When you think genius, you might think of the greatest philosophers or the greatest mathematicians. You might think of the most iconic world leaders, or the greatest artists and authors.
Personally, I think of Johan Cruyff.
He was an anomaly. An utter aberration. A man who played football like no one else. He didn’t physically play football after all, he played it with his mind. An esoteric pursuit that completely changed the game. A visionary, a departure, a flight of fancy – Cruyff is the ultimate because his contribution to the game wasn’t simply personal. He didn’t break records, he didn’t win golden boots, and only occasionally dazzled with skills. The reason he is a great is because he understood the game like no one else ever did and probably ever will.
Only a player like Cruyff could have improvised to score a goal like this:
His vision, his ability to see the game in a way that no one else could have was his gift. It showcases his talent, the way he formulated the game in his head and then was able to execute it perfectly with his legs.
The opening minute of the 1974 World Cup final epitomises the man. Straight from the kick off, the Dutch pass the ball around the back four. There was no West German pressure and intense whistles from the crowd. Then Cruyff gets the ball. The last man in the Dutch team, bar the goalkeeper: 20 players stand between him and the goal. And with 45 seconds gone in a World Cup final, Cruyff takes the ball all the way into the West German box and wins a penalty.
Franz Beckenbauer, the West Germany captain, protested the decision to English referee Jack Taylor: he walked up to Taylor and said, ‘well… you’re English.’
Holland lost the final – Cruyff would never win a World Cup – but his impact on the footballing world came in the style of football that he exhibited, both as a player and as a coach. Nine league titles and three European Cups as a player speaks volumes, but the fact he also won four league titles and a European Cup as a manager, too, is incredible.
Great players never make great managers. Sometimes great players have good managerial careers, but no one has ever had a playing career like Cruyff’s and then gone on to create something in the managerial world like he did. He is the author of the Barcelona style of play that we see today, the man whose vision gave the gifts of Pep Guardiola, Xavi and Andres Iniesta to the world. It’s all because of him that there is beauty and wonder in modern football.
There is no one goal, no one clip of football that can encapsulate Johan Cruyff’s contribution to football. No one piece of video could ever do that. That’s not surprising. Cruyff wasn’t a Pele or a Maradona whose careers can be summed up with a series of vines and clips, mountains of goals and skills after another. With Cruyff, you have to think in order to be able to understand it. It doesn’t simply happen before your eyes, but it’s something altogether more thoughtful, and ultimately more rewarding. It isn’t self-contained, it doesn’t have a beginning, a middle and an end, a first touch, a bit of skill and a goal. It is a sustained impact, shaping the world of football with each passing second.
Without Cruyff beauty would not be possible, and football will never be the same without him. But rather than mourn the loss, let’s celebrate the gain, the gift that he gave us just by bringing his genius onto a football pitch.
RIP Johan Cruyff 1947 – 2016