Football: Cruyff pays homage to his Catalan mission: Inspirational Dutchman has different priorities to his Manchester United counterpart. Glenn Moore spoke to him in Barcelona

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The Independent Online
TO ALEX FERGUSON, the Manchester United manager, next Wednesday's Champions' League match at home to Barcelona is another critical step in his team's quest for European glory. To Johan Cruyff, his Barcelona counterpart, tonight's Spanish League fixture against Valencia is more important. For just as United have been destined since the Munich disaster to pursue European success, so Barcelona's history dictates that Cruyff, a four-time Champions' Cup winner, has to put domestic dominance first.

'The league championship is always the important thing for Barcelona,' Cruyff said here at the Nou Camp stadium yesterday. 'To me the European Cup may seem more important, but you must think like the club and here the League is the priority.'

It might seem an oddly insular viewpoint for such a major club (the Pope is one of 110,000 members), but Cruyff, after living in Barcelona for more than a decade in two spells as player and manager, understands it.

Barcelona is, after all, more than a football club. It is not just Barca's size that marks the club out - they own a bank and run teams in a myriad of other sports from handball to roller hockey - but the city's role as the flagship of Catalan nationalism.

Catalonia, the stretch of north- eastern Spain around Barcelona, was once an independent nation with its own empire. But from the late 15th century it became increasingly subjugated by Madrid, culminating in the dictatorship of General Franco from 1939 to 1975, during which time even the Catalan language was suppressed.

The football club became the means of Catalan expression and the rivalry with Real Madrid came to symbolise the political struggle. Although it has gained a measure of regional autonomy, Catalonia remains under central control and Madrid is still treated with, at best, suspicion. Since Real Madrid'ssix European Cups are way beyond them - Barcelona won the competition for the first time at Wembley in 1992 - league hegemony is the main goal.

Cruyff, who even named his son Jordi after Catalonia's patron saint (the same one England calls St George), appreciates all this. He is also aware that, having delivered four titles in the past four years (after two in 30 years, once when Cruyff was playing, the other under Terry Venables), he has become Barcelona's first manager to enjoy job security. As one local journalist said: 'Cruyff is Barcelona is football - you cannot imagine one without the others.'

He is already the club's longest- serving manager, his six years surpassing Venables' three-and-a-bit. Incidentally, photographs of Venables can still be seen beaming down on diners from the walls of restaurants in the city.

Thus there is no sense of panic over the club's poor start this season. Six matches into the campaign they are eighth. Real Madrid are second and newly-promoted Espanol, Barcelona's city neighbours, are above them. Barcelona's away record this season comprises three defeats - including the European loss against Gothenburg - and a goalless draw at Espanol. This, critics suggest, is partly due to the rebuilding that is underway at the Nou Camp. Out have gone old favourites such as the goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta, Julio Salinas (both still playing for Spain), Juan Goicoechea and Michael Laudrup (to Real). In have come Gheorghe Hagi, the Spanish international defender Abelardo, and Julian Lopetegui - who, bizarrely, is now understudy to Zubizarreta for Spain and to Carlos Busquets for Barcelona.

Cruyff, however, does not accept this as a reason for the bad start, preferring to blame a 'World Cup hangover' - 12 of his players were in the United States.

'You have to make changes, because people are getting old and so on, but it is not a rebuilding season, that is not an excuse,' he said.

'It is quite normal to start the way we have in these seasons. If you play 100 per cent you must have your holidays. Too many of our players did not have time off and we must pay the consequences.'

It is not even as if he thought it was a good World Cup. 'I did not like it because the overall quality of technique and skill was poor. Maybe they run more now, but they are not in as much control.

'The new rules have not helped. The only change which has been good is if you kick the ball back to the goalkeeper he has to play it. That has exposed some defenders.'

Cruyff had been in line to manage the Netherlands in the tournament, but he decided not to. The general perception is that it was a question of money, but Cruyff said it was one of control. 'If I can't do it my way I won't do it. That is the way I manage. The key is always to make your decision and never let yourself be influenced by anything or anybody.

'As a manager my strength is the understanding of the game, knowing why something does not go well. That is the most important thing. That and having a good team around me. Management involves a lot of things and no-one can do them all well.'

The Dutch reached the last eight. Could Cruyff have taken them further? 'You always think you could have done better - but you can never prove it.'

Cruyff's dim view of the demands of international football has not been improved by the injury that rules out the Romanian, Hagi, tonight. It appears his half- time departure during the match against England at Wembley on Wednesday was genuine. Hagi is also doubtful for the Old Trafford match, which will at least make Cruyff's decison over the permutation of his four foreigners (only three can play) easier. It could mean a place in the team for Jordi.

Given that his foreigners (Romario, Ronald Koeman and Hristo Stoichkov are the others) are all world-class players, Cruyff has an even greater difficulty than Alex Ferguson in keeping them all happy. 'It is a problem because they all want to play in these big games. So far, however, someone has always been injured.'

United have, he feels, developed into a well-balanced team, aided by Ferguson's long tenure. 'They have more control now; they do not rush around. A draw there may be a good result, but then we may end disappointed by one. Since our mistake in Gothenburg the group is a lot more open.'

As a player Cruyff won three European Cups with Ajax. As a manager he led Barcelona to their first when they beat Sampdoria two years ago. He also won 48 international caps (he scored 33 goals), 10 championships and seven other cups as a player; four titles and six other cups as a manager.

At one time he was the best player in the world, winning three European Player of the Year awards. Now, at 47 - but he looks older and needed a heart by-pass operation three years ago - he is one of the continent's foremost managers.

'I have no particular ambitions to achieve but I have no trouble being motivated,' he said. 'What I have won in the past is nice, but it is history. I want to keep on winning and keep on enjoying myself - that is important.

'I have been a long time in this game, maybe a few years more. I won't say my career as a coach is nearly at an end but I can't see it being anywhere other than Barcelona. At my age the quality of life is an important thing. I am very settled here. That is why it would be difficult to coach another club or another country.'

Even the public and media attention - there were six televsion cameras and 30 reporters at yesterday's regular Friday press conference - does not deter him. 'It goes with being manager of Barcelona,' he said. 'It is a lovely place. I feel happy here and if I am not in football then I will stay in Barcelona doing something else.'

A homage to Catalonia, from its favourite adopted son.

(Photograph omitted)

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