Hendrik Johannes “Johan” Cruijff, anglicised to Cruyff (25 April 1947 – 24 March 2016).
Cruyff was one of the most famous exponents of the football philosophy known as ‘Total Football’ inspired by Rinus Michels, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest players in football history. In the 1970s, the Dutch game rose from near obscurity to become a powerhouse in the sport. Cruyff led the Netherlands to the final of the 1974 World Cup and received the Golden Ball as player of the tournament. In this tournament he also he executed a feint that was subsequently named after him: the ‘Cruyff Turn’ – a move widely replicated in today’s game.
When the 1974 World Cup was happening, I was seven years old. I can recall with clarity where I was when I saw the men in orange play such beautiful, scintillating football. I was hooked on this great game for ever thanks to Rep, Neeskens, Krol, Resenbrink and of course, Cruyff.
As I went on to play for the school and local teams, I modelled my game on the Dutch. Well, if I’m honest, I tried to, but it was odd that it was the Dutch that energised me and not any particular English player or English team. I was just so captivated by the team that should have won the ’74 World Cup.
From back to front, the Netherlands squad was completely full of talent and it is down to the expansive thinking of Michels and the wayward, rebellious genius that was Cruyff.
The words ‘great’ and ‘legend’ are too frequently used for my liking. Yes Wayne Rooney is a very good player, but he’s not great. He’s not a legend in the true meaning of the word. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are exceptional players, but are they great? They certainly aren’t legends.
The legends are the likes of Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Moore, Eusebio, Pele, Di Stefano and Best. These players are true trailblazers and real legends, and the sad thing is that for football, they are irreplaceable. Once they are gone, that’s it. Only their legacies and our memories of them linger for another generation.
The definition of legend: someone very famous and admired, usually because of their ability in a particular area. This was and will always be Cruyff.
Rebellious by nature, but keeping to his values, he wouldn’t wear the three striped Adidas shirt during his international career because he was sponsored by rival brand, Puma – who supplied him with their iconic Puma King boots. The Dutch FA bowed to Cruyff’s demand, and allowed him to play in a bespoke kit with only two stripes. This player who stood out from the rest now stood out even more.
Joining Barcelona after nine glorious trophy laden years, he exported his talent to a team that were floundering. He helped the club win the league for the first time since 1960, defeating their deadliest rivals Real Madrid 5–0 at their home – the Bernabeu. A New York Times journalist wrote that Cruyff had done more for the spirit of the Catalan people in 90 minutes than many politicians in years of struggle. Football historian Jimmy Burns stated, “with Cruyff, the team felt they couldn’t lose. He gave them speed, flexibility and a sense of themselves.” In 1974, Cruyff was crowned European Footballer of the Year.
Cruyff’s utter conviction of his own superior judgement stirred up the waters at all of those clubs at which he played or managed, and yet while there were rules, there seemed a different rule for him.
Many have said, since his passing, that the Barcelona of today owes so much to the thinking of Cruyff. The academy players still to this day follow the Cruyff ethos, the philosophy of how to play simple, but effective football. When you have the ball, you make the pitch large, he once said. When you don’t have the ball you make it smaller. Tactical and spacial genius.
He was a forward thinker and preferred to win a game 5-4 than 1-0. Cruyff said: “I was criticised for playing three at the back, but that’s the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard. What we needed was to fill the middle of the pitch with players where we needed it most. I much prefer to win 5-4 than 1-0.”
Indeed, defensive thinking didn’t enter Cruyff’s mind. At one point goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta asked his coach how he wanted the team to defend a set-piece. “How should I know?” came the curt reply. “You decide. You’re more interested in how to defend a corner than me.”
But Cruyff’s greatest weakness hit with a vengeance. A chain-smoker since his teens, he required a heart bypass to clear a clogged artery, the result of a 20-a-day habit that had only got worse with the stress of the Nou Camp hot seat. That he survived a four-hour operation reinforced his long-standing conviction that God had put him on earth to be the best football player and coach ever.
Cruyff’s eye for detail and his focus never shifted – everything had to be exact. He was a thinker for sure, but also a teacher. His assistant at Barca, was Charly Rexach said: “He used to stop every session four or five times and correct our positioning: ‘No, no! Not there. One metre more to the right. Now look: you have a much better angle for the pass. It wasn’t there before’.
These tiny details make you think.
His DNA is all over football as we know it and it was Cruyff that created his favoured 3-4-3 system – three mobile defenders; plus one more covering space – becoming, in effect, a defensive midfielder, two ‘controlling’ midfielders with responsibilities to feed the attack-minded players, one second striker, two touchline-hugging wingers and one versatile centre forward. He was ahead of his time.
Cruyff saw out his career in America and back in Spain with Levante before going back to Ajax. But later on, the Amsterdam team angered Cruyff by not offering him another contract and so he joined rivals Feyenoord, where he won another Dutch title among his many honours, both as a player and as a manager.
A much quoted saying has emerged since last week and sums up his time at Barca. “Johan Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it” – Pep Guardiola, who played under the great man.
Johan Cruyff – beautiful simplicity.