Johan Cruyff's influence endures as Barcelona complete the 'double-treble'
BERLIN -- As the great separated themselves from the quite good, stories queued up like goal scorers. The Olympic Stadium had tales to tell, tales good enough to lift the senses.
Nine years after the champions of the world emerged here when Italy beat France in the World Cup final, perhaps the all-time football era emerged a touch more clearly.
It was Xavi's last ever competitive night in a Barcelona shirt and probably Dani Alves' too. Perhaps it was Gianluigi Buffon's last chance at winning the Champions League. Could it be?
Meanwhile, Luis Enrique's first season ended with a treble.
Then there were Ivan Rakitic, Alvaro Morata, Luis Suarez and Neymar, not the worst cluster of goal scorers. Three of the four ended their debut season at their current club -- Neymar is in his second year at Barca -- with a goal in the Champions League final.
Plus, the thing that is astonishingly difficult to achieve has been achieved: the first ever "double-treble." No club has twice won its domestic league and cup as well as the Champions League in a season until now.
But here, in my honest opinion, is the real story: This was Johan Cruyff's great night.
Between 1956 and 1992, Football Club Barcelona could not -- just absolutely could not -- win the European Cup.
They couldn't knock out four teams consecutively, which is what Real Madrid managed in order to lift the first European Cup in 1956.
Nor could Barcelona overcome the likes of Rapid Vienna, Nice, Manchester United and Fiorentina to conquer the continent as Madrid kept on doing in the 1950s and 1960s.
Seriously, after Saturday you wonder what on earth was going on.
Since Cruyff took over as manager in 1988 and imbued his thinking, his technical vision, his attitude and his winning philosophy on the Catalans, they've won the Cup that was beyond them four times in nine years and on five occasions since 1992.
That's for the Catalans, for the Blaugrana, to celebrate.
What this latest final also emphasised and celebrated was what the neutral fan got out of it.
The transmogrification of the European Cup into Champions League since 1992-93 has done many things.
It has made the competition less unpredictable but, true to form, has also pushed back the boundaries of how teams attack and how they defend.
From the Barcelona "Dream Team" era of the early 1990s, football crawled out of the wreckage of stifling defence, catenaccio as a mentality, horrible hooligan violence and brutality on the pitch.
Cruyff's Barcelona not only won, they influenced. It was like a mental and philosophical restart for European football and, for a long time, that era was a template and something about which people all around the world spoke reverently.
Then, for one reason or another, it became hunting season for the Dutchman and Cruyff's values, and the dark ages at Barcelona lasted for almost a decade after his managerial reign ended in 1996.
Eventually, though, the teachings and the philosophies were restored because they are, in and of themselves, valuable and beautiful.
Cruyff, who was in charge when his adopted club won their first ever European Cup, gifted Barcelona the central strategy that governed not only whom they selected from a group of kids including Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique, but how they were trained and what they turned into.
And just look at what they turned into.
Not long ago I spoke to Scotland manager Gordon Strachan. In his day, he was good enough to have played week-in, week-out with this Barcelona side -- a Scottish Iniesta -- and Strachan said that he's quite convinced that we are living a "golden age" of football.
Not that it is, generically, outright better than ever, but, in pockets of excellence, he believes, the decision-making of elite players, as well as a level of sublime athleticism plus technique, is at a Blue Riband level.
This final was an example.
There's no way that anyone, whether an eagle-eyed weekly observer or occasional viewer, can argue that the new European champions were at their absolute best in Berlin. Barcelona shone, then dipped their headlights, then shone again.
Manchester United's 1999 European Cup win vs. Bayern Munich -- also a treble clincher -- was drawn to mind and not just because Sir Alex Ferguson was part of the UEFA committee that awarded the man of the match to Iniesta.
On a busy media day at Old Trafford 16 years ago, a Munich-based journalist predicted, out loud, that Ferguson's team might be short of a cutting edge and less competitive in the heat of battle because they were going to have to "fight" to the bitter end to win the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League.
