Tonny Bruins Slot took his place among the guests of honour at Camp Nou on Saturday night. Ajax’s official observer was there to watch his team’s opponents in tonight’s Champions League Group H opener, Barcelona.
Some clubs scout furtively, but Barca know all about Bruins Slot and his eye for accurate predictions. The Dutchman, 66, worked as a scout under compatriot Johan Cruyff when he was the hugely successful coach of the Catalans.
“Bruins Slot was the Barca scout who studied opponents,” recalls Jordi Cruyff, who started his youth career at Ajax before moving to Barcelona, when his dad became coach in 1988.
“Before we played Manchester United in 1994, he did an analysis of United where he explained to all the players that United were struggling with the three-foreigner rule, because the Irish players like Roy Keane and Denis Irwin were classed as foreigners. He predicted that Schmeichel would not play.
“All the players started laughing at him. I’d never seen that before, all the players laughing at him. But he was right, he correctly predicted the United line-up.”
The depleted English champions went down 4-0 in front of 114,432 at Camp Nou. Bruins Slot is on the other side tonight, charged with proving the information to stop Ajax recording a similar defeat.
Such are the connections between Netherlands and Catalonia, information flows freely between Ajax and Barcelona, yet it is a quirk of modern football that the two teams, who have both won the European Cup four times, have never met in competition.
The connections at present are numerous. Barcelona’s Bojan Krkic is on loan at Ajax, Frank de Boer is Ajax’s coach and Marc Overmars their sporting director. Both are former Barcelona players.
Past connections are legion. Johan Neeskens, Richard Witschge, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Maxwell, Michael Laudrup, Roger Garcia, Oleguer, Isaac Cuneca and Gabri have played for both clubs, yet you had expect top players to have shared the top clubs.
What happened in the 1990s was different. Jari Litmanen, who played for both clubs, was asked to name his perfect XI composed of recent teammates.
Litmanen named the entire Ajax team that won the Champions League in 1995, only finding space on the bench for the Barcelona stars he later played with, such as Xavi, Rivaldo and Figo.
Including Litmanen, eight of those Ajax players — Frank and Ronald de Boer, Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids, Overmars, Winston Bogarde, Michael Reiziger — would play for Barcelona, while another, Frank Rijkaard, would manage the club with great success.
Barcelona fans mock Real Madrid for buying rather than creating talent, yet they bought up that Ajax team. It would later create tension among fans who wondered where the Catalan identity was.
Litmanen named Luis van Gaal, his boss at Ajax, as coach of his top XI. Barcelona signed up Van Gaal too, with Litmanen noting: “He was the best coach I ever played under. He was sharp tactically, he paid attention to the tiniest details, which gave us advantages in games. He was the perfect teacher. We listened, we learnt, we won.”
Yet one man overshadows even this hugely impressive former Ajax and Barcelona alumnus. One man who changed the way Barcelona play, imprinting a style that is still the blueprint for the club today.
Amsterdamer Johan Cruyff, like Reiziger, still lives in Barcelona, where he is largely adored and respected. If Barcelona see themselves as more than a club, then Cruyff was more than a player and later more than a coach.
He gave his son Jordi a Catalan name at a time when the Catalan language was outlawed by General Franco. The street-wise Johan had always grasped Barca’s political dimension.
He knew that the name Jordi was outlawed, but Franco’s influence could not extend to Netherlands. Johan tried to register the boy with the Catalan authorities, but officials refused, telling him that his son’s name was illegal.
“My dad said, ‘My son has a Dutch passport, I can call him what I like and his name is Jordi’,” recalls Cruyff junior. “They replied, ‘That is illegal. It has to be the Spanish version, Jorge’.”
“Then my dad said, ‘I’m not going to make a scandal, but tell your bosses that it will become a scandal’. They had to accept me because I was Dutch.”
Jordi thus became the first legal “Jordi” in decades, a gesture that sealed Johan’s place in Catalan hearts. It also helped that he was man of the match as Barca slaughtered Madrid 5-0 away in 1974 — a night still known as “the Black Night” by Madrilenos — and pushed them towards a first league title in 14 years.
Unlike Barca, Johan was used to success: he had won three successive European Cups with Ajax before joining the Catalans for €1 million in 1973.
Johan’s legend grew at the 1974 World Cup finals as the Rinus Michels coached Dutch football team, the outstanding side of the tournament, changed football’s landscape with their “Total Football”. Cruyff incorporated that style as Barca coach.
Cruyff is the central character in the history of both teams — a living deity, yet he is unlikely to make the one-mile journey from his home to be at Camp Nou tonight.
An abrasive, outspoken, character, Cruyff has strong opinions and is not adverse to public spats.
An ally of former president Joan Laporta, Cruyff has fallen out with current Barca president Sandro Rosell and claims that he will not step inside Camp Nou while Rosell is president. Rosell took Cruyff’s honorary club president title from him, Cruyff claims Barca owe his foundation money.
Cruyff has stated publicly that he wants Ajax to win — though he has also had fallouts with the Amsterdam club and left a role there after a boardroom dispute in 2011.
It is Cruyff’s way or no way.
Frank de Boer is the current Ajax coach and has led his side to three consecutive Eredivisie titles, not that the achievement was respected by Cruyff.
“Just because someone has a driving licence does not mean they are capable of driving a Formula One car,” he said.
Football is used to Cruyff’s brilliance and barbs. For 90 minutes tonight, he will not be the centre of attention. Unless he decides to turn up and watch the game in person. Barcelona have invited him to sit among the guests of honour.