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World football has been split in two by a rather strange schism, one which is should fall apart at the seams but has developed into an argument with two very definite sides. It appears that those who watch the game must decide whether they want to see success, or be entertained, with both apparently inconceivable.

Money has tainted the beautiful game’s image in many ways, most potently the demand for results, but it will never be completely compatible with business. By the same token, there would be something very wrong if football mirrored theatre. The growth of this division has been so great that a myth has etched its way to the very core of the sport. It is widely accepted that chasing victory means leaving entertainment behind and playing very directly, starving creative players of the limelight, while a pleasing style of football, full of pace, technique and ability, usually results in an empty trophy cabinet.

Johan Cruyff, Holland, Ajax and arguably Barcelona’s most memorable representative, was both an advocate and proof that neither extreme was true. The Dutchman, who tragically died earlier this year, became something of a public voice for the art of ‘total football’, a style based around ball possession devised in his playing days which he honed and utilised in his managerial career with both his hometown club, Ajax Amsterdam, and the Blaugrana.

That philosophy became ingrained in the clubs, forming an identity for both, and their countries of origin, too. Few teams have produced success to rival either at different times in their respective histories, showing just what can be achieved when football is played in the ‘correct’ manner.

His ideas became bigger and have lasted ever since. Cruyff’s coaching career took him from Ajax to Barcelona in 1988 and he stayed at the Camp Nou until 1996. His impact on the Catalan giants is still making waves today, in both levels of success and style of play, while Ajax have also stayed true, but failed to maintain their European superclub status. In truth, they haven’t hit the heights since lifting the Champions League a year before Cruyff departed Barcelona and cut ties with the game he did so much for.

Back in 1995, Louis van Gaal was in charge at the Amsterdam Arena and, while he and Cruyff didn’t particularly see eye to eye, they shared similar ideas on how football should be played. Ajax’s youth academy, much like that at Barcelona, has become famous for the number of quality players produced over the years, something the consistent teachings of Cruyff had a huge impact on. That team, which included the likes of Edwin Van Der Sar, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert, has gone down in history, partly because of its own greatness, but also because they have come nowhere near repeating their success since.

It was a goal by the 18-year-old Kluivert, a substitute on the night, that won the final, beating AC Milan in Vienna. It should have been the beginning of something great, a dynasty the type of which they enjoyed years before, but football was changing and the financial aspect was beginning to take hold. Clubs from more illustrious countries threatened to pick apart the team like vultures over the ensuing seasons. Nothing could be done to stop it.

Italian football was at it’s peak back then, so it was no surprise to see the spine of Van Gaal’s young squad make the switch to Serie A. Kluivert was snapped up by Milan, as was Davids, while Van Der Sar joined Juventus and Seedorf signed for Sampdoria.

Kluivert and Davids never found their feet at the San Siro, they would do so elsewhere, the striker in Catalonia and the distinctive midfielder at Juve, while Seedorf would later spend over a decade with the Rossoneri, becoming the only player to win the Champions League with three different clubs after triumphs in 2003 and 2007 and Real Madrid in 1998.

Looking through the history books, it would be hard to call Barcelona a bigger club than Ajax, despite their differing fortunes of late. But one club has been able to build on the philosophy laid in place by Cruyff better than the other as time has moved on. Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Carles Puyol, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique and Victor Valdes, who lifted the Champions League trophy with Barça in 2009 and 2011, under another Cruyff disciple Pep Guardiola, all enjoyed the best years of their careers together.

Whether Ajax would have achieved more had they kept the likes of Kluivert and Seedorf for longer will forever remain a question unanswered, but what can be said is they had the makings of a special team, the like of which unlikely to be seen again for a long time in Amsterdam. Total football merged with a winning mentality, proving it isn’t always a choice of either or.

About the author – Harry De Cosemo

Harry is a European football writer specialising in English, Spanish ad Italian football. He has worked for a number of top publications including MARCA in English, uMAXit football, FourFourTwo and The Press Association.

twitter: @harrydecosemo


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Two of the biggest club’s in world football go head-to-head at the Camp Nou on Saturday evening, for the second El Clásico of the season.

Real Madrid are trailing behind their bitter rivals and need to win to stand any chance of clawing their way back into the title race. Ahead of what promises to be another thriller, we look at some Clásicos stats:

0 – Clásicos Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane has presided over compared with three for his Barcelona counterpart Luis Enrique – a 3-1 defeat at the Santiago Bernabéu & 2-1 win at Camp Nou last season and a 4-0 thumping over their bitter rivals last November.

75 – Messi, Suárez & Neymar have scored 75% of Barcelona’s goals this season compared to 73% for Madrid’s attacking trio.

389 – The number of goals Madrid have scored in official Clásicos, which is 11 more than Barcelona.

14 – The shirt number of former player and manager, Johan Cruyff, who shaped Barcelona and will be honored at the game.

6 – Real Madrid have only won 6 of the last 27 Clásicos that have been played since the start of the 2008/09 season.

499 – The number of career goals that Lionel Messi has scored and he could score his 500th during the game.

231 – The number of Clásico  played since the first once in the semi finals of the Copa del Rey in 1902.

10 – The number of points that Real Madrid are behind their fierce rivals.

68 – The 68th minute of the game is the time in which the most goals are scored – 17 in total.

52 – The number of goals scored from the penalty spot.

3780 – Gento is the player with the most minutes played in El Clásico with 3,780.

21 – Lionel Messi is the player with the most Clásico goals with 21.

13 – Lionel Messi is the player with the most Clásico assists with 13.

25 – There have been 259 different scorers.

500M – The estimated number of fans around the world who will watch El Clásico.

71 – Since 1929 Real Madrid have won 71 of their 171 La Liga encounters with Barcelona.

8 – The last 8 Ballon d’Ors have been won by Messi and Ronaldo with 5 and 3 respectively.

39 – Barcelona are hoping to extend their current 39 game unbeaten run.

550 – There have been 550 El Clásico goals in La Liga, which is an average of 3.2 per game.

2002 – There hasn’t been a 0-0 draw since November 2002.


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