“In a way I’m probably immortal.” – Johan Cruyff (1947-2016)
Today is a sad day, today we lost one of the true legends of our beautiful game, Hendrik Johannes Cruyff. Now I’m no football journalist, I write this unapologetically as a fan and Cruyff was archetypal in transforming football into the game it is today, and the game I fell in love with as a young kid. I have decided to split this piece into two parts, one focusing on Cruyff as a genius player, another on Cruyff’s mercurial managerial career. It is not an overstatement to say that in terms of influence on football, no one will ever again match Cruyff. The ideas and beliefs he introduced to the sport, the philosophy he made possible as a player, then perfected as a manager, “Total Football” is the foundation of some of the greatest sides of history, his followers include the greatest managers of our time, Guardiola, Wenger and his influence has spread to every corner of the world. Any team that plays a possession based, fluid, interchangeable system, is a disciple of Cruyff. Far more than a great player, he was the closest this sport has to a prophet, a role he didn’t shy away from as demonstrated by some of his philosophical musings:
“Playing football is very simple but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is”
“If I wanted you to understand, I would have explained it better”
“The most difficult thing about an easy match is to make a weak opponent play bad football”
“Technique is not being able to juggle a ball 1000 times. Anyone can do that by practising. Then you can work in the circus. Technique is passing the ball with one touch, with the right speed, at the right foot of your team mate”
“Football is a game of mistakes. Whoever makes the fewest mistakes wins.”
“Every trainer talks about movement, about running a lot. I say don’t run so much. Football is a game you play with your brain. You have to be in the right place at the right moment, not too early, not too late.”
“Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring”
“It’s better to go down with your own vision than with someone else’s”
Cruyff began his career at Ajax, before Cruyff a relatively unknown club in Amsterdam. After Cruyff one of Europe’s greatest ever clubs. Cruyff did that. Cruyff became a regular for Ajax in 1965 under Rinus Michels, a revolutionary manager who pioneered an idea that was later to be known as Total Football, the idea was that rather than every player play a very fixed, rigid position as was commonplace at the time, he believed that the team should be fluid, they should switch and interchange, if the right back bombed forward, someone should fill his place etc. In Cruyff, Michels had the perfect player to orchestrate his ideas, while Michels preached Total Football in the dressing room, it was Cruyff that would literally conduct the players on the field, blessed with a football brain and intellect that was second to none, his vision was such that he could almost see moves before they happened, he was truly remarkable. With Cruyff on the field, and Michels in the dugout, Ajax became dominant at home, winning 4 out of 5 Eredivisies between 1965 and 1970, then in 1971 Total Football won Ajax the ultimate prize in club football, the European Cup, easing past Panathinaikos 2-0 at Wembley. After taking Ajax to the very pinnacle, Michels moved on to Barca. Cruyff was to stay for a bit longer.
It was early that very same 70-71 season that Cruyff would first wear his famed no 14 shirt, on the 30th October 1970, Cruyff lent his teammate his no 9 shirt and pulled a no 14 out of the spare shirt bucket. Ajax beat PSV 1-0, and superstitious Cruyff insisted on the side keeping the same numbers next game, much to the dismay of the Dutch FA, who had previously stipulated starting 11s must wear 1-11. Cruyff got his way however and the affair was symptomatic of Cruyff’s turbulent relationship with authority. He was an arrogant egotist, but he was also more often than not right, and a genius to boot. Cruyff was a innovator destined to smash the established order to smithereens. He was before his time. A trailblazer. It is no surprise he would go on to boss things. His influence on the game was taking shape.
Stefan Kovacs took over from Michels at Ajax and continued his Total Football philosophy retaining the European Cup, in what was interpreted as a highly symbolic victory over Inter Milan. Journalists said Cruyff (now a Ballon D’Or winner) had single handedly ripped apart Inter in addition to scoring both goals and that Total Football had killed off Italy’s defensive catenaccio system. Ironically apart from the early 90s Milan side featuring Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard, Total Football never took hold in Italy as it did in other nations. This match however was a changing of the guard. Inter represented the past with their rigid, defensive, structured system. Cruyff with his long flowing locks and Ajax was the future with their attacking panache and fluid system. In 1973, Ajax made history by becoming only the second side in history (after Real Madrid) to win 3 consecutive European Cups (beating Juventus and young Dino Zoff in the final) sealing their place in history, as one of the greatest club sides ever. Early in 73-74 season Cruyff would take the next step in his career, Barcelona.
