A memorial left by fans outside Camp Nou stadium in tribute to Dutch football star Johan Cruyff in BarcelonaA memorial left by fans outside Camp Nou stadium in tribute to Dutch football star Johan Cruyff in Barcelona (AFP Photo/Lluis Gene)
Barcelona (AFP) - Barcelona fans took Johan Cruyff to their hearts because of his football brilliance but also his stubborn backing for Catalonia's independence from Spain.
The Dutchman, who died on Thursday aged 68, believed that sport and politics did mix.
"We cannot avoid politics, that's why I had to mix in a bit," said Cruyff in a 2013 documentary "The Last Game" about his impact on the region where breakaway sentiment is again on the rise.
The pioneer of 'Total Football' moved to Barcelona from Ajax Amsterdam in 1973 at the age of 26.
"He realised very quickly what was going on here, and that's why with Danny (his wife), they decided that their son would be called Jordi (the patron saint of Catalonia)," wrote Artur Mas, former president of Catalonia regional government, in the Sport newspaper on Friday.
At that time, Catalan names were banned by the regime of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco.
Danny Cruyff returned to Amsterdam in 1974 to give birth so that he could be called Jordi.
- Catalan resistance -
The Dutch birth certificate was no problem but Spanish officials refused to accept Jordi and demanded that the boy, who went on to play for Manchester United, be registered as 'Jorge'.
"Then write down Johan-Jordi," Cruyff told the bureaucrats, according to Joan Laporte, the former Barcelona president.
Cruyff's stubborn resistance entered Catalan folklore.
When the three-time Ballon d'Or winner heard that Franco's police had arrested 13 members of the Catalan opposition, he sent an autographed photo to his friend and journalist Xavier Folch in prison saying: "Xavier, I am hoping to see you again soon at Barca."
"Probably because I was Dutch and famous nobody could touch me, that's why I said: 'Well, you can do it'," Cruyff said in the documentary.
"Cruyff began to realise that in Barcelona there is a different language, a way of being different. This then permeated his personality," Ramon Miravitllas, author of 'The Political Function of Barca', told AFP.
When Cruyff arrived at Barcelona the team were second bottom in the league. But they won 17 games in a row -- including 5-0 against Real Madrid -- to win their first La Liga title in 14 years.
"Once we were champions, instead of saying 'congratulations', everyone said 'thanks', and it was then that I realised that it was not just about the title, it was more than that," Cruyff recalled.
"He always said that he was a Catalan Dutchman, he identified with the people, the culture and customs of Catalonia," journalist Jordi Finestres told AFP.
He was also the first club captain to wear an armband with the colours of the Catalan flag.
Cruyff was an advocate of the right of the Catalonia people to vote on their own independence in a referendum, a view which even now is only backed by one Spanish political party at a national level, the far left Podemos.
"I think that Catalonia should always decide for itself," Cruyff said.
"There can be no other person who decides for you to do things a certain way."
The relationship between player, club and fans became even stronger after he took over as head coach in 1988.
In an eight-year spell in charge he won four consecutive league titles, and Barcelona's first European Cup in 1992. From 2009 to 2013, he was also coach of the Catalonia team, who play only friendly matches, in 2013.
On Friday, the day after his death from lung cancer, Catalan flags and Barcelona banners flew at half mast at the Camp Nou, where a massive sign simply said: "Thank you Johan".