The silver Maserati arrived at the Diagonal, the wide avenue in Barcelona. “Watch now,” said the driver, “I’ll beat all the lights except the last.” There were eight sets of traffic lights in an 800-metre, or 2,600-foot, stretch. The first seven were passed while they were still green.
The year was 1974. The man at the wheel was Johan Cruyff. And the car symbolised the way he was — and is — lean, quicksilver fast and forever challenging the limitations around him.
Last Wednesday, Barcelona played Ajax Amsterdam in the Champions League. It was the first competitive meeting of the two clubs that Cruyff helped to make great -- helped, indeed, to exhibit some of the most mellifluous styles in the global game.
He was born in Amsterdam and has lived in Barcelona for more than half his 66 years, yet Cruyff was not at the Camp Nou stadium on Wednesday.
“I will support Ajax,” he had said on RTL television in the Netherlands. “I have had some differences with Barca’s president, and I will not set foot in the Camp Nou as long as he is there.”
This, too, is symptomatic of Johan Cruyff. There is his way of doing things, and any other way has to be wrong. The vast majority of the 710 games he played and the 401 goals he scored were for Ajax or Barcelona or the Netherlands national team.
He even chose Catalonia’s team as his second club because it represented the opposition to Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. But to Cruyff, life was what he could control on the field.
He was born close to the Ajax stadium in the east of Amsterdam, his mother was a cleaner at the club and he was drawn into the youth system there.
Even before Rinus Michels, the stern trainer at Ajax (and later at Barcelona) became known as the Father of Total Football, Cruyff was known for expressing all the skills of every position.
He expressed them through movement, and very much through his outspoken opinions.
When he spoke too much, the coaches would threaten to fine him or, worse, send him home. But they, even Michels, were inspired by the beauty of Cruyff’s belief that football need not be a sport of fixed positional play or stereotypical patterns.
When we watched Lionel Messi thrive in the Barca team coached by Pep Guardiola a couple of seasons ago, this was Cruyff’s football. He was the coach who gave Guardiola his debut as a player, and whose 1992 “Barcelona Dream Team” set the seed for the Barca of today.
Cruyff was its coach, the head coach of the entire club from the academy up.
Guardiola was the captain of a side that featured Jose Maria Bakero, Txiki Begiristain, Gheorghe Hagi, Michael Laudrup, Romario, Hristo Stoichkov and the inevitable Dutch connection, Ronald Koeman.
And where Ajax with Cruyff the player triumphed in the old European Cup, he later coached Barcelona to the same title.
Even today the Catalan-Dutch connection is maintained. Frank De Boer, the current Ajax coach, played for Barcelona from 1999 to 2003.
Economics have determined that the modern Ajax is no longer as flamboyant or as competitive as the one that Cruyff led to European glory. It still has its youth system, but Barca’s is bigger, better and able to augment its graduates with world-class imports.
Neymar cost Barcelona the better part of 100 million pounds, about $134 million, once the transfer payment to his Brazilian club Santos and his salary over the length of his contract are taken into account. Cruyff’s transfer fee when he left Ajax for Barcelona was also in the tens of millions -- but in pesetas, the former Spanish currency, and worth about $2 million.
It was another time, another valuation, and even the Maserati was then around $10,000 worth of extravagance.
What hasn’t changed, in Cruyff’s eyes, is that football is just a game.
Driven by commerce, but it is still a game that in his case came from the street, and from his vision.
Neymar and Messi might be aspiring Cruyff-like figures licensed to thrill.
But one of Cruyff’s differences with Barcelona’s president, Sandro Rosell, is that the Dutchman doesn’t believe the team needed Neymar.
Cruyff’s opinion, stated on TV and in newspaper columns, is that Neymar and Messi duplicate rather than complement each other.
The signs of the past few weeks have suggested otherwise, although Neymar has gone to great lengths to forego his own scoring opportunities while he tries to set up Messi.
That might be the Brazilian’s way of showing he knows his place in the pecking order in Catalonia and that he is biding time before seeking a leading role.
Ajax, alas, comes without any comparable star. It had a promising young playmaker, the Dane Christian Eriksen, but it sold him this month to Tottenham Hotspur for about $18 million. That money is lifeblood to Ajax, but since Eriksen left, the team has lost its rhythm. “If Messi has seen images of the way we played at the weekend,” said coach De Boer ahead of the match against Barcelona, “I doubt he’s too concerned.”
Cruyff, who has fallen out with the board members running both his former clubs, has become the great outsider.
He thinks Rosell, the president of Barca, is too mercenary. And he is blames the coach for the way that Ajax struggles. “Just because someone has a driving licence,” Cruyff said of De Boer, “doesn’t mean he is capable of driving a Formula One car.”
Straight to the point, like his straight-line driving 39 years ago in Barcelona.