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Barca are favourites no more


Ronaldo's ban no concern for Real

Five Aside
 By Lee Roden

Cruyff influence at Barcelona made clear by Messi and Suarez

Five weeks on from when it first made waves around the world, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez's homage from the penalty spot against Celta Vigo suddenly looks all the more significant.

That throwback to when Johan Neeskens and Johan Cruyff combined for one of the greatest spot-kicks of all time quickly made its way back to the source, who admitted it gave him great pleasure while watching on television at home.

Along with bringing joy to the innovator, it also alerted an entirely new generation to his unique genius, a whole wave of kids no doubt now aware of a man who made jaw-dropping moments like that a thing of habit.

Suarez and Messi's act was the perfect tribute. The pure creativity and enjoyment for enjoyment's sake in that moment summed up what Cruyff gave to Barca: swagger, style, guts and brains.

His arrival at the Camp Nou in 1973 as a player taught eternally pessimistic losers to believe that they should aspire to more than just second best; that they could think much bigger.

How could they not, when this man was capable of getting one over on no less than the dictatorship that ruled the country? Giving his son the same name as Catalonia's patron saint was an immense act of defiance in the face of Spain's dictatorship, and one that said much about the courage that coursed through his veins.

It is hard to truly grasp just how much he rocked a city and a nation to which optimism doesn't come naturally. Keep in mind that Catalonia's national day commemorates losing a battle.

Plenty of his bravery would eventually rub off on his old club, seen in the incredibly challenging, proactive style of football that Barca have made their own in the past two and a half decades, and was first instigated by Cruyff's hand as coach.

A generation later his role as a presidential advisor helped make sure that same style was perfected when the Barca job was given to one of his most dedicated students, Pep Guardiola.

Cruyff stopped managing at the Camp Nou in 1996, but he never left Barcelona. The city was one he loved, where he maintained second homes, and where he continued to be a huge presence and innovator.

Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez's penalty against Celta Vigo was a throwback to Johan Cruyff's spot kick for Ajax in 1982.

Two years ago, at the age of 66, he opened the first branch of his clothing brand in the Catalan capital, carrying shoes and shirts that take influence from his distinct, uniquely cool style. The hipster area of El Born was the choice of location, and the shop fits in effortlessly. In his seventh decade on this earth, he was still modern.

It was during the last decade of his life that Cruyff carried out his final work as a coach, almost 20 years after leaving his penultimate job, and Barcelona were once again connected. Taking charge of the Catalan national team, who only play unofficial matches, meant taking charge of Xavi Hernandez, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and even Sergi Roberto, who has since gone on to become one of this season's breakthrough stars.

Multiple new generations of Barca talent were given a rare chance to learn from Cruyff's wisdom, firsthand. A chance that countless other footballers would have begged for, yet he reserved for Catalonia, for an unofficial side that only plays friendlies once a year. That said much about his love of that place, about his desire to give something back.

In a just world the Camp Nou would be given Cruyff's name, but the realities of modern football mean it is far more likely to take on that of a sponsor. Barca's biggest and most fitting tributes will be those carried out by their players therefore, just as Suarez and Messi managed, unwittingly, five weeks ago.

Johan Cruyff is as relevant to Barcelona today as he was in 1973. The proof is on the pitch.

Lee Roden is a European football writer based in Barcelona. Follow him on Twitter: @LeeRoden89.


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