Tonight’s Champions League match between Barcelona and Ajax is as much about success on the field as it is about success in the academies.
Both teams are celebrated for their renowned youth academies, and combined they have produced many of the world’s greatest players but it is Barcelona who can lay claim to having produced the greatest footballer ever in the form of Lionel Messi.
Amongst his numerous exploits, the Argentine forward has scored an incredible 250 league goals in 275 appearances for the Catalans.
Lionel Messi is without a doubt Barcelona’s greatest threat tonight, but there something that is often forgotten about the superstar. He is, in effect, a product of the Ajax academy philosophy.
Yes Ajax are responsible for creating the world’s greatest ever footballer, with a little help from a man named Johan Cruyff. When the mercurial Dutchman chose to move from Ajax to Barcelona in the summer of 1973, he set in motion a chain of events that would dramatically alter the course of the Catalan club and help produce the Lionel Messi we know today.
When Cruyff arrived in Barcelona in 1973, the Catalan club hadn’t won a league title in 13 years and were struggling to say the least. The Dutchman soon put things right. Reunited with old Ajax manager Rinuus Michels, Barcelona and Cruyff set about implementing the total football system made famous by Ajax.
Constant movement and fluid positioning were the instructions of the day. All ten outfield players were expected to drift in and out of every position. When it worked, it was glorious and with Cryuff as the lynchpin, Barcelona were devastating.
Barcelona won a La Liga title in for the first time 14 years during Cruyff’s first season and although the Catalans failed to reach such heights again during Cruyff’s time there, they were hooked on total football. Even after Cruyff left as a player in the late 70s, Barcelona maintained an emphasis on beautiful, quick, attacking football.
When Cruyff returned as Barcelona manager in 1988, he once more made his mark on the club. Now on the sidelines, the Dutchman could watch his team play with an objective eye. He ensured each player was integrated into the Ajax brand of total football. He drilled his particular brand of football into his side for eight prosperous years picking up several trophies along the way.
Arguably more important than the style of play he implemented at Barcelona was Cruyff’s insistence that home-grown talent be utilised.
During his time as manager, Cruyff was instrumental in the creation of the famed Barcelona academy La Masia. Recognizing the need for Barcelona to create their own brand of footballers, Cruyff proposed the idea of La Masi to Club Chairman Nunez, as a place to house youth teams, similar to the way Ajax cultivated its prospects. Barcelona didn’t dare refuse a Cruyff request and soon a Barcelona Academy emerged.
La Masia educated the players in Ajax’s total football and ingrained in them the importance of playing football in the correct manner. The beginning of the La Masia project saw Cruyff place a greater emphasis on youth as Manager of the Catalans. Under his stewardship players like Guardiola, Guillermo Amor and Albert Ferrer were given their first team débuts for Barcelona.
And so we fast forward two decades to Lionel Messi, the world’s greatest footballer. When Barcelona weren’t pumping Messi full of growth hormones as a teenager, they were instilling into the young Argentine ideas of attacking football. Of total football. Of Ajax football.
All grown up, Messi has become the quintessential example of what total football is all about. He is the definition of versatility, having begun his career as a right winger, eventually moving into a central position and finally evolving into possibly the greatest goalscorer of all time.
Would Messi’s career have been the same without La Masia? Doubtful. La Masia houses boys together, teaches them how to play and helps them become men on and off the field. Just as Ajax and Cruyff intended.
So should Messi score against Ajax tonight, and logic dictates he almost certainly will, the Dutchmen may rue the day they allowed Cruyff to leave for Barcelona with all their secrets.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.