It’s been a week since Johan Cruyff passed away and some of us (ahem) aren’t really over it yet. He was the living symbol of Dutch football, for club and country. His time in Ajax’s academy, his lengthy and successful tenure with his home club’s senior team, and his central role in transforming the national team into a force to be reckoned with in Europe and around the world drapes his entire legacy in orange.
But if you could ask him, Cruyff would surely tell you that some of his heart is covered in blue and red stripes. He spent some of his best years as a player at Barcelona, helping them win their first La Liga title in a decade and a half at the end of the 1973/74 season. Later he had his most successful tenure as manager at Barça, capturing a pirate’s booty in silverware and sparking a new revolution at the Camp Nou that continues to this day. Even after he retired from football, his family continued to live in Barcelona, and it was in that city that he drew his last breath. The club, and the city, meant a lot of him.
This week, we look back at an El Clásico from Cruyff’s first season at Barcelona— February 17th, 1974.
This was was the second act for El Clásico that season. They first met at the Camp Nou for the 1973-74 league campaign in October, which played out to a 0-0 draw. With Barcelona challenging for the title for the first time in over a decades and Real Madrid struggling, the home side were eager to stop their rivals at any cost.
For Cruyff, there was another layer to the intrigue surrounding the game. When Ajax sold him to Barcelona months before, Cruyff commented that he was grateful to have gone to Barcelona rather than Real Madrid, saying he would rather not be at a club with such close ties to Francisco Franco. Adding that in to the swirling cauldron of political and football animus meant Real Madrid and their fans— and their, uh, political patrons— were out for blood that night and weren’t going to accept anything less than total domination.
So of course the exact opposite happened.
Barcelona grabbed hold of the game at the half hour mark and never let go. Juan Manuel Asensi swept in a cross with the side of his foot just inside the near post to claim first blood. Cruyff doubled the lead eight minutes later after an elegant dance with four defenders ended with a low shot into the far corner. Asensi got his third in the 53rd minute with a smooth strike from a long angle. Juan Carlos hit a beautiful chip on the counter in the 63rd minute to put the result beyond reasonable doubt. And five minutes later, Hugo Sotil poured some salt in the wounds with a header off a set piece.
It was a devastating performance, and it sent a clear message to Real Madrid (and, arguably, Franco): your crown is slipping.
Barcelona, of course, went on to win La Liga that season for the first time since 1960 and marked the beginning of Cruyff’s legacy at Barcelona that continues to be felt two generations later. Real Madrid petered out in eighth place in the league but managed to win the Copa del Rey that season.
El Clásico meets again this Saturday in Barcelona with the home side once again in pole position for the league title. Yet this will also be the first Clásico without Cruyff, something which the clubs and fans will surely note that evening. Kickoff is at 2:30pm EST on beIN Sports.