The Art of Working Toward a Work of Art: Barcelona, Spain & The Quest for 'Total Football'

"Football is not art, but there is an art to playing good football"

-          Ruud Krol


To most, the name Ruud Krol will not generate any particular relevance. One could perhaps estimate the Dutch etymology of his name but beyond that, little is revealed. It is perhaps to Ruud Krol’s credit that he is not so readily known; it was not his business to be known. As a defender in the Ajax and Holland sides of the 1970’s Krol has known success that in hindsight appears as if it must have been easily attained, such is its superfluity. The relevance of success and its continuity are of no interest at this moment in time. It is the manner in which success was attained that proves to have an un-relinquishing value. From his roaming position at the back of the Ajax and Holland unit of which Johan Cruyff was the key component, Krol was the efficient cog who repetitively restarted each wave of 'Total Football'. Embarking on finding its presence in 2013 leads one to discovering two things; firstly that 'Total Football', by way of Barcelona and Spain primarily, is still decimating teams and manipulating success, and secondly, that it can be stopped.

What of Krol’s association – or disassociation – between football and art? The 'Total Football' proliferated from the early 1970’s onward compounded an artistry that its counterparts could not rival. Does artistic endeavour or merit deem the end product art however? I briefly mentioned that in its fermenting over the past forty years, 'Total Football' has evolved as football itself has augmented.

Barcelona and Spain, like Ajax and Holland before them similarly execute their edition of 'Total Football'the transition of this style of football across footballing cultures is largely down to Johan Cruyff’s involvement with Barcelona, he is the recognized for-bearer of ‘tika-taka’. Despite its dominance on the domestic, continental and international scene since 2008, last Sunday witnessed 'Total Football' – albeit executed by rather exhausted looking Spanish components – take on another style of football in which artistic merit may well lie; in Brazil they simply call it ‘futebol-arte. As such, over the course of this and a following two articles it shall be investigated where trends of art exist in the modern editions of two footballing styles. 'Total Football' locates its roots in the 1970’s; 'Futebol-Arte' reached its pinnacle in the 1970 World Cup. What shall follow is an investigation into the artistic value of the style now patented by Barcelona and Spain.


It is often the plight of the suppressed to garner for themselves an innate correlation to their surroundings. The quest to re-nationalise ones nation is of significance in a country such as Ireland. People yearn for a sense of nationhood to which they can collectively grasp and nurture. Catalonia is a community that understands such yearning. The complexities of their status as a nation within the nation of Spain are a matter of some concern. For now however, it shall only be considered as the place in which Barcelona resides.

The difficulties the Catalan people felt under the fascist, Franco, Madrid-centred regime of just under forty years left their quest for significance an active one. Through Barcelona – Jimmy Burns writes brilliantly on this in his book Barca – the majority of Catalans who support them found an avenue of pleasure in which they could rival the antithesis of all they considered just and fair; Real Madrid. However, beyond the actual football itself, what this shows us is the link that football and the social/cultural feeling of a time share. The Catalans needed Barcelona in an effort to assert authority, while Barcelona needs the Catalans to survive. As such, art, an important tool of social/cultural reactionary force shares values with football. The current stance and style of Barcelona, and as a result of their success Spain, can find motivational similarity in the stance and style of Spain’s Pablo Picasso, an 20th century artist of famed repute.

In its regular pattern the manner in which Barcelona and Spain play can often induce a hypnotic effect. As a style it demands constant movement of both man and ball but rarely do they ever come together for long. Xavi, the pivot upon which both Barcelona and Spain operate once remarked that "I must have at least one hundred touches of the ball every match. If I go back to the dressing-room with only fifty id be ready to kill someone". The astonishing nature of Xavi determines that one must recognize that he doesn’t even stress that he wants one hundred decisive touches, because every touch he takes adds to the devastating effect of the collective. Although one touch may inadvertently become an assist for a goal, scrutinising it as such would be like claiming the penultimate stoke of a paint brush was more important than the initial one to the finished paining. It is astonishing to witness how many times the ball has goes from player to player to player, back to player to player before some well worked move almost certainly involving Lionel Messi results in a goal. This need for repetitive action was not lost on the artistic endeavour of Picasso.

