In the summer of 1997, FC Barcelona began a process of injecting their side with Dutch influence. What followed were trophies, individual excellence, infighting, and disappointment. The success of the Dutch revolution is hard to measure, and the legacy even harder to define.
Barcelona’s venture into Dutch football originally started in 1971 when they appointed Rinus Michels as manager. He was joined in 1973 by Johan Cruyff and in 1974 by Johan Neeskens – both players who had played under Michels as part of Ajax’s great “Total Football” side. The partnership only led to one league title in 1974, but like seemingly everything to do with Barcelona’s success since then, the 1997 revolution is strongly linked.
1997 saw Bobby Robson leave the club as manager having just finished 2nd in La Liga and winning both the Cup Winner’s Cup, and the Copa del Rey. La Liga title hadn’t been in Catalonia for three years now, and so Barca turned to the most highly rated up-and-coming manager in the world – Louis van Gaal.
Louis van Gaal had enjoyed tremendous success with Ajax, implementing his own take and ideas on the Total Football philosophy. While it certainly wasn’t the same (van Gaal was far more rigid and statistical in his approach than the original concept, something that led to criticism of it being creatively stifling by the likes of Cruyff), he had managed to take a remarkably young Ajax side to the top of the European game.
The excitement that Ajax side produced had taken over football, with the biggest clubs in the world looking to poach the youngsters. Barcelona, however, now had the manager. van Gaal immediately began to bring Dutch footballers into the club, beginning with two members of his Champions League winning squad in defenders Michael Reizinger and Winston Bogarde. That summer he also signed compatriot Ruud Hesp from Roda JC, and the goalkeeper quickly made the number 1 shirt his own.
The key signing, however, was Rivaldo – the Brazilian replacing Ronaldo, who left for Internazionale with a world record fee. With Luis Figo as the club’s star man, and Pep Guardiola as captain, van Gaal immediately won La Liga with Barca.
The instant success further inspired Barcelona to build around van Gaal’s vision, and the summer of 1998 saw five more Dutchmen join. Two highly rated players joined from PSV Eindhoven in Phillip Cocu and Boudewijn Zenden, but it was understandably his great Ajax side that van Gaal went back to. The de Boer twins, Frank and Ronald, were signed for a combined €22M, while Patrick Kluivert arrived for €9m, having failed to impress at Milan.
The result was a second La Liga title in two years. Despite the success, van Gaal was somewhat under pressure. He had regularly clashed with the media, and the same criticisms about his style being too stifling were surfacing.
No Dutch players arrived in 1999, although van Gaal did go back to his Ajax side once more – Finnish playmaker Jari Litmanen arriving. In December of that year, van Gaal dropped Rivaldo. It was a highly controversial decision, especially considering that Rivaldo was so good in 1999 that he won the Balon d’Or. Again though, van Gaal’s philosophy was creating enemies, and this time it was the best player at the club.
“Yesterday Rivaldo spoke to me and said he no longer wanted to play on the left. Because of that, he’s been left out of the squad. It was a surprise for me and a surprise for his teammates. It’s a great shame. Barcelona has always had the philosophy that the club comes ahead of everyone – the players, the coach and all the employees.”
Louis van Gaal – December 1999
It was a sign of what was to come. Barcelona had a disappointing season compared to the previous two years, finishing second behind Deportivo La Coruña by five points. Not winning the league created enough pressure that van Gaal quickly resigned from his position on the 20th May 2000. His falling out with the media was summed up with his parting words. “Amigos de la prensa. Yo me voy. Felicidades” he said, or “Friends of the press. I am leaving. Congratulations”.
van Gaal criticised the club and the Spanish culture for things not going as planned. Yes, he had lifted two La Liga titles in three years, but the rise of Barcelona to the top of the world game hadn’t happened. He never fully implemented his philosophy, but then it also didn’t seem wanted by the club, the fans, or the players.
“The president (Josep Lluis Nunez) took me on for my philosophy and personality, and also the gameplan of my Dutch team, Ajax. But to implant this philosophy in a club is very difficult, because this philosophy does not correspond with the culture of the country.
“I had to struggle every day to convince everyone at Barcelona, and especially the players. In this place, in this culture the players always say, ‘we are the best’. No, we are not the best because we have to show it on the field every year.
“What has Barcelona won in 100 years? How many Champions Leagues? In six years at Ajax I won more than Barcelona had won in 100 years”.
Barcelona moved on to Lorenzo Serra Ferrari in 2000, but they did sign one last Dutchman. Luis Figo had joined Real Madrid in a highly controversial transfer, and his replacement was Marc Overmars from Arsenal – another player who had excelled at Ajax under van Gaal.
Two years later, Barcelona rehired Louis van Gaal as manager at the start of the 2002-2003 season. This time there was no Dutch influx, and certainly no such levels of success. His signings all flopped, made worse by the fact that he had released Rivaldo on a free – despite the former Balon d’Or winner having a year left on his contract.
“Van Gaal is the main cause of my departure. I don’t like Van Gaal, and I am sure that he doesn’t like me, either.”
van Gaal lasted until January, and was sacked with Barcelona just three points above the relegation zone.
His eventual long-term replacement was yet another Dutchman, and yet another member of van Gaal’s Champions League winning Ajax squad – Frank Rijkaard. He would finally give Barcelona their first League title since Van Gaal’s in 1999, winning La Liga in 2005, before going on to win the Champions League the year after.
That Champions League winning team did also include two Dutchmen – Giovanni van Bronckhorst who had arrived in 2003, and Mark van Bommel in 2005 – along with the Dutch manager, but it was far from the project of nearly ten years before.
The core of van Gaal’s side was unmistakably of The Netherlands, bringing his compatriots in at every opportunity. It could arguably be seen as further comment on his beliefs that the Spanish didn’t have the necessary culture to succeed with his methods, instead relying on the players he knew could deliver what he wanted. That side had completely broken apart by the time Rijkaard delivered the big one though. The last remnants, Cocu and Reizinger, left in 2004, and their Spanish medal collections tell a story.
Barcelona failed to win a trophy for six years after van Gaal’s second La Liga title. Yes, he delivered immediate success and boosted the careers of some fine players. The squad he proceeded to build, however, lacked what it took to compete with the rise of Valencia, Deportivo, and, of course, Real Madrid. Whether the project can be called a success is up for debate, and Barcelona rehiring van Gaal two years after he let tells a story in of itself.
What was certainly proven was that Rijkaard’s freedom of expression suited Barcelona far more. It brought them to the top, once again around a Brazilian superstar, and the groundwork that he lay was built upon to extraordinary heights – something that the Dutch revolution of ’97 never was.