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It is difficult to comprehend today, but between 1960 and 1973, Barcelona failed to win Spain’s La Liga. Every major club in history has its occasional lean spell, Manchester United and Liverpool, for example, did not win the English league for 26 and 30 years respectively.
In 1973, Barca were desperate to end their barren run, especially as their fierce and bitter rivals, Real Madrid, had been champions nine times in that period. Between 1960 and 1973, Barca had won just two major trophies, the Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup in 1966 and the Copa del Generalísimo in 1971.
Barca’s history has been characterised by the introduction of star players that have pointed the way of a new direction and changed the club’s fortunes. In 1973, Johan Cruyff’s transfer was treated as the arrival of a saviour, a player who could lead Barca back to the top. Cruyff had been the catalyst for Ajax’s hat-trick of European Cup victories between 1971 and 1973.
He was the star of a Dutch national team that had emerged as the standard-bearers for the so-called “Total Football” revolution. But his relationship with Ajax was tense and Cruyff was regarded as something of a “diva” by people at the club. Cruyff himself was 26 and at his peak, he needed a new challenge and as a player who knew his value, he undoubtedly felt he could monetise his standing in the game.
Spain was attractive to Cruyff and Real Madrid were also interested in the Dutch superstar. Ajax would have willingly sold him to Real, but Cruyff was adamant that he was in charge of his own destiny and to make his point, he also made some provocative comments about the fascist General Franco and his links to the club from the capital. Equally important was that Barcelona’s coach at the time was none other than Rinus Michels, who had been in charge of Ajax up to 1971 and considered Cruyff as his acolyte.
Santiago Bernabéu later claimed he could have signed him but he was deterred by Cruyff’s attitude. Barcelona got their man, although they had to pay close to £ 1 million for his services. The Dutch football authorities were not happy, however, and delayed the transaction, thus preventing Cruyff from playing competitive games until late October 1973.
Meanwhile, Barcelona, who had been runners-up in La Liga in both 1971-72 and 1972-73, had to recoup the massive outlay and arranged a string of friendly games to unveil their new acquisition and give him match practice. Cruyff made his first appearance against Cercle Bruges, scoring a hat-trick in a 6-0 victory. Barca soon generated the bulk of Cruyff’s fee but without him in the team, they struggled in the early weeks of the season.
He wasn’t the only big signing made by Barca, however. They also bought Peruvian forward Hugo Sotil, a popular player who had appeared for his country in the 1970 World Cup. In total, Spanish clubs signed 59 foreign players in the summer of 1973 as the ban on overseas players was lifted.
Cruyff was clear to make his debut in the league on October 28 against Granada. Barca were second from bottom in the table, but Cruyff instantly changed the dynamic of the team. He scored twice in a 4-0 victory – it was the turning point in Barca’s season. With Cruyff orchestrating the action and scoring regularly, Barca were soon top of the league.
They led from their 13th game, although both Valencia and Zaragoza were level on points. By the end of 1973, Barca were two points clear, with Athletic Bilbao in hot pursuit. But the consistency of the team, shaped and cajoled by Cruyff, meant their lead was growing all the time, peaking at 11 points.
On February 17, Barca pulled-off one of the great clásico victories of their history, beating Real Madrid 5-0 in the Bernabéu stadium. Cruyff was magnificent, scoring a memorable goal and inspiring his team-mates. The result stunned Spanish football and stuck two fingers up to the dictatorial Franco regime.
Barca remained unbeaten for another nine games, making it 26 games without defeat, a run that started on October 7 with a 0-0 draw with Real Madrid. The title was clinched on April 7 with a 4-2 victory at Sporting Gijon, striker Marcial scoring a hat-trick in a 12-minute spell.
Barca were ecstatic, Sotil calling home to Peru from the stadium: “Mum, we are champions.” Cruyff called it an “unforgettable” experience, while his long-time friend Carlos Rexach explained: “We won the league because we were so far ahead so quickly that they had no time to react.”
Winning the title was greeted with such euphoria by the people of Barcelona that Cruyff and his team-mates were not congratulated but gratefully thanked by fans of all ages. Some of the players had been around the Camp Nou for years – goalkeeper Salvador Sadurní joined the club in 1960 and Rifé, Rexach, Gallego, Torres, Juan Carlos and Marcial were all signed in the mid-to-late 1960s. Asensi, Costas, Juanito and De La Cruz all arrived in the early 1970s.
It should have been the start of a golden era, with Cruyff driving Barca to a string of triumphs, but a conveyor belt of trophies did not materialise. Barca struggled to repeat their glorious triumph of 1974 and some people blamed the man who had transformed the team. Despite the addition of fellow Dutchman, Johan Neeskens, which effectively pushed the popular Sotil out, Cruyff was never as dynamic as he had been in 1973-74. Barcelona reached the semi-final of the European Cup in 1974-75, but they were beaten by Leeds United. The only other trophy won by the club during Cruyff’s five seasons was the Copa del Rey in 1978.
In hindsight, perhaps it was the World Cup defeat of 1974, the crushing end of a total football dream, that blunted his edge, or maybe it was merely the passage of time. But between 1971 and 1974, there was no finer exponent of the beautiful game than Johan Cruyff of Ajax, Barcelona and the Netherlands.