This felt like going full circle. Berlin not Barcelona, but Cruyff again.
Outside of my childhood Aberdeen heroes, it was Johan who absolutely riveted my attention from 1971 onwards on the brief occasions that I could watch Ajax dominating Europe on Sportsnight or when the BBC showed the European Cup finals, three of them, that the ‘other’ team in red and white won consecutively.
By chance I was in Barcelona, working, when Cruyff was sacked by FC Barcelona and, unbeknownst to me, the tectonic plates of the football world moved irrevocably.
Joan Laporta decided to protest, his movement led him to be president seven years later and ‘Cruyff principles’ were re-introduced to the Camp Nou. Coincidentally the ‘sop’ to the Barcelona fans for Cruyff’s sacking in 1996 was Luis Enrique being pinched, on a free, from Real Madrid. How did that end up for Lucho and Barça?
During my life in Barcelona I’ve met and interviewed Cruyff a few times – nothing was cooler than him phoning me at my house ahead of the 2011 Wembley final and saying: ‘Hi Graham, it’s Johan’. That’ll do it for me.
While here I’ve seen football the likes of which has never been played before and while it’s been Ronaldinho, Xavi, Iniesta, Etoo, Piqué, Busquets, Messi, Neymar, Suarez performing it, rather than Johan himself, none of it would have taken root here, specifically, were it not for him, his teachings, his influence. Without Laporta, Begiristain, Guardiola all believing fervently in his football philosophy.
Dan Leydon’s art for my book on Barça, illustrating the through-line from Cruyff to Messi
But this picture shows the two of us in Berlin, last November, just a couple of weeks before his cancer diagnosis – so far, so good on that particular fight.
We were to talk about youth development, football philosophy, how to steer a modern club which wants to embed technique and tactics in its central nervous system.
Around us, representatives from AC Milan, Sporting Lisbon, Athletic Club, Everton, Spurs, Zenit, Inter, Manchester United, Atlético, Feyenoord, Benfica, Borussia Dortmund – many many more.
‘Be firm with him, don’t let him meander off into his own musings’ Johan’s minder affably warned me before the hour-long interview. ‘He’s in a good mood, he enjoyed that’ she said post event.
Me? I knew that I’d spent the morning with, pound for pound, the most important and influential man in the history of football.
Doesn’t get much better than that.