Why Spain Plays Football Like Holland

The Spanish team that will start the World Cup final against Holland in Johannesburg is likely to feature seven Barcelona players. Spain is heavily indebted to the Catalan club, from the make-up of its team to the style of football it plays. So, it is interesting that Spain's quest for World Cup glory depends on a match-up with Holland, the country that did so much for Barcelona. This is the story of how Dutch football helped Spain become the best team in the world.

Johan Cruyff is a World Cup legend having played for the Dutch team that finished as runners-up in the 1974 finals in West Germany. Cruyff began his career at Ajax and was a key player in the system of Total Football that was developed by the club’s coach Rinus Michels. Though Cruyff was nominally a striker. However, under the Ajax system no outfield player had a fixed role, and all players were expected to be able to pass and control the ball equally well. The Holland team that participated at the 1974 World Cup played the Ajax system using many of the club's players, thereby introducing Total Football to the wider world. However, by that time Cruyff had left Ajax and signed for Barcelona.

Though Cruyff helped Barcelona win their first La Liga title in 14 years in his first season, his greatest success with the Catalan team would not come as a player, but as a coach. After retiring from playing, Cruyff coached Ajax before once more making the move to Barcelona in 1988. There he became the most successful coach in the club’s history, winning La Liga four times as well as guiding Barcelona to their first ever European Cup - the continent’s premier club competition that is now known as the Champions League. However, after two final seasons without winning any trophies, Cruyff left the club in 1996.

Cruyff’s successor at Barcelona was English coach Sir Bobby Robson. Despite winning three cups during his only season in charge, Robson was only ever considered a stopgap, as Barcelona was keen to continue their Dutch tutelage with Louis van Gaal. Like Cruyff, van Gaal came from Ajax, where he had coached a young side to three Dutch league titles and the 1995 Champions League, when Ajax beat AC Milan in the final. van Gaal filled his Barcelona team with Dutch players from Ajax and won two league titles, but left the club in 2000 believing that he could not impose his philosophy of the game on the team due to cultural differences. The uncompromising Dutchman frequently clashed with his players, who would not conform to his methods, but one person was listening to the Total Football lessons taught by van Gaal - the current Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola.

Another Dutchman Frank Rijkaard brought great success to Barcelona and in his five years in charge, the former Ajax player won two league titles as well as the Champions League. Barcelona has always had a team filled with star players from around the world and Rijkaard had the likes of Ronaldinho, Deco and Samuel Eto’o in his roster. But he also started introducing young players from the club's youth teams, including current Spanish stars Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Carles Puyol, and continued to instill the lessons of Total Football into his team. Despite his team’s increasing brilliance at a thrilling style of passing football, success seemed to breed complacency in Rijkaard and he resigned in 2008 after a trophy-less season.

This time, Barcelona president Joan Laporta decided that rather than looking to go Dutch once more, the club would turn to one of their own. Pep Guardiola had been at Barcelona since the age of 13 and, having risen through the youth ranks, was given his first team break by Johan Cruyff. He became a key component of the 1992 European Cup winning side and would become captain of the team until he left Barcelona in 2001. After retiring from playing, Guardiola became coach of the Barcelona B team before being asked to step up to the senior side after Rijkaard’s departure. Guardiola cleared out a number of the team’s big names and rebuilt a side around the young Spanish players, as well as another product of the Barcelona youth system, the brilliant Argentine Leo Messi.

Continuing with the relentless passing and high pressing style of his predecessors, in his first season in charge Guardiola’s Barcelona won an unprecedented six titles, including La Liga and the club’s third Champions League title. The Catalan had learned from the Dutch masters, and now his Barcelona players will hope that a Catalan version of Total Football will help Spain become world champions in Johannesburg.

There is a twist in this tale as Spain’s path to success is blocked by a Holland team playing a style of football a long way from Total Football. Holland has reached the 2010 World Cup final through a mixture of tough tackling, luck, gamesmanship and the occasional piece of flair. If there is one team it resembles most from World Cup history it is the team that defeated Total Football in 1974, West Germany.

In a twisted reversal of that final, if Holland wins this World Cup it would do so in the traditional manner of its hated neighbor. While Spain, like Johan Cruyff’s Holland would become one of the greatest sides to ever lose a World Cup final.

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