More than 45,000 Barcelona fans attended a memorial space at Camp Nou in honour of Johan Cruyff over the weekend.
They paid their respects in front of a picture of the club legend, close to a "Gracies Johann" sign and hundreds of flowers that had been laid. There was even the surreal sight of a dog wearing a Real Madrid shirt with "Ronaldo" on the back standing to attention in front of Cruyff's photo.
Cristiano Ronaldo proper will be at Camp Nou on Saturday for el clasico, a game which will be marked by several memorials to Cruyff.
Madrid have been respectful since Cruyff passed away, though they were stung by his brilliance. He turned them down before joining Barca in 1974. He played his first game for Barca at the Bernabeu, where he scored one and set up three in a 5-0 rout. Madridistas refer to it as the Black Night; Cruyff as the best month of his life.
Ideas are being discussed about how best to pay homage to the Dutch master on Saturday. Every living former Barcelona president has agreed to attend the game – no mean feat given the divisions among them – but then Cruyff brought unity, brilliance and a first European Cup to Barcelona.
For decades, if a presidential candidate had Cruyff onside, a man of power without position in Catalonia, then that would be a major help. Despite being Dutch, Cruyff was respected as a moral compass for what Barca should be.
There are suggestions that the redeveloped Camp Nou, whish is set to be upgraded to 105,000 capacity by 2020, should be renamed the Johann Cruyff Stadium, while giant collages are planned for Saturday, probably with Cruyff’s name and his No 14 shirt on display.
Cruyff was one of the greatest, no doubt. He was probably the greatest footballer Europe has ever produced, but part of his appeal was his personality.
He was cerebral and outspoken, as good a newspaper columnist as a coach or player. Pep Guardiola and Xavi point to him as being their defining influence, while Barca still credit their current style to Cruyff.
Being cogent, forthright and outspoken meant Cruyff’s words could go against him, though. He made enemies – his nemesis was Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal – and he did not always help himself.
Before the 1991 European Cup Winners’ Cup final in Rotterdam, Cruyff criticised United’s central defensive pairing of Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister.
“I was very nervous on the way to the ground,” Pallister recalled.
“Johann Cruyff said that Brucey and I couldn’t pass the ball, so I was determined to prove him wrong.”
“Barca were strong favourites, but they were missing [Hristo] Stoichkov and, as I found out a few years later, he wasn’t bad,” a reference to when the Bulgarian striker scored twice in a 4-0 win for Barcelona in a 1994 Uefa Champions League.
Still, United won in Rotterdam in 1991.
That year also brought his health issues to light, for Cruyff had spent the time before the final recovering from a four-hour, double heart bypass operation, age 43. It was after that that he quit smoking and featured in many anti-smoking adverts.
In 1991, Cruyff was coming of age as a coach. His Barca side had just won the Primera Liga after Real Madrid had bagged five consecutive Spanish titles.
Even though they had lost their legendary goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta and Stoichkov in the Rotterdam final, Barca boasted sublime talents such as Michael Laudrup, Ronald Koeman, Jose Mari Bakero, Julio Salinas and Albert Ferrer.
Those players would stay and be part of Cruyff’s side dubbed “The Dream Team” after winning their first European Cup a year later.
He stayed in Catalonia and brought his family up within view of Camp Nou. His son Jordi later played for Barca before leaving to join United.
Those Barcelona players back from international duty stood in silence to honour Cruyff on Monday morning. He gave the club an identity they deserved, his legacy lives on in the achievements of Guardiola’s work and Luis Enrique’s current outstanding side.
No doubt about it, David de Gea should now be Spain’s No 1
Iker Casillas became the most capped European player of all time when he played in Spain’s 0-0 draw in Romania on Sunday; the first of his 166 Spain appearances came in 2000.
It is a phenomenal feat for an outstanding goalkeeper, the man who captained Spain to their first World Cup triumph in 2010.
Not for nothing is Casillas is known as “Saint Iker” by many in Spain, yet he is unlikely to be No 1 in France in June as Spain look to win a third successive European Championship.
Casillas is 34, an age perfectly acceptable for a top-flight goalkeeper, yet he is not as sharp as he was at 26, while David de Gea, at 25, is currently superior.
Casillas has done nothing wrong and his commitment to continue playing cannot be faulted.
He remains proud to represent his country and has said that he never wants to turn down playing for Spain, but he is simply not Spain’s best goalkeeper any more.
De Gea, who has plenty of practice for a struggling Manchester United, is, yet Vicente del Bosque continues to select both, depriving the side of a regular No 1.
Del Bosque wants to make it a gentle transition and by selecting De Gea to start against Italy and Casillas against a weaker Romania side, he is indicating who his No 1 will be. But it would surely be unwise and unconventional if he were to continue using two goalkeepers during Euro 2016.
Del Bosque has stayed loyal to the players who have brought him success before, with unsatisfactory returns at the World Cup in Brazil 2014.
De Gea has been patient and waited for his chance, but just as Casillas was ready to be No 1 at a young age, so is De Gea. And he has been for three years.
One former Spain goalkeeper, Santiago Canizares, owner of 46 national caps, said: “De Gea should have been Spain’s No 1 for a while now. He has been far outperforming Casillas.
“I wouldn’t take him to be a substitute, but there’s no doubt that De Gea should be No 1.”
Casillas is aware of this.
He gets on well with De Gea, so there are no problems there, but in a Twitter chat with his followers on Sunday evening, he was asked if he saw himself retiring soon. Casillas tweeted: “I’m thinking about it more and more! It’s getting close…”
Yet he also remains defiant and claims that he is not going to act or listen to the opinions of four journalists and call time on his international career.
Ultimately, it is unlikely to be his decision, but that of his coach who would be considered crazy if he overlooked De Gea.
And while Casillas would prefer to be No 1, his trophy winning experience and popularity in the Spain camp means he should also go to France.
More from Spain
Player of the week
Gerard Deulofeu The Everton striker was exceptional as Spain’s Under 21s beat Norway. He stood out more than any full Spanish player in their two friendly draws. In Spain’s second division, tiny Llagostera are second from bottom, with a decent home form and a woeful away record. If they are to stay up, they will want more like Sunday’s 4-0 win against Alcorcon, where Natalio scored a first-half hat-trick inside 13 minutes.
Game of the week
Barcelona v Real Madrid, Saturday, Camp Nou. No other game comes close in Spain in terms of glamour, size and being such a consistently brilliant spectacle in the world. If Barca repeat November’s Bernabeu victory, then they move an astonishing 13 points clear of their rivals with seven games to play.
There are other games in Spain this weekend, including the Galician derby between fifth-place Celta Vigo and 10th-place Deportivo La Coruna.
The bottom two, Levante and Sporting Gijon, will also meet in Valencia. Both need to win. Valencia’s other team, Valencia, need to repeat their cup success where they beat Las Palmas in Gran Canaria. It will be more complicated given Las Palmas’s improved form. Gary Neville’s side are only six points off the relegation zone.
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