The deification process continues unabated. Johan Cruyff has passed into concept, no longer a figure of flesh and blood, of imperfection and human frailty but, like Plato’s forms, a being of idealised beauty.
Thus stripped of blemish and error, Cruyff now exists in a state of universal appreciation and adoration, the father of all things, the son of none. You would have thought he arrived on this earth 69 years ago fully formed in an Ajax kit with a ball under his arm speaking the words: “My name is Johan, I am a footballer.”
I was grateful, therefore, to read an account by my Independent colleague, Simon O’Hagan, who, amongst all the brilliance, recalled seeing Cruyff scuff a shot at Villa Park in 1978. There was none of that in the paeans of adulation, in the reams of rhapsodic script dedicated to his memory.
Like the rest of us Cruyff was shaped by his surroundings, football an obvious way out of the unpromising circumstances governing the post-war working class experience in Holland. The genius, if there were any in his story, was his coach at Ajax, Rinus Michels, whose own ideas about the game transformed the landscape in a country where football had still to evolve into a professional sport.
Johan Cruyff – life in pictures
Unrivalled success at Ajax
After joining the Ajax youth system on his 10th birthday, Johan Cruyff made his debut in 1964 before going on to win eight Eredivisie titles and the European Cup on three occasions with the Dutch giants
Setting the European agenda
Cruyff was an integral figure behind Ajax’s dominance in continental football as the Dutch outfit lifted three consecutive European Cups between 1971-73.
Reaching the World Cup final
The forward’s colourful exploits allowed the Netherlands to reach the World Cup final in 1974 but he couldn’t help see off an imperious Germany side at Munich’s Olympic Stadium. He scored 33 goals for Oranje in 48 appearances between 1966-1977.
Dutch royal approval
Cruyff and his fellow team-mates nonetheless earned legendary status among the wider Dutch public and they were given a heroes’ welcome by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands when they returned home in 1974.
The ‘Cruyff turn’
Now a global superstar, the enigmatic forward wrote himself into football folklore after perfecting the ‘Cruyff turn’ which is still being copied by modern day footballers today.
Success across the globe
Before being voted as European Player of the Century, Cruyff also represented Barcelona, Los Angeles Aztecs, Washington Diplomats, Levante and Feyenoord. At the Nou Camp, he added La Liga and Copa del Rey triumphs to his glittering CV.
Trying his hand at management
Just a year after retiring from playing, Cruyff returned to Ajax as manager where his unyielding success continued with two KNVB Cups and the Uefa Cup Winners’ Cup before leaving to take charge at Spanish juggernauts Barcelona.
Revolution at Barcelona
Cruyff led a period of revolution at the Catalan giants, lifting four La Liga titles and one European Cup as rivals Real Madrid were muzzled both domestically and on the European stage by his Barca side.
Becoming a TV personality
Fresh from his spell at the Nou Camp, Cruyff then became a prominent television personality, providing his unrivalled experience to Dutch audiences.
Stripped of honorary presidency
Cruyff was a controversial figure at Barcelona, however, and was named honorary president before being stripped of the title just months later after new president Sandro Rosell took office in July 2010.
Ajax called upon Cruyff’s services again in 2011, appointing him as an advisor, but the Amsterdam legend left just a year later after quelling with senior figures at the club.
Legacy in football
Cruyff remained a prominent figure in the world of football and was given the support of Barcelona’s current generation when news of his deteriorating health was made public in 2015.
Of course Cruyff was a monumental talent. He was the outstanding figure in a generation of greats, but the real joy in that distant epoch was one of discovery. Cruyff emerged in what might be called the pre-broadcast age, when live sport on television was a rarity.
Word of Cruyff reached us via the radio waves before most had seen him play. When he finally appeared on these shores in the 1971 European Cup Final at Wembley there was an impossible sense of mystery about him and the whole Ajax thing.
Given the glut of long-haired blondness on view it was not certain that we would identify the right player as Cruyff, after all, Johan Neeskens could play a bit, and the following year when they beat Arsenal en route to the European Cup Final, the witheringly cool Ruudi Kroll was introduced with that magnetic swagger of his.
There was therefore some sympathy this week, (as well as much mirth), for the Guardian sport desk, which combined to run a picture of Rob Rensenbrink in its tribute to Cruyff.
The great man would ultimately make himself known with his lithe industry and balletic shifts of direction. And by the time Michels’ Netherlands side reached its magnificent apotheosis at the 1974 World Cup, where Cruyff detonated his celebrated turn on the Swedish defence, we were all pretty much fluent in the concept of Total Football that Cruyff would transport to Barcelona so effectively.
Like Hungary’s Golden Team of Ferenc Puskas, Nandor Hidegkuti and Sandor Kocsis, who fell to Germany in 1958, the Netherlands were the best side in the world yet contrived not to win the game’s biggest prize, the robust organisation of the Franz Beckenbauer-led Teutons prevailing again.
The world is not a perfect place, the best team does not always win and the best player is never perfect, not that you would know that from our immersion this week in epic eulogies to a Dutch master gone too soon.
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