When Cruyff arrived in Barca, they were not the all conquering European behemoth they are today, as it was his later managerial tenure that would help build them into that behemoth. They were instead a team that hadn’t won a league title in 13 years. The move saw Cruyff reunited with Michels and the two set about bringing Total Football to Spain. Cruyff moved to Barca when Spain was still ruled by General Franco, and the Catalunyan people in particular had suffered greatly at his hands. Signing the best player on the planet was considered a major coup for Barca, and a great lift for the Catalunyan people, they fell in love with Cruyff, not only for his skill on the ball, but his role as a figurehead for a resurgent Barcelona. He made Catalunyans feel pride in their side and their identity. No more so can this be demonstrated than in Barca’s comprehensive 5-0 drubbing of Real Madrid (Franco’s favoured team) at the Bernabeu. It was iconic. Cruyff had humilated Barca’s greatest enemy, and perhaps in the process humilated Franco and to this day, it is a match that has never been forgotten, one journalist said Cruyff had done more for the Catalunyan people’s spirit in 90 mins than politicians had done in 90 years. It was in this that Cruyff would score his most famous goal, “The Impossible Goal”, an extraordinary backwards overhead kick against Atletico Madrid. Barca went on to win their first title since 1960. Cruyff practically became an honorary Catalan, he gave his son a Catalunyan name, Jordi, and developed a great mutual affection with the Barca fans one that would only grow with his return in the dugout the next decade.
1974 was the year of Cruyff’s 3rd Ballon D’Or, and also the year of the pinnacle of his playing career the 1974 World Cup. Before the tournament once again demonstrated his rebellious, innovative side while every player wore the 3 stripes of Adidas, the kit manufacturer of the national side, Cruyff had a special shirt with 2, he had personal endorsement deal with Puma, you could say he invented player power. The tournament where the world first witnessed Total Football in full flow. Michels left Barca at the end of the season to become the Netherlands head coach and moulded a team that marvelled the world. Widely considered to be one of the most attractive, beautiful teams that have ever graced the World Cup, Netherlands were a side that everyone wanted to watch, they played differently, they astonished and bamboozled. It was a revelation and Cruyff with his sumptuous style and casual flair was the epitomy of that. Ghosting past defenders like they weren’t there with deceptive pace, and incredible close control. His impeccable passing, always knowing where his teammates would be as he and his teams became masters of space ie. controlling the space, to control the game and increase the likelihood of winning. In the 2nd game of the group stage Cruyff would produce a moment of genius that would become the moment of the tournament, and something that would be remembered, and attempted for generations to come. First Cruyff picked the ball out of the air with one touch, incredible control in itself, then was immediately faced by Swedish defender Jan Olsson, Cruyff turned his back on him and shaped to pass or cross, so Olsson went for the block tackle, rather than pass however Cruyff dragged the ball behind his planted foot with the inside of his other foot, turned through 180 degrees, and accelerated away, to the point that Olsson ended up tackling thin air and staring into an empty space where Cruyff formerly was, Cruyff had left Olsson for dead. He then put the cross in unhindered by the mortal full back. It wowed the world then and still does now. It became known as the “Cruyff Turn” and one was one of Cruyff’s great contributions to the game. It was symptomatic of the Dutch side’s ingenuity and creativity but even more remarkable, was that unlike the great tricksters of today, Cruyff who did not believe in showboating, had not practised the move beforehand, he saw an opportunity to get past his man and he invented it in that split second. Very few players have such ability. It was truly incredible. Often forgotten is that the Netherlands didn’t actually win the game, it ended 0-0 but no one cared Total Football had captured the world. From then on it was not about who would win, it was about what other marvels could the Dutch side produce on their way to winning.