The Bavarian writer thought that it was a disadvantage for Fergie's Reds to have to consistently strain every sinew and engage all brain faculties in order to win.
He also believed that Bayern would benefit, mentally and physically, from being able to rest so players could mentally "breathe out."
Ferguson was having none of it: "Maybe Bayern will be lacking competitive edge themselves given that the Bundesliga is wrapped up and that's going to seem like a disadvantage to them," he snapped back.
Saturday's game, in which Europe's elite gave us a thrilling and enthralling contest, recalled that terse dialogue and the devastating finale to the subsequent final.
That night at the Camp Nou, Bayern were superior but couldn't finish off their opponents. In this latest European Cup final, Juventus were good, busy, organised, clever, energetic and full of self-belief.
Even when Rakitic scored after just three minutes had passed, Juve just kind of shrugged it off as if it had not happened, and they deserve kudos for that.
However, unlike Bayern, this Barcelona have a killer touch and there were moments when they woke from their slumbers, burst forward and scored.
Barcelona can be ferocious.
After Morata's equaliser, while they were being overrun and outworked, there was nevertheless always a sense that, while Lionel Messi had ambled through much of the match, he might have a trick to produce for Barcelona at any second.
They -- he -- have pulled a rabbit from the hat so often before. You wait for the punch line and it's a scorcher.
What we got in this game, as opposed to so many major European finals prior to the Dream Team's win vs. Sampdoria in 1992, was two teams full of daring, attacking intent, jab and counter jab, with defence in its place but not a central concept.
I think those traits are almost always what we get now, with few exceptions: football with the wit and intent to unpick defensive work.
It's football that is end-to-end, with chances galore and entertainment, which owes much to the influence of Cruyff's Barcelona. Dare, invent, create, go toe-to-toe.
In the final of a competition that, prior to Cruyff, Barcelona didn't know how to win, they now don't know how to do anything other than win, even when they are not in top form.
Were Barcelona overcome by the emotion of the past few weeks, when there's been an homage to Xavi every couple of days? Did that run their battery low?
On the pitch at the end, Xavi wouldn't let go of the football. What an image. What a metaphor.
On the pitch at the end, there was beautiful grace as Xavi and Pirlo locked in an embrace.
Greats were saying goodbye as Luis Enrique, not yet confirmed as staying at the Camp Nou himself, sought out his opposite number Max Allegri to hug and congratulate him.
The actual playing event was embroidered by some of the most elegant, warm and fun coming together of football people I can recall.
Fight to the death on the pitch, exude elegance and class off it -- then you'll be a legend.
BARCELONA WIN THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL
- Marcotti: Barcelona set gold standard in Berlin
- Hunter: Cruyff's influence endures for Barca
- Delaney: Barcelona claim final glory in Berlin
- Horncastle: Juve's future bright despite loss
- Luis Enrique future unsure | Social media reaction
- Ratings: Barca | Juve Gallery: Best pictures
- Burley: Barca defeat resilient Juve in Berlin
- Highlights (U.S. only): Juventus 1-3 Barcelona
- Play of the game: Suarez winner | Player: Rakitic
But if this was Cruyff's night, one on which Xavi and Iniesta came to absolute fruition, if this was a display impressive enough to come under the microscope that is on top-level sport everywhere these days, then there's another couple of guys to mention.
Carlos Naval watched a young Pep Guardiola and recommended that, despite his size, he should be promoted and pushed within Barcelona.
After the game, Naval was the last man to carry the Champions League trophy from the Berlin turf. It represented a nice symmetry for Xavi who, through his joy, cried some tears of "au revoir."
The other name to note is Andoni Zubizarreta.
When he was sacked in January I wrote about his failures. They are significant and they deserved to be properly explained.
But, hey! He signed Rakitic, Suarez, Neymar, Jeremy Mathieu and Marc-Andre ter Stegen, among others.
Recent events have featured trophies all the way for Barcelona, none of which damages "Zubi" at all.
On this latest trophy night, though, the last word should go the hero who influenced everything -- every single thing -- that won this final: Cruyff.
Nice work, maestro.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.