The religious analogy is badly overused in football. Yet if there is an instance when it is apt to wheel it out without running the risk of slipping back into the trite, it’s to mark the life of Hendrik Johannes Cruijff, better known as Johan Cruyff, who died on March 24.
He was one of the prophets who came out of nowhere, yet at the same time seemed to fulfill some kind of manifest destiny.
Cruyff came out of nowhere in the sense that there is no natural genealogical blueprint. He was never compared to his predecessors, because he had none, not in the way a young Lionel Messi was likened to Diego Maradona or Zinedine Zidane was compared to Michel Platini.
Simply put, nobody before him did what he did, in the way he did it. Cruyff’s rail-thin frame, floppy hair, languid stop-start motion and seemingly otherworldly grace made him look like a visitor from the future. Check out any highlight of him on YouTube and it becomes obvious.
The fact that he did all this wearing his trademark “number 14” jersey, one associated with benchwarmers at the time, made him even more of a trailblazer.
But there was also no rational reason why Dutch football should produce someone like Cruyff at the time that he began kicking around a ball in the East Amsterdam planned neighbourhood of Betondorp (which means “concrete village,” possibly the least appropriately named birthplace in recorded history).
Until he pulled on the Oranje jersey, the Dutch national team had failed to qualify for a major tournament since before World War II. No Dutch side had won European silverware. It was very much a footballing backwater, as likely to spawn a guy who would change the sport forever as Jamaica is to produce the world’s greatest downhill skier.
Yet at the same time, the stigmata of football accompanied Cruyff from a young age. His father, Manus, loved the game and many evenings, once he shuttered the family grocery store, they would kick a ball around together. His mother would work at Ajax’s old De Meer stadium as a cleaner. After Manus’ death, when Cruyff was 12, she re-married: His stepfather, Henk Angel, also worked at Ajax. Most of all, the De Meer was a quarter-mile from his house. When it comes to Ajax, while he would eventually transcend it, there is no question Cruyff was born into it.
In the age-old nature vs. nurture argument, though, he was squarely a check-mark in the former camp. Cruyff was a natural athlete, physically blessed with agility, coordination and stamina. But watch him play and what stands out for you most is acceleration and balance. The go-to party trick of simply stopping, waiting a beat and taking off before the defender has time to cover worked time and again. But, equally, there was a balletic gracefulness to his movement, the way he twisted his body into impossible positions without ever losing control. He reminded you of a cross between Rudolf Nureyev and a Capoeira master.
The “Cruyff turn” as it came to be known is not a move he invented (or trademarked for that matter). He simply did it better than anyone before. Or since.
Equally, goals like this one against Atletico Madrid came to epitomize what he could do with his body.
Of course, all of this paled by comparison when set against Cruyff’s mind. It felt as if he thought faster and saw more than anyone. Maybe he really did.
That understanding of time and space, that ability to make those dimensions seemingly bend to his will would make him the perfect exponent for what we’ve come to know as Total Football. Few players seemed to understand it and be liberated by it as much as Cruyff. The fluidity and coordinated movement, the interchangeability of positions, the use of space to create mis-matches and exploit patterns was tailor-made to his skill set.
The legend of “Clockwork Orange” was born there. Cruyff’s Ajax won three consecutive European Cups. His Dutch side waltzed through the 1974 World Cup, scoring in the very first minute of the final against West Germany after a 14-pass move straight from kickoff which saw their opponents fail to get a single touch on the ball. Germany came from behind to become world champions and that Dutch side would be remembered by the critics for their arrogance and presumption in thinking they had already won.
As for Cruyff, he took it in style. For years, he repeated the mantra that everybody remembers and loves that Dutch team, while few, outside Germany, have any affection for the side that beat them.
By that point, he was already at Barcelona, which he joined in 1973. Five seasons at the Camp Nou were enough to write his name into blaugrana history and foreshadow what would come in his next life as manager. He missed out on the 1978 World Cup in Argentina and revealed years later that it was because he felt unsafe as he had been subjected to a kidnapping attempt.
Other versions bring up disputes over bonuses and opposition to the country’s military junta.
Without him, the Dutch lost the final in extra-time. What they might have achieved with a then 31-year-old Cruyff in their ranks is anyone’s guess.
