possessed.
This isn’t to say that Real Madrid simply rolled over. They stood toe-to-toe with Barcelona during the early exchanges of the game, while Cruyff and Netzer could have been classed as shadow boxers. Heavy challenges went unpunished and Barcelona were denied what looked to be a clear penalty. Eventually the game began to tilt in the visitors’ favour. Cruyff dropping deeper to win the ball might have seemed like a retrograde move at face-value, but it instead pitted him against Netzer directly. It was a turn of events that completely fazed the West German and set Cruyff’s teammates free to run amok.
After his debut performance against Granada, Barça Magazine had stated that Cruyff was not only there for the rest of the team, that he instead made the team play. His performance at the Bernabéu highlighted this concept in bold.
The primary distraction as Asensi opened the scoring, Cruyff then made it 2-0 shortly before half-time, with a goal of breathtaking quality. Cruyff had the game in the palm of his hand during the last 15 minutes of the first half, to such an extent that Real seemed disorientated, panicked and lacking a coherent answer to the questions which were being posed to them. Another Barcelona goal was disallowed before the interval. Even Santillana’s introduction at the beginning of the second half was in vain. The Real legend-to-be being no more than an intoxicated bystander, as Cruyff ramped-up the pressure.
At the Bernabéu, Marcial, a player who was at times resentful at being cast as a support act to Cruyff, was in complete symbiosis of a man who was both his teammate and nemesis. Marcial’s determination in this game was so encompassing that he eventually departed the game due to a heavy tackle, which set Barcelona up with the free-kick which would lead to their fifth goal of the game.
Within Marcial’s moment of supreme selflessness and sacrifice, Cruyff upstaged him by swinging in the millimetre perfect cross which the criminally under-celebrated Hugo Sotil planted into the back of the Real Madrid net. Prior to that, he had again unsettled the Real defence during the build-up to Asensi scoring once more for 3-0, while it was Cruyff’s beautifully timed and weighted through-ball that Juan Carlos streaked on to, skilfully lifting it over the advancing goalkeeper for 4-0. It was as beautiful as it was brutal.
The watching Bernabéu congregation became irate and it simply added to the sense of anxiety each and every time that Cruyff came into possession of the ball. For the final 20 minutes of the game, Real Madrid opted for a barely concealed violent intent. While no further goals were added, the manner in which Real condensed the Barcelona threat during the closing 20 minutes arguably acted as the main catalyst in why sections of the Los Blancos support took the controversial decision to applaud their conquerors at the final whistle.
Even in Franco’s Spain – Franco’s Madrid – on this particular evening at the Bernabéu, football crossed the deep divisions and pronounced scars in Iberian society to garner a fragile and temporary agreement that genius had been in attendance. That the genius had been on display in the colours of Barcelona became irrelevant, and it was a very public way in which Catalonia itself came to life once again, just as Franco’s life was beginning to slip through his fingers.
The virtuosity of Cruyff against Real Madrid in February 1974 was one that seeped beyond the football pitch. Barcelona’s fans poured on to the streets of Catalonia in celebration of such an emphatic and stylish victory against not only their greatest rivals but what they saw as the regime itself. Cruyff had arguably done more for the Catalan cause in 90 minutes than any public figure or orator had during the three-and-a-half decades since the end of the Spanish Civil War.
By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp