With a virtuoso display of finishing in Salvador, the Dutch chastened a Spanish side indelibly influenced by their own footballing past – and by their current manager Although it is tempting to view any successful team, particularly any international team, as causa sui – as a product of its own footballing culture and nothing else – the reality is that successful teams have always looked abroad for inspiration. Perhaps, in part, this is simply down to the natural allure and exoticism of that which is foreign. Just as the hosting of this World Cup in Brazil possesses a romantic appeal arguably unmatched by any country closer to home; perhaps even England itself; it is worth remembering, conversely, how top Brazilian sides such as Corinthians, Arsenal and Sao Paulo Athletic Club self-consciously retain their original English monikers, in testament to their English origins.
Indeed, for all that Brazil’s playing style can be considered originally and organically Brazilian, the individual dribbling so characteristic of jogo bonito was a distinctly English tactic when football was famously established in Brazil by nimble winger-cum-railwayman Charles Miller, a well-to-do Englishman of Scottish descent who took it upon himself to act as a sort of footballing missionary across the South Atlantic. The game Miller preached was based first-and-foremost on individual dribbling; dribbling he had honed on the pitches of the public schools that, unsurprisingly, valued the assertion of individuality above just about all else. Even that most revered and romanticized of footballing styles, therefore, can be said to ultimately originate not on the sandy beaches or narrow streets of Brazil itself, as might be imagined, but under the drizzly skies of nineteenth-century public-school England, some six thousand miles away.
By the very same token, the responsibility Spain possesses for tiki taka, the possession-based style so imperiously successful prior to the interventions of Arjen Robben, Robin Van Persie and co. yesterday, doesn’t lie solely with the Spanish. The twist here, however – a twist of which Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, would be proud – is that the team who so emphatically ended Spain’s tiki taka reign yesterday represent the very nation who can claim to be the forerunners of tiki taka itself. For just as, in Shelley’s gothic novel, Victor Frankenstein eventually manages to destroy the immensely powerful monster which he, many years before, had created; so Holland destroyed a Spain team yesterday whose very blueprint for such immense prior success as winning every tournament since 2008 – tiki taka – has historically been developed by the glow of Dutch, and not Spanish, candlelight.
The early phase of tiki taka’s development belongs to a name familiar to football fans everywhere: Johan Cruyff, inspiration, ideologue and all-round icon of Dutch football, if not world football, in the 1970s. At Ajax, Cruyff acted as the keystone of a side who bewitched European audiences with a brand of football based around one essential – namely, the ball itself. More precisely, both the retention of and the regaining of the ball were upheld as sacrosanct, with Cruyff, at the prerogative of his manager Rinus Michels, actively enforcing these dual principles on the pitch. However, to the extent that this can truly be gauged, it is fair to say that the principles were really Cruyff’s, and not Michels’s, or at least became Cruyff’s. The lengths to which Cruyff cajoled and criticized team-mates for ball-related mistakes simply seems too great to fall within the scope of mere subservience to managerial prerogative.
For Cruyff, football based on retaining and regaining possession wasn’t simply preferable in aesthetic terms. It was, more importantly, the most efficient way to play football; to fail at either was, therefore, to do nothing less than harm your team’s chances of the best possible result. Famously, Cruyff once even criticized his Ajax team mates for scoring a goal, arguing it should have been scored earlier in the play. To criticize a misplaced pass is one thing, but to criticize a goal for its perceived inefficiency suggests a genuine personal belief on Cruyff’s part that Michels’s footballing principles were right. What kind of manager, after all, would actually encourage his or her captain to criticize goals? Not Michels. No, the one who truly enshrined in footballing scripture the principles of retaining and regaining the ball was Cruyff himself. Scripture which, as his indefatigable personality might suggest, he was prepared to preach as far and wide as possible.
Hence, when Cruyff eventually retired from playing in 1984, ending a dazzling career which contrived merely to harden his footballing principles, coaching and instilling these principles seemed the only realistic option. Deeply influenced by his spells at Ajax, and later FC Barcelona, Cruyff proposed that a copy of Ajax’s academy (of which he and many of his 1970s teammates were highly successful products) be set up at Barcelona, a proposal gamely accepted by then-club president Josep Lluis Nunez. The result was La Masia, or ‘The Farmhouse’, a proving ground nestled amongst traditional Catalan idyll, but which practised very Dutch, and very demanding, training methods. That being said, winning among younger age groups was never prized, with younger Barcelona age-group teams frequently losing to equivalent sides from smaller clubs. All the value lay in the ball, as Cruyff would have it, training sessions peppered with constant games of rondo, or ‘keep ball’ (indeed, the very name ‘tiki taka’is said to simply derive from the sound the ball makes when passed first-time between teammates). Losing the ball, as well as failure to regain it quickly enough, were the true losses.
Amongst the first crop of youngsters to graduate from La Masia was one Pep Guardiola, who emerged when Cruyff himself was Barcelona manager. Indeed, were it not for Cruyff’s direct intervention during Guardiola’s very first week at La Masia aged 13, Guardiola would never have become the pass-master so pivotal (both metaphorically and positionally) to Barcelona’s style in the ‘90s, and to their astonishing later success under his management. Cruyff explicitly requested during a youth team game that youth team coach Charly Rexach switch Guardiola from the right of midfield to a ‘pivot’ role in the centre, from which he could best utilize his obvious awareness and technique; a role which Guardiola never left at Barca until 2001, some 17 years later. Naturally, with Guardiola having helped secure Barca 16 trophies during his career and with his star beginning to wane, the Barcelona manager at the turn of the century actively nurtured a successor: the great Xavi Hernandez, arguably the single most important player behind Spain’s recent dominance, and the player most emblematic of their tiki taka style.
So who was the Barcelona manager at the time? Answer: none other than Louis Van Gaal, the very same Dutchman (minus the receding hairline) who oversaw Spain’s humbling yesterday in Salvador. Louis Van Gaal, the man who also brought Andres Iniesta from La Masia to the Barca first team and onto World Cup-winning superstardom with La Roja. Louis Van Gaal, the man who yesterday conspired to kill off – possibly for good – the footballing behemoth which he and his fellow Dutchmen have largely served to create. Louis Van Gaal – the man who yesterday imbued a football match with a Shelley-esque literary resonance the likes of which we may never see again.