In some ways, 1978 was a watershed in his playing career. After that, it felt as if he had little left to prove on the pitch. He played a year for the Los Angeles Aztecs in the original North American Soccer League (and was voted Player of the Year), then another at the Washington Diplomats. This was followed by a short spell at Levante, in Spain’s second division and, after some time off, a return to Ajax. He helped them to win two Dutch titles and, following a contract dispute in the offseason, opted to close out his career at their archrivals, Feyenoord for the 1983-84 season. This, too, was typical Cruyff: hard-edged and stubborn.
It was inevitable that he’d return to the game as a coach. And he did, coming back to Ajax in 1985 and delivering two domestic cups and the Cup Winners’ Cup. This is also when Cruyff’s message began to spread.
Cruyff took over as Barcelona boss on May 5, 1988. You can separate Barca’s history into BCE (Before Cruyff Era) and CE (Cruyff Era). And, yes, Barca are still, nearly 20 years after he coached his final game for the club, still very much in the Cruyff Era.
It’s hard to overstate the impact he had. His own natural vision for the game, the concepts of Rinus Michels’ Total Football, and the experiences gleaned in a 20-year playing career formed the blueprint, but his great merit was to synthesize and tweak it to suit Catalan football. The building blocks were possession, pressing and proactivity, the idea that the opposition would adjust to you, not the other way around.
The concept was that football was something to be done right, or not done at all. A quote often attributed to him — possibly apocryphal, but nevertheless truer than so much of what managers say — was that he’d rather play well and lose than play poorly and win.
For Cruyff, playing well suggested adhering to certain fundamental canons of style and execution. That Cruyff “idea of football” has come to mean many things to many people. It’s almost easier to define it by what it is not: It’s not a philosophy based on waiting for your opponent to make a mistake, unless it’s a mistake that you cause them to make through your own excellence.
Despite competing against an outstanding Real Madrid side, Cruyff assembled what came to be known as the “Dream Team,” winning four consecutive Liga titles (1990-94) and a European Cup (1991-92 season), while losing another in the final against Fabio Capello’s Milan in 1994.
Ill health compelled him to retire from Barcelona in 1996. The rest of his life was marked by front office spells at Ajax, an honorary presidency at Barcelona (later revoked by Sandro Rosell) and plenty of media work, both in Spain and Netherlands.
Cruyff’s critics would note that in some ways his later spells as a pundit brought to life the less pleasant side of his personality. He could be argumentative, spiky and arrogant. It was the same spirit that led him, as a 19-year-old, to become the first player in Dutch history to be sent off (for punching a referee, no less, which earned him a six-month ban.) Or the one that led him to rub Ajax’s noses in it when he joined Feyenoord at the end of his playing career. Or the one in the build-up to the 1993-94 Champions League final when he said he was “certain” of victory, only to be roundly humiliated 4-0.
His stints on Ajax’s board were also stormy, his outspoken nature rubbing plenty the wrong way. Once he moved into punditry, Cruyff refused to live by the old boys’ club code whereby you take it easy on former colleagues. Indeed, his criticism of managers and players could be withering. It’s part of the reason why, for example, Louis Van Gaal, a frequent target both at Ajax and at Barcelona, fell out badly with Cruyff.
Yet, simply put, he was Cruyff. The quasi-messianic beliefs and the granular understanding of football (or, at least, a certain kind of football) gave him an authority few dared question.
Given that Eusebio was born in Mozambique, that Franz Beckenbauer was a defender and that the book has not yet closed on Cristiano Ronaldo’s career, most would consider Cruyff the greatest ever European-born footballer.
He won the Ballon d’Or in 1971, 1973 and 1974. The year he did not win it, 1972, he scored 33 goals (his second best-ever haul) and helped Ajax become only the second team in history to win the European Treble.
The fact that his legacy as a manager was likely even greater puts him in a whole other category. Cruyff may not have had any natural models in his DNA, but his football chromosomes spawned a legion of the finest minds in the game’s history. Arrigo Sacchi developed his tactical concepts watching him play for the Dutch and, later, manage Ajax: “I studied football from everywhere and every era, but the Dutch were the missing link.”
Pep Guardiola told me that if he’d never met Cruyff, he wouldn’t have played higher than the third division and he certainly would not have gone on to become the manager he is today.
Cruyff’s coaching tree includes the likes of Ronald Koeman, Ernesto Valverde, Marco Van Basten and Michael Laudrup.
There may have been better players in the history of the game, though I doubt you can count them on more than one hand. And there may have been better managers, too, if only because his coaching career only lasted 10 and a half years (during which he won 14 trophies, not a bad return).
But it’s tough to argue that any man has exerted a greater influence — on the pitch and on the bench — on the game as we know it today.