What Johan Cruyff meant to Barcelona goes far beyond football
Once, in a better world, when Johan Cruyff was still alive, I tried to sum up what I felt about the relationship between him, FC Barcelona and their recent production line of the greatest football that has ever been produced.
I've no wish to be repetitive but I honestly don't think that I can put it better than when I wrote:
If the 175,000 FC Barcelona members, or socios, queued up in an orderly line, night after night, to massage his tired feet, cook his dinner and tuck him into bed; if they carried his golf clubs around Montanya's hilly 18 holes; if they devoted 50 percent of their annual salary to him, it still wouldn't be anywhere near enough to repay the debt, which those who love this club owe to Johan Cruyff.
Looking back, in fact, I think I underplayed it.
The rest of the world -- at least the parts that love football to be daring, inventive, seductive, creative and thrilling -- owes just as big a debt to the Dutchman, who died on Thursday. He was 68.
Think of this.
No Cruyff, no "Dream Team". No Cruyff, no FC Barcelona cantera. No Cruyff, no Joan Laporta. No Cruyff, no Frank Rijkaard. No Cruyff, no Pep Guardiola.
When we enjoy the symphony of scintillating football which Lionel Messi and Xavi and Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets and Neymar and Gerard Pique and Ronaldinho and Deco and Samuel Eto'o and Carles Puyol have played for us for more than a decade, we need to understand that, without Cruyff's brain, his stubbornness, his vision, his daring and his intelligence it would never have happened.
All of those players were either recruited to Barcelona as stripling kids or bought as professional talents based on the football bible that Cruyff wrote.
Talent over height. Brains over brawn. Bravery, meaning making the right pass, the right darting run, the right "show" for the ball no matter the pressure, no matter the risk.
Intelligence, above all.
But in lamenting the horribly early death of a man who was still vibrant, important, influential and happy, I think it's important to understand the fact that Cruyff didn't just design a sublime system of how to spot, develop and inspire the most brilliant soccer talents -- he literally changed popular culture.
Across the numerous times I interviewed either him or his one-time right-hand man Charly Rexach, they both placed massive emphasis on the kind of sporting climate that existed at the Camp Nou in the early 1970s, when they were united there as footballers, and 15 years later when they were reunited there as leaders.
It's hard, now, to understand that, when Cruyff furiously rejected Ajax's deal to sell him to Real Madrid behind his back and pushed through a 1973 move to Barcelona in order to spite both these clubs, he was moving to an area of Spain where the fascist dictator General Franco still ruled.
Laporta once told me that it felt like the Thunderbirds, Elvis Presley and George Best all rolled into one had come to rescue all of Catalunya from Franco.
A proud, but cowed, Catalan "nation" suddenly found that the world's best footballer of the day not only knew where they were and was attracted by them, but wanted to lead the revolution.
In social and sporting terms there was a sonic boom.
And, Laporta told me, it wasn't simply that Cruyff came to Catalunya, it was that Cruyff and Barcelona marched all around Spain and Europe together for the next few years.
Just as the 1992 Olympics would totally revitalise -- even reinvent -- the modern Barcelona as a city, so Cruyff's arrival had felt to many like a great Crusader was suddenly with them in their search for the Holy Grail: self-pride and self-determination. Democracy.
Think if it had been your city, your "nation", which was manacled, beaten down, discriminated against. Then along comes a superhero.
It's one of the great narratives.
In the season Cruyff arrived, Barcelona were humbled by Madrid, except on the occasion of the Clasico at the Bernabeu.
It was Feb. 17, 1974.
"I'll never forget that game as long as I live," Cruyff once explained. "It was the date that [my wife] Danny was supposed to give birth, but she and I agreed to bring the birth forward by a week and that she'd have a cesarean section so that I could play against Madrid. I honestly hadn't fully realised how much the Barcelona sentiments were influenced by a game against Madrid until that day, but the impact of winning by that [5-0] scoreline taught me a lot about Barcelona and probably involved me with this club for the rest of my life."
What he learned, then and until he left the Camp Nou, was as much to do with Catalan culture and nature as about football.
He felt that his adopted city had an inferiority complex; one which affected aspirations, decisions, habits and even ambition.
When he and Rexach took over as coaches in 1988, Barca had won the Spanish title just twice in 28 years. Have a little count as to how many trophies the club has won since.
Initially, the pair had to fight against, to change, was a baying Camp Nou mob that wanted quick, direct, lowest-common-denominator football. Direct, aggressive and brusque like some of the stuff served up in England at its worst.
When Cruyff taught patience, strategy, passing, possession, position and artfulness, large sections of the Camp Nou booed and jeered. "Lump it in the box" was a regular Catalan chant.
Just think about the journey from there to Messi, Xavi, Ronaldinho, Busquets, Iniesta, Victor Valdes, Puyol and Yaya Toure via Guardiola, Michael Laudrup, Ronald Koeman and Hristo Stoichkov.
It's one of football's greatest and most uplifting transformations.
First Cruyff laid foundations, correcting the first team and planting the seeds of the youth structure, before he changed an entire belief system in the fans, the directors and the media. Then he won trophies and made the outside world fall in love with the entire package.
As for the "Dream Team," the phrase was originally coined for the U.S. basketball team that parachuted into the Barcelona Olympics.
However, use the term almost anywhere in the world now and, instead of evoking Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, it will conjure thoughts of Cruyff's disciples. It'll mean Wembley 1992.
The man we just lost to that evil beast of cancer always said that simply winning the European Cup back then, against the Sampdoria of Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli, unleashed a golden generation of young men and women who felt more confident, more international, free and bold.
In the football played since 2003 until now by Barcelona, the club he loved, he was so right. Could not have been more so.
It's for greater minds to debate or prove but I'd wager that, amid the current demand for Catalan independence, there is also a dream of new horizons and self-belief that owes some part of its seeding to that night at Wembley 24 years ago, as well as the "Dream Team" and Guardiola the disciple, the player and the coach. To Rome in 2009 and Wembley again in 2011.
But, more than anything, the exuberant and bewildering brand of soccer played by Cruyff-inspired Barcelona, is the world's patrimony.
We're saying adios to the man who took the greatest sport that humankind has ever invented and made it more beautiful, more seductive, more lovable.
And for that, from Catalunya to China via Carolina, Coventry, Chantilly and Canberra, we all owe a debt to the most influential, important and visionary man that football has ever known.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.