POTCHEFSTROOM, South Africa – 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 is credited with creating Barcelona’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.
“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 on Thursday.
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 the Catalan club’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.”
The clinical performance against Germany can only leave the Netherlands thinking it’s about to get a taste of its own medicine in South Africa.
“There’s no doubt that Germany knew what it was going to go through, just like Holland is probably thinking,” Cruyff wrote. “If you go up against a team that wants to keep the ball, you’re going to suffer.”
Even Puyol’s 73rd-minute header against the Germans was Barcelona-esque, as the central defender soared high to score from an identical header in a 6-2 win at Real Madrid in 2009.
“It’s a play we do at Barcelona,” Puyol said Thursday. “Two days before the game, Del Bosque explained that they defended by zone and I told him we could do it. Luckily, it worked out well.”
Nearly everything with a Barca touch seems to for Spain.