The great teams identify themselves with their greatest champions. The kids love to buy their shirts, comb their hair like them, and imitate their moves. At the same time, the champions of the past build a style of play that remains in the nature of their club. It is the soul of the club, something the team unconsciously perpetuates, always looking for it, after the great player goes away or retires.
When Ladislao Kubala in 1949 realized that Hungary would fall under the USSR influence, thus becoming a communist country, he decided he had to leave. One night he loaded his family on a train wagon at the Budapest station and crossed the border with Austria. He reached Vienna and afterwards came to Italy.
Ladislao was one of the most talented football players of his time. Born in Budapest, he actually descended from a mix of Slovak, Polish, and Hungarian ancestors. He took profit of it in his career, changing his nationality when the risk of being called by the army became too high. He played in both the Hungarian and the Czechoslovakian national team, claiming a different nationality when he needed it.
An offensive player, part of one of the most talented generations of all time, Ladislao struggled at the beginning out of Hungary, because the Federation opposed the tentative to enroll him in the Italian championship.
He played one year in Pro Patria in Italy. Avoided the tragedy of the Grande Torino team, whose plane crushed on a hill around Turin coming back from Lisbon, killing all the players, because his sick son didn’t let him go. Then, the captain of Barcelona discovered his story and called him to Spain, where the foreign players were not allowed in the championship. Anyway, the procedures to change nationality quickened when they regarded football players, and Kubala became a Barcelona player in 1951, beginning a decade of domination in Spanish football, only rivalled by Di Stefano’s Real Madrid.
Kubala was a dribbler, with great technique and a unique game vision. The few images we still have of his Barcelona show a blond player with Nordic lineaments, strong thighs and subtle eyes. His dribbling in limited spaces left the defenders on their legs, often wandering where he was and his passages possessed the ability to find free players in front of the goal.
In 1958 Kocsis and Czibor join Ladislao in Barcelona. The two Hungarian players belong to the Golden team that reached the 1954 World Cup final only to be defeated by Germany in one of the most incredible upsets in football history. After the 1956-failed Hungarian revolt, the greatest players left Hungary and found elective nations in Europe.
Kocsis and Czibor formed an incredible trio with Kubala, that reached the Champions Cup final in 1961 against Benfica, where the Portuguese won displaying Eusebio’s incredible talent.
But, more importantly, Kubala set the tone for what Barcelona’s football was, in comparison what the other soul of Spanish football, Real Madrid: an alternative language, a search for a new way of playing. Kubala joined Barcelona when he was sure they would hire his father in law, and great coach, Ferdinand Daucik, who rejuvenated the Spanish approach to football, importing the ideas that had made Hungarian and Czech football so prominent in the world.
Kubala won his last title in Barcelona in 1960, and it took 14 years before Barca could win again. It happened when another great player joined the team: Johann Cruyff. Like Kubala, Johann’s mentor, Rinus Michels, the architect of the Great Ajax and the Dutch team between the 60s and 70s, became the team’s coach. This meant, for Barcelona, the reconstruction around new concepts, the “total football” of the Dutch teams, and the return to victories.
Cruyff became the soul of the team. He learnt the Catalan language, immersed himself in the Catalan culture. The fans saw him as the torchbearer of the team’s soul, and he was, in many more ways than previously thinkable, along the years.
Johann was more than a player himself, in fact. A great personality on and off the field, he played and created football, developing his own vision, that later on was so important in his coaching career. However, he was also organic to a Barcelona organization that was refocusing itself around the idea of being “more than a club”. And this is a very important aspect to consider in the success or the failure of great players in teams.
When you are part of Barcelona, or Madrid, or Manchester United, you are part of that story. Though your personality is great, you must always remember that you are a “part of”, you are not the team. Probably this is why Diego Armando Maradona failed in Barcelona and was successful in Naples.
Diego was a player of his own, the only one to rival Pelè in the ideal classification of the greatest. But he could not understand that the love of club would always be more than the love for him. This is an important concept in those teams: you take the torch and then give it to another. You are not the torch.
Diego’s heart was too big, he was too outspoken, and his incredible class was not enough to make him part of the picture, because he WANTED to be the picture himself. This is why he left to Naples, where he became the heart of a team completely devoted to him.
Barcelona had to wait until 1988, when Cruyff returned to coach the team, to achieve again real greatness. And Johann did it his own way: he changed the players, launched a lot of young ones and fearlessly pursued his idea of football. Because football in Barcelona is first of all an idea, a philosophical concept, that must put on the field the Catalan’s view of life, of a city that is naturally innovative, a sea-city that, though it’s a capital, is not at ease with power and can’t live without its inner freedom.
Cruyff led a team with Romario, Koeman, Laudrup, Stoichkov and, in the midfield, a shy, silent player, but very charismatic: Pep Guardiola. The team finally won the long awaited Champions Cup in 1992, putting an end to what seemed to be a curse, given Real Madrid’s many victories.
The connection with Dutch football brought a lot of Dutch players to Barcelona: Davids, Kluivert, Bogeerd, among the others. And brought Luis Van Gaal and Frank Rjikaard on the bench.
At the same time many other great players wore Barcelona’s jerseys: Eto’o, Ronaldinho, Puyol among the others, bringing other victories.
Cruyff reorganized the Cantera, the youth teams. This meant to look for “the special” talent, someone who can play a different football. This is why, when they received from Rosario, Argentina, a video of a tiny kid doing magic with the ball, they were not discouraged by the little dimension of the boy. Leo Messi could do incredible tricks, but he suffered from a form of illness that made him go through costly cures his parents could not afford.
Barcelona called him and, for the first time, built in home the perfect player for his game. Leo Messi “IS” the game of Barcelona. A fast dribbler, great kicker, incredible talent, that the youth team built, to become maybe the greatest star of Barcelona’s history.
With Pep Guardiola on the bench, Barcelona developed its own game, something never seen before on the field. An innovative model that seemed to combine the novelty of all the new football concepts seen before: Nederland’s total football with its web of passages, Hungary’s technique and player’s movement, and something deeply Catalan, that we may define the freedom to think out of the box, on their own.
The combination of these elements has produced one of the most successful teams on earth. A team that wins with the beauty of the game, their player’s class, and seduces the opponents, who can’t help cheering even the defeats for the pure joy this game delivers to the hearts.
This happens only with some kind of champions. Somebody who is conscious of his greatness, but is ready to drawn it in the team, in the group, to be part of it. Something a character like Ibrahimovic could not understand. In-fact, he could not be part of that game, though he scored a lot as usual, because he did not feel it, he felt he himself was more than the team, and wanted the game to be centered on him.
You can’t center the game of Barcelona on yourself. You can’t be more than the soul of a team like this. It’s something Leo has understood deeply in himself. You can’t be an autocrat like Diego or Ibra, you have to feel you’re part of a reigning lineage, of a cycle of kings and princes who are part of the state, they are not the state.
The ideal line that from Kubala goes to Cruyff and to Messi designs the identikit of the great typical Barca player. We can’t yet say who’ll be the next. Maybe he won’t come soon, maybe there will other great players in the middle, like there were Schuster, Romario, Rivaldo, great champions, yet still below these three great figures.
Because Kubala, Cruyff and Messi are more than players: they are the soul of the team, the horizon, the zenith of their respective ages. They remain in the memory, stronger than any other. This kind of player exists for every team, and it is unique, it tells how you define the game, the marketing, the images and the colours.
It tells what is the reason of existence of such a curious entity as a football team.