In the 2nd group stage Netherlands faced Brazil in what was effectively a semi final. Brazil were the reigning champions after the magnificent 1970 sides victory but were a declining force after those heady days, gone was Pele and in Netherlands, they faced a side that equalled them in technical, individual skill, but exceeded them in teamwork. Total Football isn’t just about flair as Brazillian football traditionally was, it was about the unit, interchangeability, defending as a unit, attacking as a unit, you did not have 5 defenders and 6 attackers, you had 11 attackers and 11 defenders, games were not won by individual brilliance but by greater mastery of the ball and of the space. Netherlands won 2-0 in a victory even more symbolic than Ajax’s over Inter. Netherlands had outplayed the nation that made the game beautiful, it was a game that would arguably kill off Brazil’s free-flowing unrestricted style. In Brazil they soul-searched eventually concluding that it was required to introduce the discipline of Total Football (while also sacrificing flair whereas Total Football harnesses it) into their own game and their 1994 World Cup winning side was the result of this, rigid, defensive, organised, yet dull. Rather than embrace Total Football, Brazil regressed to the European style that existed before Total Football, and while it brought them success, it is sad that we shall perhaps never see a Brazil side play with the freedom and recklessness of the ’70 side. Total Football was beautiful but it had victims.
The final was against West Germany, the Netherlands greatest rivals not solely because they are neighbours but because of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during WW2. A great deal of fans had lived through the war and the wounds were still deep etched in the national conciousness, this was a chance to regain pride on a sporting scale. Nobody doubted the Netherlands would win, it was a foregone conclusion, they were perhaps the greatest side ever to grace the competition, another result wasn’t possible and right to script within 2 minutes Netherlands were ahead, Cruyff picked the ball up in midfield, ran thru the German defence like they weren’t there and was brought down in the box. Penalty, which Neeskens duly dispatched. It was exactly what was supposed to happen. Except the Dutch stopped. They did not want to simply beat West Germany, this was a derby, this was the biggest stage in football. They wanted to humiliate them. So they played with the Germans, toyed with them, playing keep ball, but not causing any further damage, never threatening a 2nd goal, they had become arrogant, they had taken the foot off the gas. The other problem was that Germany hadn’t read the script this was their World Cup, their showcase, their fans, their stadium, they didn’t believe the hype, they believed in themselves, their side included Beckenbauer, the greatest centre back ever, Muller one of the greatest goalscorers in history, they were no mugs and sure enough they punished the Netherlands, they equalised with a penalty of their own half way through the first half, before adding a second before the half-time whistle through the dangerous Muller. The Netherlands were in shell shock. They tried to turn it on again in the 2nd half but it was too late once the intensity dips it’s almost impossible to regain. The Germans were typically German, stout and resolute. Impenetrable. Cruyff and the Netherlands had lost. Forever to be remembered as the greatest side to never win the World Cup. This was to be Cruyff’s only World Cup but his mark on the competition is eternal. The defeat would stay with him for ever. It taught him it was not enough to simply play beautifully, you also had to win or it means nothing.
Cruyff won the Golden Ball for his majestic World Cup performances. Back at Barca Cruyff won a Copa Del Rey in 1978 before moving to the ill-fated North American Soccer League as all the greats did in the 70s. He retired from the national team after helping them qualifying for the ’78 World Cup in Argentina, Cruyff refused to play in a country ruled by a military junta, his principles were more important to him than sport. In 1981 he returned “home” to Ajax after his American escapades and a brief spell in Spain’s Second Division with Levante. He won 2 more league titles and famously passed a penalty, which current Barca stars, Messi and Suarez, recently honoured, but Cruyff as with so many things, did it best. After the 82-83 season, Cruyff was refused a new Ajax contract because at 36 he was deemed too old. Cruyff disagreed, signed for Ajax’s rivals Feyenoord, and in a deep-lying playmaker role helped them win the double, even scoring against Ajax in the process, celebrating emphatically, Cruyff had produced one last miracle in his playing career. He went out on top with a 5th Dutch Footballer of the Year, and in typical Cruyff fashion, he went out proving a point. Influential, outspoken and brilliant. A genius in every sense. He was an artist whose brush was his boot, and his canvas was the pitch. If Cruyff had done nothing else after his last game he would never of been forgotten. However he did do something else he signed a contract to be Ajax manager in 1985.
405gls in 711 club games
369gls in 661 club games
33gls in 48 games for the Netherlands
The Netherlands never lost a game when Cruyff scored
3 Ballon D’Ors
3 European Cups
9 Eredivisie Titles
1 La Liga
Simply the most influential man in the history of football.