He once remarked how he would "paint one hundred pictures in a few days", all the while "searching for spontaneity". This spontaneity is exactly how a goal for Barcelona or Spain often appears. The often unappealing sight of the ball seemingly going nowhere but from player to player attempts to numb the concentration of those opposing it. Picasso would paint and paint and ceaselessly paint, almost exhausting all expectancy. Naturally, with a player like Messi constantly moving from one side of the pitch to the other, space develops. In this space lie opportunity, Picasso’s spontaneity and a potential for art.

Adopting this style of maintaining possession of the ball for usually two thirds of a ninety minute match requires extreme commitment and exudes extreme cruelty. The famed La Masia academy of Barcelona appears indebted to St. Ignatius Loyola’s claim that in "giving them the boy, they will make the man", such is the nature of Barcelona’s home grown players who have generated success.


Spain has benefited rather well from Barcelona’s youthful produce and it is no surprise that they adopted Barcelona’s adopted style; after all they had the players to do it. An ebbing of Picasso’s mind flows through this project when one considers his remarks on intellect; "Our knowledge influences our vision". The fact that these players are so well trained and informed of what they can become, allows them to fulfil this potential. Can something so finely tuned and regimented ever possibly provoke thought or controversy in the way a work of art can? The answer is that of course it can.

Forgetting briefly those components of 'Total Football' and for a moment consider the unfortunate opponents of Barcelona and Spain when 'Total Football' is rampant. According to Picasso "art is never chaste"; if it is art then it is not chaste. With this in mind one must consider those other professional footballers who are on the pitch with Barcelona or Spain. Astonished as they may be by the efficiency, there must also be great pangs of embarrassment as they struggle tirelessly to try and even touch the ball, let alone create something with it. The efficiency of Barcelona and Spain bestows an act of great cruelty on their opponents. When Alex Ferguson admitted in the wake of the Champions League Final of 2011 that the Barcelona side his Manchester United had lost to were "the best team we’ve ever faced", he was as devastated as he was complimentary. The power of a work of art to reveal true visceral emotions in a person can be seen in the reactions of those teams who have faced and been beaten by Barcelona or Spain.

The previous years that these two teams have enjoyed will be documented greatly in the years to come. ‘Tika-taka’, Barcelona’s version of Ajax’s 'Total Football' bears all the traits of artistic endeavour, but is it art? Picasso claimed that "through art we express our conception of what nature is not". ‘Tika-taka’ is by no means natural. One cannot simply decide to play in this manner. Yet, one cannot readily decide to play a long ball game or "ugly" football either.

However, deciding to play a long ball game, or perhaps playing with all backs against the wall as Chelsea and Inter Milan did when countering Barcelona is not a style of playing; it is a style of reacting. Evolution, the natural process in which life continually augments depending on action taken in the surroundings of a species dictates based on response. What Barcelona and Spain do is ignite the initiative; they are the antithesis of what is nature.

Barcelona and Spain will impose their game regardless of opposition, and occasionally they will not win. However, acquiring success based on forgoing any intention but relying on countering what is done to you is not a game plan in the way Barcelona or Spain adopt one. Picasso estimated that success often determines the public appreciation of a painting. As such others will search for success based on that which is already successful. His motivation as such came from searching for success without compromising remotely what he wanted to do. If you consider Picasso a creator of art, then you cannot feasibly determine that what Barcelona or Spain does is not its own kind of uncompromising artistic success.

Arthur O'Dea
Article written by
From Sligo, In Dublin, To London. Will write for money, happily doing it for free. Masters Student of English in T.C.D. - until the summer runs out anyway. Appreciate feedback.

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