The timing of the Clasico’s second instalment this season comes at a perfect time to pay tribute to the late, great Johan Cruyff. As Camp Nou prepares to honour their former pioneer player and Coach in various ways, including a gathering of all living ex-Barcelona Presidents, it is worth remembering the impact that the Dutchman had on the Clasico of February 1974 – and therefore on Barca as a whole.
The impact of this game has been felt for such a long period of time, but before Cruyff signed for the Catalan club in 1973, they were some way behind their level of today. Real Madrid had already won six European Cups, whilst Barca’s total stood at zero. They had not won the League since 1960, but as we all now know, the former Ajax forward completely changed all that.
What is often considered to be the catalyst for the success that La Blaugrana have since enjoyed is ‘La Manita’ at the Santiago Bernabeu in Cruyff’s first Clasico. ‘Manita’ is a Spanish word which literally means ‘little hand’, and it’s used after any 5-0 victory, with each finger representing a goal. He would mastermind another five-goal thrashing over Los Blancos as a Coach in 1994, but this particular one stands out as the start of something special at Camp Nou, as the changing of mentality and birth of a new outlook on the way the Catalans should play.
It was the kind of performance that we would be accustomed to seeing of the current Barca side – relentless, merciless and unstoppable. It was this, though, that their fans at the time weren’t used to witnessing. Cruyff got the second goal of the game, using his unbelievable balance and fleet-footedness to hold off three players and slot home. Without doubt, this match was a turning point, and it was orchestrated by the then-27-year-old maestro.
Spanish football expert Sid Lowe recalls this shift in attitude in his book, ‘Fear and Loathing in La Liga- Barcelona vs Real Madrid.’
“They were always thinking about inferiority: they had ‘madriditis,’ they had ‘yes, but,’” Cruyff said. “We were always thinking we were the victims but in my way of thinking there was no victim. I said ‘let’s look at ourselves, let’s think about how we can be better. Let the rest do whatever they want- we know what we want.’”
“Cruyff was a sensational player,” Juan Manuel Asensi, who scored two of the goals, recollected. “He was also a winner. The change in mentality was brutal. Suddenly, from always losing we saw that we could win, it was as if we had been drowning and now we were pulled out of the water. We could swim.”
This famous victory set Barca on their way to their first League title in 14 years, despite lying fourth from bottom when Cruyff signed for the club. The foundations for their current period of huge success were set by the man who is, unquestionably, the most important in the club’s history and arguably, in football history. But if you want to find out specifically where this prosperity comes from, the ‘Manita’ of 1974 is probably a good place to look.