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Reign in Spain


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When the Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff moved to Barcelona, the people thought he was an angel. Geoffrey Macnab reports on a remarkable film portrait of Catalonia


In early 1970s Catalonia, the resentment against General Franco was profound and deep. The local people still felt as if they were under foreign occupation. One of the few public places where they could speak their own language was the Nou Camp, the Barcelona football stadium. That was why the arrival of the Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff to play for Barcelona in August 1973 was treated almost as if it was a second coming. He had been lured to Barcelona by his former coach at Ajax, Rinus Michels. The team was languishing and in desperate need of a saviour, which is precisely what Cruyff turned out to be. "This gaunt, gangly little fellow who smoked like a chimney gave us back our pride," says an elderly Catalan interviewed in Ramon Gieling's new documentary, Johan Cruyff: At a Given Moment.


A series of coincidences helped cement the Dutchman's relationship with the Catalan public. Cruyff's wife was heavily pregnant. The birth was induced a few days early, so he could play in the most important game of all, against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. Largely thanks to Cruyff, Barcelona won 5-0 in a game that even now few Catalans can talk about without getting goosebumps. Then, simply because he and his wife liked the name, they decided to call their new son Jordi. This, it turned out, was the name of the patron saint of Catalonia and was forbidden under Franco's laws. When Cruyff tried to register the birth, the clerks told him he should call his son Jorge. He refused. As Jordi had been born in Holland, the authorities were powerless to stop Cruyff using the name. "But he was not aware of the immense political meaning of the name," Gieling says.


In those early months in Barcelona, Cruyff played his greatest football, but only very slowly did he begin to appreciate the real nature of the Catalan people. "Being a Catalan is as exquisite as having an orgasm," one man suggests when asked to express the essence of the Catalonian spirit and culture. "Bit by bit, you learn what makes them tick ... Soccer here wasn't just a sport but a political affair, an escape valve," Cruyff says now as he looks back on his arrival in Spain on a sweltering August afternoon 31 years ago. When he first helped Barcelona win the league, passersby would stop him on the street. They wouldn't congratulate him but would thank him instead, as if he was the hero who had delivered them from their oppressors. Not that they were always dismayed when Barcelona was defeated, just as long as they had a few sublime moments.


At a Given Moment is not a conventional sports documentary. Although the film ends with a long interview with the footballer, Gieling's real focus is on the Catalan people. Elderly waiters, the doctors who operated on the Dutchman following his heart bypass, taxi drivers, journalists, housewives, flamenco guitarists, and one or two of his old oppenents (including the former Real Madrid player Emilio Butragueno) are invited to share their favourite Cruyff moment. We see fleeting images of Cruyff in action, scoring wildly improbable goals, ghosting past defenders. We meet the chef and waiters at his favourite Barcelona restaurant. We see the ad Cruyff shot for TV after his heart operation in which he says that he had two addictions: football and smoking. "One made my life, the other almost took it away." A musician talks about Cruyff and "duende", a term that roughly means an uncanny inspiration, charm or magnetism. Everyone has a favourite Cruyff moment. For Gieling, it's from one of his games for Ajax: "When he takes the ball from behind with his heel. He is really like a kind of angel. He's not running, he is floating."


The language the interviewees use to describe Cruyff is invariably lyrical and reverential. "A painting, a play, a poem can create an experience when suddenly you feel lifted up by a great feeling of joy," Butragueno tells Gieling, adding that his former opponent gave him a similar feeling, "a feeling that goes beyond admiration and that's comparable to an artistic experience". We see old men clumsily trying to imitate some of Cruyff's great tricks. We meet women who have never married because to do so would be to betray their idol.


What intrigued Gieling was the gulf between the mythical figure Cruyff became to the Catalan people and the deadpan, down-to-earth footballer he went to meet last year at his home in Spain. The film opens with Cruyff in shirt, trousers and loafers kicking around a ball on a patch of grass high in the mountains. He tells the kid in goal he is going to blast the ball, hits it and it spirals off into the sky. We then see it bouncing down the road all the way back to Barcelona. "I thought the ball should take us from character to character. God kicks the ball back into the city."


Even today, if Cruyff makes the most banal remark, it's treated by the Catalan people as if it's a Delphic utterance. Cruyff isn't exactly a holy innocent, but Gieling insists that there is still a naivete about him. He was born with a gift, he says, "but from the age of 18, he became suspicious because he knew that people saw something in him that maybe he had not been aware of. In a way, he is still very innocent. When you sit in front of him, he'll tell you everything."


It seems there's little snobbery or arrogance about Cruyff. Gieling speculates that his humility is attributable to his background. He was 12 years old when his father died. His mother was forced to work, cleaning the locker rooms at Ajax. "That's why, to me, locker rooms are still a kind of holy place," he tells Gieling.


Not that the Dutchman was ever entirely unworldly. He loved money. In the mid-1990s, the relationship with Barcelona soured. He was sacked as trainer. "They kicked me when I was down and tried to discredit me," he says of his traumatic break with the club whose fortunes he had revived.


The fact that Cruyff ended up being so badly treated by Barcelona only adds to the myth surrounding him. The defeats and setbacks lend pathos to his story. As he tells Gieling, the low point was losing the World Cup Final with Holland in 1974. He now lives in the hills above Barcelona. He still doesn't speak a word of Catalan, but that hasn't lessened the awe in which he is still held.


Cruyff's gift as a footballer, he tells Gieling, was that he mastered the art of being in the right place at the right time."He was the philosopher of going your own way without any compromise," Gieling says. "Every Sunday, he did what he thought he should do. He never listened to public opinion. If he lost, he lost on his own terms. You can never fail if you go your own way."


· The world premiere of Johan Cruyff: At a Given Moment is at the Rotterdam festival on Thursday.


· You've read the piece, now have your say. Email your comments to football.editor@guardianunlimited.co.uk.

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