Barcelona, Mar 27: It was Johan Cruyff who "made us champions", wept long-time Barcelona fan Jose Gilabert Cortina, a retired printer who joined the thousands of fans who came to the Camp Nou on Saturday to pay tribute to the Barca legend.
Dutchman Cruyff, who first moved to Barcelona from Ajax Amsterdam in 1973, died on Thursday in his adopted city aged 68 after a five-month battle with lung cancer.
"When he arrived as a player 43 years ago I came to all the matches for the sheer entertainment he provided," recalled the bespectacled 69-year-old.
"We were a team of losers, it was 14 years since we'd won the Liga and he changed everything. You would have thought that football had been transformed into another sport," he recalled with tears in his eyes like many of his generation who mixed with the international crowd including Spaniards, Chinese, Japanese and Moroccans who came to the special condolence area opened by the club at the Camp Nou.
Cruyff's debut in 1973 "was like a revelation," recalled 74-year-old retired taxi driver Fidel Diaz Fernandez.
Style and freedom
The style and freedom with which the 1.80 metre athlete with blue eyes and a Beatles haircut played was a breath of fresh air during a time when Spanish dictator Franco was still in power.
"Franco was still in power and you couldn't wear long hair at that time without being taken for a transvestite. Cruyff did it," said Fidel.
"He was always inventing something," recalled 70-year-old composer Franck Charles, particularly of Cruyff's time as a coach from 1988 to 1996.
"I remember a lovely phrase that he said to the players before they took to the pitch: 'guys have fun'. And they had fun!"
"Today it's Messi who resembles him the most. Like Cruyff said there's no need to run a lot to control the game and Messi doesn't run much."
Suddenly, Fidel, the former taxi driver with grey hair, begins to laugh loudly as he recalls Cruyff's legendary goal against Atletico Madrid in 1973 when the striker leapt into the air, twisting his body to score as he faced away from goal.
And it amuses him now to see top officials from Barcelona's eternal rivals Real Madrid - such as president Florentino Perez - come to pay tribute to the player who "changed the face of football", 43 years after Real's humiliating 0-5 home loss.