When Spain won Euro 2008, “tiki’taka” became a popular buzz word in the Spanish sports press. They were referring to the selección‘s style of quick, short, incisive passes–a possession game based on high-pressure in the midfield and near the opposing area, a defense playing far forward, a style based on control and calculated effort.
In fact, this style, as we could intuit from footage of World Cup ’74, has many similarities to the Dutch style that was christened as “total football” and honed by Rinus Michels and the great Johan Cruyff. Indeed, Cruyff went to Barcelona in 1973, and his legacy there involves his identification with the Catalan cause, one of resentment towards the dictator Franco and his Spanish nationalist politics. By 1973, Franco was of ill health, and the question of succession and continuation of the dictatorship was raised; the political climate was increasingly tense. You could imagine the statement Cruyff made when he named his son Jordi, a Catalan name, as well as the name of Catalonia’s patron saint.
His legacy did not end as a player–he led Barcelona to their first title in 14 years in just his first season. He also came back as a coach in 1988, and went on to become their most successful coach, leading them to their first Champions League (then known as the European Cup). Though he left in acrimonious circumstances, bearing the dislike of an unpopular president and vowing never to coach again, a seed was planted in Barcelona–one of total football.
Though total football is in many ways impossible to completely define, many of its modern characteristics have to do with the “Barcelona” school of playing, a philosophy that extends beyond the stadium as well. Extensive youth set-ups, an important inheritance from the Dutch, play a major role; FC Barcelona even has its own boarding school, La Masía, for young players. Fans can be owners (socios) and participate in club elections. It is a model of self-sufficiency, what you might call sustainability–rather than having sponsors, they might be the only team in the world that pays their charity “sponsors” (UNICEF).
In 2009, as in 2006, Barcelona’s tiki-taka total football won the Champions’ League in style, often overcoming physical, fast, and direct teams with the dizzying, controlling style favored by Cruyff and his own former coach Michels. The style is identified as central to Barcelona’s otherness. Rather than buy galácticos, they “make” them through a system that launches individual brilliance while maintaining tactical unity. Messi is a perfect example of this, while pillars of the team such as Xavi have consistently been some of the world’s best players. Now we can talk about the dynamic Iniesta, the tenacious Dani Alves, or a player dubbed “Piquenbauer” thanks to his silky defending and willingness to attack, Gerard Piqué.
Interestingly, the coach of the current team, Josep Guardiola, was a pupil of Cruyff’s, and was a central figure in the ’92 team. 1992 was, as an aside, year of the Barcelona olympics, launching Barcelona, and Catalunya, into the world’s consciousness. Barcelona continues to be, as it was in the Franco years, a symbol of Catalan difference, a bastion of “resistance” to the centralist option of Real Madrid, “mes que un club,” as they say.
In 2008, the tiki-taka, its foundations well put down by Cruyff and company, went to Europe, as the backbone of the Spanish national team featured Barcelona players. Xavi was the midfield reference and was named player of the tournament, with decisive assists (including one for Fernando Torres in the final) and leading possesion splendidly. Carles Puyol had the summer of his life in the center of the defense. Andrés Iniesta was a catalyst for Spanish attacks–producing the type of displays that have led people as different as Wayne Rooney and World Cup-winning Argentine coach Cesar Luis Menotti to call him the best player in the world. In the post-2008 era we can count on Gerard Piqué, already the leader of the Spanish defense, as well as the maturing Sergio Busquets to be important starters on the selección. And it’s only a matter of time before younger stars like Pedrito make their impact internationally (let’s also not forget ex-Barça players such as Francesc Fábregas).
Mes que un club: “More than just a club,” a way of life, a system. And to think: the 2009 Champions’ League winning team was the first Barcelona team to do it, without a single Dutchman on the field.