On Thursday 22nd October, the Ajax, Barcelona and Netherlands icon, Johan Cruyff, announced that he has been diagnosed with lung cancer. The heart-rending news has understandably saddened so many, as a result of the amount of people the mans genius charmed. However, his name being in the headlines of world football again gives us a chance to remind ourselves what is so special about Hendrik Johannes Cruyff.
Isaac Newton. Galileo. Gary Monk. Two of these three people are true revolutionaries in their field – I’ll leave it to you to decide which. However, one thing I won’t leave to individual interpretation (at least not for the following 915 words) is whether or not the great, Johan Cruyff, should be considered the greatest revolutionist football has ever seen.
As a player, Cruyff collected an array of silverware – and some gold as well. Nine Dutch league titles, six Dutch Cups, a La Liga title which ended a 14 year wait for Barcelona, eternal by their standards, and three consecutive European Cups with Ajax to name but a few. As for the gold in question, he was the recipient of three Ballon D’Ors, meaning only a small Argentinian man called Lionel has more.
Yet in spite of all these celebratory metals he has been awarded, arguably his most famous moment as a player occurred when simply trying to beat his full back and get a cross into the box. Draped in the iconic orange of his national team, Cruyff shields the ball from Swedish defender, Jan Olsonn, who at the time had no idea he was about to play his role in one of the most iconic moments in the history of the sport in which he plied his trade. Seconds later, his lack of ideas were now longing for the whereabouts of Johan Cruyff, who had just faked to pass in front of him and then dragged the ball with his instep through his own legs, to dribble on towards the touchline with the freedom of Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion, in which the 1974 World Cup match was unfolding.
The famed ‘Cruyff Turn’ is almost a detriment to it’s executer, as it springs to mind as his most obvious gift to football. However, Cruyff’s contribution to the sport is much deeper. Like Confucius in a pair of Puma Kings, he is a footballing philosopher, with strong morals regarding how the game should be played. In simple terms, he believes in an attacking mentality with positional fluency, meaning anyone of his teammates or in later years the players he managed, could affect the game offensively. Off the ball, it was all about getting back onto the ball, pressing the opponents as quickly as possible in order to carry on with attacking. This all sounds very simple, and some of these ‘philosophies’ are becoming more like cliched principles from a Brendan Rodgers team talk rather than innovative footballing genius. Yet at the time, that’s exactly what it was. With enormous credit also due to his legendary manager, Rinus Michels, Cruyff played a pivotal role in the emergence of ‘Total Football,’ the phrase coined by the Dutch to express such an aesthetically delighting style of play.
He and Michels took it with them wherever they went – Ajax, the cradle of life as far as Total Football is concerned, the Dutch national team of 1974, regarded by many as the greatest side never to win the World Cup, and also to Barcelona, where I’d argue his greatest achievement took place. When Cruyff joined the Nou Camp club in 1973, Spain was still under the rule of Francisco Franco, whose strict regime suppressed the Catalan people. Their language was outlawed and democratic liberties were taken away. In addition to this, FC Barcelona, a club so symbolic of Catalan pride, had failed to win Spain’s top division for almost a decade and and a half. To make matters worse, Real Madrid, the club closely tied to Franco’s government as an outlay for their propaganda, had won La Liga nine times during this barren spell for Barca. The dictatorship had won the fight for political power and as far as Catalans were concerned, they were winning at football as well.
Predictably, this is where Señor Cruyff steps in. The biggest name and the Ballon D’or-official best player in the world at the time joined Blaugrana for a then world record fee of just under one million pounds, which roughly translates to an gargantuan amount of pesetas. Almost instantaneously, the dynamic within the club changed as they won the league in the Dutchman’s first season, consequently providing genuine relief for the Catalan people in a time of hardship. The pinnacle of such elation coming inside the Estadio Bernabeu during February of 1974, where Michels and Cruyff’s Barcelona side defeated their Madrid rivals by five wonderful goals to nil.
Like another highly spoken of man, whose initials are also ‘JC,’ Cruyff enjoyed a second coming. He became manager of Barcelona in 1988, having left the club as a legendary player ten years earlier. As coach, he put huge emphasis on improving the clubs academy, brining players through La Masia with his principles of how to play football installed into them. A certain Pep Guardiola was the most high-profile of names to emerge, becoming a mainstay in the same side as the likes of Romario, Stoichkov and Koeman. Christened the ‘Dream Team,’ this side delivered another of Cruyff’s greatest feats, Barca’s first European Cup, at the time the greatest night in the history of the famous club.
In one article, it’s impossible to do justice to the effect Johan Cruyff has had on football. From the beautiful way in which he thinks about the game and how it should be played, to his influence on some of the biggest names in the sport – Van Gaal, Guardiola, Van Basten, Lionel Messi and any other player to graduate from Barcelona’s academy, Cruyff’s legacy makes him one of the most influential people in football history. Let’s hope he is able to beat his illness with the same success in which he beat poor Jan Olsonn in 1974.